Thursday, June 7, 2012

Actress/Writer Susan Coyne on “Slings and Arrows”

How did Slings and Arrows come about?

SUSAN COYNE: Well, I hadn't really set out to be a writer. But, I hit my late thirties, and I had two children and I couldn't travel across the country in the same way. And, famously, the parts thin out a bit as you get older. So I sort of hit my mid-life crisis and thought, "I'm just going to sit down and start writing," without really knowing where it was going to lead me. And then I got hooked up with somebody who said, "You know, I have a friend who works at Stratford and loves hearing your stories. Would you like to come up with a proposal for a TV series about Stratford?"

So I said, "Sure. I can do that." And then I came up with the premise for the series, basically, although at that time it was a half-hour comedy. We shopped it around and we got wonderful producers, Rhombus Media, involved and they put me together with Mark McKinney of Kids in the Hall, which was really kind of brilliant.

That was an interesting choice.

SUSAN COYNE: He was not the first person you'd think of pairing us with, but it was really great because Mark is so smart and really thinks outside the box constantly. He's worked a little bit in theater and so he knew something of this world as well. He said right away, "This isn't a half-hour, this is an hour, because there's too much good material here."

I think that was one of the most important things that happened, because we thought, “We're doing Shakespeare, we don't want this to be just punch lines and then cut to a commercial. We want to be brave about this and tackle what it's like to do these big plays.”

I'd never seen something like this done very well. I'd often seen actors made fun of, and it's easy. It's easy to satirize actors. I think we do it to a degree in the show. It's also easy to sentimentalize. But between those two extremes I've never seen anybody try to really show what it's like, and that in some ways it certainly matters to the people who do it and it might even mean something to those of us who watch. It might have some value, it might have some weight to it, it might not be a silly thing to do with your life. And that these people might have some passion that has some dignity to it.

Even as I say that I'm always cautious not to give it more weight than it's worth, but I think that when theater works well, everybody recognizes that there's something very powerful about it, transforming and ineffable and not silly at all. It's rare, but when you see it, there's nothing like it. You feel a little bit wrung out afterwards and your heart's beating faster and you feel chemically altered in some way.

It's that we wanted to get at: What is that thing that happens and how do people achieve that? We wanted to show people the kinds of conversations that go on in rehearsals as well as how terrifying it is and the ridiculous things we do to get ourselves where we have to be. All of that.

I always think that when there's a great deal of passion, then there's got to be some kind of dramatic or comic story. Or both.

How did Bob Martin get involved?

SUSAN COYNE: Bob was invited to join Mark and I after we had been wrestling with the series for a couple of years (in the midst of doing other projects- in my case, co-founding a theatre company and writing my first book). Neither Mark nor I had written a TV series before, but Bob had. His experience was the key to making us into a fully functioning writing team.

When you started the project, did you think it would only be for one season?

SUSAN COYNE: Exactly. Mark and I worked for a couple of years, because we were both doing other things. And it took a long time to figure out how this was going to go. We had six episodes in mind, we knew the play was Hamlet, we came up with the idea of the ghost and that our character was going to be a sort of Hamlet figure who was haunted almost in the same way that I was haunted by my theater school teachers. The ones who said those wonderful things and those terrible things, and you're always trying to prove something to them even if they're dead.

It turns out that three is a good number for a writing team, because we could always gang up on the other person and persuade them. The three-legged writing team is quite stable, actually. If you can't quite see something, one of the other two can explain it to you. And also Bob had real experience writing television in a way that Mark and I didn't. And he also has an amazing comic sensibility and a really delightful wit.

So when that came together the work started to go faster and we decided that six episodes would be really satisfying to tackle Hamlet. And that really was the plan until we finished it and watched it. The network said, would you like to go another year? And we looked at each other and I said, "Well, I think we should do a trilogy. If we're going to another one we should do three and we should do youth, middle-age and old age." That made sense to us and felt like it would be a satisfying arc.

