Wednesday, January 8, 2014

In a Word... Amanda Barker and David Krolik on Release the Stars (Next Stage)

When Next Stage is truly the next stage
The creators of the Fringe surprise Release the Stars on the play, the Quaids and evolution
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

Amanda Barker is a Canadian Comedy Award winning actor/writer, currently nominated for a Broadway World Award as “Best Featured Actress” for her work in SPANK!  A 50 Shades of Grey Parody - which she took off-Broadway and continues to tour. Selected Theatre: Miracle on 34th The Best of the Second City (National Tour), Just for Laughs Festival (Centaur Theatre), Second City at Sea (Norwegian Cruise Lines), Shame is Right! (ArtWorks Los Angeles), Caresses (CIT/Winchester Theatre) Dufflebag (National Tour) The Nutcracker (National Ballet of Canada) The Long Weekend (Theatre Aurora) TV/Film: The Case for Christmas (Hallmark Movie), Get Set for Life (CBC), Blood Empires, Separation, Upcoming: with Christopher Lloyd in 88 Tweet: @amandaisariot Street (Theatre New Brunswick)

Daniel Krolik was most recently seen in The Snow Queen (Sudbury Theatre Centre) and Dib and Dob and the Journey Home (Roseneath), which he will be reprising at the NAC in February. Past theatre credits include: The Enchanted Crackhouse, [sic], Point of Departure, The Book of Liz, In Trousers, and Nana (Toronto Fringe – NOW Magazine Artist to Watch), Yellow Face (Hart House), Twelfth Night (Direct Flight/GromKat), Ten Green Bottles (Te-Amim, also co-adapted), Much Ado About Nothing (Dream North – Yukon Tour), Hello Again (Equity co-op/Tarragon Extra Space), Picasso at the Lapin Agile (Perimeter Institute), Romeo and Juliet and A Comedy of Errors (Repercussion Theatre – North American Tour). Daniel co-hosts the podcast Bad Gay Movies and is a graduate of Sheridan College and the University of Toronto.
CHARPO:  Though there was a lot of buzz, rumour and reality during the initial outing of the play, tell us what part of all that was real - first on how the show was created -   and then on the “characters” of the piece showing up!
BARKER: The show was created from a series of writing essays that Daniel and I had worked on over 2 years - we would get together and give each other writing assignments over coffee or lunch.  We decided we wanted to go further and create a show and we had all of these personal and character essays as our base - I think one or two remain in the piece in part today.  Then we started talking about a show. One night I read a Vanity Fair article about the Quaids by Nancy Jo Sales (the same woman who interviewed "The Bling Ring" kids) and I was completely fascinated.  I had heard about the Quaids getting kicked out of Equity from another show that I was working on in New York.  Daniel texted me one day and the text said simply "How about a show about the Quaids?".  I knew immediately, it was right.  Lastly, Daniel and I had gone through a shared experience of grief and loss and we knew that these themes and stories may also emerge. We contacted our director -  Jack Grinhaus, who directed us to get a dramaturg - which was Megan Mooney.  With her we began the process of writing a script.

When we got into rehearsal, we joked that they might come early on and we realized in our research that they had been completely out of the media for exactly a year from that point.  I thought they were holed up in a cabin in BC, Daniel thought they may be dead.  They called the Fringe box office and their name on the call display alerted the people of the Fringe that this was likely the real deal.  They showed up with their dog.  Jack told us both separately (we started the show at opposite ends of the building) and we had 5 min to deal with this new reality.  Then we did the show.  They filmed it.  They laughed, they talked to Jack throughout; remembering scenes as their lives were played before them.  Then we all went out and had a beer with them and their dog at the Fringe tent.  We asked them a million questions that we had from over a year of studying them. It was surreal.  Say what you want about them, they were both amazing artists and they completely understood and appreciated our artistry.  They were also particularly enamoured at our use of the media lens; a lens that they both had used to their advantage but that they also felt used them.  I went into shock later that night (I got really cold and I had a hard time moving my body) and had to get on a plane to Nashville as I had scheduled a trip to see my parents.  Daniel did some interviews back in Toronto as the press picked up on the story.

