Introducing the first of our weekly visits to Slings and Arrows, where the travails of doing theatre makes great television. Hope you can watch along with us.
This week’s guests:
(see their reactions below)
“I just want to tell you I’m proud of you. Chaining yourself to a condemned building,
defending the right of the insane to put on shows no one will ever see.” – Oliver
Ain’t that just theatre in a nutshell? I mean, sure, we all dream of the day we escape the basements, or grace the stages of whatever the New Burbage Festival of your life and hometown are, but it does boil down to that simple truth – theatre people are kind of insane, and we’d be doing something like this even if we couldn’t figure out a way to get paid for it and/or get people to see it.
Welcome to the world of Slings and Arrows.
As the first episode of a series, “Oliver’s Dream” functions bizarrely for a pilot, since it barely establishes a weekly premise. It basically affords us an opportunity to really study a status quo just as it’s about to change, rather than use a first act to introduce an inciting incident and just watching it tumble from there. We get those incidents, but carefully, subtly peppered through the hour.
I could call this episode an hour of exposition for the series, which it is, but that’s a disservice. It’s really far more entertaining than that. Writers Susan Coyne, Bob Martin (of The Drowsey Chaperone fame), and Mark McKinney (Kids in the Hall) really take the opportunity to introduce a whole theatre world, and revel in the amount that they can milk out of every step of an opening night for a major production.
In fact, I would argue that, rather elegantly, the episode itself is structured like a play. Deeper analysis might reveal a Shakespearean five-act structure or something similarly highfalutin’, but here’s the more standard three-acter that I observed:
Prologue: The Outsider
The first thing we see is a rundown building, with the name “Théâtre Sans L’Argent” graffito-tagged on it. Now, setting aside the hilarious pretension of a small company actually choosing that name, the introduction to this “theatre without money” would be hilarious if it weren’t also so damn true.
We meet our hero, Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), Actor’s (former) Actor and currently director, with his head literally in a toilet. (Symbolism alert!) In short order he has fixed said toilet, which he proclaims triumphantly, to applause, and thus resumes his rehearsal.
And it’s here we meet “Art”. Setting up a pattern to be continued through the show, the quality of the Shakespearean world that Geoffrey sees is married to his zeal for it, making it impossible to separate the two and allowing us as the audience to recognize it as “good”. (Compare this with Smash, where they’ll let us watch someone sing and then try to tell us how brilliant it was, only drawing attention to how it wasn’t).
Unfortunately, Andy the lighting designer, though successful in preventing a fire, could not prevent a blackout. Here we leave Geoffrey. For now.
As I said before, this vision of low-budget “making ends meet” theatre rings painfully true, and these young eyes have seen it. In particular, Geoffrey and his colleague’s insistence that their landlord will be paid from the box office receipts caused knowing winces in this friend to small company management.
Act One: The Show Before the Show
In the hustle and bustle of a booming gift shop*, we meet at last the main character of the series: The New Burbage Shakespeare Festival. This place will be the home of our adventures, and first among them, aging artistic director Oliver Welles’ 10th production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (or, as Richard memorably puts it, “Midsummers Nights Dr…A Midsummer Night’s Dream”).
*- In a rare inauthentic moment for the show, friend and professional Shakespeare literate Caitlin Griffin points out to me, “I will say I’ve never seen a gift shop that busy. Ever.”)
Oliver (Stephen Ouimette) is trying to give notes on a sound cue, but general manager Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney) needs his attention on logistics issues – donor seating, sponsors, etc, while theatre administrator Anna (Susan Coyne) is worrying about wine vendors (prompting me to say “Poor Anna”. Spoiler alert: this will not be the last time). Everything is more important than the actual show.
Lost behind those sheep bleats at the notes meeting are Ellen (Martha Burns), longtime member of the New Burbage company, and fresh-faced newbie Kate (played by fresh-faced newbie Rachel McAdams). Ellen’s request for a change of blocking (that would allow her to, y’know, be heard) is simply ignored. Poor Kate never even gets a chance to get her one note.
Richard, reminding Oliver that “this is a business”, takes off to meet with Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin), a new rep for their major corporate sponsor. And it becomes immediately apparent that Richard’s need for recognition is going to become a big problem. Holly immediately offers Richard an increase in sponsorship AND romantic attention. Anyone else picking up shades of Macbeth here?
