Playing it personal

Cathy Ostlere’s literary memoir becomes a powerful one-woman show

Jan Alexandra Smith plays Cathy in the true life tale Lost: A Memoir at Prairie Theatre Exchange. Supplied

Imagine, one day, a loved one disappears without a trace.

That’s the nightmare Portage la Prairie born author Cathy Ostlere found herself living in 1995 when her youngest brother David and his girlfriend Sarah Heald were lost off the coast of Portugal.

Despite his wide-ranging travels, David made a ritual of phoning family on his birthday.

That year, the call didn’t come.

Ostlere departed for the tiny island of Madeira - David’s eventual destination - to find answers to his disappearance.

The trip found her assessing her own life and compromises, while also mourning the loss of her adventurous brother. It was a journey that prompted her to write.

“Poems were a way of making sense of the grief,” Ostlere says. “In the end, though, the poems didn’t have enough words to express what I was feeling, so I expanded them into essays.”

Those essays came together as Lost: A Memoir.

Published in 2008, Ostlere’s first book enjoyed audience and critical praise. It might have ended there, if Theatre Calgary artistic director Dennis Garnhum hadn’t found copy.

“Dennis found my book at a store in Vancouver. It had been misshelved - it was under the travel/adventure section - and the cover caught his eye,” she says. “He’s told me that, halfway through, he thought it was a play.”

Ostlere was apprehensive when Garnhum first approached her to adapt Lost for the stage.

“I was hesitant to say, ‘Let’s spend the next two years together’ and go back into that emotional territory.  And I couldn’t see it as a play - not until he told me it would be a one-woman show.”

Garnhum eventually convinced Ostlere the 256-page memoir could make the leap from page to stage.

One of the artists she credits most with Lost’s successful transformation is Jan Alexandra Smith - the show’s solo actor.

“Jan is a force of nature. She takes a quiet story and makes it bolder and louder,” Ostlere says. “In my personal life, I want to be more like this actress.”

Ostlere says converting her story to play has expanded her appreciation of her late brother.

“I think my brother has become bigger for me; he’s become powerful in people’s imaginations.”

Lost: A Memoir runs at Prairie Theatre Exchange now until Feb. 5. Students willing to roll the dice can take advantage of PTE’s Walkup Deal - 30 minutes before curtain, any unsold tickets become available for just $10.

Published in Volume 66, Number 17 of The Uniter (January 25, 2012)

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