Act 1, Scene 1
Calgary, Alberta, Winter 1988
“BIRCHWOMAN’S”: a store that’s a cross between a hippie emporium and a pawn shop. It is dim, yet through the sunlit motes we can make out an assortment of curios and oddities. Every inch of the space is taken up by salable objects: jewellery, furniture, art, shirts that say “Where’s the Beef?” Long, beaded curtains hang from the ceiling and a hammock is set up above the cash register. There is no sign of life.
A knock at the door.
Tentatively, AUDREY PHAM, a tall, young woman with dark hair, aggressively permed, enters the shop. She wears puffy ski pants, the kind that are also overalls.
She encounters the beaded curtain in front of her and awkwardly navigates through it; the beads get caught in aforementioned aggressively permed hair. She untangles herself and takes a scrap of paper out of her pocket: “Audrey Pham, Team Canada. Billet information and address.” She flips it over. It just says BIRCHWOMAN’S.
AUDREY: (Under her breath.) What the hell? Hello? Mrs…. Birchwoman?
She picks up a few of the objects around her. She finds a doll and animates it.
DOLL: I’m Birchwoman! Welcome to my spooky store!
AUDREY: Yeah, gosh, it’s like clearly from the first ten minutes of every horror movie.
DOLL: Don’t you feel like any second the camera will slowly pan past an antique that’s super-possessed?
AUDREY: Oh boy. Yeah, you’re right.
DOLL: What do you think the possessed object is?
Audrey holds the doll up and they look around from side to side.
AUDREY: I don’t know. That rocking horse looks pretty suspect though.
DOLL: Like if we turned our backs, it would start rocking? But, like, blurry and in the background.
AUDREY: Yeah! Oh my gosh, exactly. So scary.
DOLL: What’s that over there, Audrey?
AUDREY: What? Wait, how do you know my name?
DOLL: I know a lot about youuu. I think I heard something….”
Audrey creeps closer to the rocking horse.
DOLL: What’s it saying, Audrey? Do you hear that?
VOICE: WHAT DO YOU WANT?!
Audrey screams and flings the doll away from her.
AUDREY: Oh God! Are you a ghost? If so, I’m sorry, I really don’t have the time to solve any, like, unsolved mysteries or avenge your untimely murder or whatever. Please don’t haunt me. I have a brother though, I can take you to him, he’s… supple, you can easily possess him. He’s retired; it’ll be good for him to get a hobby—
VOICE: WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FOR?
AUDREY: (Looking around) N-nothing, I’m—hello? Is someone—
VOICE: We’re not open for customers today. And if you’re from that Neighbourhood Society, it’s appointments only.
AUDREY: I have an appointment! I’m Audrey Pham, the uh—Olympian…. I’m supposed to be here.
From the shadowy recesses of the store, BIRCHWOMAN emerges. She walks to the front door and slams it shut. A lot of BIRCHWOMAN’s questions sound like statements.
BIRCHWOMAN: The Olympian.
BIRCHWOMAN: You just walk into people’s homes.
AUDREY: I just thought, ‘cause it’s a store—
BIRCHWOMAN: We’re not open.
AUDREY: Oh. Well, it’s a Wednesday afternoon, so I guess I just assumed you were open.
BIRCHWOMAN: We’re not open for customers.
BIRCHWOMAN: So. You’re the athlete.
AUDREY: That’s right. It’s nice to meet you.
AUDREY extends her hand. BIRCHWOMAN dismisses it.
BIRCHWOMAN: Cold season. (Coughs wetly.) When’s your thing?
AUDREY: My—? Do you mean the Olympics? My final pass is February eighteenth.
BIRCHWOMAN: Well, you better win again. I’m not changing that sign.
AUDREY: What sign?
BIRCHWOMAN pokes her head out the front. She makes an exasperated sound.
BIRCHWOMAN: Oh shit, it’s blown down again. Cheap glue. (Pause.) Are you gonna stand there or are you gonna help me.
AUDREY: Oh! Sorry!
Audrey gives her a hand and together the two pick up a large banner and move it inside.
BIRCHWOMAN: Don’t ever buy vegan glue. I swear to God, it’s just pine sap and karma.
They straighten out the banner. It reads, in all caps and a bold font, perhaps Papyrus: “MEET OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST, AUDREY PHAN! FREE AUTOGRAPHS*!” In smaller print, underneath: “*GST NOT INCLUDED. LIMITATIONS APPLY.”
