Comedy and the changing nature of relationships

“Everything influences playwrights,” Arthur Miller said. “A playwright who isn’t influenced is never of any use.”

On Thursday, July 31, 2008, at the Lighthouse Festival Theatre in Port Dover, Ontario, John Spurway received a standing ovation for the world premiere of his first play, Between Friends. Surrounded by family and friends, the Fredericton playwright was thrilled. His six years of hard work writing about an event that happened to him years before had paid off.

“Between Friends,” wrote the reviewer for the Port Dover Maple Leaf, “has audiences rolling in the aisles during the comedic parts and sitting spellbound and silent when the mood on stage turns a little more serious. It is no surprise that the story in this first ever play written by new playwright John Spurway was inspired by a true-life experience. Most of those watching this play can also relate to how friendships can change throughout a lifetime.”

Spurway’s true-life experience happened long before he took his first drama course in 1999. “I was part of a group of guys that visited a friend who had moved to another province. What we expected was beer, lots of lively banter, and beer. What we got was far different. The fellow’s wife was to have been away that weekend, but decided to stick around. It really changed the dynamics of the trip. It made me wonder, what happens to a group of friends when one of them makes some major changes to his life?”

Thinking about the experience during the drive home, Spurway unconsciously connected with his inner Arthur Miller. Everything influences playwrights; the events of the weekend had a significant impact on him. So much so that it’s the experience he chose to write about in his first play, Between Friends, a comedy that looks at how changes to one person can change the dynamics of the whole group.

“Some friendships weaken, others maintain, but some friendships actually get stronger when stressed,” Spurway believes. “Over time and with experience, they endure, they grow, and they deepen if you’re lucky. I learned a lot about playwriting in the production of Between Friends, and probably a little about myself. I also learned that I have some damned good friends.”

One of those damned good friends is Norm Foster, Canada’s most produced playwright. They’ve known each other for years. Spurway acknowledges Foster is always happy to offer suggestions on new work and encouragement, which means a lot. “Not only has he been helpful with the content of my work, but he’s also helped me make connections in the theatre world.”

Foster was in the audience for the opening night of Between Friends at the Lighthouse Festival Theatre that July evening in 2008. “I think this show is going to do very well in Port Dover, “he told the Port Dover Maple Leaf, “and I think it will have a life after Port Dover. It is very funny and the story is one that a lot of people will relate to.”

Norm Foster was right.

After 11 years, and the production of four comedies – Between Friends, Grounded, Jessie’s Landing and The Numbers Game – Spurway has earned the respect of the many professionals he’s worked with in the Ontario theatre community. Many have become friends. Some of those friends will be working backstage at Theatre Orangeville this coming Friday for the world premiere of his fifth comedy, Off the Grid.

Although the play involves living off the grid, Spurway notes that it isn’t about the lifestyle as much as it is about how a young married couple deals with the choices they’ve made in their lives, and how a complete stranger can have an influence on them. “Having believable characters is critical in creating a good play,” the playwright says. “I think people will see either bits of themselves or someone they know in these characters.”

Spurway has learned much about the theatre business over the last 20 years, including the value of being flexible and respectful when working with directors. Honesty and respect are essential, he says.

“Because the script for a premiere production still needs some work in rehearsals, there needs to be a lot of trust between playwright and director to make sure any changes strengthen the play. I’ve been lucky to have had supportive directors who have helped a great deal in that regard.”

Approaching his craft with the same professionalism as he did his years in the corporate world, Spurway’s fascination with people, their funny quirks and the complicated situations they get themselves into provide him with an endless source of material for his dramatic comedies. Connection and the changing nature of relationships are central themes in his work.

“I can sit for hours at an airport departure lounge just watching people come and go,” he says. “Whether alone or in groups, I find it fascinating to watch how people deal with the things they encounter in that environment.”

John Spurway’s comedies have been professionally produced at Lighthouse Festival Theatre, Port Dover; Theatre Orangeville, Orangeville; the Bluewater Summer Playhouse, Kincardine, and the Showboat Festival Theatre, Port Colborne. His one-act play, The Third Life of Eddie Mann won third place in the Gladys Cameron Watt awards in the Ottawa Little Theatre’s 70th national one-act playwriting competition.

His work has also been performed at the Many Hats Theatre, Penticton, B.C. and Theatre On The Square, Indianapolis, Indiana. This summer, his fourth comedy, The Numbers Game, will be produced at the Globus Theatre in Bobcaygeon, Ontario.

Lane MacIntosh has been writing about Canada’s natural and cultural landscape for more than 30 years (