BWW Interview: Rebecca Northan And Bruce Horak Talk Comedy, Codes, and Collaboration at Alberta Theatre Projects
In anticipation of Zorro: Family Code's world premiere at Alberta Theatre Projects (on November 30th 2018), I sat down with two of the show's creators to talk about who Zorro is and what it means to have a code.
Rebecca Northan and Bruce Horak are two thirds of the creative team (including Christian Goutsis) who have come together for projects such as Slipper: A Distinctly Calgarian Christmas Story, Undercover, and An Undiscovered Shakespeare. Now, they're taking you back to the age of swashbuckling adventures for a story of what happens after Zorro's happily ever after.
As director and co-creator, Rebecca Northan told me: "It's the story of a middle-aged Zorro who encounters a Zorro imposter and he is a bit threatened by that."
"And the meat of it is about the code." Sound designer and co-creator Bruce Horak added. "The hero code: That Zorro never kills (which is a typical kind of classic hero trope from the 50s and 60s) ... Zorro will never sink to their level and [we see] what happens when he encounters someone who will."
Northan continued. "There's also the sticky issue of when you're a masked vigilante who's also a single dad; how do you balance parenthood with super heroism?"
As the two of them are quite well known for their improvisation and comedic art (both nationally nominated for their work), I had to ask about the type of show Calgary audiences would be in for.
Northan laughed. "Improv is not the only thing we do...It's exactly what you think it is. We're not making fun of Zorro, it's not a panto(mime). We're not bringing an audience member up to do sword fights...I'm a big believer in "what is the implied promise?" So if I say to you: we're doing Robin Hood, you immediately have an idea of what that might be. If you then show up and Robin Hood now has laser guns and a space ship, you then go: "okay, you've got 30 seconds to sell me on this or I'm gonna be dissatisfied" because I've now broken a promise. So when I say Zorro, there's an implied promise. You know, there better be some Spanish, some sword fighting... And I think in a lot of modern retellings of Zorro, there's also an implied sense of humor and that's really were Bruce and Christian and I excel. So, whether we're doing scripted or improvised stuff, we like to make the people laugh."
Rebecca went on to tell me about how this particular comedy came about.
"I think, based on the success of Slipper which we did a few years ago, we got asked to come and reproduce the magic...I found a list of titles in the public domain and on this particular list, there was Zorro and I thought "what? No! How can that be?" and so I did more research and I found that there is this whole controversy over who owns the rights to Zorro."
She told me all about the sordid past involved with the rights holders of the character Zorro and how they got permission to write their story.
Author Johnston McCulley sold the rights to famous actor Douglas Fairbanks in order for him to create the 1920 silent film: The Mark of Zorro. The success of the film prompted McCulley to write more stories for his character. In 1949, McCulley then sold the rights to Mitchell Gertz for his radio drama: The Adventures of Zorro. When he died, Gertz passed on the rights to his children who created Zorro Productions Inc. While Fairbanks copyright lapsed into the public domain in 1999, there is now a dispute over whether it is truly public domain or if ZPI in fact owns all the rights to the character moving forward from 1977. His son, John Gertz is still the president of the company and spoke with Rebecca about representing Zorro on the stage.
"God bless the Americans, they're creative capitalists in the entertainment industry so [he said]: "what do I have to lose? Try it out, send me the script. This is my brand, I'll protect it, but run with it."...And I think, our thinking was: do you want to possibly tangle with cease and desist letters? Etc. You know, being the Canadians we are, we're like: why argue? who wants the fight?"
Moving into the rehearsal room, changes to the script were inevitable but with ZPI giving them the go and a readiness to work, their time before heading onstage seems to have been a lot of fun.
Horak told me: "We're definitely adding more jokes. We're cutting some lines to make room for sword fights. It's Zorro so you want to see a lot of fights...We've got some killer improvisers who are coming up with better material than us."
Northan then added "I think Tyrell (Crews) coined the phrase yesterday: "I'm auditioning lines on a daily basis." And that's fine. Because we always work collaboratively and we often start in improv as we move towards a script. We invite the actors to keep playing. And you know, sometimes the way I would word a joke doesn't sit well in the mouth of a particular actor and they go "what if I said it this way? What if I reverse this?" We're super happy with that. And there's very funny people in the room. So, you know, why not invite all the creative funny people to contribute in any way?"
Of course, sitting down to write the script isn't always easy, and collaboration definitely helps.
"Just like I did assignments in high school," Northan said "I leave it to the last minute to force myself to do it. And then Bruce and I will usually work in Google Docs. So sometimes, I book him has my writing babysitter and he literally makes coffee and sits across from me and goes "keep writing". But he's watching and then he'll go "hmm, what about this for the joke." ...and we will also improvise a scene out loud with each other and go "is it this? No it's not that." And then type it up."
