The liberty of ignorance – Part Two

L-R: James Spears, Greg Kirk, Simon Rice and Sara Wood in Waiting for Godot.

The second in a series of short, photo-inspired essays on what it means – and how it feels – to be young, inexperienced and in love with the theatre.

Waiting – and waiting – for Godot
By Greg Kirk

The early stages of any self-initiated project are always fragile. Everyone has an idea that could easily – with difficulty – be transformed into something significant. However, the effort to actualize that idea usually produces no real indication of its significance.

When Simon Rice and I completed our production of Glengarry Glen Ross, our friends and family were all supportive, and the initial high of accomplishment made us take for granted that we were in the pioneering stages of something real and lasting. But as the days and weeks passed, life just eased back into its previous routines. I would get the occasional question about what show we would do for our sophomore effort, but it became easier and easier to just unthinkingly answer, “we’ll see.”

Fortunately, Simon went on a trip to England for a couple of months shortly after Glengarry (and, crucially, before life could drag him into the familiarity in which I was mired). With Simon gone and theatre far from my thoughts, I received a message from his mother that he’d been reading Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and planned to direct it as our next show. Whatever momentum I had lost, he still had it.

I think this is one of the key advantages of a partnership. I simply don’t believe that we human beings have the proper perspective to independently run our lives well. We need to disrupt the flow of our own familiar thoughts with those of others. This is a reminder that our way isn’t the only way. I believe this is what we call “inspiration.” Simon still had it, and I reacquired it from him.

The kids stay in the show

Despite our numerous responsibilities as director (Simon) and producer (me), we cast ourselves as Vladimir and Estragon, the two leads that also happen to be on stage for the duration of the show. This occasionally made for a tense set, as no doubt the other actors would attest. It is certainly difficult to receive notes from someone, and immediately continue a scene opposite them – especially when those notes are given during the peak of intensity. But there were a number of reasons for doing it this way:

First, we simply didn’t yet know many people in the theatre community. We were all we had, and consequently had to wear many hats. Second, when you have yet to work with many other people on an artistic vision, it often feels as though the influence of others is a corrupting one; it takes time to recognize that others can respond to your vision, and can even enhance it. Third, at that stage, it was never clear how many opportunities would become available, so it made sense to take this chance to perform, direct, promote, and do absolutely everything for the show.

A quiet audience
What we failed to anticipate with this second production was that we were performing a considerably more opaque play for an audience predominately made up of friends and family, i.e., not really theatre people. Performing bombastic, profanity-laced monologues from Glengarry was easy, and a real crowd pleaser. At the end of the show, if you got charged up during your big scene, you knew it was good, and the audience clapped loudly.

Godot, on the other hand, can leave people a little pensive. The tepid applause we received opening night, from an audience all of whose names I knew, made me think we had failed somehow.

We went backstage and I said something like, “They sure didn’t love it.” I’ll never forget Simon’s response. He said: “Well, they probably didn’t understand it, so they’ll think that it’s art.” Looking back, I now think it was our best show.

Cast and crew of Waiting for Godot from L to R
Amy Withers as The Boy, James Spiers as Pozzo, Nick Drake the Stage Manager,
Simon Rice as Vladimir, Greg Kirk as Estragon, Sarah Wood as Lucky.

Our production played a little with gender. The role of Lucky, Pozzo’s (mostly) mute slave, is written into the text as a man. We thought it would add a provocative dimension to that relationship if it were a woman. This may or may not have been a little shallow, thematically, however, it produced an excellent performance from Wood, who went on to direct for Praxis Theatre.

We performed Godot at the Annex Theatre. The above photo was taken during rehearsal for a scene in which Vladimir and Estragon first encounter the bizarrely aristocratic Pozzo and his tethered partner, Lucky. During the actual performance, the stage was covered in leaves and a few hidden rocks. One night, when I jumped to the ground to eat Pozzo’s chicken bones, I unhappily discovered one of those rocks as it punctured the skin of my knee. I’m sure I yelped inexplicably, but it did provide a natural blood stain that was in continuity with the beginning of the second act, in which Estragon enters having been beaten the night before.

