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Steinbach-bred poet preps stage production

By: Jordan Ross

Posted: 03/28/2018 8:30 AM

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The cast of A Short History of Crazy Bone, including Steinbach actor Tracy Penner (far right), enact a scene from the theatre production, which premieres tonight in Winnipeg.

PHOTO BY DYLAN HEWLETT Enlarge Image

The cast of A Short History of Crazy Bone, including Steinbach actor Tracy Penner (far right), enact a scene from the theatre production, which premieres tonight in Winnipeg.

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Renowned poet and playwright Patrick Friesen will debut a new theatre production in Winnipeg this week he describes as a "spiritual play" or "stage poem" inspired by his great-grandmother’s remarkable and misunderstood life.

A Short History of Crazy Bone opens tonight at Théâtre Cercle Molière, with performances through Sunday, April 8.

Friesen, who was born and raised in Steinbach, said his plays often begin as poetry.

"That borderline is pretty thin for me," he said. "For years, I’ve tried to write conversational poetry."

This time around, a brief poem contained in his 1999 book Carrying the Shadow provided inspiration after an actor friend suggested he flesh out its central character, Crazy Bone, into a stage monologue.

"My first instinct is always to work with poetic language…so I wrote a whole raft of poems about this character. When I had written about 50 short poems, I had a sense of who this character would be. And then I started writing the play," Friesen explained.

The 71-year-old, who has won a Manitoba Book Award and been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry, is known for working collaboratively in a variety of artistic media.

"I work out some of my own thinking that way," he said. "I never think of it as ‘keeping busy.’"

Directed by Andraea Sartison and choreographed by Tanja Woloshen, A Short History of Crazy Bone features a five-member cast that includes Steinbach actor Tracy Penner.

"She’s actually my second cousin," Friesen noted.

The play’s titular character, played by Tracey Nepinak, was inspired by Friesen’s memories of his Mennonite great-grandmother, Anna Sawatzky, who immigrated to an Altona-area farm from Ukraine in 1874.

She died in 1956, after taking turns living with her grandchildren, including Friesen’s mother, Margaret.

He recalled a generosity that suffused Sawatzky’s personality.

"She had a big trunk, and she’d open it and give everyone something," he said.

"That’s the kind of character she was. She just gave of herself but was considered a bit of an outsider."

Revealing her back story in bits and pieces, the play chronicles Crazy Bone’s psychological journey of redemption after fleeing a psychiatric institution.

"Some people think she was ‘crazy,’ which is what we call people who don’t fit in," Friesen said.

"But that story isn’t the centre of the piece. It’s more a revelation of this person’s eccentric way of thinking."

Friesen said he hopes to leave audience members mulling the many ways that humans "try to redeem their lives" or "make sense of their lives."

The play’s prairie backdrop is no coincidence.

"That’s just the natural landscape in my mind," said Friesen, who resides in Victoria, B.C.

After more than 40 years of publishing, his Steinbach upbringing continues to inform his work.

"It’s a lifetime of shaking off the things you don’t want, other things you keep, and some things stick to you that you didn’t know stuck to you," he said.

He called Steinbach’s backyards and bicycle paths "permanently part of my imagination."

"I gravitate towards Manitoba. It’s my home base in a funny way even though I’ve been gone for 20 years," he said.

Tickets to A Short History of Crazy Bone range from $10 to $27 and are available online at theatreprojectsmanitoba.ca, or by calling 204-989-2400.

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