Artist Profile: Anthony MacMahon, playwright of “Trompe-La-Mort, or Goriot in the 21st Century” at SummerWorks 2016
Interview by Brittany Kay
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Anthony MacMahon to discuss his new play Trompe-La-Mort, or Goriot in the 21st Century premiering at SummerWorks. We spoke about his love for the festival and his way into writing through adaptation.
Brittany Kay: Where did the idea for this play start?
Anthony MacMahon: The idea for this play started when I was reading Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. It’s a pretty dry book. It sits somewhere between a regular non-fiction and an economics textbook. There are continual references to literature in this book and how literature captures the spirit of an age. He talks about this book Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac, which is about a very wealthy vermicelli vendor and his two daughters who live in this common house with a young man named Eugene, who’s studying to be a lawyer. The entire book is about how this young man Eugene has worked so hard for everything and even if he is the best lawyer in all of France, he’ll never make as much money as this vermicelli salesman. And despite this vermicelli salesman being the biggest vermicelli salesman in Italy and France, he will never have as much money as a queen, a king, or a prince or a duke. This was very reflective of the age.
I was reading this book in Paris and I was on a train and saw a guy get pick-pocketed and I also saw the after effects of the pickpocket. I saw him get bumped, the wallet stolen, and then I saw him start screaming at his daughter who he was with because she was the one who had gotten them on this train in France. She was living in France and was British and the father was visiting from the countryside and was carrying a giant thick wallet in his back pocket. Seeing this in my surroundings now, and reflecting on how the economy affects people at any given day, I was inspired to update the book and to set it today. It’s the same characters, the same kind of action, but it’s modern and they’re dealing with modern problems. So rather than someone studying to be a lawyer, they’re trying to be a programmer, and rather than someone having made all their money off of vermicelli, they make their money off of the stock market. I tried to make it a thriller because the book is actually quite thrilling and that was how I got to the script stage.
BK: What has been the process in mounting this play?
AM: I went through a bunch of ideas of how I could do it.
At one point, I sat down and wrote an entire scene and got to this one line, which encapsulated my whole theory about how this play works. I wrote the rest of the play in about a week and a half, and it actually hasn’t changed that much since. I went through about 10 different versions before that one scene came together and then from writing that scene, it organically fleshed itself out into a full play.
BK: Has the play gone through any workshopping or dramaturgy or is this the first kick at the can?
AM: This is the first kick at the can. I normally do the very standard playwriting process of two drafts and then a dramaturg and then another draft and then another dramaturg and then a two-day workshop and then a five-day workshop and then potentially a festival performance. This script was really written in about two weeks and has been edited and changed since then. Its workshop development is this production.
BK: Why SummerWorks?
AM: SummerWorks has always been good to me. SummerWorks is why I moved out to Toronto. I got in while I was still living in Saskatchewan and as a result, I kind of love doing it. I have a soft spot in my heart for the festival and I think the festival has a soft spot for me. I’ve gotten in every time I’ve applied now. I think it’s a place that really encourages people to fail boldly and, in that failure, you can have some great successes.
It gives you enough infrastructure so you’re not an absolute disaster of a person trying to figure out how to rent space and hire someone to sell tickets for you. It gives you just enough infrastructure so that you’re not constrained in any way, which is kind of why I chose it. I’ve always just met the most exciting artists working at SummerWorks. It’s August, it’s on Queen West, it kind-of feels like a vacation in the city to do this cool festival downtown. That’s why I chose it.
BK: Tell me a little bit about your team involved.
AM: Ted Witzel is our director. I think he is the coolest artist in Toronto. He just kind of bleeds cool. I wanted someone who doesn’t bore me in any way and nothing he has ever said or done has ever bored me. That’s kind of why I sought him out. We’re working with Anahita Dehbonehie, CJ Astronomo and Wesley McKenzie for our design team. It’s a big design for the show. We’re really trying to push SummerWorks to its design and structural limits. So we have 2 projectors, we have things on rails and guides, and we have 5 giant pieces of plexiglass hanging from the ceiling with like a neon light show and potentially smoke. Wesley, CJ, and Anahita are people who can really move astoundingly fast. They have this incredible way of taking these giant visual ideas and putting them onto paper in a 6 hour tech time. The cast is Mark Crawford, Farah Merani, Lindsay Owen Pierre, Ewa Wolniczek, and Jeff Yung. It’s a really great cast. A lot of the kind of directorial atmosphere that Ted gives them and that they run with, is what can I get away with as an actor? It has created such a playful atmosphere. Michelle Yagi is producing and she’s great. Having someone know what they’re doing and with her kind-of organizational mind and ability to plan and hit dates and targets just gives the rest of the team so much more opportunity to create much more positively. Justis Danto Clancy is our Production Manager. Alana Dunlop is our stage manager and has worked with Ted before so she knows how to manage his big ideas.
