Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sunday Feature: TJ Dawe on directing Never Shoot a Stampede Queen

Pinning Pages
by TJ Dawe

TJ Dawe is a Vancouver based writer/performer/director/dramaturge. He's participated in more than 100 theatre festivals. He's been involved, in one way or another, in the creation of 30 or so plays. One of them has been made into a movie starring Daniel Radcliffe. Another one has been touring the world for 10 years. Seven have been published.

I’m in Kamloops. Directing the premiere of a solo show. Adapted by Mark Leiren-Young from his memoir Never Shoot a Stampede Queen. It tells the story of his first journalism job, as a reporter for the Williams Lake Tribune in 1985. 

Mid-wifing this show is bringing to mind something I once read about P.G. Wodehouse. I’ll get to that in a bit. 

If you don’t know where Williams Lake is, don’t worry. Neither did Mark, when he got the job. The opening line of the show is “Where the hell is Williams Lake?” It’s in Northern BC. It’s a mill town, population 13 000. 

Mark worked there for a year. He went in with the brash attitude of any city-bred 22- year old university graduate, thinking this job would be a stepping stone to a real reporting gig, at a real newspaper in a real city. That goal did actually come to fruition - Mark has written for many major newspapers and magazines since then (he’s currently the head theatre writer for the Vancouver Sun). Not to mention writing scads of songs, sketches, plays, screenplays, teleplays, biographies and autobiographies (he has a memoir coming out this week, titled Free Magic Secrets - about a disastrous magic show he and two friends put on in their late teens). But in less than a year of arriving in Williams Lake he grew to value the place and the people who lived there. Against all probability, he found himself sticking his neck out to help form a Union at the newspaper, in spite of physical threats and the easy out of an already secured better job in Vancouver. 

So day after day, Ryan and I have been rehearsing, with a paid, professional stage manager and a design team.

Never Shoot a Stampede Queen was published as a memoir in 2009. I read it and loved it - particularly the Union story, which is one of several threads in the book. It went on to win the Leacock Medal for Humour. Mark and I have been working on turning it into a one person show for a few years now. So I’ve been dramaturging as well as directing. Is that what a dramaturg does? I offer feedback. Ask for a new draft. And another one. And how about these changes? Maybe this aspect of the story would be clearer if you added these things and removed these and switched these around and set this up earlier. 

Many drafts later, it’s about to go up. In Kamloops, at Western Canada Theatre, in their studio space: the Pavilion Theatre. Ryan Beil plays the young reporter, along with every other character. Zachary Stevenson will take over the role when it comes to the Arts Club Granville Island Stage in Vancouver, mid-May. 

We’ve had two full weeks of paid rehearsals, and now we’re going into our final week, adding all of the technical elements. This is an unbelievable and delightful luxury to me, as I’m used to squeezing in rehearsals whenever and wherever I can (unpaid), and I’ve trained myself to devise touring shows you can set up and strike in five minutes, that take an hour or two to tech. 

So day after day, Ryan and I have been rehearsing, with a paid, professional stage manager and a design team. Mark came up for a few days last week, and he’ll be here for previews and opening. Initially I wasn’t sure what we’d do with so much time. Mark and I had already worked with Ryan on this show a year and a half ago, in a new script workshop series at the Arts Club in Vancouver. Ryan runs with a piece of direction pretty quickly. Mark’s equally speedy with a rewrite. Give him notes on Monday night, there’ll be a new draft in your inbox before you wake up on Tuesday. 

So we’ve been rehearsing. Six day weeks. And that’s where P.G. Wodehouse comes in. 

Douglas Adams wrote an introduction for a posthumously published unfinished Wodehouse novel. This intro was collected in the posthumously published collection of short Douglas Adams pieces, The Salmon of Doubt. In it, Adams describes a part of Wodehouse’s creative process. He’d write a story (or chapter), and then pin the pages of it around the walls of his office, each piece of paper at the height of his desk. Then he’d take the various pages down as he worked on them. He’d pin a page higher on the wall depending on how much he’d improved it. When every page was at a certain height, the story was ready.

