In Conversation with The Three Men – Matt Pilipiak, Victor Pokinko, and Scott Garland of Three Men in a Boat at the Next Stage Theatre Festival
Interview by Ryan Quinn
RQ: I’m here with Matt Pilipiak, Victor Pokinko, and Scott Garland; the three men of Three Men in a Boat. Written by Mark Brownell and directed by Sue Miner, it’s currently running as part of the Next Stage Theatre Festival, presented by Pea Green Theatre. The show is based on the travelogue by Jerome K. Jerome. Can you tell me a little more about the show?
MP: Yeah! So it’s about three bachelors living in London around the turn of the century, it was published in 1889. They’re all upper middle-class, and as the play opens they’re discussing all of the maladies they’re sure they’re ailing with. This leads them to decide to get away from the city and go take a boating trip up the river Thames. From there, it’s a series of bad camping stories, which is a kind of universal thing we can all relate to.
VP: It’s interesting because it’s around the same time as the birth of the middle class in England. So it’s around the time people start having free time. They’re no longer working non-stop, they have days off. They have a little extra money, so they start going on these vacations. What the travelogue comes out of is that the author, Jerome K. Jerome, was publishing weekly travel tips. “How to Travel,” “How to Row the River Thames With Your Friends,” that kind of thing. So he was writing these and people were coming up to him and telling him that it was hilarious. That’s when he realized that it was funny. But it started as a serious thing.
Now, we’ve taken this and made it into this play. Mark has adapted it and we’ve just run with it. We always say that it’s like a Canadian camping story. It’s set in England in 1889, but it’s such a Canadian “escape into nature” story. But, of course, they don’t know anything. So they try new things and they don’t work out.
MP: Mark adapted the piece so well. It’s not a dialogue-based book. He’s made it so active and so theatrical. With Sue’s direction, it really comes to life in an exciting way.
RQ: This is the author’s most famous work. What do you think makes it so enduring?
MP: It’s really funny, and the humour still works today. There’s something so inherently funny because everyone’s been camping at least once, especially in Canada. You think it’s going to be so beautiful and you’re going to connect with nature, and then, of course, you realize that you’re sleeping on the ground. Weather gets involved, and the food is never what you want it to be. Everyone can relate to watching these three bumbling men deal with that.
VP: Sue Miner made a comment the other day that there’s something so joyful and triumphant about doing something civilized in nature. I think the piece really plays with the bumbling and the bad times, but there are these civilized moments, like eating pie together. These few moments of civilization within the wilderness. It’s written in a way that never keeps you in one place for very long.
SG: It’s unassuming in how it presents these things. It’s not trying to preach, it’s not trying to make too many large, grand gestures. It’s very easy to relate to, and it’s very inoffensive in terms of its relation to the audience. We’ve all slept on the ground and thought, “This seemed more novel in my brain when I was in a bed. Now there’s a root in my back, one of my friends is drunk, the other one is squirmy, and the dog won’t behave”.
MP: It doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not. It starts with us acknowledging that it’s a silly re-telling of events that happened, and that’s all it is. If you’re looking for something else, you’re not going to find it here. We’re just going to have fun.
RQ: It sounds like it really skews that late-1800s pastoral genre of literature.
VP: Yes, but in some ways it’s still very pastoral. Matt’s character definitely speaks that way, but we achieve this sort of idyllic world with very little. But I agree that it goes against it in that there’s no real moral to this play. There’s no twist. You just get to live in this world for a little bit with these people.
SG: In the way that Sue and Mark have created it, it’s this lovely little time capsule. The minimalist set, the way the language describes so much of the action and the setting. You get this vivid idea of what punting up the river Thames would have been like at the time. It’s hilarious but it’s also very sentimentally sweet. It’s a beautiful love letter to a time and a place.
VP: He actually wrote this based on his honeymoon. Him and his new wife went rowing up the river Thames, but he decided people wouldn’t relate to her so it had to be him and his friends. And he invented a dog… (laughs) I mean, everyone can relate to the dog.
RQ: Tell me a bit about the costumes and the music. These other elements that drop us into the world.
MP: Nina Oken, who is our costume designer, put together three really incredible costumes. They’re simple but very elegant. You look at us and you’re right there in the 1800s. However, by the end, they’re starting to fall apart, they really tell a story of their own. Sleeves are rolled up, pant legs are rolled up, there’s some wear and tear.
For music, our music director Rigzin Tute arranged two songs into beautiful three-part harmonies. It uses a musical motif throughout the play.
VP: That really helps to build this trio. It really feels like guys who went to school together, who learned these songs. We have very little in terms of set, so the costumes and music definitely help flavour the world.