BK: What are you hoping audiences walk away with?
AM: I hope audiences walk away from the show debating it. The show is a debate essentially, or 5 or 10 debates really. I try not to be too prescriptive or too partisan or soap-boxy for lack of a better term. I want to present these things that I’m actually grappling with. I think we’re trying to grapple with some pretty big ideas and I want the audience to have the second act of the play being them grappling with these ideas that we’re presenting, whether it’s in the courtyard after the show, or at the bar, or after another show they see that informs a different version of these ideas. Ideally, I just want them to walk away talking about it. That would be my big hope for the show.
BK: Now let’s talk a little bit about you.
AM: About me?
BK: Yes, you. What propelled you into playwriting?
AM: I kind of tripped and fell into it. My friend Nathan Howe was doing a show that he had written at the Saskatoon Fringe Festival and I asked him if I could be in it. He had already cast it, so I decided I would write a play so that I could cast myself, because I wanted to do a show. I ended up not actually being allowed to be in the play because my director dropped out so I had to take over as director. Then I just started writing more. I just continually tripped and fell into things, which is the dumbest, luckiest thing in the world. I just happened to find out that I wasn’t a particularly skilled performer and my way of performing was all through literature and writing and all through trying to organize ideas as words.
I lobbied for a playwriting course in my university and I ended up doing a couple of public readings in a little reading series in Saskatoon. It was really cemented for me when I was producing Vern Thiessen’s, Vimy and I saw that he was the senior playwright at the Banff Centre. I had an early draft of Wild Dogs on the Moscow Trains and I really wanted to meet Vern, so I submitted. I ended up getting a call as we were producing Vimy saying, “Hey, here’s when you’re coming to Banff. “ At that point I realized I wasn’t going to be doing much acting anymore. I guess I was going to start writing.
BK: How did you figure out that this is where you needed to be?
AM: I think I had one of those stories that’s pretty common among artists, where you have a lot of teachers that don’t inspire you but then you have a drama teacher that does inspire you. His name is Blaine Heart and he’s a fantastic man out in Saskatchewan. He was our drama teacher but also performed in a local improv group in the city and he would perform in local plays. He was just such an inspiring guy, so great to be around, and he kind of took me under his wing. His friend from university, Jim Guido, ended up coming back and teaching in the university there. Blaine told me about Jim and said “You have to go into drama, at least just to take a class from Jim because he’s such an interesting guy,” which ended up with me taking a bunch of classes from Jim and him taking me under his wing, as well, in a different way.
BK: And how was your experience in the University of Saskatchewan’s theatre program?
AM: The theatre program was quite an academic program. You had to take a fully rounded education in the department as well as a fully rounded liberal education outside of that. The people who went to the University of Saskatchewan had a lot of freedom. We had a fully equipped black box studio and we were allowed to put on plays whenever we wanted. We could stay in the building until 2 or 3 in the morning rehearsing shows. In the time I was there I think I did twenty-four shows in four years. A lot of them were short pieces, but you just had consistent performance opportunity. I ended up doing lighting design for two shows because they didn’t have a lighting designer and I was trained on how a lighting board works. You got a really holistic sense of the theatre almost accidentally. It’s a great model of how Toronto theatre or any kind of theatre works. People always have to take a second, third, or fourth job on the production. It was a really good training example of how that all works.
BK: When did you move to Toronto?
AM: I moved to Toronto in the summer of 2012. I was working on the show The Frenzy of Queen Maeve at the Saskatchewan Playwright Centre. I had read all of Hannah Moscovitch’s plays and I saw that they were all done at SummerWorks. I knew a bunch of other playwrights at SummerWorks and I figured that I would submit. I did and was accepted. I was considering either moving to Toronto or Vancouver because the Saskatoon theatre community is somewhat small. When I got accepted into SummerWorks, I decided that’s where I was going.
