My Theatre

17 March 2012

My Theatre Nominees- Q&A with Michael Atlin

By // Theatre

Before we announce the winners of the 2011 My Theatre Awards, we’re proud to present the My Theatre Nominee Interview Series.

My favourite production of the 2011 Summerworks Festival was a lightning-quick nerd-fest about chess players superbly titled Zugzwang (a fantastically descriptive chess term that refers to a situation in which if it were the other person’s move you’d be fine, but it’s yours so you’re not). Along with one of our Best Fringe Actor nominees, Dylan George, Michael Atlin‘s smart script was the star of the show. Read this, you can almost see his grin through the computer when I call his dialogue Sorkin-esque.

Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
The first experience I can remember was back in Grade 1 or 2, at the school Christmas play.  I was a mouse.  I have no idea why there were mice; the best explanation I’ve been able to come up with is it was a dramatization of ‘Twas the night before Christmas / And all through the house / Not a creature was stirring / Not even a mouse.”  Anyway, I was a tiny, tiny kid, one of the smallest in my class, and I was playing a mouse.  I was wearing grey, and I had this headband with giant mouse ears made out of construction paper.  The ears wouldn’t stay up and kept flopping back and forth, and there were staples inside that caught in my hair, and tape too… Anyway, while I and the two other mice were on stage, doing our mouse dance, my ears slipped down until the headband covered my eyes and I couldn’t see.  I pushed them back up, but I managed to push them sideways, so the whole thing rotated on my head until I had one ear in the middle of my forehead, and the other at the back of my head.  It was mortifying, but I finished the dance and ran off to cry.  I suppose it must have been hilariously cute.

What writers have always inspired you? 
Oh, so many.  Mamet, for his conversations where people are just talking, but are never just talking.  Pinter for the suppressed violence under the text and the truth of the relationships and for making me feel literally, physically ill when I read Betrayal. Edward Albee for making me feel ill.  Judith Thompson and Catherine Banks, both for helping me learn how playwrights work and making me ill.  When I say it makes me feel ill, I don’t mean with disgust or envy – there are some plays where I can feel the playwright reaching down my throat to rearrange my internal organs.  It’s a nauseating and exhilarating experience. Then there are the people I love mostly for their wit, like Sorkin, Whedon, and Panych.  So many others.  Congreve and Shakespeare. In retrospect think that Margaret Edison’s Wit (which also makes me feel very ill) was the play that showed me how to make complex and esoteric subjects interesting and comprehensible to audiences.  I think I owe her the whole Arbiter monologue.  I’ll stop now.

Would you consider yourself primarily a writer or do you act and direct too?
I find it uncomfortable calling myself anything right now.  I haven’t directed anything since high school, ten years ago, though I’d love to.  My training is in acting, but I don’t quite feel the call to act as strongly as I used to, partially because I find the requirements of acting outside of a tightly knit collective deeply uncomfortable.  Despite Zugzwang being the first play I’ve ever written, I think I have to call myself a writer more than anything else.

What first drove you to writing? Was it the craft itself or the story of Zugzwang?
At Humber, where Frankie [Zugzwang‘s director] and I studied acting together, we had a course in playwriting taught by Maja Ardal, and the first scenes of Zugzwang came out of that.  She was extremely supportive, and suggested I submit it somewhere once I had a full script. I enjoyed the process of creating scenes and letting characters just talk inside my head so much, and all the responses were so positive, I had to continue.  It felt like what improv was always supposed to be like, but never was for me.

Are you a chess player yourself? What was your inspiration?
I used to be a chess player, but I don’t play very much at all anymore.  I think I played more games over the course of Zugzwang than I have since Grade 9.  When you’re writing a play about chess, it seems everyone wants to test your mettle.  But yes, many of the situations were drawn from personal experience playing chess as a child – I was the champion of Nova Scotia for my grade level (an honour I received for beating two or three other kids my own age; the guy one year below me, though, Gary Ng, he tended to wipe the floor with me) in both Grade 8 and 9, and moved onto the Nationals, where I failed to win a single game in Grade 8.  In Grade 9, the Nationals conflicted with the Canada Wide Science Fair and rehearsals for Neptune Theatre School’s Youth Performance Company, so I decided to pass.  I also played at a bunch of adult tournaments.

