Michael Ross Albert is one of my favourite playwrights full stop; the fact that he’s local, indie, and extremely prolific is just a bonus. His Best New Work-nominated play The Huns, a blistering three-hander about a toxic workplace with a cast of 12 offstage characters on speakerphone, which he also produced, was his third hit Toronto Fringe show in two years. His work has garnered 15 Critics’ Pick Award nominations in just three years. He’s also just a really good dude.
Catch us up on your life since the 2017 Interview Series in 2018, for Tough Jews.
2018 was good. I started teaching at the University of Waterloo as a guest instructor / instructor of record, and was there for a semester. At that time, Cass Van Wyck got into the Fringe Festival and asked if I would write a play for her to perform, and I wrote Anywhere, which Cass produced with myself, with Dave Lafontaine directing, and Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster acting in it. That happened at the Fringe simultaneously with a new production of The Grass is Greenest at the Houston Astrodome. I had a two-show Fringe year, which was insane and great. Both of the shows were well-received. They both sold out their runs, which was amazing.
Then I started doing some work concurrently with that. I was doing other writing work that is in various stages of development as of now, and then in the winter of that year Cass found out she got into the Fringe Festival again, and I wrote The Huns specifically for her to perform, and that went really great. We had an excellent time at the Crow’s Theatre, doing the show. I’m spending the year working on a bunch of projects [laughs] in various stages of development. It’s a big writing year ahead.
Houston Astrodome was fascinating to me because my understanding of that is that it’s a play you have in your portfolio that somebody picked up and was like, “Let’s do this.”
It had had a production. It was done in the New York Fringe Festival in 2015, maybe? And it’s published. Lauren MacKinlay [producer / performer] – who was obviously terrific in it, and spearheaded the production of the Canadian premiere – had been using a monologue from the play as an audition monologue for a while, and approached me about doing it in the Toronto Fringe, and I said, “Great, go ahead!”
Do you have all these plays that people could theoretically peruse through and just do a Michael Ross Albert play without you having to write a new one? Is there a whole body of work here?
This was about it. I did the New York Fringe Festival five times, and one of those plays I probably wouldn’t let anyone do. [laughs] One of those plays was The Grass is Greenest. One of those plays is For a Good Time, Call Kathy Blanchard, which was done at the Next Stage Festival. One of them is Miss, which was done at Unit 102, and the other is an adaptation of a 1950’s sci-fi drama which I don’t think I have the right to license to people.
The plays have had Toronto productions, and I do have plays in drawers that I would love to see done under the right circumstances, but these New York fringe works have, for the most part, all been now done in Toronto as well.
So Cass comes to you with her second Fringe slot in a row, which is statistically very improbable…
What’s your first reaction?
My first reaction to the text message was “Fuck off.” I could not believe she got in a second year in a row. Also, it felt like we had just finished winding down from Anywhere.
The next reaction was, “Okay, what do we do?” With Anywhere, I had had the idea for a two-hander with these characters for a little while, and our agreement was that Cass come in and give me free rein, saying it should be a portable Fringe-style, Fringe-sized show. But other than that, there were really no parameters, and this time around, we had a few more involved conversations about the tone. Knowing or feeling like there might be some expectation following a show that was well-received, we wanted to do something that was a different genre. So in the same style, but a bit funnier. And something that involved a third cast member, but also spoke to this generation, specifically. So there was more consideration given to the content of the piece immediately.
Was The Huns as a concept something you were kicking around, or something you wanted to write about previously? Or did you develop the story and the actual idea after you decided to do this Fringe show with Cass?
I think it was all happening all at one time; I was not teaching that semester, and had been temping. I was in office jobs, and I wanted to write something that was set around a conference table that highlighted the absurdity [laughs] and also the agony and ecstasy of this environment. Charting a dance of passive-aggression, of people that know each other very intimately as co-workers, but ultimately are strangers to one another. That was percolating at the time that Cass got in, and so it was a perfect excuse, if you will, to just go for it.
So obviously you wrote the part for Cass. Did you have two other people in mind when you were writing, or did you write and then cast the other two characters?
I wrote and then cast. We did auditions for those roles. It was an invited audition, and really, everyone we asked would have been amazing in the part. There’s such a wealth of talent, specifically among the indie theatre community that Cass and I frequent and are a part of. So I didn’t have the specific actors in mind, but I knew they would be amazing. Which they were!
The play presents as a three-hander but there’s 15 characters in all, is that right?
Yeah. There are a dozen voices.
And you’ve had to build different worlds as satellite offices. How did you keep everything straight and make sure that all of those off-stage presences felt as real as the people in front of us?
I definitely had a cheatsheet I created, who I thought these people were. We also spoke about that in rehearsal with Marie Farsi, the director. I gave her my understanding of the breakdown of what each of these satellite offices does, and what these characters’ different involvement would be like. And we do sort of imagine together what those characters are going though while their phone is on mute and the play is taking place. So in the writing process, I did have to keep it straight for myself on a pad and paper next to my laptop.
The pre-recorded cast of The Huns was probably the biggest all-star collective the Fringe has ever seen. Walk me a little bit through that casting process and how Andy Trithardt’s sound design came into play.
The first member of the creative team to be hired was Andy Trithardt. We immediately knew how intricate the sound design needed to be, and Marie and I had a very long conversation about who should play who. It was not as if we did just ask friends to come in and read for a bit. They all were directed by Marie. They only received their lines and a little bit of context, but the casting involved a maybe three hour-long conversation about who we would approach in order to come in and do these little cameo recordings.
