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Posts tagged ‘Pandemic Theatre’

In Conversation with artist Tom McGee on Being a Dramaturge, Collaborating with Kat Sandler and Embracing His Own Style as Playwright & Director with FEATHERWEIGHT at the Fringe

Interview by Megan Robinson.

Tom McGee is a story nerd, with a resume to prove it.

Behind every hit Theatre Brouhaha show has been McGee, working as the diligent dramaturge alongside playwright Kat Sandler. He has been there helping her craft the hilarious, dark and punchy scripts we’ve all come to expect from this ambitious company.

With their newest production, Featherweight, McGee is swapping places with Sandler. While McGee steps into the roles of writer and director, Sandler is working as both producer and dramaturge.

Featherweight is a dark comedy that promises to be as relevant as your Facebook feed and to prompt your most heated post-show debates (did you see Bang Bang?), remaining faithful to the Brouhaha mandate of creating theatre for the Netflix generation.

Brouhaha’s fast-paced shows speak to what is in the zeitgeist; this is a company that understands it is competing not only with other theatre but with all digital content. And the company has a creative process that moves as quick as their dialogue. In this age of content, it’s important to McGee that each show gets put on stage quickly, while the story is still topical. Rather than two years of development, a Brouhaha show gets more like two months (the script will get a little longer). Concerning the longevity of this style of theatre, McGee believes that it’s the memory of the play and the experience of the audience that matters more than it’s potential success in the unlikely event of a remount. Plus, at the rate Sandler and McGee can whip up a script, McGee would sooner come up with a new show that can speak to what is happening in the current moment anyway.

I got to speak with Tom to get his thoughts on the struggles of dramaturgy and learning to embrace his own writing style.


On Working with Brouhaha and Kat Sandler

Tom McGee: I’ve worked in some capacity on all of Kat’s scripts, with the exception of her long-forgotten piece Dirty Girls, which she did in the Fringe. Even Mustard and Bang Bang; I was a consulting dramaturge on both of those. Often Kat will hire me on the side because Factory and Tarragon will have their own dramaturges (who are excellent) but I’ve been working with Kat so long that our short-hand is so good. She can basically call me up and be like, “You know that thing I’m always worried about? This scene.” And I’ll be like, “Oh ya, I see what you’re talking about – how about this, this, this, and this?” And she’ll be like, “Great! Thank you! I needed that.”

As a Dramaturge, If You’re Doing Your Job Right, You’re Invisible

TM: Tom Arthur Davis, one of the guys who runs Pandemic Theatre, wrote a really interesting piece around the Dora Awards about depression and dramaturgy, “Being Nominated For An Award Made Me Suicidal,” and it’s pretty intense, but he touches on something about dramaturgy that I’ve certainly struggled with. It’s the same thing that a good editor will encounter on a film or in a novel which is; the job is to make the writer’s work as good as the writer’s work can be, and there isn’t a ton of credit in that. Aside from the writer’s indulgence at the end of the novel, that everyone usually skips, where the writer will say, “Oh my god, I can’t fucking describe how much I need my editor”, and everyone goes, “I don’t know who that is but I loved your book!”

Dramaturgy can often be that way and I struggled with that for a long time.

Kat and I are very dear friends, and she’s always been very appreciative of what I’ve done, but the first Brouhaha show we did was very, very tough.

I was producing it, and I dramaturged it, and I was a ghost. At the time I was hell-bent on being an actor, and I just helped make this company, and my name was all over the show, but I felt completely invisible. And it was really hard.

For me what ended up really helping was getting an art therapist. What I’ve been working on with her, which has been tremendously helpful, is unpacking those feelings of invisibility and how to accept personal credit when there isn’t necessarily big, flashy, showy credit. It’s definitely a struggle. Every part of the arts comes with a cost and I think this is the big one for dramaturgy.

Tom Arthur Davis summed it up in his piece, something along the lines of, your job is basically to facilitate other people’s brilliance… and that’s cool, and there’s huge satisfaction in that. Like when I can make one of Kat’s pieces click, which is what we call it: the click. It’s that moment where she’ll be like, “Great, got it, thanks,” and then she hangs up and goes and punches out like a billion pages. That feels tremendously satisfying.

Photo Credit: John Gundy. Michael Musi as Jeff in FEATHERWEIGHT

On Swapping Roles With Sandler

TM: Honestly, we’re both nerds for story so this is has always been both a job and a hobby for us. The number of times that we’re like, “Okay, we’re both really stressed. Let’s just go out and get a drink and not talk about this,” and then, of course, we end up talking about it because it’s fun!

