The creators of Slings & Arrows talk about creating one of TV’s greatest shows

The creators of Slings & Arrows talk about creating one of TV’s greatest shows

Few would have expected one of the best TV dramas of last decade—a really good decade for TV dramas—to be about the happenings at a Canadian theater festival, yet Slings & Arrows, which aired on the Sundance Channel in the United States, turned into a cult hit, a critical success, and something of an awards magnet in its native land. (It won the Gemini for Best Dramatic Series two times in its three seasons, and its cast was handsomely rewarded as well.) The show’s three creators also co-wrote every single episode of the series, taking the basic idea of a Shakespeare-oriented drama festival, similar to Canada’s Stratford Festival, and using it as an excuse to explore art, love, death, and, above all, Shakespeare himself. Those creators had been enormously successful in other arenas—Susan Coyne was an acclaimed playwright; Bob Martin would go on to win a Tony Award for his work on The Drowsy Chaperone; Mark McKinney was a member of The Kids In The Hall—but the three of them together, along with a terrific ensemble cast (largely made up of theater actors from Toronto) and director Peter Wellington, came together in a kind of alchemy rarely seen on television. Coyne, Martin, and McKinney recently talked with The A.V. Club about the series. This first part covers the show’s genesis and characters.

The A.V. Club: How did Slings & Arrows come to be?

Mark McKinney: It starts with Susan [Coyne].

Susan Coyne: Someone came to me and said they wanted to do a show about a theater festival, and the idea at first was that it would be a half-hour comedy. I and this producer developed it as a half-hour comedy, and then when we got involved with Rhombus and Mark came on board, he quite sensibly said, “Oh no, it has to be an hour because there’s too much material here, and there’s too much possibility.” That was a huge, “Oh, we could really take this seriously instead of it being kind of silly. We could really be brave and take on something of some substance in the show.”

Then we worked for a while, and we were both working on other things, and then Bob came in and got us started out, really.

AVC: Bob, what was your role in that process?

Bob Martin: Well, I guess I’d had more series experience then you two at that time—

SC: Than I had, for sure.

MM: Well, writing, not watching.

[All laugh.]

BM: I came in, and I looked at all of this rich material, and then together we started to focus on what the show actually was. There were various versions of Slings in the early days; it was almost like a murder mystery at one point, right?

SC: Was it?

BM: Then we talked specifically about, in a way, commenting on Stratford [a large repertory theater festival in Canada], and at one point, I think it was a more pointed attack. [Laughs.] Not an attack exactly…

SC: [Firm.] No. It was not. I dispute that. I worked at Stratford, and I was always saying it was not about Stratford.

BM: [Agreeing.] No.

MM: At one point, though, it was called St. Ratford… 

BM: Yes…

SC: Which was not my choice.

BM: It was at one time called St. Ratford. Right up until we started shooting. Anyway, we all realized that to make it an attack on Stratford, which was really unwarranted, would lessen it. It would be too constraining for us, so we created this fictional regional theater, and it was far more than simply a comment on the situation at Stratford.

SC: Actually, that was important, because I didn’t think it would be interesting if it was meant to be about one place. All of these big arts institutions, like museums and symphonies and other festivals, they all have the same issues with art and commerce and how do you keep a big festival going in these modern times where people have to be brought in with all kinds of tricks? The fine arts seem to be dying. All of that seemed really important, that it not be just this one little place. 

BM: Really when we start to focus on the mechanics of the show, about a play, that the story is being reflected by the storylines in the shows that were being staged, then it also took one giant step away from a commentary…

SC: Being about one place.

BM: When it really found its voice, it was what it was. Slings & Arrows, not St. Ratford.

MM: Fairly early on, I remember Susan thought up the idea of having a ghost character, which pulled us straight to Hamlet and madness and the idea of a nervous breakdown, a moment of artistic peak sending the character spinning off. Like this moment of crazy joy that we have in a flashback, in episode one? Where he looks at the picture of them kissing the skull? Yeah. That was sort of what I remember.

SC: I think where Mark and I got to was understanding that we could take these plays and refract them through our characters, which is what we tried to do each season.

Actually, the size of that idea was really huge, so having three people to talk it through ended up being really helpful. I think that’s why the show is so complex, in a way, and at the same time, very simple. We decided at some point that whatever we wanted to say Hamlet was about, that’s what it was about. There’s a million things it could be about, or to take another example, Macbeth. I think at one point we decided it was about changing. Rebranding. It was all about, “Can you change?” It’s a midlife crisis, in a way. I don’t know if anyone’s ever written a thesis that Macbeth is going through a midlife crisis, but that’s how we decided to see it.

BM: As was the festival. As was Geoffrey. As was Richard.