Me, in costume as Estragon watching a scene. You’ll notice I am wearing suspenders. We thought they looked better than the rope around the waist that Mr. Beckett’s script calls for. One of the unfortunate consequences of this decision made itself apparent at the end of the second act. The script calls for Estragon to take his rope belt off – causing his pants to fall down – and suggest they use it to hang themselves. They tug on it to test it, and it rips. We did the same with the suspenders, except they were elastic. Simon, as Vladimir, would always let go of them, causing us to fall down clownishly. Every night I expected the clasps to be sent careening towards my eyes. Every night I would be relieved as they merely welted me in the stomach or shoulder.

Greg Kirk, Sara Wood and Simon Rice in Waiting for Godot.

The liberty of ignorance – Part One

Greg Kirk as Estragon in Bloody Theatres Waiting for Godot.
All photos by Casey McNally.

It starts at the beginning
By Greg Kirk

There are a variety of ways to start doing theatre. For me, and Praxis Theatre’s Simon Rice, the most obvious was to pick a play and start working on it. This is neither the smoothest nor the easiest method, but it is how we did it nonetheless.

I recently stumbled upon dozens of pictures that nicely document the various theatre productions we mounted between 1997 and 1999. We were both still teenagers when we started. Looking through the photos, it occurred to me that we had no idea what we were doing; some of my memories are downright embarrassing. However, being new to theatre – and thus ignorant to its conventions and not remotely self-conscious – afforded us certain liberties.

What were those liberties? What freedoms did our youth afford us? And where have they gone? I’m not sure I can answer these questions with any great rigour, but I thought it would be fun and possibly instructive to try. So in response to Praxis Theatre’s call for guest bloggers, I’m putting together a short series. A rough catalogue of a young man’s artistic process: the liberty of ignorance.

The Mamet maneouver
The chronology of these pictures moves from sloppy, carefree ignorance (e.g., mounting a show populated exclusively by late-middle-aged characters, and yet casting teenagers) to greater self-consciousness. It also documents the gradual recognition that theatre is a difficult craft. While this development is essential to artistic maturity, I can’t help but recognize that we made choices – some of them very good – that would never have occurred to us, had we known better.

In the fall of ’96 we decided to mount a production of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, using mutual friends as actors and crew members. Both of us felt we were sufficiently credentialed as theatre artists by our success in high school drama programs. (This leads me to wonder if people that are genuinely new to something ever realize how new they are.)

The production was to be loosely affiliated with a now defunct art co-operative baring the unruly name Rabid Teepee Force, and carried with it intentions no grander than putting on a respectable show. It took far longer to organize than expected, but nonetheless opened in March ’97 at the Annex Theatre on Bathurst Street in Toronto.

Following through independently on a project was an accomplishment. Nobody had told us to do it. This now sounds achingly innocent, but I remember looking at the sold out final show and thinking, “these people would not be here tonight if it weren’t for us.”

Beckett and The Bard
Compelled by what certainly felt like success, we turned it into a production company called Bloody Theatre. After Glengarry, we produced five plays between ’97 and ’99 (Waiting for Godot, The Zoo Story, No Exit, Oleanna and Romeo & Juliet). The photos in this series will document these shows chronologically.

Archiving the experience captures the development of self-consciousness in young theatre artists: Closing night of Glengarry felt like a triumph, but the wrap for Romeo & Juliet our final show felt strangely incomplete. We had undoubtedly produced our most professional show, but we were now aware of the ways we had fallen short of our expectations. That was the end of Bloody Theatre. With the unwelcome yet essential gift of greater understanding, we both moved on.

The spring of 1997. Our first show.
Glengarry Glen Ross is about desperate real estate salesmen ranging in age from mid-40s to their mid-60s. Given that the cast was made up entirely of teenagers, Simon and I had to rely on less-than-subtle signifiers of aging. Garrett Hay, for example, cast as Shelley “The Machine” Levine, the oldest and most desperate of the salesmen, was asked to shave his head bald on top in the week leading up to the show in order to offset his boyish visage. One can imagine the social sacrifices such a hairstyle imposes on a 19-year-old.