Karen Hines thought she had a good take on her character, a maid in an ABC family film. But looking up from her makeup chair at 4 a.m., she wasn't quite prepared for what she saw – that half of her famously pale face was being painted brown.
"I have some Spanish in my blood so I thought I could pull the part off – it never occurred to me that I would be in brown face," she says.
That was back in 2007. In her multifaceted career, the Canadian playwright and actor has mined the humour in the politically incorrect on two Ken Finkleman TV farces, The Newsroom and Married Life. She's played with subversion in other forms: as a theatrical alter-ego named Pochsy (which won her a Governor-General's Award nomination) and as the director of horror clowns Mump & Smoot.
Still, that makeup chair never quite left her. It just became material for a larger look at the inanity of network television.
Her first original play in seven years, and her first since she moved from Toronto to Calgary, Drama: Pilot Episode pulls elements from the television procedural, film noir and graphic novels for a dark (if ultimately hopeful) take on what drama means in modern life.
On the surface, the play – part of Calgary's Playrites Festival – is about forensic psychiatrist Penelope Douglas, who comes to a post-boom oil town to discover an epidemic of soullessness.
Hines is not necessarily a critical new transplant to the city, though. Yes, an entire cow skeleton and three large bison skulls dominate the set. But "I did not want to suggest that Calgary is soulless," Hines says. "I wanted to suggest the opposite – that because of the maverick spirit here it's a place where soul can most likely be reclaimed."
Giving the play its bite is the effect of Hines's experience pitching TV executives in 2009, when she found herself as the Women in the Director's Chair official delegate at the Banff World Television Festival. "I speak like a playwright in terms of ideas, themes and images," she remembers. "They looked at me like I was a penguin."
Hines channelled her frustration into the role of the content provider, whose manic refusal to compromise is nailed by Calgary actor Christian Goutsis as he pitches oddities like Trans Poodle ("It's a Claymation, 22 minutes, featuring a boy dog who knows he's a bitch") and Haunted Condo (Set in an abattoir retrofit, "it's a domestic comedy about bitter bovine ghosts who know they died too young and have not had enough").
Thanks to the plot's pivotal moment, his untouchable concepts suddenly become sizzling hot. "We've had writers who write about crazy. This young writer actually was crazy," says the network decision maker. "That's new territory for us. Certainly for an eight o'clock start."
Drama is also new territory for Hines. "I have a sneaking suspicion – and I'm not supposed to say this because she's my girlfriend – that this is an important play," says One Yellow Rabbit co-founder Blake Brooker, who was tapped by Hines to direct her piercing new work. "It's exotic and substantive and fun. I've never seen anything like it."
Drama: Pilot Episode runs in Calgary until March 3.