Every day, with every rehearsal, with every new draft, some aspect of the show gets pinned that much higher on the wall. 

That scene got pinned higher still.

In one sequence, the protagonist reporter character gets stopped on his way into the Williams Lake Stampede - one of the biggest rodeos in the world - for not wearing Western Style Dress, as his press pass mandates. He’s stopped by what’s described as a “Monster Cowboy,” who later takes down a big drunken bruiser who’s picking fights and laying people out at a barn dance. Ryan played Monster Cowboy with a deep, menacing voice. That totally works, but what if he had an unexpectedly high voice, I wondered in one run through, like Mike Tyson? Ryan ran with that direction, and now his rendition of the giant cowboy with a whiny Mickey Mouse voice is one of my favourite elements of the show. That scene got pinned that much higher that day. 

In another scene, the reporter gets rescued from his editor’s drunk and younger sister at a barbecue by the paper’s staff photographer, a blonde pixie. They go to one of the two movie theatres in town to see if any of the local cowboys will show-up in fish-net stockings and a corset for a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In the script, Mark specified the Time Warp play as a sound cue after the brief dialogue between the reporter and the photographer, in which she finds out that the boss’s sister’s flirtation consisted of recommending the reporter beat up the editor, her brother: “he’ll respect you for it...” The photographer’s relief that Mark wasn’t about to take advantage of younger sis signifies a bit of romantic possibility between those two characters. Then the Time Warp plays and we move to the next scene. In one rehearsal, we came up with the idea of having the two characters actually do the time warp after their dialogue, as a button on the scene. Nice. That scene got pinned that much higher. 

Later I had an idea which I honestly didn’t think would work. What if the dialogue happened as they danced the Time Warp? Could Ryan do the Time Warp as two characters, much less two characters talking to each other? How would the movements of the Time Warp animate the flirtatious subtext of their dialogue? Probably wouldn’t work, but what the hell. Let’s at least try it. Ryan did it, and dammit, that’s probably my favourite moment in the show now. That scene got pinned higher still. 

Those are two examples. There are many, many more. 

The day the backdrop was painted and hung, every scene in the show was pinned higher. Then the set was built. Same thing. 

I’ve had several work sessions with Cayman Duncan, our sound designer, and a friend from many years of Fringe festival touring. We’re adding sound effects, ambience, underscoring, and sounds that are integral to certain scenes and moments. Each one gets pinned higher. 

Same with the lighting design. Same with the costume design. 

Soon this baby will be ready to slide out of the womb.

Mark added a few lines when he was here last, lines that aren’t in the book. He said they’re now his two favourite lines in the show. Pin. Pin. 

Every day there are surprises. Every day there are improvements. Every day things get pinned higher. 

The final ingredient is the audience. It’s a shame that the standard director’s gig ends on opening night. I like seeing a show grow organically, as the actor relaxes into it after the responses of people seeing and hearing the story for the first time helps them rediscover it, find the jokes funny again, see the shape of the narrative. With every audience, the thing gets pinned higher. 

But then there’s Vancouver, and new discoveries to be made with the alchemy of a new actor, and a new space. And there’s whatever productions the future holds in store for this piece. 

This same process absolutely applies to published, established plays. But there are more variables in a brand new script, especially with a writer who’s not only flexible enough to rewrite for what’s working and what could be improved, but eager to do so. 

Opening night is imminent. But in spite of the longer hours, and the inevitable stress and saturation that comes before the audiences are added to the mix, I’m looking forward to it. Soon this baby will be ready to slide out of the womb. This beautiful, soft, round, wide-eyed story will emerge, kicking and giggling into the world. We’ll all hold and coddle and nuzzle and delight as it laughs and makes us laugh and takes its first steps. And then I’ll pick him up and tell him how much I’ve always loved him, hoist him up, and pin him to the ceiling. 

Never Shoot a Stampede Queen
Western Canada Theatre in Kamloops, B.C.
April 18-May 4

Also at The Arts Club, Vancouver
May 9-May 25

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