Early on the struggle that Kat was having working as my dramaturge was she’d say, “I’m always going to try to make your script more like my scripts.” And in my head, I’m thinking Thats fucking great, your scripts are great. Let’s do that! So we had a few, not necessarily growing pains, but I had to adjust to being a little more assertive about my style and what I actually liked about my script.

I had a reading of what was supposed to be the production Featherweight script, right before we were about to go into rehearsals and it was rough. A lot of the criticisms, all fair, where people were kind of being like, “Is this what you were trying to say?” and, no one had said it outright, but it was a lot of that classic, “It’s very interesting” and I was like, “Oh shit, no one likes this…”

So I’m on the subway on the way home and Megan Miles, my wife, was like, “Do you even like this play anymore”? And I was like, “No, actually… I fucking hate it.”

I was writing some short story at the same time that was just completely bonkers and I was like, “I like this short story! It’s fun. But this play is so weighed down, and I don’t know what to do… blah blah blah.” Just admitting that got me thinking that I needed to re-write it the way I would like it to be, and suddenly it all just clicked into place! What is funny is this draft of Featherweight that’s onstage now is actually closer to the very first draft I wrote. It’s come completely full circle. Even though the characters are different, and their arguments are different, and what’s going on is kind of different, it feels more like the original because that’s when I was expressing the style I actually wanted.

Because I look up to Kat and I like Kat’s style so much I took every note as gospel. You know, my style is strange, and Kat and I have a similar tone but a different style, so I had to kind of grab hold of my own style harder for this show. Which she, again, had been advocating for the whole damn time, but just not necessarily in terms I was understanding.

Photo Credit: John Gundy
L-R: Kat Letwin as Thoth, Michael Musi as Jeff, Amanda Cordner as Anubis in FEATHERWEIGHT

A Very Brouhaha Directing Process

TM: We always work our stuff on its feet and what is on stage is wildly different than what I went in with on the first day of rehearsal. We’ve cut a bunch, we’ve changed some things, we’ve tailored it to the performers, but I’ve never run that process. I’ve always dramaturged that process, Kat’s always been the leader of that. So at first, I wasn’t sure if I could do that myself. But despite how different I am as a director and a writer, ultimately the rehearsal style ended up still being a very Brouhaha process.

That Brouhaha Style 

TM: What’s been really nice is that even just from the reviews no one has been like, “Oh this is really different from a normal Brouhaha show.” Everyone’s just taking it as a Brouhaha show, which means a lot to me. It has been many, many years, and it’s very nice to put my name and style to one of these things and have audiences respond to it in a way that I would hope for. I’ve been thinking about these audiences for a long time.

Making the Job Work for You

For me, the solution was to find ways to keep working on my own style to fill in the gaps. In this case, it was writing short stories and basically just doing things that, even if they don’t really have wide reach, they fill that need for me to be creating and developing my own voice.

I love dramaturgy. I don’t think I could make it my only output, but that’s also just me. I’ve got a really restless brain and on the one hand that’s great for dramaturgy because I always like to be chewing on something, but if I’m only chewing on other people’s stuff I tend to get restless, so it works as long as I have multiple things to sink my teeth into.

Featherweight

Who:
Director – Tom McGee
Cast – Amanda Cordner as ANUBIS
Michael Musi as JEFF
with Kat Letwin as EVERYONE ELSE
and Ammit as THE DEVOURER OF HEARTS
Producers – Kat Sandler, Tom McGee

What:
Upon dying, Jeff awakes in a bar full of ancient gods that will weigh his browser history against a feather to determine if he was a good person… or face damnation. Equal parts ‘American Gods’ and ‘Twelve Angry Men,’ FEATHERWEIGHT asks: what effect does our online life have on others? Will Jeff’s browser history damn him? Would it damn you? From the minds behind BRIGHT LIGHTS (NNNNN) and SHAKEY-SHAKE AND FRIENDS (NNNNN)

Where:
THE PADDOCK TAVERN
178 Bathurst Street
Toronto
Ontario

When:
12th July – 8:00pm
13th July – 8:00pm
14th July – 8:00pm
15th July – 8:00pm

Tickets:
Featherweight is SOLD OUT online but you can always show up early at the venue and try your luck at the door!

