Embracing the Fast & Funny in the Site-Specific Fringe Show “Behold, the Barfly” – In Conversation with Justin Haigh
In the Greenroom’s Madryn McCabe sat down with Justin Haigh, writer, director and co-producer of Behold, the Barfly! playing at the 2016 Toronto Fringe Festival, to chat about the thrill behind how the show came together, working with a killer team, and the challenges and joys of working in a site-specific venue.
MMC: Why don’t you tell me a little bit about the show?
JH: Behold, the Barfly! is a surreal and cerebral sketch comedy revue set in the subconscious mind of a slumbering barfly. It’s got traditional sketches, some rather dark humour (bring the kids!), some theatre of the mind, a couple of musical numbers, a Christmas pageant that is just plain ridiculous, and a loose through-line that I won’t spoil here but that I hope will add just a smidge of genuine emotion to counterbalance the sheer silliness of it all.
MMC: I’ve read that you were asked to do a site-specific show after one had dropped out. What was it like putting together a show in only two months?
JH: I got an email at the end of March (I guess that actually makes it three months from email to opening night… but still, a timeline of madness) informing me that another site-specific show had dropped out and I was next on the waiting list, and did I want to take their place? Having no script, no plan, no venue, no cast, no creative team, and no budget, I was hesitant for obvious reasons, but Sarah [Thorpe – assistant director/co-producer/actor] said, “If you don’t do it, you’ll probably regret it.” I realized she was right. The Fringe is probably the most affordable way of independently producing a show in Toronto with the bonus of having a built-in enthusiastic audience willing to take a chance on just about anything. I’ve always loved sketch comedy and had always wanted to give writing it a shot, so I figured this was the universe telling me to shit or get off the pot.
It’s been pretty non-stop ever since then. I’ve found the biggest challenge (other than the lack of sleep and absence of free time) was to have to put a lot of pieces together simultaneously that would normally be done sequentially. I was writing the script at the same time as securing a venue, working on graphics, approaching potential cast members – I even had to come up with a description for the show for the Fringe program when I didn’t even have the thing written.
Needless to say it’s been an incredibly stressful yet productive two and a half months, and we will see what audiences have to say, but I’m quite proud of what we have managed to accomplish in so little time.
MMC: You’ve got a great cast, full of popular indie theatre actors. How did you put this cast together?
JH: Your question makes it sound like I put together the A-Team – which in some ways is accurate. We’ve got performers Jeff Hanson and Sarah Thorpe, who are well-known in the indie scene; Eric Miinch, Ned Petrie, Marsha Mason, and Steve Hobbs, who are known within the sketch and comedy community; Elizabeth Anacleto is a respected figure in the clown community; and Kevin MacPherson is a classically trained actor who has made his mark in the east coast Shakespeare scene. It’s a bit of a Swiss Army Knife of a cast in that sense, which I love because everyone brings something a little different to the table and makes for a more interesting production over all.
As for how we assembled it, I was already friends with half the cast, so call that the benefit of having a social circle filled with talented individuals. It wasn’t really a question of if we wanted to work with them, but just what parts they’d be good for. The other half were either actors that I or Sarah saw perform somewhere at some point and we made a note of their talent and that we should keep them in mind for future projects (that’s how we got in touch with Kevin and Marsha who I think were both kind of surprised to get messages out of the blue from someone they’d never met), or actors who were recommended to us, like Steve.
MMC: How do you find doing a site-specific show different from a more traditional theatrical venue?
JH: The biggest difference is the lack of tech – you are very much dependent on the concept, writing, and performance to get the idea across. In some ways this is a limitation, but I think it enhances the immediacy of the work. The less artifice on stage, the closer to a shared reality you are with the audience. There is also that magical element of seeing a room or space unexpectedly brought to life by performance; theatre in a theatre leaves no room for surprise or spontaneity, but theatre in a non-theatre setting still feels fun and oddly risqué.
MMC: You’re known for the cabarets Love is a Poverty You Can Sell 1&2. What can your audience expect from Behold the Barfly! that is similar? Or what sets this show apart from your others?
JH: Like LIAPYCS 1 & 2, Behold, The Barfly! is set in a licensed establishment so one can expect the mood to be a bit more relaxed and a little more festive. We hope to give audience members more time than at a traditional venue to settle in, enjoy the atmosphere, grab a drink… maybe chat with some of the characters who will be floating around. I think the joyous atmosphere of the LIAPYCS shows and this one is the greatest common factor. I hope audiences will find the work to be intelligent but not labourious; the world is an increasingly dark and nutty place – I hope we can offer respite from it, even if it is only for 75 minutes.
What sets it apart is the fact that as a format and genre, this is totally unlike many of our past works which include Antigone and No Exit – Greek tragedy and existential drama this ain’t.
Behold, the Barfly!
Presented by Spoon VS Hammer as part of the 2016 Toronto Fringe Festival
Written By: Justin Haigh
Company: Spoon vs. Hammer
Company origin: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Cast: The Spoon Vs. Hammer Players
From the writer of the smash hit ‘Love is a Poverty You Can Sell’ (★★★★★ / NNNNN) comes a surreal and cerebral sketch spectacular featuring some of Toronto’s finest comedy talent! Peer into the pickled subconscious of a slumbering barfly and behold the wonders within: Mirth! Adventure! Mediocre Poetry! Sober contemplation of life choices! Dinosaurs?
June 29-July 3 & July 5-10 @ 7pm; plus July 9 @ 3pm 12 Performances!
Monarch Tavern, 12 Clinton Street, Toronto
$12, here: http://fringetoronto.com/fringe-festival/tickets-and-passes/
WARNINGS: Strobe Light, Nudity, Sexual Content, Mature Language