SG: It’s amazing how each element on its own tells such a story. From the direction, to the music, to the costumes. They really enhance and highlight the piece individually, but they also mesh together perfectly.
VP: Also the shoes! The shoes definitely do a lot.
SG: And the handkerchiefs. The handkerchiefs are a necessity.
RQ: This show already has a bit of a production history. How long have you been working on it?
VP: A long time! In July of 2014, we opened at the Toronto Fringe, at the Annex theatre. After that, we did the Best of Fringe up in North York. Then in November we ended up getting whisked away to Mumbai, India for a festival called Tata Lit Live. Apparently in India, they know the book very well, so they wanted a performance of this story at their literature festival. This past summer, we traveled to Ottawa, Bobcaygeon, and Winnipeg with it.
MP: This will be the eighth theatre we put this show up in. It’s very exciting.
VP: It’s starting to feel like home to come back to this piece every five or six months. We love to bring it to new people.
MP: It’s a hard show to do, so we can’t really get lazy with it. It’s a very non-stop, physically devised piece. We create the world with our bodies. So, it’s my gym membership.
VP: Then in August, we’re headed to the Edmonton Fringe.
SG: It’s such a blessing to be a part of a show that keeps returning to the stage. We’re all still relatively fresh from theatre school, and there you get into the mindset that you’ll do a standard production. You get three weeks of rehearsal, four weeks on stage, you’re done. Within that time you have such a journey as a performer, and by the end of it you always feel that you want more. Every time we come back to this, we discover so much more. I still have the same old script, and I can’t even understand some of my notes in it anymore.
RQ: At this point, you’re all very well-acquainted with the Fringe theatre festivals in Canada. What do you think the importance of these festivals is, and how can that be supported or enhanced?
MP: One of the things I love the most about Fringe festivals is that, at their core, they support bold, new work. To take a risk, and to potentially fail or potentially find something really great. It also gives you access to an audience that as an independent theatre artist is hard to tap into. Audiences go into it knowing they’re seeing new theatre, something that’s possibly still in development. It encourages people to take bold theatrical risks. I love going out and seeing a mixture of incredible shows and awful shows. It’s Kat Sandler who calls it the “Fringe Theatre Christmas”.
VP: My favourite thing about Fringe is also my least-favourite thing: it makes a big event out of theatre-going. For people who don’t see theatre throughout the year, it gives them a hundred and fifty shows to choose from in two weeks. They can explore and visit that. The flip side of that is that I wish people didn’t need a big event to go see theatre. The Fringe is a great thing, but I wish we had something like it every month. Then people would go see more of the variety of shows Toronto has to offer.
SG: I got into theatre because of the Fringe festivals that I attended. For Matt and I, the Edmonton Fringe was some of our formative theatre-seeing. We’re blessed enough to have been touring, but I love that even if you don’t tour, if you’re doing a Fringe, you’re not just dealing with Toronto artists. You’re not just dealing with the GTA. You’re meeting touring artists. You’re encountering creators from around the world, in some cases. The United States, Australia, Europe, Japan! We’ve met all kinds of crazy characters, but there’s a real sense of connectivity. You’re all trying to create theatre, which is a cultural exchange in many ways.
My biggest frustration isn’t with the festivals, but with everything around them. Next Stage is a great example of what to do next, because the hardest thing for me is going to a festival and seeing great theatre that doesn’t end up going anywhere. It hits a ceiling. This play, Mark was always saying, is something that could only be developed at a Fringe festival. No mandate would fit this particular project, and there are a lot of projects like that. People have an idea or concept they want to flesh out and in a Fringe, all the risk is on you. Beautiful things come from that, but some of those beautiful works die too soon, or they get forgotten.
Some people think that once Fringe is over, there’s not a lot going on. There is. All the time. There was somewhere around thirty openings in November. So Fringe is on the right track, but I feel like we have to pull up our bootstraps and work the rest of the time, as well. Because it’s great work of the purest form: people with nothing to lose going by their raw creativity. That’s when you see the most challenging and important work. You don’t have backers to please, and you don’t have a mandate to submit to. You just have pure creativity. That’s the starting point of a great theatrical movement. What’s next?
Three Men in a Boat
Presented by Pea Green Theatre as part of the Next Stage Theatre Festival
Playwright: Mark Brownell
Director: Sue Miner
Featuring: Matt Pilipiak, Victor Pokinko, Scott Garland
Musical Director: Rigzin Tute
Costume Designer: Nina Oken
Stage Manager: Hilary Unger
What: Venture alongside three intrepid bachelors (and their dog) as they spend a disastrous week punting up the River Thames.
A stage adaptation of the 1889 British travelogue by Jerome K Jerome
Where: Factory Theatre Studio (125 Bathurst St.)
* Talk Back after the show