 

Photo of Tom McGee by James McKay

“Universalism vs Pluralversalism and Exploring Voice” In Conversation with Jivesh Parasram & Tom Arthur Davis on THE ONLY GOOD INDIAN at SummerWorks

Interview by Brittany Kay

Jivesh Parasram, Tom Arthur Davis and Donna-Michelle St. Bernard are three incredibly talented theatre creators and performers. Each have their own unique and important voice, which they bring to The Only Good Indian running at this year’s SummerWorks Performance Festival. We sat down with Jiv and Tom to discuss the major narratives and ideas explored in this piece: identity, occupation and personal history.

Brittany Kay: Tell me a little bit about your show.

Tom Arthur Davis: It’s hard to talk about without giving things away about it.

Jiv Parasram: Uh… fuck. Our tagline is “part lecture, part meditation, part threat.”

BK: Yes and what does that mean?

JP: Can’t tell you too much about it.

(Laughter) 

JP: It’s roughly half pre-written material that deals with issues of occupation, colonization (and decolonization, depending on your angle of it) and some pretty dense political theory, but told in a pretty interesting way. It’s specifically about the lives that we value and the lives that we don’t. The other half of it is written by the performer who’s doing it that night through a series of guided prompt questions that ask them to mine parts of their own living experience and identity. People play a version of themselves, I would say, and there is a spectrum of that depending on who is doing it, some of it is a little bit more autobiographical, some is less. If that makes sense?

BK: That makes sense. Do you want to add anything Tom?

TAD: Yeah, it’s also a pluralversal exercise, to show that many parts make the whole, specifically in regards to, I guess, what we are calling “Indianhood” and what that means. Where are we indigenous to who are the Indigenous people where we are now and how do we try to find some sort of empathy or connection.

JP: It’s kind of how you find your way into the story. A lot of it has to do with how you experience homogenous otherness, or that you witness it, or that you’ve felt it on yourself. Tribalism is part of that, where you associate with and where you don’t.

Pluralversal is not a term many people are waxin’ around with.

BK: No…

JP: It’s a bit of an antithesis to universality.

BK: Expand on that.

JP: The principal of universalism means that there is one universal truth and often that tends to just be the dominant way of thinking about that. Often it’s a Eurocentric kind of truth related to structures of power that have been there a long time. But Pluralversal thinking comes from like Zapatista philosophy […] there are multiple universes and multiple universal truths all informed by different cosmologies too, so different ways of thinking about the world. Those all come together to make up a whole truth and they don’t always have to agree, so it’s not binary.

BK: Very interesting.

JP: So that’s why we are getting different people to do it and look through it. Hopefully through that we will, maybe, find some commonalities with it. I don’t know. We’ll find out!

BK: Where did this idea first come from to create this show? What was the inspiration behind this work?

JP: Basically, I spent five years researching the politics of death… and that kind of fucked me up, like real bad. Then I started writing a couple of different pieces all dealing with it […] I wrote this piece, a piece called The Only Good Indian, which got published by Playwrights Canada Press in a ten-minute anthology. Which was different from what we are doing. That’s a two-hander play where some of the themes are still there.

It was based on an article about liquidity and identity in South Asian males in the U.K during the War on Terror, where it was saying that there are fewer options and representation for them. The twist of it was that they were identifying with these terrorists back ‘home’, talking about Pakistan and India but one is from Guyana and one is from Trinidad, so they are not actually from there but they have still internalized it. Then we got accepted to the Rhubarb Festival to expand it, which was the original idea. We were trying to figure out an interesting way to do that. There was so much going on at that time in the world.

TAD: That Turkish ambassador was assassinated in Russia and we just thought that the piece would be about a standoff between two brown guys wearing vests, one being a cop wearing a bullet proof vest and the other with a suicide vest on and he’s trying to talk him out of it. We didn’t know if it would make sense to have a South Asian body wearing a suicide vest in a naturalistic context for this Rhubarb performance after that had happened.

JP: It just seemed like it was supporting the mainstream narrative to a certain point. The central theme that I had trouble with, was saying that I can’t ever represent one voice on this. I asked Tom to do it with me and we came up with a process for writing somewhat different but related pieces. I think it was super brave of Tom to do it…

TAD: Oh shucks.

JP: …because, you know, if I’m in a piece that’s called The Only Good Indian versus if Tom is, it’s going to be differently received just off the bat.

BK: Totally. Let’s talk about the different voices in this piece. You have Donna Michelle St. Bernard also speaking the same text?

