Thursday, April 26, 2018

Belinda Cornish talks about the creation of CATEGORY E with S&G

By the time we start talking, Belinda Cornish has had quite a day:   2 ½ hours in traffic due to the chaos at Yonge and Finch in the aftermath of a horrific vehicular homicide.  We finally meet via Facetime.  As we settle in to chat, her dad brings her a gin and tonic. He waves at me. Belinda's parents have come to Toronto all the way from the UK to see the Eastern Canadian debut of their daughter’s show.

She apologizes for the drink.  I show her my rather large glass of post-dinner wine. So we have a drink together, on line.

The talented Ms. Cornish is one of Edmonton’s hottest playwrights.  Recently, a few western Canadian playwrights have found themselves in the spotlight here in Toronto (Vern Thiessen anyone?), and they’ve fared rather well.  Cornish’s dystopian three-hander, CATEGORY 3 opened to rave reviews last week at Coalmine Theatre.

I ask Cornish what inspired her.  “Animal rights and animal testing.  I know it’s a complex issue.  I can’t tell people how to feel.  However, are any lives implicitly more valuable?  Whose life matters?”

Cornish is passionate, articulate and very, very smart. She researched the play and the issue of vivisection, in part, through conversations with Dr. Michelle Jendral of the Nova Scotia Agricultural College, an animal behavioural scientist and the CCAC, The Canadian Council on Animal Care.  The title of the play is derived from the CCAC’s definition of the most invasive category of animal testing, category E which induces “active pain to or beyond the pain threshold bearable at consciousness, unalleviated pain or stress, the end point being death.”

I point out that we inflict this kind of pain of pain on humans quite routinely in the 21st century:  in Syria, Congo, Yeman. Cornish agrees. “Yes: class, race, religion, gender, age, species; globally we are being forced to examine two questions: what is the value of life and whose life do we value?”

The human lab rats in Category E are selected on the basis of intelligence and professional success.  Human misfits and ‘failures” are unsexed (characters refer to each other as ‘it”) then relegated to life in a cage, subjected to a series of increasingly vile experiments in the service of the beauty industry.

I tell Cornish about the ads that appear in Metro every morning, enticing human lab rats to participate in “harmless” drug trials for money.  I tell her about people I know who’ve done them, sometimes for years on end, to make ends meet.

The final image of Category E is seared on my brain. I ask Cornish if it was her idea or the actor’s.  “Mine:  It’s a stage direction.  But he’s brilliant.  The cast is a gift.”

It’s an excellent production of an insightful and disturbing play.

Cornish has two new shows currently in development.  She was part of The Lab, the playwright’s unit at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, where she wrote an adaptation of Tom Babiak’s novel, The Garneau Block.  Currently she’s co-creating a circus adaptation of Dante’s Inferno with Jocelyn Ahlf of Firefly Theatre.  The piece will receive a workshop in Edmonton next January.

I hope it comes to Toronto.  Meanwhile, you have another week to catch her current work.

The cast of Category E:  Diana Bentley, Vivien Endicott-Douglas & Robert Persichini

CATEGORY E runs until April 29th at the Coalmine Theatre in Toronto.  For location, dates, times and tickets go to:

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