David King

The Play-ing's the Thing

There was none of the fizz of an opening night. The bar was closed, the lobby dim. Not even ticket takers waiting to take money and cards; only a lone attendant at the entrance handing out a two-sided sheet that detailed the afternoon's event. But when the house doors opened, there were about forty of us facing a stage where five music stands had been placed in front of five straight chairs. Soon the dramaturge, the person who oversees the acquisition and development of scripts a theatre may produce, came out to explain the program, called ReACT, in which works in progress are presented to audiences for the first time, so that the playwright can, well, gauge their reaction.

     Then all the usual things happened. The house lights dimmed, the stage lights brightened. An actor walked onstage and stood in front of the music stand that held his script and began to speak, and there we were, in his hands, as he began weaving the illusion that would hold us, or not; that would create a temporary world where characters revealed themselves and the conflict between them that would create the tension that would involve us, or not. It's magic, really, theatre. Take a engaging character, and there was one in this case, Joy, played by Susinn McFarlane, give her something to go for; if we care about her we will be caught up in her progress towards that goal. We will feel for her when she gets slapped down, and feel a gradual unfolding of contentment when she succeeds. If she has a smart mouth and unpredictable behaviour, so much the better, funnier, more dramatic.
     It is magic for the playwright too, to hear/see words he imagined alone at his desk take on life in the person of an actor who is perfect for the part. To follow the smooth or not smooth segues from one scene to the other, to see if he has made everything clear enough that the audience gets it, but not so clear that viewers have nothing to think about later.
     In "Comfort and Joy," by David King, the wild and crazy title character Joy, who was invited to share Christmas dinner with the parents of her son's new girlfriend, gets taken down a peg. Maybe too many pegs, some audience members thought. This response and others will guide the playwright through another draft of this script slated for production next year.
     Non-playwrights, even avid theatre goers may not understand the importance of programs like ReACT at Vancouver's Arts Club Theatre. With live theatre attendance in steady decline, the chances of getting a new play produced have gone from slim to spectral. But plays are meant to go "up," onto the boards, onto a stage where people arranged in front or around can see them. "If there's no audience, there just ain't no show," the classic rock group Chilliwack sang.  And so, because play-ing's the thing, there are these opportunities, more opportunities it seems to "workshop" a piece, or participate in a staged reading series like ReACT, than to have the actual production every playwright wants, an opening night where people arrive in their particular version of dress up clothes and the lobby is chattery, the printed program includes photos of the actors and their bio's, and a production history that might include, like the work I saw in NY this past summer, a string of "workshop" performances.  Although many plays run straight through now, the evening might be stretched out with an intermission where folks stand in groups drinking wine from stemmed glasses or plastic cups and talking about the first act. Of course the writer's wishlist assumes critics who will write reviews that are not only positive but thorough, insightful.
     From the moment a playwright picks up a pen or sits down at a computer, everything is unpredictable and that may be part of the drug.  Will the idea work, will a producer see its possibilities?  Will it get as far as a workshop and then a full production? Even with those major hurdles out of the way, it's just the beginning, because one of the enduring wonders of a live performance is that it is different every time, even with the same actors, the same script. Enter the world of theatre, just walk through the doors and you are part of the drama. Anything can happen.

Chatting about the new world

Another artchat podcast this morning, with Steve, Emory, JimmythePeach, Ruth, and, this week, David. Steve and Ruth, and Peach too, lead we old time writers, musicians, painters into the new world of media or the world of new media, and what they say is confirmed by most people who are thinking about it, that it is the individual's responsibility to reach an audience, readers, listeners, viewers. The dialogue includes e-publishing versus traditional publishing and Steve referred us to a talk by Seth Godin on that subject. I love Steve's enthusiasm for the artistic possibilities of Twitter, for example, but I lack his ease with the medium and I resist spending time on it. Work, yes, and more hours at the computer, but I will persevere. Next step is to convert the pdf files into editable text. My goal is to create a volume consisting of Shinny's Girls and Flashing Yellow. I would still like to see You Again published traditionally before I publish it online, but since the first publisher backed away, I haven't found another to take it. Still looking.

Meantime, robins are expressing the beauty of this perfect spring day.


From left, Elizabeth Huber, Sue Broverman, David King,
Sam Broverman, Wayne Nicklas, Judy Cook, Nancy Hall.
Images from a profound Victoria Day Weekend.
Ten old friends having dinner together around the table while the man they have gathered to celebrate, Wayne, sits in an armchair off to the side, watching the light play over the Coast mountains above Howe Sound as nourishment enters directly through a tube in his arm.
Judy packing medical supplies into the rented Ford Flex at 5AM, helping Wayne to the passenger's seat for the short drive from Grantham's Landing to the Langdale Ferry terminal. She says she thinks of it as touring, as she's done in her dance career for decades. At 6:20, the Queen of Cowichan sets sail for Horseshoe Bay, a forty minute voyage during which Wayne and Judy stay in the vehicle, as they do while they wait at HB for another ferry, to Nanaimo, a ninety minute crossing this time.

Wayne with Nicola Cavendish, who acted with him in David King's
"Up Island" in 2008.
On the road, the Island Highway in Sam and Sue's rented car, the Ford Flex following us. Isn't it? I turn to check and see the gleaming black body of the Wayne-sized vehicle, the white roof, Judy at the wheel, Wayne reclining next to her, David in the back. At the same time, a doppelganger Ford Flex passes us, as if heading for a destination that is not on the itinerary.
Autumn colours weave through the set of The Sunshine Boys, reds, yellows, greens, browns. A gem of a production directed by Nicola Cavendish, another friend. This play at the Chemainus Theatre, starring his old pals Nick Rice and Harry Nelkin, is what Wayne and Judy have traveled all the way from Winnipeg (via Port Moody and the Sunshine Coast) to see. But first they had to check into the hotel for a rest. At 1:45, we're waiting for the Ford Flex to pull up to the stage door. Nothing. At 1:55, we have to take our places. Still nothing. At 2:00 the show must go on, and does. Oh no! After coming all this way, have they missed it? Then, ten minutes in, a door at the top back of the theatre opens and a few people are guided to their spots to watch the heart-full performances of men who have spent their lives in the theatre, just like the characters they are playing, just like Wayne. Victorious!
At the intermission, Judy explains that it wasn't the pain that started last week as esophageal cancer continued to whittle him, nor Wayne's frailty that delayed them, but a wrong turn out of the hotel parking lot.
The "Sunshine Boys" with Wayne, Harry Nelkin as Al, left, Nicholas Rice as Willy.

When the lights flicker in the lobby, announcing the second act, Wayne grabs some of our arms to hoist himself up from the sofa, and takes a front row seat this time, which is easier for him. Towards the end of the play, Harry Nelkin (as Al Lewis) helps his old partner Nick Rice (playing Willy Clark) into bed and the resonances multiply as Willy, who doesn't want to accept that he may be finished, bluffs about the work he has lined up, and Al laments his family's plan to send him to a home for retired actors. Line after line as if narrated from the life of the tall, gaunt man watching from just below the stage.
Barely 48 hours after his final appearance in the theatre, the 59-year old Canadian actor, Winnipeg's Wayne Nicklas, died in hospital in Duncan, B.C.