Also, we wanted Andy to have a role. I wanted Marie to have a role herself. Looking back on it now and knowing the characters, the off-stage characters intimately, I think everyone was perfect for it, but we did have a long involved conversation about who we should approach for each of them.
On the topic of the people on speakerphone, let’s take a minute; this is your opportunity to gush about Aidan Hammond. Go!
Amazing. So Aidan Hammond was the superhero stage manager that came down from another planet and somehow made our lives insanely easy. I started writing a piece and knew what I had hoped the magic trick would feel like. At one point, I thought, “I don’t know if we can pull this off in a Fringe Festival setting,” but I am so glad that there are people out there willing to work in a Fringe setting, who are capable of pulling it off.
The sound design was recorded before rehearsals began. Those roles might actually have been cast before the onstage characters. I’m trying to think of my timeline, but it was very, very early. So we entered rehearsals with these recordings that Andy and Marie had finessed. Basically, we had a bunch of different takes which Marie and Andy decided on, in terms of how the thrust of the scene would play out. Throughout rehearsal, on top of being a stage manager, Aidan was calling cues, live with the actors, so she found the rhythm of the piece alongside them, and then as soon as an audience came in, had to throw everything out and play to the room, just like an actor would. So it was a remarkable feat of extraordinary stage management.
I’ve had this question since seeing the show. What’s with the title? What does The Huns mean?
There’s a running theme of barbarians invading; the idea being that we seem to be at the height of civilization, like the Roman Empire [laughs] which was torn apart by these invading barbaric forces. The Huns. The question being whether or not it’s these people on the outside, the very obvious burglar who’s come in and pillaged the office, or if it’s these so-called civilized people that create this society that are in fact the more barbaric of the bunch.
What directors tend to say about working on your scripts is that you’re very hands-off, but you were producing this one. How involved were you in the room, and how much of the piece was shaped ultimately by Marie and the room?
I would say the majority of it was shaped by Marie. She and I had a really wonderful working relationship. We had long discussions about the script, and she checked in with me throughout table work and the early days of rehearsal, just making sure it was how I had envisioned it.
I am very comfortable when the collaboration is as strong as I’ve been lucky enough to work with, and Marie, Dave Lafontaine, Benjamin Blais [director of Tough Jews] – I’m very happy to hand it off and let them run with it. So it feels as though I wasn’t in the room a lot. That might not be the case, but I’ve learned to trust directors, and if beats were not motivated the way I thought they should be, it would be a conversation that Marie and I had, and she was always willing to try things with the actors. But ultimately, the ball was in her court for the majority of the rehearsal period.
Tell me a little bit about the producing side of things. What are some of the biggest challenges and rewards working within the Fringe model?
A challenge for any Fringe piece is distinguishing one’s production among 200 shows each year. I have no idea why I got so lucky and have had buzz around the productions that I have created in the shows.
With The Huns, we sort of felt as though it was coming, with the success of Anywhere’s production and response. We knew early on that we were on lists of shows to see. We were getting recommendations. But it does take a while to get to that point in one’s Fringe career, and so I think that’s hard.
I make a point of seeing shows each year of artists that I don’t know or have heard of, but whose work I haven’t seen, and it takes a lot of word-of-mouth and effort and stick-to-it-tiveness in order to distinguish oneself in that setting, because there’s so much stuff to see. So that’s one of the biggest challenges, and one of the biggest rewards is that people that don’t go to theatre go to the Fringe. We got such enthusiastic responses from people that say, “I hate the theatre, but this blew me away.”
“I accidentally stumbled into this building.”
[laughs] I guess because it’s taking part in a festival, it’s not as though they have spent $35 to see something, to see a Shakespeare play. To a degree, they’re taking a risk on something that is part of something bigger, that they think might be cool or hip – but I think it’s not the traditional theatre-going audience, and being able to see a full house of people that don’t know what you can accomplish in the theatre, responding to what you’re accomplishing in the theatre, is really rewarding.
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
I have so many. There is definitely a moment where the Montreal team on the phone says they’re gonna put their phone on mute, and the group onstage begins to talk, but the Montreal team has clearly not put their phone on mute and is continuing to speak to one another in French. [laughs] I thought that little detail was delightful.
The individual performances – there’s so much blather, there’s so much talk going on. And so much happens in the subtext between the three characters, and the three of them were able to create these relationships where everyone has a lot of bluster, and a lot of words to say to one another, and there’s so much unsaid that seemed very clear, given their performances.
What were you hoping audiences would take away from The Huns?
I hoped they would all quit their jobs [laughs] and smash their laptops. Really, I wanted people to realize that we work too hard – that we invest too much of ourselves into silliness. That the system is unfair [laughs] and that it’s taken a real toll on our mental health, collectively, the way we interact with one another. The pettiness over day-to-day bullshit. I was hoping that people would recognize themselves in the madness of this.
What are you working on now or next?
[Editor’s Note: This interview was recorded before COVID-19]
In the immediate future, I’m making a film. So my dear friend Anne van Leeuwen has breast cancer, and is not working on anything artistic at the moment, and she’s one of my favourite actresses and friends and artistic collaborators. So I’ve written a screenplay to make in her apartment, and this awesome cast is gonna come in. It’s basically a stage play, but for film. [laughs] I don’t know what to expect in terms of making a movie, and showing it to people, but it is at the moment a passion project that’s happening any second now, hopefully. That’s the next immediate thing.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Gratitude. This production, like with all productions, I felt very lucky to work with the collaborators that take the time to not audition for commercial projects, and work on something where they may not necessarily make a ton of money, but will have a really good time making art with me. I feel very lucky and grateful to all of them, so that’s the note I’m ending on.