Stage Door News

Ottawa: Ann-Marie MacDonald novel to become two-night play coproduced by five theatre companies

Thursday, March 3, 2022

A 10-year journey to bring Ann-Marie MacDonald’s debut novel, Fall On Your Knees, to the stage will see the ambitious production premiere in four Canadian cities, starting in 2023.

Under the artistic direction of Alisa Palmer, the National Theatre School director who’s married to MacDonald, the play will run over two nights, with an adaptation by playwright Hannah Moscovitch, an original score and a collaboration between no fewer than five Canadian theatre companies — not to mention a hefty $200,000 investment by the National Arts Centre’s Creation Fund.

Keeping a close eye on this extended flurry of creative activity is MacDonald herself, who describes the project as more of a “rebirth” of her tale than an adaptation.

“The word adaptation is fine,” she says. “Everyone can use it and know what we’re talking about, but for me, it’s deeply inadequate to describe what’s gone on here. It’s a complete rebirth and transformation in a completely different medium, and that is very exciting.”

It’s also something of a full-circle moment for MacDonald, who was born in Germany to a Canadian air-force family stationed there, but spent her high school years in Ottawa and is now based in Toronto. The novel actually started as a play years before it was published in 1996.

“I thought I was writing another play,” MacDonald explains, “and then I got going on it and thought, ‘Wow, this play has a lot of stage directions.’ Then I realized those aren’t stage directions; it’s prose. So yeah, it started out as a play and what’s beautiful is, all these years later, it’s a play. Isn’t that cool?”

The 566-page novel chronicles three generations of the Piper family from Cape Breton Island, moving from the battlefields of the First World War to the Harlem jazz scene in New York City. Its main characters are the three Piper sisters.

The inspiration for the sweeping tale came from an image MacDonald says arrived in her “mind’s eye.” Her imagination conjured a picture of three sisters, each one depicted in the style of a martyred saint immortalized in the vibrant stained-glass windows of a cathedral.

“I tend to begin everything I do with an image,” the writer and actor says, “and then I question, I interrogate that image. Where did you come from? What are you wearing? What does it tell me about the time and place that you’re in?”

Considered a Canadian masterpiece, the book earned multiple important awards, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, and was shortlisted for several others, including the Giller Prize. In another career-boosting stamp of approval, it was selected for Oprah’s Book Club in 2002.

The idea to bring it to the stage originated with Palmer, MacDonald’s wife of nearly 25 years. “The story, beloved and disturbing, painful and joyful, speaks all the more urgently now,” says Palmer. “I was inspired to adapt it as a piece of music-driven theatre.”

After Moscovitch, the celebrated Ottawa-born playwright, was brought on board, the rest of the pieces eventually fell into place, with MacDonald watching from the sidelines. The NAC Creation Fund made its investment in 2018, thanks to lead donors David and Margaret Fountain of Halifax.

“It was slow, patient, dedicated work,” MacDonald said of Palmer’s efforts in bringing together the five theatre companies: NAC English Theatre, Palmer’s Vita Brevis Arts, Canadian Stage (Toronto), Grand Theatre (London) and Neptune Theatre (Halifax).

Workshopped over the last two years, its development has impressed MacDonald, who was in the rehearsal hall during a recent workshop.

“I really felt the power of it,” she said. “I wrote the book, but it’s not like I had anything to do with this. I was an audience member and I was blown away. To me, that’s the proof of the pudding. I forget that anyone wrote this at all.”

Fall On Your Knees will be part of the 2022-23 theatre seasons in Toronto, London, Ottawa and Halifax.

By Lynn Saxberg for

Photo: Ann-Marie MacDonald.