When Burn, a ghost-cum-mystery story by Ottawa playwright John Muggleton, opens at The Gladstone Aug. 24, a crucially important person won’t be on hand to see it.
Steven Dwyer, one half of the show’s producing company Cue Penny Productions, died unexpectedly in May of a ruptured brain aneurysm. He was 43, and this was to be the first show by Cue Penny, which Dwyer founded with his wife Sandra Laughren.
Dwyer’s death threw the fate of the new production (an earlier version of the play premiered last year) into doubt. But Laughren decided the show had to go on and has thrown herself into the task.
“In some ways, it makes me feel still connected to him. I felt it was a way to honour him,” she says. “This was something new and exciting we were going to be doing to build a future together that we couldn’t have imagined when we first got married. I wanted to keep that going.”
The couple, who wed in 2010, got involved with theatre a few years ago when they signed up for classes at The Acting Company, a Glebe-based performance centre which Muggleton co-founded. Their interest was sparked by a commitment to lifelong learning and as a way to get out of the house, says Laughren. “We’d tried curling, which Steven hated.”
They relished the acting classes. “It was really exciting to see each other involved in a creative process and to build new friendships and challenge ourselves,” says Laughren, a policy analyst with the federal government.
She and her husband, who was a software architect in Kanata, saw Burn when it premiered, with Muggleton producing and directing. They liked what they saw, as did others: the show sold out its 13-day run in The Acting Company’s cozy Avalon Theatre and garnered critical approval (it will also open the 2018 theatre season at Tsawwassen Arts Centre in Delta, BC). So when Muggleton announced he was looking for a producer to remount the play in Ottawa this year, the couple signed on.
“We had been thinking about other ways to get involved in the arts, and this seemed a good opportunity. It was a show we’d seen and had faith in,” says Laughren.
Muggleton was delighted at their willingness to take on the show, which is being directed by Vanetia Lawless and features a reworked ending, one new cast member, and multimedia effects. He says he wanted to sit back this time and see the show without really knowing what to expect.
The play — a thriller involving three friends, a deceased horror writer, the writer’s daughter, and a mysterious package – grew out of an idea he had years ago. “What if someone lied about something as a kid but didn’t realize the ramifications and it comes back to bite you in the ass? That interested me.”
Muggleton says that Steven Dwyer was very supportive of the show and that, as a person, he was “an observer – if he said something, it was because it needed to be said. He loved theatre. We’ve dedicated the production to him.”
Laughren says that carrying on with the production, an energy-draining process that includes seeking out sponsorship, while grieving the loss of her husband has often been incredibly hard. “Someone described grief as being like an ocean: sometimes waves of emotion and grief are completely overpowering, and other times it’s calm and it’s okay.”
Dwyer’s former employer, Martello Technologies, has given Laughren a boost by stepping in as the production’s main sponsor. The company has also been encouraging those in the Kanata North technology community to buy tickets for the show.
Laughren plans to produce more theatre projects after Burn. Among them: a short-play writing competition for Indigenous writers (she has an Indigenous background herself) and a short-play festival involving Indigenous and non-Indigenous performers alike.
Theatre has also touched her professional life. Earlier this year, she was asked to fill in at the last minute on a United Nations panel in New York City. “This was a new role for me, and it was standing room only at the UN,” she says. “But it was kind of easy. I was just, like, ‘Well, the lines are right here – I haven’t had to memorize anything.’”
Burn is at The Gladstone Aug. 24-26. For tickets and information: The Gladstone box office, 613-233-4523, thegladstone.ca