This blog series takes you behind-the-scenes of the world premiere of The Canadian at the Thousand Islands Playhouse.
Entry #1 is from playwright Jason Hall.
“Getting the sardines on – getting the sardines off. That’s farce. That’s the theatre. That’s life.” – Noises Off, Michael Frayn
It’s rare you can pinpoint the exact moment when things change completely. But Gmail helps. And my Gmail tells me that at 11:53am on October 9th 2015 my entire perception of myself as a playwright flipped on its head. Because that’s when I received an email politely declining a play I had submitted to a particular theatre accompanied by the suggestion that, instead of all the oh-so-serious doom-and-gloom I’d been writing, maybe I could instead try writing something funny…like a farce?
I probably should have been insulted. Instead, I was excited. Here’s what I wrote back:
“A new farce—now there’s an interesting idea! Writing a successful farce is essentially the Mount Everest for any playwright. But…I do like a challenge…”
Okay. I know. It sounds desperate. It was desperate. We artists are vulnerable and needy creatures, hungry for approval. When someone in a position of power suggests we do something it’s hard to ignore it. After all, that email was an invitation, right? Sure, that theatre was rejecting the thing I sent to them but I wasn’t going to focus on that. I was going to focus on the throwaway comment they made at the end of the rejection. They were asking me to write a farce! Practically begging me. A door was being opened. The very least I could do was stick my head around to see if I liked what was inside.
So, I decided to read a farce to see exactly what I was getting so excited about writing since, really, I had no idea what a farce was. And the farce I decided to read was a little play called Noises Off by (multi-award winning British playwright) Michael Frayn.
‘Turns out, Noises Off is more than a farce. It’s a farce inside a farce. A play within a play. It’s meta. A bit like how Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy sees The Murder of Gonzago nestled inside Hamlet.
Frayn’s play was both an excellent and a disastrous choice for self-education. Excellent because it was a hilarious dissection of farce’s conventions highlighting everything that was wonderful and absurd about the genre and, indeed, the theatre itself. And it was disastrous because it was a hilarious dissection of farce’s conventions, highlighting everything that was wonderful and absurd about the genre and, indeed, the theatre itself.
Noises Off is quite simply the perfect comedy. Just reading it made me actually, literally laugh out loud. Later, when I eventually saw it on stage, I experienced near-fatal face-ache from the sheer joy of its intelligent silliness, its orchestrated chaos. It is the farce to end all farces, simultaneously belittling all those that came before it and rendering as impossible any that would seek to follow it.
Choosing this play as my primer was like studying Picasso’s Guernica to learn how to paint or listening to Bootylicious by Destiny’s Child to learn how to sing. I was never, ever, going to create something that good. So there was only one thing to do: steal from it.
And steal I have! The physical comedy, the characters from the world of theatre, the duplicate props…you name it, I stole it and put it in my play. But not just from Noises Off. From everywhere. The plot of The Canadian was conceived during the summer of 2016 when I was a Visiting Artist at the Thousand Islands Playhouse. That summer I was an Assistant Director on Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods and Stuart Lemoine’s A Grand Time in the Rapids, all of which I have mercilessly pillaged for my own purposes to create The Canadian. If you’ve seen these productions, you can play a kind of bingo with my play: “Now, where have I seen that swing door before?” or “Haven’t Tarot cards featured in something else I saw here?”
The thievery doesn’t stop there. In fact, my biggest artistic heist comes from the home of the Playhouse itself: Gananoque. Yes, I confess, this lovely and loving little town which has shown me nothing but the warmest of welcomes has been subject to this playwright’s smash-and-grab antics. I’ve pinched so much from Gananoque, I can barely remember it all. Whether it’s the tension over lakeside property developments, the complex relationship with its American neighbours, its ageing population, its thriving kayaking economy, its cool cafes, its casinos, and even the theatre itself—they’ve all been lifted and dropped, shamelessly, into my play.
Perhaps worst of all is the fact that I make no apologies for this theft. Like Robin Hood, I’m stealing for a good cause. And that cause is the creation of farce. The creation of comedy. The fulfillment of a destiny forged in a few lines of hastily written, absent-minded rejection email in 2015. This is how I ascend the playwright’s Mount Everest. I can only hope Michael Frayn would be proud.
Failing that, I’ll settle for a few laughs on the night.
(On a serious note, if Michael Frayn’s people come asking The Canadian is 100% an original idea and let’s all just forget the thievery stuff, okay? Okay.)