Your characters feel very real. Are they based on real people you’ve encountered?
Yes.  In some cases, they started out based on very specific people, others were more collages, but over the course of writing, they all moved further away from the people I started with and began developing stories of their own.  Sometimes I deliberately took two partially developed characters and mushed them together: for example, Sid and OCD Guy were initially separate characters, and it was only through readings that Frankie and I decided they would work better as one.  Susan was the character who was most composited, and in retrospect I think that’s why I found her the hardest to write.  I’m currently trying to develop her further, increasing the detail in the writing (as opposed to the acting – Nora Smith gave a beautifully detailed performance and really brought the role to life).

What sort of research went into the writing? It feels like such an insider’s perspective.
Most of the research, as it turns out, was already done.  I read a few books, and played a few games at clubs, but that was more a matter of jogging my memory than producing new material.  I did have to do some reading on how to make a Swiss Rounds tournament, and I helped the actors with their research into chess, showing them both how the pieces move on the board and how players physically manipulate the pieces.  I also found transcripts of games that I helped the players learn and understand as a basis for the choreography on the board (all the games played were real games).  I refreshed my memory regarding the case back in the 90s where, at a high level Australian tournament, a man complained he was distracted by his opponent’s breasts.  But other than that, I didn’t need to do very much research.

What’s your writing process like? Do you plot and plan or just start at page 1 and work through?
My writing process is extremely chaotic, and I’m trying to regularize it.  Currently, I write when the characters start talking in my head, and I write whatever scene they happen to be in.  The first scene I wrote was a chunk in Scene 3, where Igor and Karl are playing mental chess without a board and arguing about whether last night’s soup was over-spiced, which was followed by a part of Scene 5, where Karl complains about Susan’s cleavage, six pages later. I would go weeks without writing, and then sit down and write pages of dialogue that went into the final draft practically untouched. I find it difficult to write to a set schedule, yet I don’t get anything done unless I have a deadline.  It is paradoxical, and I’m trying to train myself into the habit of regular writing, with mixed success.

Did you go through a lot of drafts? How did the play change through the development process?
I have four complete drafts saved in Dropbox, and many intermediary versions, because whenever I write something new or change something, I have to save it as a completely new version, because I sometimes make really bad decisions when editing.  But most of the scenes within the drafts haven’t changed so much as been completed, filled out with detail, words changed so it flows off the tongue.  I only completely rewrote a few scenes: one when I got stuck and translated it into iambic pentameter to fix the rhythm, and the ending, which took forever  to get right.

I was also writing the play through the rehearsal process – the script we submitted wasn’t complete, and I only made my last change one or two weeks before opening.  I continued to note changes to the script through the run for myself, and am currently running through all the things Frankie wouldn’t let me fix in rehearsal because she has compassion for actors.

How did you find your director and cast? Are they how you originally envisioned the characters?
Frankie and I went through Humber College’s Theatre Performance Program together, and always admired each other’s work, but never really got a chance to work together.  One day, about 6 months after we finished, I emailed her and said “Hey, do you want to submit that thing you’ve heard read to Summerworks?”  She said “Yeah.”  We did it to get experience submitting to festivals – neither of us had any expectation of getting in.  When we got the acceptance e-mail, we were terrified/astonished and ran screaming to Diana Belshaw for advice.

The cast was all auditioned in three grueling days, either at the two day open audition we had, or at the screened auditions Summerworks held.  Andy Trithardt, who played Simon the Arbiter, did both.  We had an exceptional pool of talent to draw from, especially for Susan – we had far more women audition than men, and only had one female role to cast (Frankie made me promise to write more women next time.  The play I’m working on now has twice as many women as men.  So there, Frankie!). That being said, all the actors we cast were specifically invited (Nora Smith and Josh Reaume went to Humber, I worked with Andy Trithardt on Shakespeare in Action’s Romeo & Juliet as an ASM, and Ephraim Ellis is a friend from elsewhere) except for Matt Gorman and Dylan George, who played Bob and Igor respectively, and even Matt I knew before, from a show we did together in Nova Scotia about a decade ago.