SC: As was Ellen, having to get an audit. Everybody was kind of, in midseason, mid-trilogy, deciding if they were going to be able to change how they do things. 

BM: As I think you’ve pointed out, Todd, basically the first season is youth, the second one is middle age, and the third one is old age, in a very general sense.

AVC: Mark, what was your role in all of this? What did you bring to the process?

MM: [After] I left Saturday Night Live kind of confused, I had a couple, three years where I was doing theater in and around New York, and it kind of brought me back to my roots. Then I hit 40, and I realized that was a great time to… It’s sort of like the first juncture in your life where you can start looking back and telling stories. In fact, a lot of the stuff that inspired the series was just the three of us sitting around telling stories out of school, really. I knew Niv as a friend—

BM: Niv Fichman, the executive producer.

MM: And it was his sense that Susan and I might make a good team, and then later it was his sense that Bob would be the capper. The closer. [Laughs.]

AVC: I understand that this was briefly developed for the CBC before moving to The Movie Network. How did that process work?

MM: It was there for a while—

BM: It was there for a long time—

MM: It was there for 28 years.

[Laughter.]

MM: No, it was there, it was a CBC project. I think we pitched it at least twice. And then, inexplicably, they decided not to do it. Then Niv, literally, was in an elevator with someone from—

BM: Yeah, Showcase/The Movie Network… It would have been somebody from Showcase, probably, at that point.

MM: —and said, “Hey, I’ve got this series,” and she said, “That sounds great, bring it in.”

BM: Well, Niv would dispute that story. Because it was a few weeks before we went.

MM: Oh, well, I like the glamorous version.

BM: It was an extremely perilous time to have the network pull out.

MM: Yeah, we were at the end. Had we already written the six?

SC: Two of the six.

BM: It was established as something that was going to be produced, but we would have lost our funding without a network attached to it. So in two weeks, Niv cobbled together a coalition of three networks. What it meant was that we went into the first season at 80 percent of our budget, which was a real problem, and if we sat down with you and looked at the first season, we would point out where the money was sucked out of the show.

SC: The gift shop. [Laughs.]

BM: The gift shop being a really big example. The gift shop was supposed to be this iconic representation of…

MM: Commercialization.

BM: Commercialization of the theater festival. [Laughs.]

MM: It was going to have a Romeo And Juliet mug in two parts that fit together in a broken heart.

[Laughter.]

BM: But also Richard’s [Smith-Jones, McKinney’s character] imprint on the festival and the direction it was going in. It was supposed to be a large room you could not enter the theater without going through…

MM: An IKEA of gift-giving.

BM: It ended up being a small table.

[Susan laughs.]

BM: With what?

SC: T-shirts on it.

BM: Even in the script he says, “The gift shop used to be a table with a couple of T-shirts on it!”

MM: They did do a buzzy little shot that we actually filmed at… What was that movie theater in downtown Toronto?

SC: The Pantages or something.

BM: The first season was brutal because of the budget concerns. I’m amazed it turned out as well as it did.

MM: My helicopter shot got cut out as well.

BM: I remember having them say, “We can’t afford the swans. The one thing we can’t afford are the swans.”

SC: And the one thing we needed was the swans.

[Laughter.]

MM: “What?! You can’t afford the swans?!”

BM: Each swan boat has to be brought in. I’m talking about the boats, not the animals. And it was a huge… Anyway, thank God Niv was able to cobble together this thing.

MM: I choose to remember the short snappy version, which goes, [Vaudevillian voice.] “Hey Mr. Fichman, what’s going on?” “Just had a series dropped by the CBC, and I’m kind of bummed.” “Yeah? What’s it about?” “It’s Stratford.” “I love it! Why don’t you bring it around the office?” “I will!” “I’ll see you tomorrow!” “Why not tonight?” “Okay!” “Hey, this is great. I love the paper. You’re on!”

[Laughter.]

MM: So that’s the other version you could do.

AVC: Even when you moved away from the Stratford Festival, you knew this would be about Shakespeare?

MM: Absolutely. But also Bob’s [experience] at Second City and Susan’s experience as a classical actress and me being in a troupe and the stuff I picked up off-Broadway. What’s the variation called, the dark-room/get-naked exercise?

BM: The Belkovsky Exercise, yeah.

MM: The Belkovsky Exercise is something you [to Martin] actually did at Second City.

BM: Well, we found that our stories, despite that we’ve had different lives in the theater, were all very similar. The personalities are the same, the dynamics are the same, the financial challenges, the life backstage, the relationship with the stage manager, everything, was the same. It’s a universal language for anyone who’s been involved with the theater, regardless of whether you’re in regional or whatever. So we mined a lot of our own experiences.

