Ann-Marie MacDonald’s life-changing novel Fall On Your Knees is now a six-hour epic comedy

Actress Amaka Umeh stands in a white dress in front of a backdrop of mountains and a sunset in a promotional image of Fall On Your Knees.
Amaka Umeh in a promotional image of Fall On Your Knees. (© Lorne Bridgman, All rights reserved)

It’s one of the most anticipated Canadian theater events in recent history: an adaptation of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s first novel Fall to your knees, some 27 years after its release. The six-hour, two-part show was ten years in the making, and MacDonald is more than ready for audiences to experience this transformation of her work.

“My dream is for a person who loves the book to come and see the show and, while watching it, forget that the book exists,” she says.

It will be up to the many fans of Fall to your knees surely already with tickets in hand to let MacDonald know if his dream will eventually come true in the show. But the very existence of the show, which will be staged in four Canadian cities (Toronto starting January 21, followed by Ottawa, Halifax and London, Ont.), is already a dream.

First published in 1996, Fall to your knees it has been a very popular read, particularly for the queer women the book focuses on, ever since. Chronicling three generations of the Piper family of Cape Breton Island in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the epic novel has been translated into 19 languages, won countless awards (including the 1997 Commonwealth Writers Prize for best first book) and, most famously, was chosen to join Oprah’s Book Club in 2002.

“The experience of publishing that book was truly definitive,” says MacDonald. “Because it was a big first for me. I had written plays. I had acted in plays. I had co-created plays collectively or with another partner. It was my milieu when I started writing Fall to your kneesI truly believed I was writing another play.”

Writer Ann-Marie MacDonald in a headshot against a white wall.
Ann-Marie MacDonald. (Canadian stage)

But the stage directions in that supposed play ended up getting very long — and suddenly MacDonald discovered that he wasn’t writing a play at all.

“I realized that this was, in fact, prose fiction,” he laughs. “So that was a big turning point for me. And I thought, ‘This is accidental, I didn’t mean to do this.’ I didn’t know how to write a novel.”

It turns out he really did.

“It was a big, huge thing because it was such a huge career change,” she says of the book’s success. “I mean, I kept working in theater, but now there was this other big ship. And novels take longer to write, so everything else had to shift and make room for that.”

“And then getting that kind of attention – that had a big impact too. First of all, I was able to make some money from that book, which gave me some creative freedom. , if not surprising, with American Celebrity, that’s just nuclear in size, right?It’s huge, the power of that.

And he’s not just talking about the effect on book sales.

“Sales were impressive, sure,” he says “But I mean more the American celebrity car. It was like being next to a nuclear reactor.”

“The metabolic effect was like, ‘Oh my god, I feel like I just got hit by a sports car.’ I mean, Oprah was so nice. She was amazing. I had a lovely, lovely meeting with her. She’s really good at her job; she’s a very nice person. I’m just talking about the size of that car they drove down there.”

Say what you will about that car, but it helped the catapult in the end Fall to your knees to its status as an international bestseller, which is part of why its stage adaptation is such a big deal. But it’s also notable because it’s been a decade in the making and marks a collaboration between MacDonald and famed theater artist Alisa Palmer, who co-created and directed the production. Palmer also happens to be MacDonald’s wife.

“We had collaborated long before we even got together,” says MacDonald. “So working together is our natural happy place. Over a decade ago, she said, ‘I want to fit in Fall to your knees for the stage”. And I said, ‘Well, if anybody can do it, you can do it. And good luck!'”

“But I thought, ‘This is monumental.’ And it’s his determination, his tenacity and his vision that made all of this possible.”

MacDonald also told Palmer that he didn’t feel like the right person to adapt his novel for the stage. Someone else should have helped Palmer with this.

“‘You need someone who’s a really good playwright,'” MacDonald recalls telling Palmer. “Someone who understands structure, someone with the work ethic and stamina and inspiration and vision to do this. And the first person I thought of, and I think we thought of her at the same time, was Hannah Moscovitch .”

Actresses Amaka Umeh and Deborah Hay hold hands while in white dresses in front of a backdrop of mountains and a sunset in a promotional image of Fall On Your Knees.
Amaka Umeh (left) and Deborah Hay in a promotional image of Fall On Your Knees. (Lorne Bridgman/Canadian Stage)

Moscovitch – one of Canada’s foremost playwrights and winner of the 2021 Governor General’s Award for her play Middle-class sexual misconduct – worked with Palmer for a decade on the adaptation (with the timeframe extended in part due to a certain pandemic). MacDonald jokingly refers to herself during that trial as “a sideways grizzled writer”.

“No, but seriously, my role has really been as a production consultant, basically,” he says. “I’ve been on hand for anyone who needs me, whether it’s Hannah saying, ‘Hey, read this draft’ or working closely with Alisa in terms of everything she’s done. I’ve been to every workshop, so I’ve given a lot of feedback.I’ve been in and out of rehearsals.

“Yeah, I wrote the underlying novel which is important and I’m an asset in that regard, especially now for actors. But I think where I’m really helpful is the fact that I have this other skill set, which is like a professional in the theatre. I’m no stranger to the whole process from page to stage from a playwright’s point of view, as an actor, working closely with directors and designers. So in that way, I’m a good ingredient, you know? I’m an eye new on fresh blood.

MacDonald has put a fresh eye on evidence in recent weeks. And she found an unexpected gratitude that she, like everyone else who isn’t an actor in the production, had to wear a mask during that process.

“We’re trying to keep everyone safe and sound,” she says. “But I often found myself thankful for the mask, not because of COVID, but because I was watching the actors just work through the scenes under the working lights in the rehearsal room. And my jaw drops and I get chills over it all the body body just to watch them work.”

“I thought, ‘Okay, this show is on its way to giving the audience the same experience that the reader has when they read the book.’ I think that’s the chemistry that’s being achieved. And I think it’s extraordinary.”

Fall On Your Knees will have its world premiere (in two parts, each with intermission) at the Bluma Appel Theater in Toronto from January 21 to February 4, 2023. It will then continue at the Neptune Theater in Halifax, February 10 to March 5, the National Arts Center in Ottawa, from March 8 to 25, and the Grand Theater in London, from March 29 to April 2. Further information and tickets are available here.

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