Ways to watch:
1) Borrow the complete series DVDs from a friend. Trust me; someone you know owns them. If you want to drop the cash, they sell the DVDs in the Shakespeare Theatre Company gift shop and on Amazon, where the whole series is $38.99.
2) Netflix! has the series available on DVD.
3) Amazon Prime. If you’re paying for the year-round two-day shipping ($74.99 a year), you already get it for free as part of their unlimited streaming content.)
4) Amazon Instant. $1.99 per episode, or $8.99 for each whole season.
Act Two: The Dream
As Geoffrey’s eviction continues to cause me personal pain (“We can pay you from the box office!” he insists to the landlord, who responds “No one comes to see shows here!”), Midsummer opening gets underway. In a marvelously random detail, someone appears to buy a stuffed duck from that gift shop that has everything.
Backstage, Oliver goes dressing room to dressing room, making the same silly joke and telling the same silly anecdote to get his actors ready. Even his sincerity has become rote. Only when he visits Ellen do we see his weariness, vying so hard to win back her approval and any sign of the old days, where apparently a mythic-level production of Hamlet ended Geoffrey’s brilliant acting career after three performances and nervous breakdown onstage.
Midsummer itself is so brilliantly lame – declamatory dialogue, silly fritting about, those stupid sheep bleats which draw a sad little “oh aren’t they clever” laugh from the audience, who’d rather be watching a big hockey game. Two of the company’s character actors complain, “There’s no excuse for a quiet house on opening. They didn’t pay for their tickets. The least they could do is pay us the courtesy of forcing a laugh.”
Oliver can’t even watch, and switches to the game while hanging with Nahum, the security guard, formerly a director in Nigeria (Rothaford Gray). His commentary on a dangerous regime led to his exile, which prompts him to remind Oliver that, despite his production’s complete lack of truth, “The truth can be a dangerous thing.” (Hat tip to Caitlin for shining a light on that line as well).
No sooner is this said that the news begins reporting that Geoffrey, in an artistically heroic moment, has chained himself to his building to battle eviction.
“Now THAT’S theatre”, marvels Oliver.
Act Three: The Hereafter
Picture every awful thing that can happen at an opening night party. A smug former acting teacher gets drunk and starts to give your castmate notes on “Pace! pace! pace!”. Your one supportive critic praises you with words that you’d hate to hear ever associated with your work. Awful joke after awful joke made in speeches by people who’ve probably never set foot in a theatre before that, and shoehorn their favorite Shakespeare quotes into it, context be damned. Also, your artistic director is getting fall-down drunk.
The real party, of course, is at the bar afterwards, where Kate frets about her acting teacher embarrassing her and Claire (Sabrina Grdevich) puts him to the task of drinking every drink in the bar to get him to pass out. “You are evil!” Kate jokes to Claire, not knowing how right she will ultimately be. Oliver overhears insults to the show and gets vomited on. But at least he was right about Richard Burton’s Hamlet – it was in 1964.
Oliver calls Geoffrey, drunkenly missing the good old days. But of course, Oliver can’t go two minutes without saying something insulting, which prompts Geoffrey to hang up on him. Geoffrey’s morbid curiosity, however, leads him to continue to pick up the phone to hear from his old friend, who continues to push him to hang up in anger. It is just the most fantastic exchange.
Merely mentioning Ellen finally prompts Geoffrey to speak, and the floodgates open on the complex anger that he feels towards Oliver – not only is he a sellout, but an asshole. Finally, Oliver himself has to hang up.
Sadly, this turns out to be Oliver’s final act, as, following a truly sad flashback to the beautiful days of friendship between himself, Ellen, and Geoffrey, Oliver passes out in the street, and is run over by a ham truck.
Not since Antigonus has an exit been so random.
How close do they come to real life?
“The whole opening scene just reminds me so much of working at Forum, growing the company. I have certainly been in situations, as an Artistic Director of a small, black box company, just like Geoffrey Tennant is in this 1st scene. Unclogging a toilet while conducting a finance meeting all on a 10 minute rehearsal break. I know this scene well and I remember the first time I saw this show and thinking: “This isn’t a comedy! This is my life and I’m not laughing!
