Jena McLean shares the backstory behind her latest play An Ocean of Evergreens and how working with Yvette Nowlan has forever shaped the way she approaches her craft.
Over the past few months spent preparing for our Fall Festival of New Plays, we’ve had the chance to speak with a number of playwrights about their work, their motivation and the stories that have occupied much of their time over the past year. We’ve learned the different ways writers approach their craft and the many different life cycles that can shape how and when a script develops. One of the biggest lessons learned through these conversations has been the antagonizing role time can play in the creation and development process. For many of the playwrights involved in this year’s festival, finding the time to commit to writing is one of the biggest challenges they face. As such, it can take years for a story concept or idea to become a first draft worthy of further development.
Jena McLean’s play An Ocean of Evergreens is a great example of how an idea can remain just that – an idea – for years before eventually taking shape on the page.
“An Ocean of Evergreens is a play that’s been living rent-free in my head for over two years at this point,” said McLean. “At the end of my first year at NTS (National Theatre School), I proposed ‘The Camping Play’ for a potential second year project, only knowing it was about the end of friendships and included a ghost. Through conversations with my program director and dramaturge Andrea Romaldi, we decided to save it for the ensemble requirements of my New Words play, my final project.
“I devoted the little free time I had in second year to this play’s exploratory writing, outlining and mapping of character constellations,” she said. “I told my friends I knew what I was writing for New Words and when the time came for proposals, I pitched two other plays as required, even though Ocean had the subtitle of ‘the one I want to write.’ But I was wrong! One of my courtesy pitches wound up feeling more right for the project and where I was in January of 2020, so I shelved this play again. For months I wondered if I’d ever get around to really writing it, but then COVID-19 hit. Feeling lonely and homesick, I did what I always do to process my emotions – I wrote. Devoting time to An Ocean of Evergreens this past summer not only kept me creatively engaged and fueled artistic growth, but it allowed me to process feelings of isolation.”
Her feelings of isolation and longing for home, magnified by missing her first New Brunswick summer in many years, helped pave the way for the story’s location – Fundy National Park, in Alma, New Brunswick.
“I love Montreal, but I missed trees that aren’t confined to parks and sunsets not obscured by skyscrapers,” said McLean. “Setting the play at Fundy gave me the chance to feel like even though I was just writing about it, some part of my soul was home. Not only did this soothe the ache, but there’s a magic to Fundy that feels really dramatically rich. There’s something about that place, those woods and especially those tides that feels otherworldly and impossible to understand entirely. It also made research a lot easier, because one of my closest friends Kaylie McGraw works at the park, so I was able to go to her with questions and really build up these character’s worlds.”
The whole concept of process, as it relates to the development of story often involves a double meaning. There is the creative process which involves plotting a story arch and developing characters and supporting dialogue, but for any artist, there also exists a need to process some level of emotion or meaning through their work. With An Ocean of Evergreens, McLean set out to explore the vulnerability of friendships and to look at how the best of friends can drift apart to become nothing more than acquaintances over time.
“An Ocean of Evergreens began, as all of my plays do, began with wanting to process something,” she said. “In this case, it’s the necessary ending of a friendship. I was frustrated and fascinated by the idea that someone can go from meaning everything to nothing, not because of a transgression, but simply due to time and growth apart. I was interested in how we form identities as friend groups versus how we form our own identities, and how those two realities can so often come into conflict.
“Personal growth sometimes means growing out of relationships and that is messy and exciting to interrogate,” she said. “I wanted to explore the idea that people grow apart all the time. I think it’s healthy and human, but it’s also deeply terrifying. To me, An Ocean of Evergreens is a play about knowing you need to say goodbye to the past and to the people who once meant the world, but not knowing how to.”
Prior to submitting An Ocean of Evergreens for consideration in our Fall Festival, McLean had been working with Jacob Margaret Archer and Andrea Romaldi, both offering valuable dramaturgy to the play’s initial script.
“An alumni of the NTS playwriting program and a role model of mine, Jake Archer provided insightful dramaturgy and led one of the best post-reading feedback sessions I’ve been privy to,” said McLean. “Additionally, they were invaluable in shaping and deepening the characters of the play, especially Emilie, who is non-binary. Working with Andrea Romaldi was incredibly rewarding in a different sense. She not only knows my work best as my program director, but she is a dramaturgy wizard who pushed me to heighten stakes, push the characters farther, and see what emotional weight the play could bear.”
As part of her involvement in our Fall Festival, McLean has been working with the Saskatchewan-based playwright, director, actor, and educator Yvette Nowlan, as dramaturg and director for the play’s live reading on November 5.
“It still feels surreal that I’m working with Yvette Nolan. I’ve admired her work since I was studying at Mount Allison University and we read Annie Mae’s Movement in my Canadian Literature course,” said McLean. “Fun fact: she visited the campus to read from that play, and after the reading, I told her I wanted to be a playwright. She told me, ‘keep going after it. Keep writing.’ When Yvette visited NTS in my first year, I was wowed again by her drive and passion for the artistry as well as the obvious admiration and care she held for her fellow artists.
“Working one-on-one with her has been a dream come true. Having fresh eyes on this play is exciting; it’s like letting someone else into my world. And I’m so glad she’s in this world with me,” she said. “Yvette seems to know the perfect thing to say to unlock a big idea that a play needs to leap forward, a comparison to make something click, and the questions to ask to address what the play needs in that moment. In our first meeting she told me, ‘you just have to work from your values,’ and not only has that become part of the play, but it’s become part of my artistic mandate.”