BK: When did Soulpepper happen?
AM: The program began in 2013. It kept me in the city. I’m happy with Toronto. I like this city a lot.
BK: How do you find inspiration for your work?
AM: I do a lot of adaptation… sometimes from literature. In this case it’s kind of literature and non-fiction. My way into writing, especially in the last couple of years, has really been about as a playwright trying to make a case for yourself in the theatre. I’ve always said “playwrights are the only people in the world who can have a dead person do their job,” in that if you can’t make a proper case for why your show should be done, people will just do Shakespeare or Ibsen or all the thousands of dead playwrights that are out there, who don’t have to be paid and have a name cache behind them. My way in is often through (whether or not it’s an adaptation) literature or non-fiction, it’s a hat tip towards it. I can interface with these old problems or these new problems and I can make them theatrical.
BK: What’s your process when you write?
AM: Usually I’ll do a lot of structural work beforehand… plot out scenes and find major action in the scenes. I’ll often work backwards writing a play. I figure out where I want a play to get to and then sometimes I’ll have where I want it to start and I’ll just fill in the middle. Generally, it will be a bunch of work that amounts to nothing and one line or one phrase that finally does something and that’s when I’ll pick that thing up.
BK: Do you find ways to keep yourself motivated?
AM: No… If you have any I’d love to hear them.
Deadlines are the best one. There’s always an internal motivation about just wanting to create something and wanting to show something. The best motivation besides deadlines, for me, is actually having a problem that I’m grappling with. If I am being dogmatic in my writing then I just get tired of it, whereas if I’m confused about why I’m writing something then that tends to just make me start writing it to try to work it out. I’m better at working things out on the page than I am verbally. Debating with myself on the page is the best way to do it.
BK: Do you have advice for emerging artists?
AM: I still consider myself one. The best thing that I have found as an artist is to not be afraid to ask. I never met Ted before I did this show. I sent him an email asking if he wanted to direct. You can get very far just by asking. The worst that’s going to happen is that they are going to say no.
Rapid Fire Question Round
Favourite Movie: Taxi Driver.
Favourite Play: Light Shining in Buckinghamshire by Caryl Churchill.
Favourite Musical: Assassins.
Favourite spot in Toronto: East Side Riverdale Park.
Favourite Food: Good pasta.
What are you listening to: I’m getting into electronic music for the first time in my life.
Mantra/Best advice you’ve ever gotten: Quit trying to be cool, start trying to be good.
TROMPE-LA-MORT, or GORIOT IN THE 21st CENTURY
Company – Live Lobster Theatre
Directed by Ted Witzel; Written by Anthony MacMahon; Set and Costume Design by Anahita Dehbonehie; Lighting Design by CJ Astronomo; Projection Design and Sound Design by Wesley McKenzie.
An anarchist holds the world’s secrets on a hard drive. Three developers try and disrupt stagnant markets, missed connections, and freedom of speech. A venture capitalist finds his profit in the rubble. The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.
A loose adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s Le Père Goriot smashed up against Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century asking what’s the difference between terrorism and whistleblowing? What’s the difference between a human being and a start-up corporation? What is the difference between freedom and control? This digital age thriller explores what happens when your work life, relationships, and ideas are reduced to data processed in an app.
“‘After studying the world very closely, you’ll see that there are but two alternatives–stupid obedience or revolt.’ – Honoré de Balzac, Père Goriot
Anthony MacMahon, my favourite young commie playwright, has come to similar conclusions. This smart, fast, and funny play drops Balzac through the trapdoor of global capital.” – Guillermo Verdecchia
Factory Theatre Studio
125 Bathurst Street
Thursday August 4th 5:00 PM – 6:30 PM
Friday August 5th 9:00 PM – 10:30 PM
Sunday August 7th 7:15 PM – 8:45 PM
Monday August 8th 6:00 PM – 7:30 PM
Tuesday August 9th 10:30 PM – 12:00 AM
Saturday August 13th 8:00 PM – 9:30 PM
Sunday August 14th 4:15 PM – 545 PM
More Show Info:
instagram – @livelobstertheatre