SC: I think, as Mark says, we were all in a stage of thinking, “Is this really any life for a grown-up to be doing?” The constant back and forth of, “Is this sustainable, is this ridiculous, is this actually meaningful at all?” Which is something really tricky to keep asking ourselves, “Is anybody going to watch this, because it’s too insider-y. Can we make it seem as though this is actually, if not ultimately, important, at least credibly important to the people who are doing it?” I remember we were watching The West Wing when this first started and thinking, “Well, it’s a workplace drama or comedy. That’s what it is. It’s a place where people are really engaged in what they’re doing, and you might not understand what they’re talking about, but hey, they look like they’re having fun doing it.” 

BM: It’s funny you would say that because there’s a comment on Todd’s last column where somebody was talking about that’s how the space show is pitched to Ellen [a plot point in season three].

[Laughter.]

BM: “It’s basically a workplace dramedy.”

SC: [Laughs.] That’s right! In space.

[pagebreak]

AVC: How did you go about coming up with characters to fill this world?

MM: Well Geoffrey [Paul Gross’ character], in the original version, the half-hour that Susan had, which I think was called Over The Top?

SC: Yup.

MM: I remember us working for a long time on him trying to get good at bar or tavern trivia screens to raise money for the festival. It was a lot smaller stakes back then. Then I guess when we decided to go to an hour, which, God, that was a while ago. This is how long we’ve been working on it. I had received early screeners of The Sopranos from a friend at HBO, and, for me anyway, it changed the way you could think of an hour of TV, just how complex it could be. I think that somewhat informed the idea to push it to an hour, to raise the stakes and make it bigger. Then it seemed like Geoffrey should get pushed out, that he should not be a part of a big successful festival, but maybe should be… 

BM: Well again, it was Hamlet that kind of dictated.

SC: Yeah, Hamlet comes back to Denmark. 

BM: Yeah, I remember we had many conversations about fear, right? And nervous breakdowns…

MM: How he might fall apart…

SC: Famous examples of it…

BM: We talked about that being kind of central to the character of this person, this crazy artistic genius.

SC: Somebody who had gone so close to the edge of perfection in a performance, possibly that they got spooked…

MM: Daniel Day-Lewis, that story, he walked offstage…

BM: Stephen Fry.

MM: Maybe he didn’t walk offstage.

BM: Stephen Fry?

MM: No, Daniel Day-Lewis.

SC: That’s not what Judi Dench says.

BM: Stephen Fry not only walked offstage, but he walked out to his car and drove to Paris.

SC: He went to Belgium.

[Laughter.]

BM: Belgium. Okay. That’s even worse.

MM: That shows disorientation.

AVC: Where did the Oliver [Stephen Ouimette’s character] come from? It’s rather unusual to have a ghost as a regular character.

BM: Well, not if the main thrust of your first season is a production of Hamlet.

MM: It was from talking about Hamlet, but a lot of Susan’s best ideas for the series she says and then goes, “Oh no, no, no. Too much, too much.” She came up with the ghost idea, which brought together about eleventy-hundred different things, in a really great way.

[Susan laughs.]

BM: The beauty of it, too, is that it wasn’t specifically a ghost. It’s really interesting to be having this discussion after you were discussing episode four [of season three] and seeing everyone wondering whether he was a ghost or just a manifestation of Geoffrey’s madness. He was always meant to be ambiguous. And remember when we had that conversation about should we have Bill Hutt see him, should we have Charles see Oliver, and how exciting that was?

SC: Partly he stands for a kind of collective madness. A lot of theaters have ghosts, for some reason. But it sort of makes sense because of all the madness and make-believe that goes on in a place like a theater, somehow he’s connected in my mind with that. That kind of, “Is it real?” when you’re onstage. Are you really feeling it? Are you not really feeling it? That fine line between what an actor can conjure up in their imagination while they’re onstage. What they see transforms, and suddenly your leading lady really is Desdemona, and at the same time, she’s not, because otherwise, you’re going to kill her. So this strange world where things are true and not true is partly, to me, the ambiguity of the ghost. 

The other thing in my mind was, particularly in the theater, there are these powerful mentors in your life. And I’ve had a few who have died while I’m still having a fight with them in my imagination. I’m still trying to outgrow them or live up to them or to get their respect or to tell them that they were wrong about me in school, and when they die, you find yourself still having those conversations with them and trying to prove something to them. So there’s something of that unfinished conversation that goes on.

BM: He’s also a kind of manifestation of Geoffrey’s own creative process, right? 

SC: Yes.

BM: At least, their conversations are. And what does Oliver represent? He’s sort of the contrary view or, in many ways, the conventional view.

SC: Yeah.

BM: He’s in many ways the easy way.

SC: That’s right.

BM: And Geoffrey is constantly struggling with that. I guess the most pointed example is Macbeth, right? [Quoting Geoffrey.] “I see the play. I understand the play. I just don’t like it.”