KROLIK: Amanda and I have known each other since 2001. We met doing children’s theatre, and instantly bonded after we both shared childhood memories of seeing Sandy Duncan in Peter Pan. Really. We remained very close through the years, working together again at the Fringe on David and Amy Sedaris’ “The Book of Liz”. While working on a Christmas gig sometime after that, we expressed our mutual desire to do a show together again. We challenged each other to write. We started writing with no particular set goal in mind. It was mostly isolated prose, and after a while we had a pretty big file of pieces. None of it was connecting and we put it aside. Then a very close mutual friend was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, very sudden and very devastating to everyone around him. He was our age, a new dad, and married to one of our very best friends. What followed was a very emotional year of treatments, diagnoses, hospices, and finally and sadly, saying goodbye. We tried to absorb what had happened to him, to his widow, and to us, tried to understand this loss. 

Not too long after (late 2010) I read the Vanity Fair article about Randy and Evi. I texted Amanda and asked her if we wanted our long aborning show to be about them. Amanda texted me back and said “Why, so I can show everyone my twat?” But she was also excited and open to the possibility, so we started. We each wrote a Randy and Evi scene. It was weird and out of our element, but something clicked.

About a year after that (these things take time), we applied for a Fringe slot and didn’t get one. Amanda persevered and we managed to secure a site specific venue to perform in – an art gallery on Queen and Bathurst. We now had a space, a festival to be a part of, and a very hard deadline. All we needed was a show.

We used everything. We dove into the story of Randy and Evi, used bits and pieces from our earliest writings, and finally managed to write about losing our friend.

People were instantly intrigued by our show because of our subject matter. It took a while for it to catch on during the Fringe run, but by the third or fourth performance we were selling out. The day of our final show, someone called the Fringe box office with the caller ID of “E. Quaid”. The caller started asking all these very specific and pointed questions about myself, Amanda, and Release the Stars. Without divulging her name, the Fringe staff surmised that the caller might be Evi. When we got to the gallery for the final performance, Kelly Straughan and Gideon Arthurs (the incoming and outgoing Executive Directors of Fringe) were already there – just in case that caller turned out to be Evi, and Randy and Evi were really in town to see our show. We weren’t told any of this. Gideon told us that he was checking up on a box office discrepancy, and I believed him.

Amanda and I had separate dressing rooms. Because of our first entrances, I changed in the basement, and she changed on the second level, just behind our stage. At our half hour call, we hugged, told each other to have a great show, and went to change. Sometime after this, Randy and Evi Quaid showed up. A decision was made to tell Amanda and me about their arrival. I was very thankful for that, because we weren’t in a theatre. We were in a gallery. No sets, no lights, no stage. Just the two of us telling our story very intimately to forty five very cramped audience members in full view. If Randy and Evi were there, we would see them right away. 

At five minutes, Jack knocked on my door and told me to sit down. He said “they’re here”. All that objectivity and compassion I had built up for Randy and Evi over the past year went out the window. I was scared, a little guilty, and went right to the worst case scenario. We never asked for permission to tell their story. I was proud of my work of course, but what if they hate us? Sight unseen, they’re going to hate us, and be very, very angry. What sort of awful scary shit have I dragged us all into?

Jack assured me everything was fine. They’re fine, he said, happy to be here, and our house manager Alex Dallas is outside looking after their dog. Of course they brought their dog. I pull myself together – kind of – go upstairs, and make my entrance through the audience. To my left is a woman standing with a video camera over her shoulder. Tan overalls, hair in a ponytail, tall, striking. Evi. She’s taping us. I see Randy on the right. He’s gigantic. He’s sitting next to Jack. Huge bushy beard and ball cap.  Amanda and I stagger our way through the first scene. As Randy, one of my first lines is “with these things, you never know who’s going to show up”. I look right at Randy and deliver the line to him. He laughs. We’re OK.

It’s a good performance. Amanda and I are connected and in control. The audience is a mix of those who have figured out who is here, and those who haven’t. They hang around after the show. They’re very excited to meet us, and Evi is sporting an “I tipped the Fringe” button on her overalls. We chat for a bit, take some pictures. Randy meets my family outside, who was in from Montreal to see the performance, and is more than happy to pose for some pictures. We stand out on the street, trading stories. We ask about Randy’s film career, Evi’s family, their life now. They ask us about our creative process and our relationship to each other. We try to think of a bar or patio where we can go with their dog. Finally we make a move to the Fringe tent. I ride up with my family, Amanda and our dramaturge Megan ride in the back of Randy and Evi’s Prius – the car that our very first scene is set in, as the Quaids flee to Canada.

We’re there until last call. They’re friendly, gregarious, and have tons of ideas about our show. At the same time, they let us know that this is our baby that we’ve created and it’s up to us how we choose to tell their story.

CHARPO:  I see you’ve got my dear colleague Megan Mooney as dramaturg. What are you doing to take the Fringe piece to the next level for Next Stage (and, shall we say, the more hard-ass critics and audiences).