AUDREY: Oh… This is…. (Nodding). This is.
BIRCHWOMAN: We’re gonna put it back outside. Come on, let’s go.
AUDREY: You know, I don’t have a gold medal.
BIRCHWOMAN. Yeah, I figured you didn’t carry it on you. That what the “limitations apply” bit is for.
AUDREY: No, I mean I’ve never won a gold medal.
AUDREY: Yet. I’ll be competing for one on the eighteenth.
BIRCHWOMAN: The eighteenth.
AUDREY: I have to… well, we all have to qualify first.
BIRCHWOMAN’s eyes narrow.
BIRCHWOMAN: At the… qualifiers? Okay. I’ll just cross out “Olympic gold medalist” and write “Olympic Qualifier. Maybe.” Sure. That’s the same.
BIRCHWOMAN digs a felt marker out of a nearby pencil cup.
AUDREY: …and my last name’s Pham.
BIRCHWOMAN: Yeah, Phan, I got that.
AUDREY: No, Pham.
AUDREY: Pham. With a “mmmm.”
AUDREY: “M”! Pham with an “m.”
AUDREY hands BIRCHWOMAN her registration slip as proof.
BIRCHWOMAN: Well, what the hell am I supposed to do with all this “Phan Club” merchandise, Audrey Pham?
She sorts roughly through a box.
BIRCHWOMAN: I got 300 coffee mugs that say “Number One Phan,” “Phandemonium.” And this. She pulls out a folded fan and snaps it open. On one side it reads: “My Uncle went to the Calgary ’88 Winter Olympics and all he got me was this stupid—” Flips to the other side. “Phan!” Tell me who’s gonna buy a sweatshirt that says: “Phantom of the Opera.”
AUDREY: Um. People who like Andrew Lloyd Webber?
BIRCHWOMAN: Please. He peaked with Starlight Express.
AUDREY: If it makes you feel any better, if my name was “Phan” it’d be pronounced “Fawn.” (Cheerfully.) So you’d still have a box full of garbage.
BIRCHWOMAN snatches the banner away from AUDREY and folds it up again.
This is an excerpt from my play Go for Gold, Audrey Pham, which is about a fictional Olympian competing in the non-fictional sport of ski ballet (I highly recommend looking this up on YouTube). Currently, I am expanding this play from a modest one-act to a sexy two-act magnum opus. (Hopefully. We’re not quite in workshops yet.) The title character of the play, Audrey, is very much a mixture of myself and Ali DeRegt, the comedic actor and puppeteer for whom I wrote the part. Audrey is awkward, kind, and funny. In initial meetings with people, her natural humour takes a backseat to politeness but, occasionally, her bolder and weirder jokes can’t help but slip out. The eccentric shop owner Birchwoman is both her own person (who is so much fun to write) and a metaphor for Audrey’s inner, often-leashed humour: loud, brash, unforgiving, and totally uncensored. Writing the two of them is endlessly cathartic for me as, respectively, they embody the jokes I allow myself to present in polite company, and the secret humour I easily let loose amongst a select group of confidantes.
Telling jokes is scary! But with high risk comes the potential for such sweet reward. Laughing with other people does the work of five cocktail hours, easily bumping up strangers to acquaintances and work-friends to friend-friends. Laughing at something with others can simultaneously excite and soothe, each chuckle acting like an affirmation of “It’s okay, it’s going to be okay.” Laughter in a theatre is a singular experience that I certainly took for granted before the pandemic. Can you imagine being in a space with hundreds of other people right now, all shaking uncontrollably at some bit on stage? Humour in theatre is a powerful tool, be it in a ridiculous farce or an unexpected moment of levity in an otherwise sober play.
Humour lets audiences relax. It softens their posture and opens their hearts. And then, if you’re a sneaky writer, it’s the moment you can strike with the thesis of your piece. A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, and the best writers do it in a way that their audiences don’t realize they’ve taken any medicine at all (but at that point, it’s too late. They’re now changed. Nailed it).
As a shy person, one of the greatest salves I’ve found is to give my jokes to characters, and have those characters played by actors who are not me. What a joy, what a thrill, and what a relief to have these actors go out there and riff on the material I’ve written for them, while I sit comfortably in the audience. Phew.
Well, the digital audience, for now.
Miss you, xoxo.
Listen to “Go for Gold, Audrey Pham.” Ali DeRegt – Audrey Pham; Braden Griffiths – Birchwoman; Camille Pavlenko – stage direction and essay.