SC: Right. Yes.

BM: He says that to Oliver. “I don’t like what you want me to do.” That stuff was always fabulous to write, because you’re basically writing the conversations you had within your own mind.

SC: And how do you dramatize those times, if you don’t have someone to talk to?

BM: Yeah.

SC: Just to finish it, when we came to the third season and decided that we had to send the two of them to therapy—

[Laughter.]

SC: —there was something that seemed very right about that. In a way, Geoffrey was finally grappling with the truth that his mentor was actually gone, and they had to sort out something there, which was fun and funny to write, but also something very real was happening there, finally, between them. The love that they had for each other, that gets lost when you have a big fight with someone, they were able to finally get back to that, I think. In a way, that relationship gets resolved for me when the two of them look at each other and say, “What are we doing here?” “We’re putting on a play. That’s it. We’re putting on a play.” That life and theater, they figure it out in some way. How those things relate to each other between the two of them.

AVC: You said you wanted the character of Oliver to be ambiguous, if he was a ghost or a manifestation of Geoffrey’s mental illness. Did you yourselves come up with an answer to that question, and even if not, did you have rules for how he could interact with the world?

MM: He couldn’t lift anything heavier than two ounces.

[Laughter.]

MM: It could be a wind.

[Laughter.]

BM: One thing that you have to understand is that we were making it up as we were going along.

MM: [Play fighting.] Bob! Bob!

BM: I’m sorry, but it’s the truth!

SC: [Laughs.]

MM: Bob!

BM: [Settles down.] At what point did we decide? At what point did we make the seasons? Because for a while, it was one season.

MM: We had the discussion of the triptych when we got picked up for the second season.

SC: Yes.

MM: If we were going to move forward.

SC: We closed out that first season not knowing if we were ever going to come back. So, in a way, they came to a kind of resolution about it.

BM: The reason I bring this up is because it’s been fascinating reading these comments because people point out inconsistencies, and there’s kind of no way to defend myself.

SC: Right, yeah.

BM: Like the fact that Oliver in some way opened the chameleon’s cage, which somebody pointed out. “Oh, he is a ghost. He’s not just part of Geoffrey’s imagination, because he was able to open the cage.” But then, we don’t actually show him opening the cage. [Laughs.] Basically, there’s a very blurry line between what a spirit is and what madness is, and really, it’s in Hamlet. But that scene with Charles speaking to Oliver is also not entirely definitive, right? Because what is Geoffrey witnessing? 

SC: Yeah.

BM: Is this just Geoffrey?

MM: It’s defensible.

BM: Is Charles high? What is going on exactly? To answer your question, what we believe is really not the point. We definitely meant it to be ambiguous.

MM: We occasionally made rules.

[Laughter.]

BM: We keep saying we didn’t make rules, but there are examples of seeing…

SC: Well, we could never have Ellen see the ghost. Or even Nahum. 

BM: No, although she said, “I thought I saw Oliver in the wings.”

SC: Yeah, that’s right. That’s that kind of an actor thing. Most actors are superstitious and slightly inclined to that kind of thing, but it was different.

BM: The big violation, the rule that we violated was, do we ever see Oliver alone? And there are a couple of times when we do.

SC: Yeah. 

BM: But sometimes we do it effectively, like the scene with Brian at the end of season two. So he’s alone, but—

SC: You only see him for a second. 

MM: He’s out sneaking around.

BM: But it’s still a violation, though, because Geoffrey’s not there. That’s the point. So yeah, there were rules. Yes, we did violate them, but we can’t answer definitively whether he was a ghost or not. To us, you can’t separate those two concepts.

MM: That was part of the fun of it. But if your readers have a problem with it, I invite them to peruse the last three episodes of Battlestar Galactica!

[Laughter.]

AVC: So the character of Ellen, how did that arise?

BM: Highly controversial character, apparently.

SC: We all feel kind of hurt that people don’t like her. 

BM: Susan and I were just talking about that before. For me, Ellen gelled when we realized how passive-aggressive she was. The first time it was, “Sorry. Sorry for caring.” That was the line that made me understand who she was.

SC: I want to jump in and say that she’s absolutely right in that argument with Oliver back in the beginning that he doesn’t care anymore and she does care. She knows she’s right about this particular speech, and it’s kind of worn her down and made her bitter and frustrated and passive-aggressive.

BM: My argument would be that she’s no worse than everyone else in the series. There’s nobody who is flawless. I mean, Anna [Coyne’s character] is the only one who is a complete person. Everyone else is compromised in some way. Everyone else acts selfishly and out of fear. 

