George Ryga play celebrated at gala awards night

Dorian Kohl’s love for a literary character began more than three decades ago, in a Mexican village. That was when she was introduced to Hagar Shipley, the protagonist of Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel, via a one-woman play written by George Ryga.

Dorian Kohl

Dorian Kohl

Dorian Kohl’s love for a literary character began more than three decades ago, in a Mexican village.

That was when she was introduced to Hagar Shipley, the protagonist of Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel, via a one-woman play written by George Ryga.

Kohl will be reprising the role as part of the George Ryga Awards evening Oct. 1, connecting the past with the present as Richard Wagamese accepts the eighth annual George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature for One Story, One Song.

“It’s a real honour. Somehow the character has worked her way into my subconscious mind to such a degree that I have never forgotten her,” said Kohl.

“We were living in a small village called Ahijic. Ken (Smedley) and I were there, with our oldest son, who was three at the time. I was expecting our second son.”

At the time, Ahijic was a fishing village, but with a fairly large component of English speakers as well as a little hotel restaurant that was run by a Canadian couple.

“We were invited to perform there and we were certainly, as artists, needing to do something economically to help us out at the time,” she said.

Smedley, who is now director of the George Ryga Centre in Summerland, presented Kohl with Portrait of a Lady, Ryga’s adaptation of Laurence’s classic 1964 novel.

While Kohl had considerable experience as an actress and performer with the CBC and a decade with the Wayne and Schuster Show, she found the idea of the play a challenge, telling Smedley that she had never done a one-woman show before.

“It was quite an emotional journey; it took a lot of discipline and a lot of focus,” said Kohl.

“We set out to rehearse this for about three months and it was quite intense. She’s a pretty heavy character, Hagar Shipley.”

Ryga had written the play as an hour-long piece for CBC Radio in the early ‘70s, then along with Michael Cooke, developed the stage version that Kohl performed in that little Mexican community.

“It was intense and it was very touching and emotional. We sold out each night and came back for an encore a week later,” said Kohl. “It’s kind of become a signature piece for me, very close to my heart. I’ve never forgotten the dialogue in all these years.”

Kohl has performed the play many times in the intervening years, but said there was one that stands out as the most important and memorable.

That was 1997, when she was asked to perform the play at a celebration of Margaret Laurence’s 50th anniversary of graduation from the University of Manitoba.

The room, she said, was filled with Margaret Laurence scholars from across Canada and around the world.

“This was my most difficult audience, because they know her work inside-out,” Kohl said. “Much to my joy and surprise, they gave me a standing ovation. Many were teary-eyed and loved the piece, never having before seen it brought to life.”

The play opens with Kohl portraying Shipley as an old woman, angry, bitter and seeing Gradually through the use of the photograph album, Kohl takes Shipley back in time, transforming into the younger version of herself.

“I love doing this show, it is so rich. It is such a literary gem, the language is fantastic. It just gives this wonderful look at a complex, incredible deep woman,” said Kohl. “I am able to relive those poignant, tragic, humorous, emotional passages in her life.”

Being able to perform a character of such depth and complexity has been a gift, Kohl said, helping her to examine her own life and understand a lot of her own prairie heritage.

While Shipley is a fictional character, Wagamese’s work, One Story, One Song, delves deep into his personal experience for it’s source material.

“Wagamese artfully weaves sixty-some short essays — stories, really — into an unpretentious philosophy of life rooted in personal observations and experiences, transposing an understanding of traditional Ojibwa principles (humility, trust, introspection and wisdom) into modern-day life,” said Andrew Steeves of Gaspereau Press, the judge of this year’s competition.

The Ryga Award celebrates playwright George Ryga’s legacy by searching for an outstanding work of literary and social value by a B.C. writer. Wagamese’s book was one of nearly 60 entries in the 2011 competition.

Tickets for the eighth annual George Ryga Award evening and this special performance of Portrait of a Lady are $20 and available at Martin’s Flowers in Summerland, The Dragon’s Den in Penticton and at the door.