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BLANK CANVAS: Nelson’s Kelly Rebar on how she became a playwright

Rebar’s play Bordertown Café was turned into a film in the 1990s
Nelson playwright Kelly Rebar got her start in the 1970s. Photo: Submitted

by Sydney Black

Hello Arts Lovers! I was so fortunate to catch up with local playwright Kelly Rebar, an incredible human who has decided to make our small town her home. Kelly’s work has been produced extensively across Canada and her play Bordertown Café was turned into a film in 1992. Here’s a little peek into her practice:

What’s your background/training/story as a writer?

I suppose my background as a writer was my background. I had good storytellers on both sides of my family, though they were not called that then. Talking was all that they were doing. But it was often in an entertaining and engaging manner. It didn’t take much for someone to get up from a kitchen chair and act out all the parts of a random occurrence, mimicking voices, mannerisms, bringing out elements that turned things into something more.

When there was any kind of larger adult gathering, it seemed to me as a child that talk always turned to the past, and out would come memories that always seemed rather dramatic. Those doing the talking, some of them, had survived immigration, or their parents had, but all of them had lived through the Great Depression, and the Second World War. There was a lot to draw from, in other words, and talk flowed from one thing to the next, as memories often do. Near-misses seemed a common theme. Surviving accidents, blizzards, getting hailed out, holed up, and so on. Pranks were played, lessons learned. This was not theatre, of course, but you can appreciate that from a child’s point of view, it was very watchable. It appeared life not only happened, but it was entertaining in the telling, and re-telling.

It helped that there seemed to be a great many quirky people around. Real characters, as they used to say.

So one learns over time, through observing, what makes a story work, what pulls people in, gets a laugh, what doesn’t. What touches people, makes them laugh, and most important, what loses them. Timing, pacing, knowing when to stop. Nuance.

I saw my first play when a high school teacher took me to a university production. It was not really a play, but a piece of theatre, your everyday existential angst done in the round to a bewildered audience of about 20. There was quite a bit of that going around at the time in the early 1970s. Worse: you were expected to stay after for a Q and A. It took a while to recover from that evening, but I eventually got involved with drama classes and so on, and after high school I wrote a short play while working in a typing pool, which by some miracle got produced by a small theatre in Calgary.

That led to a stint at the Banff School for Fine Arts, as it was called in 1974, to take part in the first playwriting colony. I moved to Toronto, studied film at York U, went back to working secretarial jobs while writing plays and screenplays at night. I consider that period after university my so-called training as a writer.

My first full-length play, Checkin’ Out, was commissioned and produced in the early 1980s. It received several productions and was also produced as a short film for CBC. I got other plays and screenplays produced, both by adapting the work of Alice Munro, and writing my own original scripts.

Why did you end up in Nelson?

By then I had children, and wanted them to grow up in a town which offered ease and inspiration. Nelson offered that, and more.

How did you score your biggest professional gig?

I don’t see it in those terms. I was commissioned to write a short TV script for CBC, which resulted in Bordertown Café. I felt the characters had more to say, so when I was offered a new play commission by Blyth Theatre I expanded my idea into a two-act play, which ended up getting widely produced, and made into a feature film.

Sydney Black is executive director of the Nelson and District Arts Council. Her column Blank Canvas appears monthly.