From one Alex to another – An interview with Alex McCooeye
By Alex “Addy” Johnson
MOST RECENTLY: Directed The Particulars and In General at Summerworks
AS AN ACTOR: The Little Prince (Geordie Productions); Beethoven Lives Upstairs (Centaur Theatre); 39 Steps (Theatre Aquarius); Harvey (Segal Centre); Nativity: A Coyote’s Christmas, Mother Courage, A Christmas Carol, The Ark 2007 (NAC); Rock, Paper, Jackknife (Centaur Theatre/Talisman); Rabbit Rabbit (Summerworks); Of Mice and Men (Montreal Theatre Ensemble).
TRAINING: National Theatre School of Canada and the John Abbott College Professional Theatre Program.
NEXT: Starring in his own adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum at the Wildside Festival in Montreal.
Alex McCooeye is a Montreal-bred actor, director, and playwright. If you haven’t heard of him yet, you probably will. He’s putting down roots in Toronto. Constantly challenging assumptions, he is one of the most grounded, imaginative, and insightful young theatre-makers I know.
A few weeks before going into rehearsals for his new adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum, I (the assistant director of the piece, helping out the stupendous Greg Kramer) had the chance to Skype with Alex about what it means to be an actor-director-playwright, a breed that is becoming more and more necessary.
ADDY: So….how are you settling into the Toronto theatre scene?
ALEX: It’s such a huge community. There’s this core group, I find… And then outside of that there are hundreds of talented, talented people who struggle to get work in Toronto and [end up going] back to other cities all the time to do work. And it can be a really tough year the year after you’ve been in a company [the National Arts Centre]. I’m running into people and they’re saying, “So what are you doing at the NAC this year?” Well actually, you can hire me here.
ADDY: Do you remember that moment of choice we all have when we say, “that’s it, I’m going into the theatre?”
ALEX: I have to admit that I always wanted to be the centre of attention. Like I just loved being in front of people and only through theatre school did I develop a respect for theatre and understood the meaning of what theatre can be. But it was totally born out of wanting to be the center of attention. I can’t fake that that’s not true.
ADDY: Anything in particular that you still carry with you from your theatre school days?
ALEX: I think the main thing I developed…was a love and respect for text and language. And the importance of a respect for the playwright. I think there’s this weird thing going on where theatre is being confused as a director’s medium. And it’s not, in my opinion. The director’s job is to serve the play as it has been written for the performers on stage. And there’s this new thing going on with “my take, my vision of this play” that I really can’t stand.
ADDY: So what would you say is the director’s job, specifically?
ALEX: To ensure that the actors are serving the play while empowering the actors to own their performances. It’s to not get in the way, to let the work happen. To me…eighty percent of directing is casting. So as long as you have actors that you trust, that you think are right in the roles, then eighty percent of your work is done.
ADDY: And how did you venture into playwriting?
ALEX: I’ve always kind of jotted stuff down, jotted down ideas for plays and things. [During theatre school] a friend of mine and I adapted The Tempest and Waiting for Godot into one [single play]. Pazzo was ritualistically playing all the characters in The Tempest forever until he died in a campaign to keep theatre alive. We were going to peform it in this abandoned theatre in Montreal but were kicked out and moved into a real theatre…because of fire regulations.
ADDY: And years later, you’ve adapted Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum into a two-hander. Why Poe?
ALEX: I have loved Poe and this story since I was seventeen – just as I was getting into theatre and language and Shakespeare. I was looking for another way to do Shakespeare, for another author who is like him but not as celebrated. I still think that Poe is on par with Shakespeare, but didn’t write plays and didn’t write about love.
ADDY: And why The Pit and the Pendulum in particular?
ALEX: He wrote it while he was mourning the loss of his sister. You wouldn’t know reading it that it’s a reaction to mourning, but obviously while he was dealing with internal torture he decided to write a story about external torture. I love how he deals with the monotony and the banal aspects of the human mind faced with dire circumstances. Like when he’s musing over the size of his prison cell. Because it’s so true.
ADDY: Why did you choose not to direct it?
ALEX: I am of the opinion that a playwright, for the most part, should not direct their own work…they need an outside eye to come in and take what they’ve written and realize it. I’ve also written the part for myself so….to write, direct, and act for me right now is unrealistic.
ADDY: Do you find yourself directing as you are writing?
ALEX: I am definitely acting it as I write it. I’m in my living room doing all the voices and practicing the dialogue and all of that. For me it’s the only way to write. It’s the only way to get the rhythms and the relationships. It’s my entry point. Why not use the experience I have as an actor?
ADDY: How much does your work as an actor and director inform your work as a writer?
ALEX: I think a great deal. I would love someone else to approach me with this play and say, “would you act in it?” But because it’s my idea, I have to write it. [Writing is] my least favourite of the three. I much prefer acting and directing. I’m just using it as a tool to say what I want to say and do the theatre I want to do. But it’s torturous, I find, to write. It’s incredible for me to see all these writer-performers out there, because one job requires such a specific set of skills and a specific personality type that completely contrasts the other job. So it’s kind of incredible. Sometimes it’s great and sometimes it’s an exercise in self-loathing.
ADDY: Do you find it tricky to compartmentalize and separate the stresses of the day from your writing? Or conversely, is it important to let your day influence your work?
ALEX: In this instance when I’m working with a story that already exists, I cant bring a lot of what I’m going through to it. And it’s hard. Was it Chekhov that said, “No writer can work if they’re poor”? It’s tough to go out and do other things and make money and come back and write. I think I’m pretty unsuccessful at compartmentalizing. But once I’m an hour into writing, I’m with it. I’m not thinking about other things.
ADDY: Would you say your work has an aesthetic?
ALEX: The biggest compliment I ever got was when someone said, “every time I see you perform, it feels like you’re in a conversation with the theatre.” Whether that’s true or not, I think that’s something to strive towards. What is this, what does it mean, what can it be, can I do this and get away with it?
The Pit and the Pendulum will premier at the Wildside Festival in Montreal, January 2012.