BARKER: Megan has been a cornerstone of this show.  She is an excellent dramaturg.  In the first birth of the process she organized a live reading for us so that we could hear our work after we had blazed our way through so, so many pages of script.  this time around there has been much back and forth to help give this show clarity and to continue to give this show vision, while keeping its heart.  We are also transitioning from art gallery to stage and she's been an amazing help into making that transition make sense.  She's also an excellent friend.  I can't speak for the critical response as of course no-one is writing for them, but in terms of the audiences, we want to let them into our lives more and let them know about how that night unfolded (meeting the Quaids) and also to use it as a base to reflect on the meanings of the piece.  Why do we care that they came?  Ultimately - why are their lives so much more important than ours?  Why are their deaths?

KROLIK: Megan’s amazing! She’s become our highly objective eyes and ears, helping us figure out what is working and where the pieces should fit. For the Next Stage version, we are re-examining every scene, every line of our Fringe script. It’s a real luxury to go back to a piece we wrote eighteen months ago and make it stronger and tighter. The biggest change from the Fringe is we deal head on with the events of our final performance. We talk about the experience of meeting our subjects, how that made us feel, and how that changes our narrative.

CHARPO:  You are juggling several themes here which, each on its own, could be the subject of a play: media/fame, loss, a tribute to indie theatre, couplehood, madness - is there a danger of setting the bar too high in terms of content?

BARKER: Yes, it was a struggle the first time around and that struggle continues for us into this version.  Some ideas from the first show have taken a back seat to the bigger themes (we had many more references to the Stations of the Cross in one version) and Megan and Jack have been instrumental with keeping a complex script clean.  You don't get a shot at NEXT STAGE every year and we have a lot to say!  Anyone who has ever self produced knows that "madness" and "indie theatre" make happy bedfellows.  Certainly the connection between the relationship that Daniel and I share is mirrored by the relationship of Randy and Evi.  As actors we are also interested in our own "fame" and are endlessly intrigued by these stars.  In other words; many of these themes are different but they are also very much intertwined.  I think that helps us in terms of this particular piece.

KROLIK: Megan’s amazing! She’s become our highly objective eyes and ears, helping us figure out what is working and where the pieces should fit. For the Next Stage version, we are re-examining every scene, every line of our Fringe script. It’s a real luxury to go back to a piece we wrote eighteen months ago and make it stronger and tighter. The biggest change from the Fringe is we deal head on with the events of our final performance. We talk about the experience of meeting our subjects, how that made us feel, and how that changes our narrative.

CHARPO:  How do you keep a piece like this - which reads essentially as Gonzo theatre - from being merely another Fringe-style freak show…or do you?

BARKER: We don't.  Enjoy!

KROLIK: By doing the work. We’ve only got sixty minutes at Next Stage to tell an enormously complex story, one that our audience may have varying degrees of familiarity with. Our time limit forces us to be as concise and as economical as possible. We can’t waste a single moment up there. Every bit of our show – even the parts when we let our guard down and play a bit with our audience – is measured within an inch of its life and is only there to tell the story. Gonzo theatre? Sure, maybe. But it’s Gonzo theatre with a razor sharp purpose.

CHARPO: Is there life for your show after Fringe and Next - or is the nature of the piece ephemeral?

BARKER: Daniel and I have been working with a theatre academic named Sue Shawyer.  She has brought a paper on this script to both the American Theatre for Higher Learning Conference in Orlando and the American Theatre Research Conference in Dallas in the past year.  With her, Daniel and I are hosting a panel at the Canadian Theatre Conference this coming May about exploring the boundaries of the private lives of public figures in contemporary Canadian Theatre.  We will present our script in part and explore other contemporary work that seeks to do the same.  I think part of the grace of the NEXT STAGE festival is that it take a piece to its respective Next Stage and from there, we get to see what kind of new life it gets from this newer platform.  The Next Stage producers have been amazing in fostering the growth in terms of production.  So let's see how the festival goes!  I'm simply interested in seeing the new life that this festival affords this work.  We knew Next Stage was the right place for it the last time the moment the curtain went down so perhaps the breadth of this festival will, once again, point us in the right direction.

KROLIK: All we know now is that this is a show that is connecting with its audience. That’s why we are able to come back for a Next Stage run. It’s definitely a piece that will change with each incarnation, so yes, parts of it may be perceived as ephemeral. But we would love for it to continue, for our show to have a life beyond a festival setting.

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