Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Sunday Read: Miles Potter on Proud by Michael Healey

Michael Healey

The Play (not the controversy) Is The Thing
Michael's Shavian examination of right wing Canadian politics could be a delightful surprise.
by Miles Potter

Last year I was listening to my radio one morning in my kitchen when I heard Michael Healey's name mentioned. Now this was CBC, and while it's not totally unusual for artists to show up on the CBC, it's not usually on the national news. I tried to pay closer attention while cooking or cleaning or whatever I was doing in the kitchen; I live in the country when not away working, and I don't get newspapers so I'm often woefully out of the loop when it comes to the theatre news. But hearing Michael's name on the news made me think I'd better listen up; the report was almost over, so I only got a partial version of the story. 

So I went and booted up my steam driven (it seems) dial-up internet to see if I could find out what Michael was up to. I got an article from somewhere laying out the bones of the story; I gleaned the facts that he had written an apparently controversial play and his “home” theatre, the Tarragon, didn't want to do it. And so he had quit. Interesting. I was actually in a kind of conversation with another theatre at the time, and I suggested that this would be a great time for some theatre to step in and grab it, which was probably foolhardy as I knew virtually nothing about the play, but in any case that particular conversation went nowhere anyway. 

Yes, yes, and finally after reading it, yes.

I heard the odd bit of news about the story, but I was focused on other things, and didn't pay a lot of attention. So I was taken a bit by surprise when I received a phone call from Michael; he told me he was going to self produce, he wanted to do it early in the Fall, probably September/October, and was I free, and if so would I read it and if possible, do it?

Yes, yes, and finally after reading it, yes. We had several early meetings about some script changes I thought would be good as well as casting and design. I had not worked with Michael since the Drawer Boy, and I didn't know if his successes since then would change our relationship. In our previous collaboration, I had found Michael to be open to rewriting if you could be clear with your reasons and how it helped the play or made clearer what he was trying to say. I was relieved to find that he was still a willing collaborator and an excellent self critic. He did several drafts.

Michael said he would like to play the Prime Minister himself, but would not insist on it. I agreed he should play it. He agreed with my choice of Gillian Gallow for set and costumes, and Michael suggested Kim Purtell for lights. I readily agreed; I hadn't worked with Kim, and I like working with new lighting designers; we finished casting, which is how I ended up in a King Street rehearsal hall with two actors with whom I'd never worked - Maeve Beatty and Jeff Lillico - and two I knew well; Michael himself and Tom Barnett who had been in the original production of The Drawer Boy as well as parts one and two of Michael's trilogy, of which Proud is the third part. We had arrived at a rehearsal draft with which we were both happy to start work. We have been at work now for two weeks, and I truly believe that the piece is coming into focus. From the first time I read the play, I thought (having read up on the “controversy”) that if people came with expectations of a disemboweling of the Prime Minister, they were going to be disappointed; if they came with no expectations other than a good play, Michael's Shavian examination of right wing Canadian politics could be a delightful surprise. 

How to describe experienced actors seriously discussing the best angle to stare at someone's breasts? Or to safely have sex on a desk?

WEEK THREE: We have arrived at that stage of rehearsal: run-throughs, notes, then work through the whole play again scene by scene, run-through again, notes, until we are ready to leave the hall and move to the theatre. We continue to explore what we think  is going on in a scene; I have no problem turning to Michael, if we hit a thorny bit, and ask: “What did you hear going here when you wrote this?” and he happily obliges without stepping on the other actors' toes. The cast works together well, there is a lot of joy in the room, a lot of laughter, and I think respect, both for the process we are going through and for the play itself. We have treated it to a fair bit of examination, and I don't think at this point that we have hit any place where the structure of the play itself does not hold up. Michael has stepped in whenever we, and he, sense that a line or an intention can be made clearer or more interesting (often by making the obstacle harder; we are in no sense making this an “easy” play to perform) and I have found the dramaturgical bones of the piece becoming clearer and clearer; at the beginning I stated that my first thoughts were that he had written an unorthodox structure, that the “initial incident” occurred far later in the play than usual, and that the climax was virtually after the play was over. Sometime last week, the actors found a moment in the first scene,  and at Micheal’s urging played it full out and paused at the end of the beat. I kept running that moment over in my mind during the day off, and suddenly the structure of the play dropped into place from that moment like a skeleton suspended from a spine; the bones were evident, and it was lovely and simple and indeed, orthodox. I should have known. Michael writes complex and difficult scenes, the more fun to play and to watch, but he is a craftsman, and he would not stray that far from a classic structure. 

All of this I'm afraid sounds awfully technical and dry; and indeed, much of rehearsal is, as anyone who is not involved in a production and has tried to “observe” one has learned; but at the same time, there is something wonderfully silly about rehearsing a play that, looked at from one angle is a political examination, and looked at from another is a sex farce. How to describe experienced actors seriously discussing the best angle to stare at someone's breasts? Or to safely have sex on a desk? I should leave that to Michael Frayn, and just say that one of my main objectives is to be aware of the fact that this play, that has seemingly evoked a mighty controversy among thinking people, (and perhaps some not so thinking people) just might be swamped by the comedy. 

So far, working on Proud has been fun as well as a challenge; working with these actors has been a privilege; and getting re-acquainted with Healey the playwright has been a treat. We are at that lovely stage where our work is still our own, enclosed in the rehearsal hall, safe and cocooned, judged only by ourselves. However, we are all aware that this is a temporary state, necessary to our process, and that somewhere out there, “they” are waiting.  We wouldn't have it any other way.

The Charlebois Post has also published a wide variety of articles on the controversy surrounding Proud. Here is the index. 

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