TAD: Some of it. The pre-written part yes and the other half depends on the performer and what they write based off of the given prompts. It’s quite different hearing different bodies saying the text that each of us share in the show. You will get a different reaction to what Jiv is saying than if I’m saying it, whatever that reaction might be, positive or negative, for either of us.

JP: The first line of the play is “Can I say Indian?” which is quite different when I say it, versus when Tom says it. It’s an interesting thing to have to mitigate. We had a lot of discussions about how to do that, trying to figure out how to not make an audience shut off.

BK: What kind of reactions do you want from audiences? I heard there were some people walking out at the Rhubarb performance. Is that what you want?

TAD: No, we don’t want that. We want them to listen.

JP: And a negative reaction is valid too. We understand why people might want to walk out, but I think that if people can listen, the intention is to get them to rethink some of these perceptions towards identity. The SummerWorks performances will all be followed by long table discussions, which is one of the things that we didn’t have at Rhubarb, that ability to talk to the audience. We couldn’t talk to them beyond just chatting with them after if we saw them.

TAD: Also very few people at Rhubarb saw both performances to see the differences between them and see what that means.

BK: So it’s advantageous for audiences to see all three performances at SummerWorks?

JP: Absolutely, it’s a different show each time. I think it would be cool. Even if some of the text is the same, it’s radically different depending on what has preceded it and what follows it. The meaning can change.

BK: Why is it important for audiences right now to see this show?

JP: For me, it’s for the politics of representation right now. If there was going to be a central lecture in this piece it would be discussing the division of what we are calling a “Death World/Life World” perception. There are parts of the world where it’s expected that people live and parts of the world where it is expected that they die. Our tolerance for death is different depending on where you’re at. I think part of it is the debate of appropriation right now, which I think comes from not having any connection or knowledge of your own story. People have all sorts of histories that they need to mine.

TAD: My piece is about losing that sense of identity and being white washed quite literally.

BK: What about Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s?

JP: She’s talking about Grenada. She has a very different spin on occupation. She’s really running with the material and basing it a lot off of setting up the lectures. She doesn’t go directly for something, but has this articulate, subtle way of talking around it. A big factor of hers has to do with success and choice. Accepting and loving certain labels that have been colonially put on you, but then acknowledging how fucked up those labels might be.

BK: I want to see how all three collectively intersect!

TAD: Eventually the hope would be that we could have a different performer every night, not just three. Put it out into the ether and then people could just do their own.

JP: We would like to be able to tour and just show up somewhere and be like, “We would like to employ seven of your local artists.” It’s more interesting to me that way.

BK: What do you want audiences walking away with?

JP: I want them to engage in the conversation. Maybe rethink some of their perceptions.

TAD: It’s hard to say, because we are three different performers. What do we want them coming out with from my piece or Jiv’s or DM’s? If they see all 3 then they are getting the pluralversal idea. Some pieces might make you angry and some might make you reflect and others might make you need to talk about something. It will really differ.

BK: Do you have other SummerWorks shows you’re excited to see?

TAD: Explosions for the 21st Century.

JP: I also want to check out The Chemical Valley Project. There is the Amy project Almeida (The Glorious).

TAD: Boys in Chairs.

JP: The Smile Off Your Face, very curious about that. The Archivist.

BK: It’s a very good year! Anything else we need to know?

JP: The only thing I would say is that some of the content we do can be pretty disturbing and we’re in discussions right now about what warnings we need to put up and also to let people know that they can leave and we won’t be offended. It can be pretty heavy. It also will be different for each show, so if people want to write to me and say I need to know what I’m walking into, I’m happy to write to them and give them a heads up and let them know what they are going to see.

The Only Good Indian

Who:
Company: Pandemic Theatre
Project Design by Jivesh Parasram
Co-Created by Jivesh Parasram, Tom Arthur Davis, and Donna-Michelle St. Bernard

The listed run time includes a 30 minute Long Table Discussion that will take place after every performance.

What:
Part lecture, part meditation, and part threat, The Only Good Indian takes a shockingly raw look at where our similarities begin and where they end. Each night a different performer straps themselves into an extreme situation – forcing the audience to ask – what would you die for?

Where:
Factory Theatre Studio
125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, ON

When:
Friday August 11th 8:45pm – 10:00pm
Saturday August 12th 9:00pm – 10:15pm
Sunday August 13th 3:30pm – 4:45pm

Tickets:
summerworks.ca