Your dialogue moved at Sorkin-speed, did the cast struggle wrapping their brains around the lines?
That’s a wonderful compliment!  Thank you!  And no, it wasn’t the speed they had trouble with, it was the repetition.  I tried to keep the dialogue as close to actual conversation, or at least idealized conversation, as possible, and when people talk, they repeat themselves a lot.  That kind of bouncing rhythm and the reuse of specific words is really natural once you get the hang of it, but it’s hellish to remember whether this is the fifth or seventh time you’re saying, “No,” as a complete line.

Is there much of the play that changed between the page and the stage?
Everything!  I try to confine myself to dialogue (if I wanted to write stage directions, I’d write a novel) and let other people worry about the rest.  So to see Frankie and our incredibly skilled ensemble pick the piece up and run with it, it was astonishing, and so much better than I hoped it would be.  Examples would be all the genius business with Bob’s earphones, or Karl’s head lamp.  That was all Frankie and the actors, though I’m half inclined to write the earphones into the text now.

If you’re asking how much the script changed, it changed a bit.  I was still writing when we started rehearsing, so I was adding pages, and rewriting things that didn’t work.  I asked all the actors if there was anything they wanted to see, and Andy said that after his last project, playing the Prince in Shakespeare in Action’s R&J, he wouldn’t mind some dialogue, so I wrote him a few scenes from scratch that ended up being some of the best scenes in the play.  If an actor had trouble with a line, I tended to change the line to whatever they were saying unless it was vital to say it the other way, because my goal was conversational English – I figured the problem was more likely with stilted text rather than one of our talented actors. 

What are some of the challenges of doing a show at Summerworks?
We ran into three major challenges.  The first one was organization.  I had never written a play before, Frankie had never directed, and neither of us had any experience in producing a play.  We made a number of mistakes with regards to internal deadlines, communications and delegation (ok, I made most of them, Frankie was wonderful) that I think we could avoid next time by assuming everything will take twice as long as we expect, and by making sure all our communications are archived in the same place.

The second was scheduling.  We had a cast of six, a stage manager, a director, and a playwright, three designers, and a producer, all with conflicting schedules, many of whom were working full time.  Scheduling was an absolute nightmare.  I think the scariest single moment was waiting for Dylan to show up at Zugzwang‘s opening half an hour after he closed Lysistrata.  Nerve-wracking.

The third was space.  We were running this thing on a shoestring, and didn’t really have a budget for rehearsal space, so we ended up mostly working in Frankie’s apartment, which was less than ideal for a whole pile of reasons.  We also had some rehearsals outside when it got too hot to work indoors, and Humber College graciously gave us access to studio space sometimes, but rehearsal space was a bugbear.

Oh, also, the script wasn’t finished until we were months into rehearsal.  But depending on your perspective, that could be a feature instead of a bug.  Maybe?

Do you have a favourite moment in the production?
It’s a tie between Simon the Arbiter’s opening monologue, which is actually a really hard piece that Andy delivered pitch perfectly, and the ‘musical interlude’ while they’re playing chess in the tourney.  I wanted to give the audience the experience of the tiny sounds in a tournament, but actually making them sit through an entire game would be a bit much, so I thought it would be good to make a little choreographed sound-scape.  The stage direction reads: “As they move, the clicking of the pieces on the board and of the clock being hit, the scratching of pencils on paper, coughs, creaking chairs, muttered expletives, and sound of people eating forms a piece of percussion music.”  That’s all I gave them.  Frankie left them alone for half an hour to figure it out, and they did brilliantly.  Matt’s use of the coffee cups as a drum-set was inspired.  Frankie took what they came up with, and shaped it into what you saw!  It was awesome.

What are you doing now/ what’s your next project?
Currently, I’m at York University, converting my diploma from Humber into a BFA (my academic career is long, intricate, and weird, so I won’t get into it here), but when I’m not doing first year theatre history essays, I’m mainly working on a one act play about pilots flying drones over Afghanistan.  There will be many funny parts (as there always will be when you cram bored people in their 20s and 30s into a tiny room for hours on end), but it certainly won’t be a comedy.  There’s also a puppet show based on mystery plays, and a really short dramedy about a husband and wife getting ready for bed after a fight  percolating in the back of my mind. 

Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Just that we’re delighted that you liked our show!  Thank you so much for talking to us!

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