I think Sophie [Sarah Polley’s character] was unfairly attacked also. I felt Sophie did not look good, absolutely, she’s extremely unappealing, but her heart is broken. She’s bitter; she’s frustrated; she’s sarcastic. That’s what happens when your heart’s broken. You don’t look more attractive. You look far less attractive. In Ellen’s case, there’s only one thing in life she can do, which is act.

MM: Yeah.

BM: She can’t do laundry. She can’t cook.

SC: [Laughs.]

MM: She can’t do her taxes!

BM: She’s an extreme example of an actor. Basically. They’re all extreme examples of personalities, but Ellen, her passive-aggressive, arrogant behavior comes out of this terrible knowledge she has that she’s a terrible human being, a highly flawed person.

MM: Also, in a certain sense, she got ripped off by the same thing that got to Geoffrey, which is that she thinks that she had one shot at a semi-stable relationship—it had to be with all the brio of theater success behind it—that was with Geoffrey, and that was a commitment. Oliver was responsible for keeping the playground safe and sane and successful, and he blew that, because there’s a missing link when we discover them at the beginning of the series. And that’s Geoffrey.

BM: I think Geoffrey and Ellen’s relationship is basically what the series is about. It’s basically a romance. And like most people in the arts, they don’t get along most of the time.

[Laughter.]

BM: It’s about them finding some balance between their mad creative desires and visions and a reasonable relationship. It takes a long time and involves several deaths, but they get there eventually.

AVC: In so many of these serialized dramas, there is a wife character, who stands in the way of the male protagonist getting what he wants. Ellen fulfills that function here, and that does seem to often be a character that fans don’t like as much. How do you write that character as an antagonist, but keep her ultimately human and understandable?

BM: Does she really stand in his way? She certainly acknowledges when he makes the right choice. She just doesn’t have the ability to push a process forward the way that Geoffrey does.

MM: Yeah. And Geoffrey’s keeping secrets.

SC: Because she’s an actor. She’s not a director.

BM: Yeah.

SC: Geoffrey keeps secrets, and if there’s a thing he has to work out, it’s partly how to be in a relationship. No one is just working on how to be the perfect actor or the perfect theater person. They’re all trying to figure out how to live in the world and have proper adult relationships, too. I’d argue that’s part of what they’re all dealing with: It’s not just that you can’t. You will go crazy if all you have in your life is this one thing, the theater, your acting world, your acting friends. And you’ll stop being any good at it, too. You have to be, somehow, drawing from life and putting back into life. 

BM: We’ve all worked with directors who push you to a really uncomfortable place, and that’s also the crux of their relationship in many ways.

SC: Not settling for less.

BM: Like the Macbeth, locking her in her dressing room and—

SC: She slugs him.

BM: She does what he asks, right?

SC: Yes.

BM: Because she knows that ultimately it…

SC: It will be better.

BM: It’s the thing that has to be done.

MM: But it hurts, like all good stuff.

BM: It hurts and it’s terrifying, yeah. Similarly, she says, “We have to see our Hamlet,” in season one, she says, “You have to show us. We don’t have a Hamlet, Geoffrey. You have to show us.”

SC: She pushes him.

BM: That’s why I don’t agree that she’s an obstacle: I think she often knows what has to be done, but is completely incapable of doing it herself.

MM: And probably has an issue that gets in her way of being effective to help Geoffrey. But she knows what the target is. They all do. Oliver, Geoffrey, and Ellen, it’s thinly spread in the backstory, but really why they paid this horrible price for being in the theater is because they were so good at it, so early. And they can’t forget it. 

I don’t know if this is true, but I think sometimes you can tell if you’re working with creatives, if someone’s been part of a hit because they know… It’s hard to describe. They know what the target is. They’ve seen that audience turn into a feast. They’ve produced complex emotion. They’ve dared themselves somehow. It’s really intoxicating and a real high, and if you know it, you can’t forget it and it makes doing something that’s less than that really… It requires booze to lubricate the scarred feelings going down of failure or mediocrity. I’m drunk right now, because of my current projects.

[Laughter.]

AVC: Did you have other plans for the character of Kate that then had to be cut short because of Rachel McAdams’ success elsewhere?

MM: That’s one of the sad things. We talked for a long, long time about what it’s like to come into the arts as a young person, and we were going to lay it all out. I can’t even remember now, where we wanted to…

BM: Basically she becomes Ellen in a sense, right? Except she doesn’t become Ellen. But she has that same arc, so we sort of see it happen. And then we lost Rachel. [Laughs.] To success. She was fabulous to work with, obviously. But then when she had… It was Mean Girls that, I guess, gave her the three-picture deal.

MM: No, it was The Notebook, wasn’t it?

BM: No, I mean Mean Girls was released, and that sort of made her career.

SC: I remember talking about it when we were doing publicity.

BM: We literally could only get her for a couple days of season two, so we just had to change completely the young-people storyline. It became a challenge to come up with one each season. It was always supposed to be about Kate. 

