Q&A with Nadine Thornhill, award-winning playwright, actor and spoken word poet

Nadine Thornhill

Nadine Thornhill is an award-winning playwright, actor and spoken word poet.  She honed her theatre  skills amongst the freaks and geeks at the University of Waterloo.  Upon graduating, she moved to Canada’s capital where she has been living, loving and working ever since.   By day, she is the program coordinator for Planned Parenthood’s Insight Theatre. In her spare time, Nadine enjoys running, an occasional triathlon, and the antics of her husband and son.

Where did your passion for theatre begin?

When I was four or five, living in Toronto, a local designer asked my mom if I could model part of her upcoming collection for a fashion show.   I was a pathologically timid child, so I’m not sure why she thought I could handle the runway.  But my mom said yes and not long after, I was strutting my little stuff in front of a crowd.  And even though I could barely say two words to most people, as a model, my relationship to other people was different.  On the runway, I knew exactly what I was supposed to do.   And I knew exactly how the audience was going to respond.  The social interactions were all prescribed, which put me very much at ease.  I quickly developed a strong association between being on stage and feeling secure.

I sought out experience to perform and be on stage throughout my childhood, but it didn’t develop into a driving passion until I was twelve.  My parents took me to see Les Miserables. The first notes of music sounded through the theatre and within five minutes, I was head-over-heels with the conviction that I wanted to be on that stage.  Now that I’m an adult, my interests have expanded, but I can’t imagine that I’ll ever stop loving the theatre.

As a playwright and actor, how would you describe Ottawa’s performing arts scene?

I think Ottawa’s theatre scene is coming-of-age, so to speak.  The talent, intelligence, desire and resources required to be a strong presence in Ottawa’s art community all exist, but we’re still in the process of discovering and developing a unique, authentic identity.  In the eleven years I’ve lived in this city, I’ve seen incredible growth in Ottawa’s theatre scene.  It has grown, matured, and I have every confidence that it will continue to do so.

Meanwhile, I think Ottawa’s spoken word community has really come in to its own. This past October, Ottawa’s spoken word team won the national title for the second consecutive year, and  the world slam champion is an Ottawa poet.  Every spoken word event I attend is packed.  Every open mic seems to reveal a brilliant new artist.   Spoken word in this city was strong when I first got involved five years ago, but the work Ottawa poets are producing today is incomparable.

As an actor, how would you describe the Ottawa audiences you perform in front of?

I find Ottawa audience very generous.  Literally.  This past February I was the spoken word feature at Voices of Venus. It is a monthly event that takes place at Umi Cafe, and during my set, I mentioned how much I love Umi’s Nanaimo bars.  When I finished performing, three different people offered to buy me a bar.  It is possible I accepted all three…

But that experience is typical of the audience members I meet.  They’re very friendly.  And I think they appreciate that a lot of Ottawa performers are local people who live in their communities.  What better way to get to know your neighbour than over a rich, chocolately sweet, post-performance dessert?

Where do you find inspiration for your writing?

I’m self-centered, I’m opinionated and I’ve been through a LOT of therapy.  My poetry and plays are either thinly veiled autobiography; pontificating on various social issues; pseudo-psychoanalysis of an emotional problem I’m having; or some combination of the three.

Nadine Thornhill performing in “Oreo”

Why do you think it is important for Ottawa to have a vibrant arts community?

I think it’s important for Ottawa for exactly the same reasons I think it’s important for any place.  The arts are a mode of communcation and interpretation.   We rely on artistic products to make sense of our world every day.  Even something as routine as a daily commute on the bus, involves an encounter with artistry.  Every ad on a bus was conceived and executed by a creative team.   A graphic designer determined the look and layout of the tickets we use.  Even the maple-leaf motif that identifies the vehicle as being part of the OC Transpo fleet is art.  What we read, what see, the way we speak, even the way we move through our community, is influenced by art and creativity.

It’s a necessary part of life.

You answer sex and relationship questions for our friends at Apartment 613, can you tell us a bit about that?

I LOVE writing Dirty Laundry, my column for Apartment 613.  As I said, I’m opinionated.  I also love talking about sex.  Once a month I get to combine all my loves into one awesome writing assignment.  I’ve had some very interesting, intelligent questions.  I enjoy the challenge of an unexpected letter that really forces me to consider an issue I may not have thought about much before.

You also have your own blog, and you are a pretty active participant in Ottawa’s social networking community – what are your favourite local blogs to read?

Ottawa is bursting with must-read blogs.  Apartment 613 is all excellence all the time.  I also love Spacing OttawaHello Ottawa is a newer blog that features everyday Ottawans and what they love about this city.  The O-Dot is a hilarious, satirical Onion-esque blog, but with a local focus.  A couple of my friends have launched a new blog, Ottawa Sneezers, a place where people can spread the word about must-see arts events around the city.

I gather from Twitter that you’re an avid jogger – what is your favourite route to run in our city?

There are a lot of great places to run in this city.  The recreation paths along the canal and by the river are beautiful, especially in summer and fall.  But there’s something about running in the city that I absolutely love. I like to start out from my home in Westboro and run out the University of Ottawa – that route takes me through Wellington West, Hintonburg, Little Italy, Chinatown, Centretown, Sandy Hill…some of my favourite neighbourhoods.

You recently performed at Our Unspoken Words, a book launch and fundraiser for the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Ottawa, as well as the Ottawa Storytelling Festival. Can you tell us a bit about those events?

Our Unspoken Words was powerful, but challenging.  The evening began with women reading stories from the book, Our Unspoken Words.  Those performance were challenging – affecting, but brutal and heartbreaking.  I was part of quintet that also included Danielle K.L. Gregoire, Jessica Ruano, Michelle Blackburn and Faye Estrella.   We were all very emotional charged.  After hearing stories of women whose children had been killed, I had a great deal of difficulty performing a piece a wrote about my own son.  At the same time, I knew I had the support of my fellow poets, and the audience was one of the most attentive I’ve experienced.   In the end, I was honoured to have been part of it.

The Ottawa Storytelling Festival was a blast.   I didn’t really perform, but I had the privilege of introducing Ben Haggarty, a world-reknowned professional storyteller.  My favourite part of the evening was sitting backstage before the show.  Mr. Haggarty and a couple other storytellers were chatting – small talk between storytellers is conversation on a level that I have never experienced.  There were metaphors, characterization, and witty rejoinders flying around the room.  I was so riveted, I forgot to be discreet about the fact that I was eavesdropping.

What’s next for you?

I definitely want to do more spoken word in the new year.  I  would love to create a collection of my poems, either as a book or a CD.  I have a really exciting project in the works with Apartment 613.  We’re not quite ready to announce it yet, so I can’t say more, but I think it’s going to be a big hit!  I’m writing a new script which I plan to produce for next summer’s Fringe Festival.  And I’m going to try my hand…erm…feet at a half-marathon in the spring, so I’m learning to embrace the chilly joys of winter running.

What is one thing about Ottawa you think people don’t know that they should?

Did you know that it’s illegal to eat ice cream on Bank Street on a Sunday?  Apparently it’s an old obscure law, that’s never been taken off the books.

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