“‘Théâtre Sans Argent,’ indeed.
“Another thing that stands out to me about this episode is the play of small theatre vs big theatre and the ways that they are so different and exactly the same. I see the struggle Oliver goes through as the business side of the company starts to take over, crowding out the artistic vision and focus. It should be no surprise that this TV series was created by active theatre-makers. These are real concerns with real authenticity. I think situations like this are just as responsible for the deep connection theatre artists have to this series as the as the rehearsal and performance ones.
“Another thing I realized, now watching this episode years later, was how funny I thought the relationship between Basil, the critic, and the theatre was. He’s there after opening, talking candidly with the actors, director… I remember thinking that it was either a uniquely Canadian thing or it was was of the rare instances the show got wrong. Now, years later, I realize that it may have been more of a prophesy. I have a healthy dialogue with Peter Marks and other reviewers thanks to Twitter and social media. The show was just predicting the future, maybe!
“A funny story: A few years ago I was able to visit Toronto as part of the Canadian Embassy/Helen Hayes Awards theatre exchange program. You know how when you only really know a place because of what you saw in movies or TV? Well, I made a joke about how I’d probably run into one of the Kids in the Hall or an actor from S&A because they were what I thought of when I thought of Canada. Wouldn’t you know, in one week I met Paul Gross (Geoffrey), Martha Burns (Ellen), and Susan Coyne (Anna)!”
“This episode opens the show with the juxtaposition of two theatres – Théâtre Sans Argent and the New Burbage Shakespeare Festival – but what’s really being compared are the two directors. At the tiny TSA, Geoffrey Tennant lets his stage go dark and imagines the storm at the opening of The Tempest as the text makes it seem, how he wants his audience to imagine it. In his mind’s eye, the crew screams and struggles until a fuse blows and the theater goes dark. Meanwhile, on a football-field size stage at NBSF, Oliver Welles names the beautifully designed and orchestrated scene of Midsummer a failure because he can’t hear the fake sheep. He’s lost his ability to see the scene in his mind’s eye, to trust the text.
“That’s the crux of this episode for me as a Shakespearean, and for Oliver as a director: what happens when you no longer listen to the text for direction, but rather rely on its author’s name recognition? When you’re not able to see the individual trees for the sake of the lush, expensive forest? As slimy a character as he is, Basil hits the nail on the head for Oliver: ‘You don’t make demands of the audience, you soothe them. You’re comfortable like an old boot.’ Shakespeare’s texts can both challenge and comfort, but if you aren’t paying attention to the play as the director, then neither will the audience. You’ll both feel the awkwardness of the missing laces that should be holding the boot-show together.
“Some great questions are brought up, as well, that we should continue to ask (and maybe debate in the comments): At the bar, Oliver is of the opinion that Burton’s Hamlet is the definitive performance of the play. We each have our own ‘definitive’ melancholy Dane, so what’s yours? Also, Oliver says that he brought out the best Hamlet in Geoffrey, but who owns the character – the director or the actor?”
Quotables and Stray Thoughts:
“The very best things happen just before the thread snaps.” -Geoffrey
“I have fixed the toilet!” – Geoffrey, to applause. So much truth.
“Without the bleats there’s no irony, Maria. Any fool knows that!” – Oliver, on his sheep
“Sorry everyone, sorry for caring!” – Ellen
“He’s not crazy.” “Not anymore!” – Geoffrey, proudly. Paul Gross is seriously so freaking good. Runner-up for the Brilliant Delivery Prize: “Of COURSE the check is good!”
“When did you stop caring about the details, Oliver? I still fucking care because I’m fucking one of them.” – Ellen
“I feel like I really discovered Puck tonight.” – Claire, immediately getting to work on making me hate her. Seriously, everyone in theatre knows a “Claire”, right?
“This particular staging of The Dream was a DREAM to stage.” – Oliver. So brilliantly terrible, this half-hearted quip.
The credits to every episode roll to “Call the Understudy”, a charming little bar ditty written by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison. Know those names? Yup, they and Bob Martin went on to write The Drowsy Chaperone after this.