When Belinda Cornish set about adapting The Garneau Block for the stage, she planned on cutting a relatively minor character named Tammy, the owner of a Whyte Avenue travel agency in the Todd Babiak novel.
But then she started to hear from people who loved “slightly nightmarish” Tammy. “So I said, ‘OK, I’ll write her in,’” says the Edmonton playwright and actor.
Such was the tightrope on which Cornish balanced over the two years she spent adapting Babiak’s 2006 novel into a play — determined to stay true to the story while making it work for the stage, and the times. Her play premieres at the Citadel Theatre on March 14.
The novel is a comedy, rife with social satire about neighbours who live on a fictional cul-de-sac in Edmonton’s Garneau neighbourhood. It’s hyper-local, with references to Saskatchewan Drive, ATB Financial and Ralph Klein. Its characters go to the Varscona Theatre, Sugarbowl and Earl’s on Campus, huddle in parkas and curse rednecks.
This extreme Edmontonness was deliberate, and Babiak ramped it up even while writing the story, which was first published as a serial in the Edmonton Journal. He says the book speaks to a “hunger for the local.”
“When it was in the newspaper, people were writing letters saying, ‘You can’t write a novel with all these Edmonton place names in here, it’s not right, it sounds stupid’ — almost as though Edmonton wasn’t real enough to be pretend,” Babiak says in an interview from Tasmania, where he now lives and works.
“Since I was writing it as these letters were appearing, I made it even more Edmonton. And so the risk I took was to make it so hyper Edmonton that people either loved that or hated it. For the people who loved it, it was fulfilling something in them. We all want to be proud of where we live, we want to be able to share inside jokes about it, and understand rituals, and all Canadians feel that to a certain extent.”
That’s what makes Cornish’s dramatic approach to the novel, well, novel. She’s a Brit who moved to Edmonton 20 years ago to join this city’s thriving theatre scene.
“I do feel a measure of nervousness as well as excitement because I’m not an Edmontonian; I was not born and brought up here as some of the characters were. So I hope I speak with an appropriately Edmonton voice,” she says.
Fourteen years after its publication, the novel, which was nominated for the Giller Prize the year it came out, has retained its popularity — throughout last fall, there was a long waiting list to check it out of the Edmonton Public Library — but Cornish and Babiak agreed on the need to “modernize” the material.
“It was very specific in its politics,” says Babiak.
Cornish felt she had to make the material relevant for audiences in the post-#MeToo era, among other social shifts.
“The world has changed in the last 14 years, and some of the themes in the book just needed updating to today, a little bit. I want to deal with it in a way that’s conscious of the times we’re in now. Todd agrees that we’ve all changed in our attitudes, and that’s great,” she says. “I’m trying very hard to stay true to his themes and his intent because that’s what people loved. I want to be loyal to it, loyal to the things people love about it.”
Babiak has essentially given Cornish carte blanche with the material. He’s already bought a plane ticket to attend the launch in March.
“We had some fascinating conversations, but it’s Belinda’s play. So while I’m so excited at my participation in creating the thing, I really look forward to what Belinda and her team come up with. Seeing something that I kinda dreamed up on a ski lift in Jasper turned into a novel and turned into a play… It’ll be strange and wonderful to watch.”
The Citadel’s artistic director, Daryl Cloran, said the decision to adapt Babiak’s book came about as the theatre was searching for Edmonton stories that would work for the stage.
“It’s the first time we’ve done something so completely Edmonton — a book by an Edmonton author, about an Edmonton community, adapted by an Edmonton playwright,” says Cloran.
The play also fits well into this season’s theme for the theatre; love in its many forms, from falling in love to people’s love for their community, says Cloran.
Indeed, conversations about The Garneau Block often veer into conversations about the love Edmontonians feel for the city, and its place in the world.
“It’s made me cognizant of where I live,” Cornish says.
“I really want to honour that because it is such an Edmonton story, but it’s also a prairie city story. You find those echoes in many cities.” It’s also given her a working theory on that particular brand of Edmontonian angst. “There’s a self-effacing pride in loving our city,” she says.
“It’s going, ‘We’re here, we’re doing these amazing things — but does anybody see us?’”