We had the idea that, each season, we wanted to watch our characters through the filter of the play -- not in the way that you could draw straight lines between the stories and the play, but in a sort of general way being influenced by Shakespearean themes.

One of my favorite scenes in the series -- and one that really lays Shakespeare out and explains what's he's doing -- is the scene in the first season when the director, Geoffrey, explains to the actress playing Ophelia exactly what her "nonsense rhymes" actually mean. Did you find that there were scenes you created based on things you'd actually experienced?

SUSAN COYNE: There were. But some of them are so disguised that they take on a difference resonance. For example, Geoffrey reminds me of a director I worked with early on who directed me in The Glass Menagerie. He was a refugee from the Second World War, a Holocaust survivor. His family perished and he escaped to Winnipeg. He talked to me about how theater had saved his life, and it meant so much to me, the way he talked about it. It was a life force for him.

I guess there's an element where I've worked with really great directors for whom theater has saved their life. And that passion for its humanity -- for the idea of theater being a place where we can be very human with each other -- is something that I've retained and I always aspire to in the theater. The idea that it's about people communicating; there's no tricks, there's no cinema, it's just us. We're all in the same room breathing together, and if it all works out, we'll all end up having the same heart-rate at the end of the show.

Were you saddled with handling the female point of view on the show and the female characters or was that shared?

SUSAN COYNE: Oh it was definitely shared. Martha Burns, who plays Ellen, is one of my closest friends. We've known each other a long time, we grew up in Winnipeg together, so I loved coming up with storylines for her, like Ellen getting audited. But we all wrote the Ellen character and we all wrote the Anna character.

I loved aspects of Anna, but the boys, actually, I think loved Anna even more. They loved putting her in these terrible situations. The scene where she had to have sex, Mark wanted it to be really explicit and hardcore, and I finally said, "Look, guys, it's me playing the part. So let's just re-think this, shall we?"

And that's when Bob said, "Well, we could do it in the dark." I said "That sounds very good."

Do you have any special or favorite moments from the series?

SUSAN COYNE: I loved everything to do with Bill Hutt in the third season. I was in a production of King Lear with him, at Stratford in the young company, and he is a hero of mine. He's gone now, and his Lear was never filmed. So to get the little bit that we get of him, doing the great speeches, that I feel proudest of, actually.

That is the most important thing to me about the series: that we got him. We always wanted him; we wanted him in the second season and he wasn't available. But we got him in the third season. And then within 18 months he had died. So it was amazing. He was such a wonderful guy and he threw himself into it. I loved that.

Other than that, there was a tiny moment, backstage in the second season, between Geoffrey and Ellen, where they're watching Romeo and Juliet. And Ellen says, "I hate this play." I must say, watching Romeo and Juliet as a middle-aged person, you watch it and you think, "I hate this play." I mean, I love it of course, but you're in such a different headspace from the first time you played it, you can't help thinking, "What, are you nuts?"

What did you take away from the Slings and Arrows experience?

SUSAN COYNE: I learned a lot from working with two other people whose sensibilities were similar to mine, but who also pushed me ways into places I otherwise never would have gone. Although we fought a lot at the beginning, we got into a place where it was much easier to say, "Here's a sketch of the scene, but you should write it because you have that voice down better." It became very respectful -- and although there were still fights, they were good fights; not pulling in different directions, but creative fights -- where you just knew that the other person, it was just their thing and they could write it better. And you knew that when it came time to take over another scene, they would say, "You should have a go at that."

I think that's hard to replicate, when you have developed a working relationship like that with people.

As for the acting, that was more intimidating. Film is socially so different from theater. You don't have an audience; the only person who's actually watching your performance is the director, because everyone else is watching other things, like how your scarf is tied. So I found that a bit intimidating.

But there was a very collegial feeling, and we had so many theater actors coming onto the set, and so it felt much more about the work than it usually does. That was very freeing for me, because I've always felt that I'm very uptight on the set and never felt very free. And so to be with this wonderful team, on a series that you created yourself, playing this lovely character was wonderful. I adored playing Anna.

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