AVC: Where did some of those other young-person storylines come from? 

BM: Well, I believe Romeo And Juliet is chosen because of how it would reflect on Geoffrey and Ellen’s story. 

SC: Partly. But here’s another thing that I’ve noticed [that gets criticized], and I get it, and at the same time, I don’t get it. We had this idea because we’ve all experienced it or seen it, people falling in love with each other playing parts. And it’s real. And then it’s over, and it’s gone. And the way we wanted to express that was a guy who was out, gay, very comfortable with it, and in the course of this, through the magic of actually getting to do the play, fell under its spell. And I see why that might be controversial, but we weren’t trying to suggest that all gay people are secretly straight. It just seemed like an interesting storyline of a particular character.

MM: [Deadpan.] Though they can be straight if they pray.

[Laughter.]

SC: Mark! Stop it!

BM: Well, I witnessed it, right? I was doing an acting class, and this girl was doing The Woolgatherer with this guy, and he was gay. He knew he was gay, and she said, “I just had sex with him.” It was like, “What? Wait. What? Tell me about it!” I mean, I saw it happen.

SC: Yeah. I’ve seen it happen. 

BM: Yeah, and they’re fleeting. It doesn’t last. It’s the romance of the moment.

SC: It’s people on the road and all that kind of stuff.

MM: I think we had a lot more stuff that we couldn’t put in there because we had a couple days’ discussion of the ripple effect in their various communities. When we first see him, I can’t even remember if we shot this or just wrote it, but how he comes in and presents himself, he’s at the center of this group of gay men. Then he has this whole political thing with Darren Nichols [Don McKellar’s character].

SC: I have to say, this is part of the Shakespeare stuff that’s always sort of swirling around us, and this was part of it from the beginning: In Shakespeare, gender and sexuality are always completely fluid, and that’s the fun of it. Boys dress up as girls. Girls dress up as boys. People fall in love with the wrong person all the time. That was always in the ether of what we were talking about or wanting to pull in as many Shakespearean themes as we could and shove them in there somehow. It was kind of an intuitive thing, I think. 

MM: There’s also the idea of Darren directing something that just exsanguinated all the love and feeling from it because he’s avoiding it until the very end.

BM: Yes. Exactly. We had to have a highly unlikely romance sort of contrast his set-up of the anti-romantic production.

MM: [The actors playing Romeo and Juliet] are driven to it. They end up rehearsing because they know they’re in a disaster. Then they get driven together and through the text discover this passion for each other.

BM: Yeah.

MM: It was pretty good. I liked it.

[pagebreak]

AVC: Let’s talk about Darren a little bit, because you funnel a lot of the show’s comedy through him. Where did that figure come from?

BM: Um…

MM: We can’t name…

SC: There was a guy…

[Laughter.]

BM: It wasn’t a specific person.

SC: No.

MM: But it started as a specific person, because there was one or two directors in particular that we just had legends of.

SC: One of them did actually want to bring a horse onstage in one of the festivals. Then quit, because he wasn’t allowed to. For a while there were, I’m sure there still are, a couple of big egghead directors that were taking the classics and putting every bad thought they’d ever had onstage, usually just opening up their own id and putting it onstage. So it seemed like such a great opportunity to satirize that.

BM: Also, he was supposed to be the other side of the coin, with respect to Geoffrey. Geoffrey’s looking for the purity of the piece, the nakedness of the piece, and Darren is looking for a way to make it Darren Nichols, you know.

MM: Geoffrey believes in theater, and Darren doesn’t.

BM: He secretly hates it.

SC: No. He has contempt for it.

BM: So he kind of represented everything that we hate about people who put on theater. And it was incredibly fun to write all the Darren Nichols stuff.

MM: Yeah. “I’m Darren Nichols. Deal with that.”

BM: Don was fantastic. 

SC: Don did such an amazing job in the first season that we knew we had to bring him back.

BM: He ends up being artistic director.

[Laughter.]

MM: Co-artistic director.

BM: He always does very well for us, is the recurring phrase, right? “Darren Nichols, are you crazy?!” “Well, he always does very well for us.” 

That too, that idea was an important one. Just because something is good, doesn’t necessarily mean that it will sell well.

SC: Right.

BM: Which brings up, I’m sure you’re going to ask about musicals. That’s also something, because people are saying: We hate musicals, and that certainly wasn’t our intention when we were creating East Hastings, but we did want to suggest that there’s a place for popular entertainment, and that to put an easily accessible derivative musical in the same festival as a difficult play that is problematic, that is falling apart—

SC: And also, somewhat depressing. [Laughs.]

BM: And very depressing. Yes, the musical is going to do well, whereas the Lear is not. It’s sort of that reality of getting an audience and all of that.

