Theater of the absurd to them is just life

Times Staff Writer

Almost a decade ago, three Canadian actor-writers sat down at a kitchen table in Toronto to develop a TV series about a dysfunctional Shakespearean theater troupe. They weren't worried about coming up with material. Bob Martin, Susan Coyne and Mark McKinney each had known or observed enough romance, jealousy, terror and hilarity in their careers to have developed "a love-hate thing with the theater," Martin said.

But how to present it? "We joked that we didn't know if it was a dramedy or a comerama," McKinney said. Finally in 2003 Canadian television premiered Season 1 of "Slings & Arrows" in which the artistic director of the fictional New Burbage Theatre Festival, lying drunk in the street, is killed by a pig truck bearing the slogan "Canada's Best Hams." His ghost haunts his replacement for the rest of the series.

More than a satire, less than a tragedy, "Slings & Arrows" has become an unlikely success story on this side of the border, where the Sundance Channel has aired Seasons 1 and 2. After U.S. critics and viewers responded even more enthusiastically than Canadians, the channel opted to help produce Season 3, which will premiere Sunday.

The irony, Martin said, is that the whole idea behind doing the series in the first place was that nobody wants to see Shakespearean plays anymore. "How do you sell these 400-year-old plays to a modern audience?" he said. "Here we made a TV series about it and people are dying to see it."

Nevertheless, the players said the third season will be the last.

When anyone asks executive producer Niv Fichman why the miniseries turned out so well, he says it was directly related to the lack of money.

The Canadian Broadcasting Co. financed the initial development but backed out just days before the deadline for other funding grants. Forced to scramble, the team cobbled together a group of three smaller networks willing to finance the project -- but with only two-thirds of its original budget. "In the end, it was perfect for us," he said. "The more money you have, the more you have to please networks and advertisers. We never had to deal with that."

Besides more lenient standards for language and nudity, the writers had the luxury of time, he said. "The shows you guys have put 20 people in a room, and tell them, 'We need the first script next week.' We'd say, 'Could you have a draft by next December?' " he said, affecting a timid voice, "... March?' "

Some things went back and forth 20 times over a period of a few years. "You end up with a lot of details and thought."

And personal revelation. "Most of the time in writing sessions, we talked about what was going on in our personal lives," Martin said. "We were all the same age. All the midlife crisis stuff. How to make relationships work. It was a great therapy process."

It also allowed the writers to complete the scripts before filming began, a rarity in Hollywood.

The writers constructed the miniseries as an 18-episode triptych, with the six-episode seasons representing youth, middle age and old age, respectively, as the players stage "Hamlet," "Macbeth" and "King Lear."

"It's not a lesson in Shakespeare," Martin said. "It's more about how the scenes in these great plays are still relevant and reflected in the modern lives of these individuals."

And its humor turned on the contrast between the Shakespearean drama and the personal drama of the players. "The weight of Hamlet's tragedy thrown into relief against whether or not someone's going to get audited by the tax department just kind of immediately becomes funny," said Paul Gross, who plays the lead, Geoffrey Tennant, the likable, unstable and haunted artistic director.

The quality of the scripts attracted the cream of Canadian creatives willing to work for scale. They included Gross ("Due South") and his wife, Martha Burns, who plays his on-again, off-again girlfriend. McKinney ("Kids in the Hall," "Saturday Night Live" and "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip") plays the festival's bean counter, Richard Smith-Jones, and Coyne plays his assistant, who can't remember the meaning of "black coffee."

Many players had ties to Canada's Stratford Festival, the largest Shakespeare festival in North America, and with one another. As a result, real-life parallels abound on the show. For instance, Oliver Welles, the ghost/director, is played by Stephen Ouimette, a former Stratford Festival director. And a young American movie star invited to play "Hamlet" recalls a Keanu Reeves performance in Winnipeg.

The most moving parallel, Fichman said, arose when producers were contacted by Canada's most famous Shakespearean actor, William Hutt, who is 86. "He'd been following the show," Fichman said. "He wanted to participate in some way. We said we'd write a character for him."

His character is an aging, sick, venerated and perfectionist actor who wants to play King Lear again before he dies.

"He knew full well what he was doing," Fichman said. "Everyone was aware this character and Bill were intermingled. That pursuit of excellence, it's Bill's own pursuit of excellence, often misinterpreted as grumpiness.

"It was a big decision for him, he wasn't well. He couldn't spend as much time as the others."

Other cast members took over his duties so he could go home early. At a cast screening, Hutt was seen sobbing at the end of the final episode. "He was so happy, though it was such a strain for him to do," Martin said. The actor had once performed "a seminal" Lear at the Stratford Festival but was never filmed, Fichman said. "There it was on-screen and there it is forever. It went way beyond making TV or movies. He embraced his own fate somehow through this."

Canada reconsiders

At January's Television Critics Assn. press tour, a small contingent from "Slings & Arrows" noticed with some satisfaction how the attending Canadian critics, once dismissive, now seemed proud of their countrymen's show, clearly adored by the U.S. reporters.

"The response in Canada was typically Canadian -- lukewarm and in some quarters downright hostile," Fichman said. "Canadians were going, 'Oh, no, not another Canadian thing.' " Even some of those who rolled their eyes at first "are writing really nice stuff now," he said.

When Sundance aired the series in August 2005, it was "an unexpected gift in the TV landscape," said Laura Michalchyshyn, Sundance Channel's head of programming. "No one can believe it's a series not financed in this country. People were begging us for DVDs.

"It set a bar for us, in terms of scripted series we will present. We are seriously lobbying the group to come up with Season 4."

The creative decision to make a three-season miniseries is the most compelling reason to stop, Fichman said. Another is financial. "We couldn't afford to pay anybody anymore," he said. "People were having fun, they loved it. After a while, those things start to turn sour. I didn't want to be at the helm of a bunch of grumpy people who feel underpaid. It's better to go out on a high."

And some fear it would be impossible to recapture the alchemy of the first seasons.

On the other hand, a movie or spinoffs are other matters entirely. McKinney said he finds spinoff possibilities intriguing. "Some ideas were left on the table -- it would be interesting to go back and explore them."

While the characters in the first series were looking back on long histories in the theater, another perspective might be to focus on younger characters and "the first successes and failures that start to define you," he said.

"For me, it's this marvelous opportunity to talk about my life in the arts so far. The more you get into the life of the theater, the stranger it gets. You show up to do a play, walk into a room full of strangers and make yourself emotionally available. In the corporate world, you do it once at a retreat. In the theater, that's your life."

lynn.smith@latimes.com

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