Horak added "It was such a delight in this process, too - and with Slipper, as well - in that we knew the people who were playing the roles. So we got an idea of their voices. You can get the cadence or the style or the flair of that actor - imagining them in the role - and it makes it so much easier to write it, versus writing for a nebulous person."
Zorro: A Family Code, is very much what's on the poster: A family show. And both Northan and Horak have such diverse resumes, including a few family shows such as the aforementioned Slipper. So I asked them what they loved so much about writing theatre for the entire family.
Horak answered "I like working in family stuff because you get to broaden the humor and the scale of it. You know, putting stuff in there for really little kids - lots of action and adventure - and then throw in a few, I wouldn't say adult jokes, but something for the parents. See how much the kids are actually gonna get and if the kids get it, it's not our fault."
Nothan laughed, then added. "It is that wonderful challenge of, you know, writing on all those levels. And then I think there's also hope that you're planting the seed of future theatre lovers. That if you have a positive experience with your family, that'll stick in there somewhere. And somewhere around the age of 21 or 22, it might occur to you to like, plan a date at the theatre."
"And there's nothing like, you know, we've done a number of the family shows with ATP, and there really is nothing like the sound of the families all arriving and the kids are so excited. Little cupcakes running around."
All three creators are in the room during rehearsals wearing different "hats". While Goutsis and Horak are working to create incredible sound design, Northan is also directing this production. I wondered if they ever struggled with taking on those different roles.
"No I think I'm pretty wholistic." Northan told me. "I'll switch hats maybe, I'll make jokes as the director. I'll say: I don't know who wrote this play but there's a real problem in the script here. I wonder what the writer was thinking. This is a really bad piece of writing let's change it; don't tell the writer."
Especially with a show for all ages like Zorro: Family Code, there is a message or a central theme that the writers want their audience to take away. Who better to ask than those writers.
"I want there to be a conversation of "what's our family code?"" Northan said. "If we want to be the positive change in the world, let's start at the dinner table. And so, what's our code of conduct that governs who we are as a family, whether we're together or off on our own at different points, how are we moving through the world? We say things like "the code is coming from a place of love and acting in kindness and gentleness" and defending life because all life is valuable. What's your family code? I would love that to be the conversation on the way home."
"Wow. Good answer."
"Top that, Horak."
"Merchandise. What I want them to take away."
"And understand that swords are dangerous."
"This is what I loved about Zorro," Horak told me. "which I read as a comic book, is this notion of having a code. And that we've gotten away from that more and more...and I think that's a very good conversation to have. Especially with kids."
Northan added. "Or even just with yourself. You don't have to have kids to enjoy Zorro - and you don't even need to have the intention of "well someday I'll have a family." We all have chosen families which are equally as important. But even just the conversation with yourself...If I was gonna be heroic in some small, mundane way, what's my code?"
Nationally renowned comedians, I asked them what I thought would give me a straight forward answer: What is your secret to writing accessible comedy?
As I asked, our interview was interrupted by a friendly face: actor Andy Curtis who came over to greet his friends. After exchanging pleasantries, and a few stories I cannot share, Northan asked him the same question. What is the secret to writing accessible comedy?
"Be funny, be accessible." He said. "Have a lot of practice at it. Do it quickly. Trust yourself. Trust that it's funny. If you think it's funny probably somebody will. It's worked in the past."
After Andy went off to his own rehearsal (at One Yellow Rabbit Performance Theatre), we continued to discuss their approach to comedy.
Northan said "Well, we try to make each other laugh. We like our comedy very serious. If you have some open-heart moments and the comedy in contrast to that, the volume gets turned up a little bit. Because we all need to have a little bit of a laugh after we have a little "aww". Comedy is just having fun. It's like, what's fun for us? Bruce and I have been working with each other since we were 19 and really early on, one of our artistic codes was: if we're having fun, we hope that translates to the audience. And so we've always had misbehavior and that would be a hallmark." As we wrapped up our conversation, she confided. "When you're up there, locked in the rehearsal hall, it's easy to think: is this any good at all? Is anyone going to want to watch this?"
Horak concluded by saying: "We got a show."
And indeed they have. I was able to sit in on rehearsal to watch their work come to life with the incredible group of actors. In one scene, I knew exactly the type of show audiences could look forward to: adventure, comedy, drama, and a lot of heart.
Zorro: A Family Code, created by Rebecca Northan, Bruce Horak, and Christian Goutsis, stars Mabelle Carvajal, Lucian-River Mirage Chauhan, Kevin Corey, Tyrell Crews, Derek Flores, and Natasha Strickey. Previews begin on Tuesday November 26th and runs through Christmas until December 30th.
Tickets can be purchased at www.atplive.com or by calling 403.294.7402