Sex & Shakespeare
Slings & Arrows is the hilarious series that goes behind the scenes of a struggling theatre company. Theatrical types are having a great time with it, and so is the wider audience. Slings has now been sold to the Sundance Channel, and to broadcasters in Britain and Italy. A look at the story and writers behind the hit.
by Matthew Hayes
The first episode of Slings & Arrows opens with actor Geoffrey Tennant (played by Paul Gross) struggling to unplug a blocked toilet in a dilapidated Toronto theatre. If a life in the theatre ever looked glamorous to anyone, anywhere, this opening scene seems intent upon undermining that notion.
It was a fitting start for the series–which debuted in 2003–an alternately hilarious and poignant show about the trials and tribulations facing the odd characters who populate a theatre company and its flagship festival in the fictional town of New Burbage.
Soon after it began to air, buzz about Slings & Arrows grew exponentially. National Post reviewer Scott Feschuck raved that the show was the best of the new season.
The trio of writers, Susan Coyne, Bob Martin and Mark McKinney, found themselves getting congratulations–not to mention words of gratitude–from actors and theatre types everywhere, all of whom insisted they recognized people they knew amid Slings’ colourful repertoire of characters. Meanwhile, the show’s serial plotting allowed for ongoing intrigue among the loyal fan base, and new viewers were attracted by word of mouth.
It was an auspicious start for Slings, the second six-episode season of which premieres this summer on Showcase, with the third going into production in the fall. The show’s creators and writers have seized upon the idea of dissecting the theatre community, leaving no foible, ego or stereotype unturned.
Of course, there was a bit of concern that the whole thing would turn out to be too much of an inside joke. But Martin says, “The way I look at it, the theatre is going to be like any workplace, and full of many of the same points of tension: the hierarchy of authority, people’s need to shine, the sexual stuff. I’m always attracted to a show where things aren’t sugar-coated. An authentic depiction of a scene–the details that are in the truth. If people are put off by the reality of a situation, they shouldn’t be watching this show. I’d rather see something approaching reality than a watered down version of something.”
When in doubt, go crazy
The first season set up the premise: Gross plays Tennant, a down-and-out actor who, some seven years previous, went insane on stage during his performance as Hamlet and left in a mad fit. This, in turn, ended his relationships with Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette) the gay director who was once his best friend and mentor; as well as his then girlfriend, actress Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns).
Tennant goes to work as artistic director of a tiny and inconsequential theatre. The owners of his theatre space evict him and he goes crazy again.
Welles, meanwhile, is working at the New Burbage Festival, an operation with better backing, if not much more integrity. One night, the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream concluded, Welles stumbles outside drunk and collapses in the middle of the road, where a truck runs him over.
Tennant–still quite mad–is brought in to take over the reins. Fanshaw, still bitter about their tainted romance that burned out seven years ago, finds herself stuck under the same theatrical roof as her former paramour. And Welles returns as a ghost, but one visible and audible only to Gross. This set-up cleverly allows the writers to mine past tensions and explore new scenarios at once.
If these threads weren’t enough, Slings & Arrows has a six-episode serial structure, allowing for a series of unfolding story arcs. There are competing young actresses, sexual dalliances,
colliding colossal egos, nasty auditions and a corporate-minded general manager (played by writer McKinney) who is desperate to see the theatre take a more commercial route. In other words, lots of rich territory for writers coming up with possible trajectories for this struggling theatre.
In a country with as rich a theatre history as Canada’s, you would think an ongoing TV series about a struggling theatre festival company would be a no-brainer. Indeed, it says something about the state of Canadian TV drama that the topic took this long to reach the airwaves. Executive producer Niv Fichman of Toronto’s Rhombus Media says the idea made perfect sense to him in the late ’90s, when writer Tecca Crosby (now at CTV) brought a treatment to his attention. “Tecca originally saw this as a half-hour series, but not a sitcom,” he recalls. “It immediately resonated with me, because in 1983 Rhombus Media produced a documentary called Making Overtures, showing the behind-the-scenes stories of a community orchestra. That film went on to get an Oscar nomination. I always thought there was enough material there for a sitcom. But when Tecca came to me with this story, it seemed there was more
dramatic potential with a theatre festival.”
Fichman commissioned a pilot script, sensing that a writer with a background in acting would make for a perfect fit. That’s where playwright and novelist Susan Coyne came in, an actor with experience at the Stratford and Shaw Festivals, as well as at most of the major theatres across Canada. “Susan co-founded Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre–she really knows the scene inside and out,” says Fichman.
Coyne penned the pilot, then envisioned as a half-hour comedy titled Over the Top, and Fichman took the script with him on his vacation to Vietnam. As it turned out, one of his travelling companions was none other than Mark McKinney, a veteran of Kids in the Hall and Saturday Night Live.
“Mark kept coming up with ideas,” recalls Fichman. “He could just see so many different ideas and characters as he looked at the concept. I said, ‘Why don’t you work with Susan on writing this into a series?’”
Then came the third part of the screenwriting equation. And as the old saying goes, it’s who you know. Fichman knew screenwriter Bob Martin through actor/writer/director Don McKellar. Martin had a history writing for Twitch City and Made in Canada, as well as extensive performance credits at Toronto’s Second City.
Martin says, “We have a common history in the theatre, so we drew on that. Susan was more involved with Stratford and Shaw, the legitimate theatre, while Mark and I were more in regional theatre–theatre of the absurd, if you will.”
And why does Fichman think the combination of these three writers works so well in the case of Slings & Arrows? “The chemistry is there precisely because they are so very different. I think the three of them really cared about making something great.”
“At first, when we were writing together, it was like we were all pulling in three different directions,” says Coyne. “But then our roles became clearer. You have creative fights, of course, but you also have a basic trust that we’re all on the same page of what the tone of the show is and what the stories are that we’re trying to tell. I think that each of us has taken turns mediating between the other two, which has worked out well.”
“It’s a great deal of fun, because we really do connect well,” adds McKinney. “I feel like we have an open playground. These are people I like and can have fun with. But it’s even better, because Bob and Susan are nicer to me than the Kids in the Hall were.”
“It took a while to find what each person’s skill set was,” says Martin. “Mark, obviously, is a really great comedian, fantastic at creating characters. He’s a story machine. I’m pretty good with structure and dialogue. Susan is very intelligent in the way she understands the text as a whole, and has a much better understanding of the life of an actor than Mark or I do. It was a very unlikely combination, but it’s turned out very well–we all came with our own perspectives to the project.”
See the Summer 2005 issue of Canadian Screenwriter for the complete interview.