Unravelling the DNA of a play

Arun Lakra’s complex Sequence structured on faith science and luck

“It’s just an honour being nominated” could well be one of the most insincere statements to cross the lips of any potential award-winner — so much so that the phrase has become a knowing wink of sorts a sarcastic rejoinder for the disappointed also-ran.

Yet when Calgarian Arun Lakra talks about the oh-so close finish of his play Sequence in the 2012 STAGE International Script Competition it’s clear he’s still dazzled just to have made it in to the top three finalists.

“Three Pulitzer prize winners… three Nobel prize winners…” he says with wonderment as he recalls STAGE’s prestigious panel of judges — including famed playwright Tony Kushner who penned Angels in America and Robert C. Richardson a Nobel Laureate in physics (STAGE — which stands for Scientists Technologists and Artists Generating Exploration — honours work that bridges the worlds of science and theatre).

Though he did not walk away with the top honour in that one Lakra’s Sequence did snag the 2011 Grand Prize in the Alberta Playwriting Competition. And while both nods make for an impressive achievement one can’t help but think it’s even more remarkable in Lakra’s case given that a) Sequence is only his second attempt at writing a play and b) he doesn’t actually have much of a theatre background — by day he works as an eye surgeon.

But lest you think Sequence — which premières as a joint Downstage Theatre and Hit & Myth Productions undertaking this month — marks a lucky shot in the dark Lakra clarifies that this was no overnight journey.

“I think it was in my later years of med school that I was feeling a little bit out of whack — I was a bit imbalanced with all of the hardcore memory stuff and left brain stuff as I like to call it so near the end of med school I just decided that I would try and cultivate this creative side of things. I tend to get a bit cranky if I’m not writing or doing something like that” he says.

“Initially after med school and during my residency I played around with writing a bunch of things. When I graduated from ophthalmology I launched into this couple-of-years period of a pretty immature existence where I would work for a couple of months make some money and then go somewhere and write — I went to L.A. and I audited a screenwriting course there for a couple of months and then when the money ran out I came back and worked some more.”

Lakra admits his first play — which he penned about 12 years ago — didn’t work because “it just wasn’t very good.” About five years ago though another idea began niggling away at his subconscious — and as much as he may have tried to avoid dealing with it (he says he would skirt the issue by “watching the hockey game or whatever”) it began to take definitive theatrical shape.

“To me — as simplistic and naive as it might sound — I think writing is writing. So what I’ve tried to do is when I have a story idea I ask myself what is this? Is it a song? Is it a play? Is it a screenplay? And then I try and let the idea dictate the medium and it just so happens that the first play I wrote as well as this one I just thought… that these were plays as opposed to any other medium” he says. “Then once I have an idea that this is a play and this is the story I want to tell then I just have to learn the nuts and bolts.”

For this embryonic phase of Sequence Lakra attended playwrighting circles and classes by such local theatre luminaries as Eugene Stickland and Gordon Pengilly to help realize what was shaping up to be a rather ambitious undertaking — one that seemed to take a few cues from his background in medicine.

“It almost started on a molecular level — I had this idea about DNA and how the sequence of DNA is critical obviously to our existence. I had this fantasy — could I write a play about sequence about order and about how important it is in our lives but also to try and find a way I could use the structure [of DNA] to complement the story?”

Thus just as genetic material takes its shape in the form of the double-helix it’s two strands winding around each other to form its recognizable shape Sequence is composed of what at first seems like two independent narrative threads bound together in a similar fashion — one is about a professor studying the disease that caused her to go blind and her encounter with an “exceptionally unlucky student” and the other revolves around a pregnant women and her confrontation with an author who has found success predicting Super Bowl coin tosses.

“There were some real challenges to the play because of its format” acknowledges director Kevin McKendrick who has been involved with the project since workshopping it following its Alberta Playwrights win. “Once we put it up on its feet in the reading format and put it in front of an audience we realized that this is something very special…. We recognized that it was a good play in terms of writing but there’s something here in terms of theatre that we all hoped would have some life afterwards.”

Now that he’s fleshing out a fully formed production McKendrick says the trick has been to make the connection between the parallel plotlines both subtle and illuminating.

“The audience has to understand that the two narrative threads are separate yet somehow could be connected without us deciding for them where it’s connected and how it’s connected. So the ambiguity is deliberate because we want the audience to wrestle with these issues but it can’t be confusing. That’s a real challenge for me — to make sure that the audience doesn’t drop out of the play to consider ‘am I getting what I think I’m supposed to be getting here?’”

According to Lakra there’s much to “get” with Sequence tackling such topics as science luck and faith as well as “coincidence why are we here? Einstein Darwin genetics gambling the Super Bowl….”

“I think I’m just getting old perhaps but I was just drawn to the bigness of these ideas” he says. “I’ve written some fairly fun and trivial things but this was one that I just wanted to go deep and write something which would be a little more meaningful at least to myself.”

McKendrick says a coupling of innovative production touches and set design and a capable cast of Calgary theatre notables including Karen Johnson-Diamond among others will more than help get the story across.

“It’s a wonderful challenge” he says of the experience thus far. “I’m going home exhausted at the end of every day not because it’s hard work but because it’s heady full work.”

And for his part Lakra says seeing his story come to life during rehearsals has been a revelation.

“I had no theatre background and to this day I have no theatre background which is what makes this process so amazing — just watching Kevin in action and just soaking it all in” he says. “I feel like such a novice — this is becoming my theatre school basically.”