SC: Mostly, when you see shows about theater, the show’s a hit, and it sells out every night, and we wanted to get away from that cliché because it’s not our experience; it is a cliché. Some art is hard to compete with. Something like a musical, which is just an instant hit of music and dance and beautiful people, it’s hard to compete with it.

BM: We thought there was something interesting in the rivalry between classical actors and musical theater performers who—

SC: —who are much more cheerful!

MM: They’re cheerful, and they’re in their bodies, and they can do flips, and they dance in the morning, and they stay out, and they have fun, and then the actors are just like a pile of—

SC: Dragging themselves in—

MM: Dostoyevskian characters—

BM: We didn’t mean to suggest that they were shallow at all. My whole musical Broadway experience [The Drowsy Chaperone] happened after this. In fact, when we were shooting East Hastings at Theatre Passe Muraille, that’s when we got the call that we had a Broadway theater for Drowsy. Like, on-set, while we were doing it.

MM: I remember that one.

BM: With everybody there. 

MM: Yeah.

BM: Because Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison [of Drowsy] wrote the music for East Hastings. But we’d always been a bit disappointed in what that musical became. We didn’t really want it to become a parody of Rent, like only a parody of Rent, but it kind of became a parody of Rent. I mean, it’s difficult to write a musical, and it was a short amount of time, and we only showed a couple of songs. I did like the sing-through and Charles’ read-through of Lear. That worked nicely, and the heroin idea worked nicely.

SC: I always thought we got to see how effective the musical really was through the character of Richard, though. 

BM: Yeah.

SC: And whoever the actor was that played Richard did a good job.

MM: Multi-award winning—

[Laughter.]

SC: You were so wonderful. I always loved those moments when you saw Richard.

MM: I’m sitting in a fat suit right next to you.

[Laughter.]

BM: No, you’re right, having Richard’s story—

SC: He was so in love with it, and I loved that storyline. How moved he was and that he got to be a part of the creative team, and I took that really seriously. That was not a joke, that part of it.

BM: It harkens back to him coming out of Mamma Mia! singing because he was so happy.

MM: Telling Jen Irwin [Holly Day], “No one likes Shakespeare! I’m tired of people saying it’s a dense play. It’s a difficult play.”

[Laughter.]

MM: It’s true. I love that when we decided to put that in. “I hate Shakespeare.” It had to be said by somebody who works for the festival.

SC: Exactly.

BM: Yeah, the general manager.

[Laughs.]

BM: But anyway, we’d hoped that East Hastings would have a little more depth than it did.

MM: I remember one day when we were writing we said, “We have to stop talking about it,” because it was fun to talk about.

SC: But [series director] Peter Wellington was so in love with that musical. He was worried that people were going to think it was better than the Lear.

BM: Somebody wrote and asked for the rights to stage it. To stage East Hastings, hilariously. It’s true! A guy from a major theater wrote and asked for the rights.

The other thing we wanted to present is how incredibly impressive it is to see a really good triple threat do her stuff. 

SC: Right.

BM: It was the intention of that scene where the young male, I can’t remember that character’s name now—

MM: Goes in to stink bomb the [theater]—

BM: Yeah, they go to stink bomb, and he opens the door and he just freezes because she’s so impressive. It really is impressive, whether we could actually capture that in the series. I mean, the actress was great and everything, but she was burdened with the material.

SC: Of trying to be heard. [Laughs.]

BM: It’s an amazing thing to witness, when somebody is incredibly good.

SC: When all you can do is speak verse, it’s pretty amazing.

BM: You just haven’t got that skill set.

AVC: A lot of stories about the creative world focus only on the creative people. You guys made the choice to focus on the business side as well. What prompted the characters of Richard and Anna, and how did you, Susan and Mark, end up playing those roles?

MM: We wanted to make some extra money.

[Laughter.]

MM: No. I think it was important because the minute the festival became this bloated shadow of itself, which was sort of like our premise, we needed to explain how the business side of it worked.

SC: It was the tail wagging the dog.

MM: Yeah. It just seemed like it would be natural that you would have people backstage who would be passionate about theater, who would recognize it, that’s Anna. And have a moral compass.

SC: Anna’s the one that I always met in whatever theater I ever went into, where the actors would sort of be sitting around, saying, “Oh, did you see the Chekov? It really wasn’t very good,” or they’d be sitting around bitching about something, and there’d always be somebody in the front office who went to see everything and loved it and was the true believer. Then you’d be embarrassed because those are the people you’re actually doing it for. The people who love theater, and how dare you have your bitchy moments about it. She was always meant to be that kind of person who sees clearly what’s going on, or at least sees it with love. 

