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Posts tagged ‘Theatre Brouhaha’

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

A Chat with Alex Johnson. The Playwright Project A Year Later: Sam Shepard May 1-7th

by Ryan Quinn

Q: Here with the brilliant Alex Johnson. The Playwright Project kicked off last night to a great start. Tell me a little bit about what you’re doing with the project this year.

A: It’s the exact same format as last year with a different playwright and several different venues. We wanted to rebrand as The Playwright Project and move away from being a Tennessee Williams festival. We never had any interest in being a Tennessee Williams festival; it’s more the format, the community-mindedness, and the artistic collaboration that we were interested in. So, we rebranded as The Playwright Project and went with Sam Shepard for a number of reasons. I guess the first and most important one was that we’re all absolutely in love with him. He’s exciting, he’s a little filthy, you know, “the sacred and the profane”. There’s great music in his plays, huge amounts of live music, that awesome, bluesy, folksy stuff. There’s all that sweaty, New-York-in-the-60’s experimental theatre, but there’s also some really down-to-Earth and conventional work. So, there’s a huge variety. Also, they’re plays our generation can really sink their teeth into. They’re restless and young and urban. So, it seemed like a good fit for the people we were working with.

Q: And who are you working with this year?

A: So, we’ve got Heart in Hand Productions, who actually just did a Sam Shepard play. They did Cowboy Mouth at the Cameron House, which is also a venue that we are working in this year. Those girls are great and they were very keen to re-enter the world of Shepard and investigate a different play with us. They’re also this great team of babes doing a really masculine Shepard play, so I’m really excited about that. They’re doing Fool for Love. Peter Pasyk from Surface/Underground will be joining us, doing When the World Was Green. He was just chosen to be the 2013/14 Urjo Kareda Resident at Tarragon Theatre, so that’s amazing. Theatre Brouhaha and Red One Theatre Collective are both back on the project; they were with us last year as well. We’ll actually be working in Red One’s new venue, The Storefront Theatre, which those boys are also running. We’ve also got Alec Toller, who is more known for being a filmmaker. He’s got a film coming out called Play, that Kelly McCormack was in, and it’s about theatre. He’s doing Angel City which is very cool because it’s really film noir and cinematic, so I’m really curious to see how this filmmaker meets this live filmic piece. Natasha Greenblatt and Pomme Grenade Productions, who just did The Peacemaker at Next Stage, which was a huge hit. She will actually be doing Cowboy Mouth. Lastly, and this is really exciting, Alex McCooeye has adapted a Sam Shepard short story called Saving Fats into a play. Alex and I actually worked on his adaptation of a Poe short story about a year ago with the incredible Greg Kramer who sadly passed away a couple weeks ago. Alex is a really great writer with an amazing eye for adaptation, so I’m really excited he’s taking this adventure on. Jeremiah Sparks is in it, so, yeah, it’s going to be great.

Q: Are you doing it in the same venues as last year?

A: Yeah, so we are back in the Curzon in Leslieville. I was in there the other day and since we were in there last year, it’s been revamped into this amazingly Sam Shepard-like space. It’s the coolest. There are these white embossed animal heads on the walls, and it’s all…country. It’s so cool. It’s so cool. I walked in and I was just like “Why? This is so perfect. This is touched by God”. We’re also back in the Magic Oven. The interesting thing about that space is that once the Project is done for this year (although we’re already vamping up for next year), I’m partnering up with Tony at the Magic Oven to turn that downstairs space into an actual year-round, multi-disciplinary performance space. Tony has built a full kitchen and bar in the back, so it’s going to be fully operational by the fall. I will be managing and programming everything in that space. I mean, there’s not a lot like that out there on the Danforth. You have the Fraser Rehearsal Studios, the Danforth Music Hall, you’ve got the Red Sandcastle, but it’s significantly more south. We’re really going to try to engage with the Danforth community and be a new place where culture can happen. It’s really exciting. We have not confirmed a name for the space yet. We jokingly call it The Tragic Oven.

Q: That sounds horrible, haha. That’s a horrible name.

A: I know! We’re just going to program Greek tragedies. So, yeah, we’re back there. I think everything else is new. We’re at the Storefront; we’re at the Cameron House…oh! The Cameron House is partnering with us this year to be the post-show hub every night. So at the Cameron House every night at 10pm, Cameron House records and our director of music Gaby Grice have co-curated a whole line-up of Shepard-y music in that bluesy, folksy, rock and roll cowboy vein. So, every night at 10pm, a whole different lineup of Shepard-y music at the Cameron House. So, that’s going to be a blast. We’re also in some other great spaces, the May Café in Little Portugal, Lazy Daisy’s in The Beach, Annette Studios in The Junction. I’m really excited about the venues.

