Meg Braem jokes that it was a stint in prison that turned her from an actor to a playwright.
No, Braem was not doing time in said prison, thankfully. Rather, the 2020-21 Canadian Writer-in-Residence for the University of Calgary’s prestigious and long-running Calgary Distinguished Writers Program was in the midst of her first professional acting job with the William Head on Stage theatre company, run out of William Head Prison in Victoria, B.C.
The company, run by inmates at the penitentiary, brings in female actors from outside the prison to be a part of their shows. Braem, who had just earned her undergraduate degree in acting from the University of Victoria, jumped at the chance.
The experience so inspired her that she wrote about it. It also taught Braem two things she hadn’t anticipated. “I realized that I don’t really like being looked at,” she says. “That’s a bit of a problem if you’re going to be an actor.
"And writing about the experience also made me see that I’d rather tell the stories I’m a part of. To me, writing is everything that’s good about the rehearsal, without having to do the actual run. You’re trying things and making choices. It’s a very similar process.”
This revelation led her to UCalgary where she earned her MFA in playwriting with playwright and drama professor Clem Martini as her supervisor. It was during this time that she began work on the 2013 play Blood: A Scientific Romance, which won the Alberta Literary Award for Drama as well as a nomination for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama. The play is about twin sisters who are orphaned in a car accident and saved by a doctor who performs experiments on them.
“I’m a twin myself and when I moved to Calgary it was the first time I had lived away from my sister,” explains Braem. “I missed her so much and this was a way of connecting with her. And as a twin there’s all this folklore you hear about, like, can you read your sister’s mind? So I was reading about that and also doing a lot of research on Ontario’s Dionne quintuplets and how misguided the science was based on their upbringing.”
Other noted works by Braem include The Josephine Knot (2018) and Amplify: Graphic Narratives of Feminist Resistance (2019). Her work has been presented by such theatre companies as the Citadel Theatre, Theatre Calgary and Lunchbox Theatre. She recently completed a term as the Lee Playwright in Residence at the University of Alberta.
The moral quandaries of medical science continues to be a recurring theme in much of Braem’s work. “Maybe it’s because my parents always wanted me to be a doctor,” she speculates. “The history of medicine is such an interesting blend of religion and superstition and science, with this fascinating evolution and cross-section between these things. I just find it so compelling.”
During her residency, Braem plans on developing a number of new plays. Among these is The Resurrectionists, loosely based on a true story about medical students at Queen's University in the 1860s who robbed graves for their own anatomical material.
“Queen's also had a period when they didn’t allow women to attend medical school,” says Braem. “So I’m basing the story around a woman who catches one of these medical students grave robbing and then bribes him. ‘I won’t go to the police as long as you teach me medicine.’”
Another play in the works is entitled Exit Guide, inspired by a real-life sting operation which targeted a group of death with dignity activists. “There was this group of women, sometimes called death midwives, who would help people before doctor-assisted suicides were legal. There was a big sting operation and about 10 of them went to jail. The story centres around one of these women who gets brought into the home of one of the men who arrested her because, now, he needs her services.”
Along with developing her plays, Braem looks forward to working with emerging writers as part of her residency. “I really do think strong writing is built on mentorship,” she says. “I’m fortunate to have had great mentors, like Clem Martini, and I feel very lucky for the opportunity to help other writers, in turn. I’m grateful and excited, and a bit nervous too, because I’m so used to working with actors, directors, designers and other playwrights.
This will be great to work with all kinds of different writers from different genres.
Of course, Braem’s residency will likely be a unique one given the current COVID-19 pandemic. In the past, writers-in-residence met with emerging writers in person. This year social distancing will almost certainly be a factor. “I feel like a lot of it will be done online and over the phone,” she says. “There’s still many ways to connect and learn together. This residency is a great way to meet a new community of writers and I’m excited for that to happen.”
Hear from incoming 2020-21 Canadian Writer-in-Residence Meg Braem and outgoing 2019-20 Writer-in-Residence Sharanpal Ruprai at Hello/Goodbye, the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program’s annual public event, on Thursday, October 1, 2020 from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. MT.
This year, the evening of special readings, book giveaways and Q-and-A with Braem and Ruprai will be held online. Register for this one-of-a-kind virtual event at ucalgary.ca/cdwp/events.