And the business, we always wanted to show that side of it because otherwise it really would be too insider-y. Again, these theaters don’t run on love and goodwill. The Richard character is actually totally necessary and has a very, very difficult job, which is to raise the money so that everyone can do their art. From the beginning, we wanted him to be a guy with two sides to him. Somebody who, in some ways, it might be easy to cast as the villain, but who actually had another dimension to him. And to have some sympathy for how hard his job is. 

BM: Ultimately it’s about his corruption. The entire series really follows his downfall.

SC: A man who does not know who he is. 

BM: But, without Richard, it would be Théâtre Sans Argent and Geoffrey. That’s what we were sort of presenting. 

SC: And 20 people would be coming.

BM: Twenty people, or nobody. Or the place would be condemned because he’s not paying the rent, because he’s not selling tickets. All of this is necessary, Richard is necessary for the creation of art. The show is partly about that balance between art and commerce.

SC: And it should be a balance. I guess at the beginning, you see it completely out of balance. It’s become all commodified, because there’s nobody running the artistic part of it. Somebody has to step in.

BM: And poor Richard is just so easily influenced by other people. That’s his real downfall.

MM: It’s true. He’s under someone’s sway every season. Holly, then Sanjay, and then the musical theater kids.

BM: In the third season he has a little bit of power and a little bit of—

MM: Is that the one that starts with him getting the BMW?

BM: Season three is where he gets artistically fulfilled and then becomes a monster.

SC: Exactly.

MM: Well, he becomes a monster, but I always thought, like, my favorite scene to play in that one was when I confront Geoffrey about lying to me about what shape his Lear was in and I thought Richard was really betrayed. He really thought he was part of things.

BM: Richard, for the most part, is reasonable. He was most unreasonable with Holly. Like when he was manipulated—

MM: He was getting laid.

[Laughter.]

MM: It’s true. There’s an enormous amount about the narcotic power of sex. She takes him to a musical, gets him drunk, and then screws his fucking brains out. 

SC: Which was unusual for Richard.

MM: Yeah. Then hypothetically when he tries to pick that up by going to give the lecture and meets the woman who unravels him in five minutes.

AVC: If you look at things from the point of view of any one of the characters on this show, you can absolutely understand why they’re behaving the way they are. How did you arrive at that in the process of writing? 

BM: It’s about understanding the insecurities and fears that are guiding the behavior of each of these characters. 

MM: And it also helps that Geoffrey, while charming and absolutely creative, is also a mess.

SC: Yeah.

MM: So opposition gathers around him, naturally, from people who are either inferior or don’t get what he’s trying to do, or sometimes, are his victims, really. He’s not the cleanest hero.

SC: I think one of the things that unites them, most of the characters, is there’s some real yearning there, some unfulfilled yearning for something that they don’t even know what it is. Which is where I think a lot of the bittersweet quality of the characters [comes from]: They all want some kind of transcendence or connection or love; or they want that moment to happen again, when it all makes sense and comes together. The perfect moment. And those moments are really hard to come by in this business. You get them, and they fall apart, and then you might get another one, and they fall apart. It makes for a complicated emotional life.

BM: There’s something to the idea that what you do for a living is to present idealized moments. Idealized representations of the human experience. Whereas your own life—

SC: Right, is so shabby and dull—

BM: —is never going to be that. I remember lots of conversations about fear and insecurity. We talked about that a lot.

SC: It’s an essential component, actually, of the actor’s or the artist’s life. To be constantly not quite sure that what you’re doing is going to work out and that nervousness is where the sweet spot is. “Just before the thread…” What’s that line?

BM: “Just before the thread snaps.”

SC: Just before the thread snaps, that’s where it’s really interesting. 

BM: Also, that was specifically represented in the Macbeth storyline, because when Henry became comfortable, it’s not interesting anymore.

SC: Yeah.

BM: So it is about that fear, unfortunately. It’s about being uncomfortable. That’s where the really interesting stuff happens. Geoffrey understood that, and he pushed [Henry] to a place where it was incredibly uncomfortable. 

Remember the discussions we had about crossing the line into the light, about being in the wings and about to step into the light. It’s a very, very difficult thing to perform every night. Especially if you’re being raped every night or experiencing some horrible emotion onstage, in a real way, in front of people.

MM: Night, Mother.

SC: Even if, as many people do, you develop all sorts of techniques and skills to keep it from invading your life, it does invade your life. I always love that. There’s a description in a book I read of somebody watching, as a child, watching an actor step onstage, and in the wings he’s smoking a cigarette, then he hears his cue, and he drops his cigarette and steps onstage and becomes the apothecary, or whoever he is. I think we always were fascinated by that. That moment of transformation.


Come back tomorrow for part two, where Coyne, Martin, and McKinney discuss the writing process, the show’s secret structure, and the possibility of a fourth season.