Sunday, March 3, 2013

Sunday Feauture: Shawn Macdonald on directing Four Dogs And A Bone (Vancouver)

From left to right: Michelle Martin, Robert Moloney, Andrew Coghlan, Nadia Blanchfield

Four Dogs And A Bone: Fame, Art and Keeping It Real
by Shawn Macdonald
(photos by Gaelen Beatty)

I first saw Four Dogs and a Bone in Vancouver in 1996. It was produced by the now defunct Fend Players at a venue that is also gone called the Station Street Arts Centre and starred Nicola Cavendish. What I remember most about the production at the time was how funny it was, and how delicious it looked for those actors to play those long, funny, monologue-rich scenes.

When I was approached by Michelle Martin (who plays Collette in our production) to direct this play back in the Fall of 2012, I admit I had a mixed reaction. My first reaction was slightly cynical. When people decide to showcase their work, why do they default to American playwrights like Shanley or Mamet? Why do we look at those plays as the prime examples of "an actors play"? Why do we think that being in a play set in New York will afford us actors an opportunity to show the world that we’re good actors and they should hire us? Because we can do accents?

About a month before I got Michelle’s call I had said to my partner, “I want to direct plays.” After 20-some odd years as an actor and theatre artist, I could feel this thing being born in me: a director. (Bradley, the desperate film producer in Four Dogs says about Victor the screenwriter, “We’re witnesses to the birth of a terrible thing: a movie director). When I’d be working on a show as an actor, I found myself thinking things like, “I know what the director is trying to get out of that actor, but he’s just not expressing it properly.” This is not a very comfortable thing to have buzzing around your brain in rehearsal. It can make you frustrated and a little condescending and I didn’t like either of those things swimming around in me, so I thought I should put my money where my mouth is and direct. So I said to my partner, “It’s time to direct. And I’d like to start with something small. Something that will let me work with actors. An actors play.” When Michelle called, the second reaction that I had—the one that made my response ‘mixed’-- was that this is exactly the kind of play I said out loud to another person that I want to direct, and I felt like I had no choice but to accept that thing that I had declared I wanted and jump in.

First, I re-read the play. The story surrounds an Off-off Broadway playwright named Victor (Andrew Coghlan) who is having his first screenplay produced by a man named Bradley (Robert Moloney). Bradley needs Victor to significantly alter the script in order to meet budget. Meanwhile two actresses, Collette and Brenda (Nadia Blanchfield) want Victor to change the script to augment their roles, so that they can become the main focus of the film.

What is so beautiful about Shanley’s writing is that even though this play is a comedy about desperate people who are willing to sacrifice pretty much any shred of decency they have in order to get what they want, it still is full of strange poetry, nuance, and rich, real characters full of pain. 

I love all the contradictions swirling around this play. It’s a theatre piece about the film industry, lampooning it, satirizing it, revealing aspects of it that are unattractive. (It’s said that Shanley wrote this play based on his own experience as the screenwriter of Joe Versus The Volcano, not one of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan’s best movies.) And ironically perhaps, it’s a play widely used in scene study classes by teachers and students of film acting, and even the personnel involved in this production are all workers in the film industry, or hopefuls in that arena. I love the conversation, albeit tense, between theatre and film that the script contains. At one point Bradley says, “You work in theatre. That’s like the Outback of entertainment.” Don’t we all feel that at some point in our careers as theatre artists? That we’re some vaguely understood community of rarefied beings dabbling in some mysterious, ancient practice? How many of us have been in a taxi with a chatty cabbie who asks us what we do for a living, and we say “I’m an actor,” he asks, “What movies have I seen you in?” And then there’s that awful, awkward explanation that you’re a theatre actor? And then he stops being chatty?

Just like Victor in the play, isn’t there a point in all of our careers where we’re forced to admit that deep within us is a desperate need to be approved of, to be celebrated as an artist, or that wants to make it big, that wants to be famous? I love that this play asks that question: why do you want to be famous? Brenda, the most ambitious and driven of them all simply answers, “I don’t know.”

Do any of us know? Like Victor, as young or emerging theatre artists, we like to believe that we’re artists first, that we’re bringing integrity, and that it’s all about the work. But isn’t there also, especially when we’re starting out, a glimmer of greed, or desperation, a fantasy of fame lurking in the background that seduces us into thinking, “Well, it’s possible that I become famous. It could happen!” Don’t we all want it to? I remember practicing my Oscar acceptance speech. I’ve also got one ready for when I win the Tony for Best New Play. 

I feel pretty confident at this point in my career that I’ve worked through all of the need to be liked, and the desire for fame and recognition and have arrived at a comfortable balance between satisfaction with what I’ve accomplished and an ongoing desire to do better, to do more and to challenge myself. It hasn’t been easy. I’ve almost quit many times, and only kept going because I couldn’t think of what else I could do. I tried, but couldn’t even get hired at a call centre. Once you go through that kind of surrender, you tend to emerge with a fresh understanding of who you are as an artist, and gratitude for being able to practice, and a knowledge that yes, it is about the work. Always.

What I love about this play is that it’s about art and why we do it. And it forces all artists to ask themselves why they do what they do. That’s a question worth asking.

Until March 16

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