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Victoria takes centre stage in As Above, premiering at the Belfry

As Above, which The Belfry Theatre commissioned four years ago, takes place in Victoria, giving the work added significance.
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Vancouver playwright Christine Quintana. HANDOUT

AS ABOVE

Where: The Belfry Theatre, 1291 Gladstone Ave.

When: Tuesday, Feb. 13

Tickets: Pay What You Can (385-6815 or online at tickets.belfry.bc.ca)

Play creation is akin to cold water swimming. An uphill battle at first, but ultimately rewarding.

Vancouver playwright Christine Quintana is ready to take the plunge — again. After months of tinkering with As Above, she’s finally ready to deliver her new play to the world next week at The Belfry. It will be her third world premiere in the past year alone, with a fourth on the way next month.

“It has been a wild year,” Quintana said. “But I feel very lucky. You’re not supposed to have this many back to back.”

As Above, which The Belfry Theatre commissioned four years ago, takes place in Victoria, giving the work added significance. Audience members in attendance for its world premiere Tuesday will notice scores of Victoria references, a rarity for a play originating from outside the region.

“It’s very much about the place where it is set,” Quintana said. “There are a lot of plays about Toronto and a lot of plays about Montreal. Because it was commissioned by The Belfry, I really wanted to take the opportunity to write something for this audience, so they can see where they live in a bit of a different way.”

A staged reading of the play was held last year at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York, which led to edits and adjustments. Quintana signed off on the final product and was ready to see it unveiled tonight as scheduled, before a last-minute change was made. The show will remain in previews through the weekend, with opening night rescheduled for Tuesday. A cast member left the production on account of a family emergency, and may return at some point during the run, according to The Belfry.

In the meantime, Quintana, who has a long list of acting credits, has stepped into a variety of roles, including the estranged daughter of Jo (played by Gabrielle Rose), a woman in her late 60s who is eight years into her journey to sobriety. The character lost her university teaching position, and has become estranged from her family, after losing her husband to cancer.

As Above picks up the story when Jo is putting her life back together. She has met Rick (Hrothgar Mathews), with whom she shares a special connection. It is here Jo starts to believe she is receiving signals from her estranged daughter, who is calling out for help.

Quintana had fun with the commission, knowing she had the full support of Michael Shamata, The Belfry’s artistic director. “It starts as a romance and moves into mystery territory, and then it becomes something else at the end,” she said with a laugh. “The idea had been percolating in my brain anyway, but this was the opportunity to get to write it and know it would have a home at The Belfry.”

Her skills as a playwright are such that theatregoers can expect As Above to shapeshift as it proceeds. Flipping convention is one of the Dora Mavor Moore Award winner’s hallmarks, in fact. One of Quintana’s early scripts, the acclaimed and challenging Selfie, explored sex and consent via the Instagram accounts of its teen characters, drawing a Governor General’s Award nomination for English-language drama in 2021.

She was born in Los Angeles, and moved to Canada with her family when she was three. Though she’s a second generation Mexican-American, with dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship, she identifies strongly with Canada. “Cedar trees and moss and ferns and the ocean all feel very much part of me,” she said. “American identity and Canadian identity are not the same thing.”

Her heritage plays an important role in her work. As Above, with direction from Meg Roe, looks at how cultural traditions have become eroded over time, a recurring theme that gives much of Quintana’s work a unique perspective. “I think having a mixed background is a big part of my identity as an artist. I inherently feel like I see things from a bunch of different angles, and I have a really clear idea of where my family immigrated to and what our story was.”

She writes what she knows, and the plays she’s written and brought to the stage in recent months — up to and including El Terremoto, which opens next month at Toronto’s Terragon Theatre — tackle identity and heritage in myriad ways. “These plays are an expression of my worldview, my experiences, and the things I’ve gone through. In terms of the journey of reconciliation, part of it is acknowledging that if you’re not Indigenous to this territory, you have ancestry from elsewhere,” she said.

“It’s our responsibility to understand where our ancestors came from and forge new connections to the land that we live on.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com