Q: Now, sometimes you call it a project, and sometimes a festival. It also kind of seems to walk a line close to being a repertory season. Where is that line?

A: It’s so funny that you bring that up. We were just talking about this last night, actually, that the language that we use needs to be paid close attention to because the end result is festival-like but the process is not. The process is much more collaborative and about the seven companies as well as the administrative body supporting each other as opposed to them working independently of us until show time like you would for Fringe or Summerworks. So, the process is much more, as our initial vision from last year stated, about creating a tighter-knit community of artists who work toward one communal goal together. In that regard, I don’t think you could call us a festival.
I like what you said about thinking of it almost as a repertory season. It’s like a really fast, really intense repertory season that goes down. If I can find a more succinct way of phrasing that, I might steal it from you for next year. I actively avoided calling it a festival last year, but the language sort of just became easier to use. People understood more what the end result was, what May 1-7 would be. But, yeah, I think I want to go back next year, for 2014, and re-examine what we call ourselves.

Q: Do you feel like the community has gotten more tight-knit since the festival last year?

A: Yeah, I mean, I don’t think we’ve changed the theatre scene. I think what Playwright Project has served to do is broaden many of our artists’ connections and resources. They now know, in some cases, almost a hundred new people that they can access in the community and that they can share with. The thing is, though, everybody works differently. Everyone has their own process. Some are more about reaching out and bringing people into the fold, and some people are much more isolated. One is not better than the other. Some people work better in isolated think-tanks, and some work better with an “it takes a village” mentality. So, I wouldn’t qualify the festival as being some giant community. What I know it is, is an opportunity to access things that you wouldn’t be able to access otherwise. And you’ve got a really strong support system under you. So, like, the Playwright Project team and I are here to handle the things that could take away from your artistic focus and clarity of vision. We are here to enable you to do what you want to do.
But, in the bigger picture of things, is the Toronto community getting tighter? Yeah. I think it is. I think I see things changing and I see the grassroots stuff growing and I see people reaching out more.

Q: What have you learned since last year that’s been implemented this year?

A: It’s so funny. We were talking last night about how at the end of last year we went “Oh alright, we know what to do now. We know now. We get it now. We got it”. And now it’s coming up to the end of the rehearsal period and I’m like “Oh wait. I still don’t know anything”. What have I learned? I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned that people want to help. People want you to call them up and present them with an idea and a way they can get involved. I’ve also learned a lot of practical things. I’ve learned how to rent a van and how to hang a piece of black fabric. I’ve learned a lot about Equity and the new agreement and the festival waiver.
I have learned that it is very important, whether you’re an arts institution, or an organization, or a collective, or an individual artist, every project and every endeavour needs to have a personality. It needs to know what it is and have a clarity of what it’s doing. When our logo started going into development and our amazing graphic designer Lisanne Binhammer was sending us sheets of proposals, picking it was remarkably hard because we didn’t yet have that seed of exactly as an organization, what our personality was. As the logos started to come in, I started to see it. Started to visually see what we look like on paper, and it helped us to better understand what we are. We’re this scrappy, spirited group of young people, and trying to fight it and become something more polished is not helpful. I was at the Shakespeare in the Ruff gala and they know so well who they are as an organization. They have such a specific sense of humour and how they put themselves out into the world is so clear. I’m becoming more and more aware of how important that is. I mean, I guess, in simple words: branding. The importance of branding. You can’t engage people if you don’t know who you are. You can’t get them on your team if you don’t know who that team is.

Q: Looking into the future, in five years, where would you like to see the project?

A: There are a lot of internal things I would like to see change. Just in terms of, you know, office space. Things that would make the daily practical work easier. I think much of our personality is that every year, we’re going to be different. Last year was Tennessee Williams, and this year is Sam Shepard and there are cowboy hats everywhere and the music at the Cameron House. If it’s Ibsen (and it won’t be, but hypothetically), if it’s Ibsen, the personality of that week in May will be entirely different. Instead of having music at the Cameron House, we might have…sad Norwegian poetry nights. Every year there will be a different flavour to what we do.

Q: An atmosphere?

A: An atmosphere, yeah! And secondary programming will arise from that, and different people we can work with will arise from that. Different things these neighbourhoods can engage with and see that they wouldn’t normally. I want to be surprising people five years down the road with what we do. I don’t want to sit still too long. As I said, we’re already in talks for next year, and it will be surprising. I can tell you right now, the format will not be changing, but some things will be and it’ll surprise you. You’ll like it.

The Playwright Project: Sam Shepard runs May 1st-7th
For show listings check out our complete Toronto Theatre Listings page.
For exact venue schedule and ticket purchase go to The Playwright Project’s website!