BWW Interview: Comedic Playwright Eli Pasic on Comedy, Collaboration and Keeping Busy With Two New Works
Having two completely different shows premiere within a month of each other might be a daunting concept for many playwrights, but Eli Pasic is taking it in stride. The emerging Toronto writers' first fully produced work, the comedic farce FALSE CLAIMS, follows the story of a man who poses as his late aunt's husband in order to collect her life insurance policy and opens August 2. His nautical musical parody SOMETHING FOR THE BUOYS is set to premiere this fall.
Pasic was able to take some time away from his heavy workload to discuss his journey from musician to produced playwright, and offered an in-depth look into the differences between writing for plays versus musicals, his creative process, and an unexpected collaboration with an established Broadway composer.
SOMETHING FOR THE BUOYS and FALSE CLAIMS have both been part of Pasic's life for the last several years. He originally began with BUOYS back in 2015, and since its inception it's had three staged readings. "The actor who played the lead in the last reading was starting a theatre company with one of his friends and they approached me and said, 'Hey, we need some material that's not going to cost a lot of money,' and when they say not going to cost a lot of money, they mean free - so I told them that I've got material that no one's ever seen and we decided to work together."
His understanding of the theatre industry helped shape the show, which runs about 75 minutes and has a small cast. "It's inexpensive to do - which is why I wrote it too, because if you write for a cast of ten the producers and directors go 'What the hell? We don't have enough money for this!'"
In between working on and reworking BUOYS, Pasic began conceptualizing and creating FALSE CLAIMS in early 2017 to fill his spare time. "I was waiting for that [BUOYS] to move forward and in the meantime I thought, gee, I'd like to write a farce - I don't know why these thoughts come into my mind, but they do - and so I did that. It happened very quickly, I wrote it in a week, rewrote it in a second week, and then it just sat there for two years."
FALSE CLAIMS was left relatively untouched until last summer when Pasic's cousin (Isaiah Kolundzic) read it and wanted to come onboard as an actor and producer. The first read through happened shortly after and highlighted the work still needed before the play could be staged. "There were only about 50 pages and it ran 35 minutes and I thought, this is like a long poem - this is not a play. And so, over six or so months, I expanded it into a two-act, full length, 90-minute play. And now here we are finally putting it up!"
Pasic's creative process, in which he spends most of his time thinking about the details and nuances of a story rather than writing, allows him to fully flesh out his works early on in the writing process. "Perhaps in a way I don't even know, subconsciously, it's good - you know, these things never leave your brain. All I know is last August when we read it and it was short, we thought, gee, we're going to have to make it bigger. From last August to when I finished it in February I just kind of sat there for five and a half months thinking, I don't know what to do, I can't do this, we should just give up this whole idea now. And then all of a sudden something clicked, and everything happened within five days and then it was done. That's how I work anyways - I think about things for a while and then get it done quickly. I wish I knew how it worked - I could probably write more!"
Pasic's two works might be different forms of theatre, but they have a few things in common - one, that they're both rooted in comedy, and two, that he has had some level of involvement in the staging and production of both. "[With FALSE CLAIMS] my process was that I sat in on the auditions with the creative team. It's sometimes very obvious who is right for the part if you're all on the same page, which we all were. As soon as someone came in - for example, one of the ladies who plays the mother of one the characters - we all thought, yep, that's the one! It's very easy and effortless when it's very easy and effortless - and when it's not it can be a pain in the ass."
"For BUOYS, that is something I'm going to be directing, so I'm going to be much more involved than I am with FALSE CLAIMS. Also, it's a musical so it's strange because when I walk into the theatre to see a play I always think, 'Where's the orchestra?' There is always something that seems to be missing when I see a straight play. But then when I work on a musical it's like, 'Oh, I have to pay for an orchestra now?' You know, you always want the one you don't have."
And if working on a musical and play simultaneously wasn't enough, Pasic also undertook a collaboration with composer Henry Krieger of DREAMGIRLS and SIDE SHOW fame.
"Working with him was wonderful, and making that connection was a total surprise to me. A few years back in 2015 I was playing piano at Jazz Bistro almost every night and during the day I was writing musicals. So, I put up some staged readings of my shows to serve two purposes - one, to learn how to write comedy. You have to put it up in front of an audience and if they laugh it's funny, if they don't it's not. And the other purpose with these readings was to introduce myself to local producers, directors, agents, anyone who would come, just to get my name out. For the third reading I put up in 2016 I asked Louise Pitre, a famous Canadian musical theatre actress, if she would play one of the lead parts. I thought if her name was on the program it might increase people coming ten-fold, and I thought it'd be wonderful to work with her. She had agreed, but then complications came up and she had to drop out."
"It just so happens that the director was able to hire a performer named Deborah Joy, and I didn't know her but we worked together, did the show, and it went well. And then after she said, 'By the way, my brother-in-law [Krieger] happens to write Broadway musicals and he's always looking for a lyricist. Do you mind if I send him your work?' He phoned me up one day, we had a conversation, and then he said to me 'Why don't you try to write some lyrics and then I'll set them to music, and we can see what happens?'"
The duo began working together, which led to Krieger asking Pasic to find a short story in public domain to support a long-term collaboration. Pasic stumbled across a novella written by Christopher Morley in 1917, and it sparked something in him. "It's about this farm lady who's bored with her life and she wants to go and do her own thing. I thought it was great, one lead actor with a strong desire, so we started writing it and it went wonderfully. We finished [I'LL TAKE IT!] four months later and the next summer [2017, 100 years after the inspiration's initial publication] it had a reading in New York, and then shortly after that it skipped the part where it goes to production and went straight to a publishing house for Broadway licensing."
"The funny part of it all was I would have pulled the plug on that reading when Louise dropped out. I thought it was awful, but it turned out it was the best thing that could have happened - otherwise I wouldn't have met Henry."
It could be said that Pasic's career has been a bit of a whirlwind over the last four years, but he's been able to remain grounded and positive throughout it all. "You know, the full schedule doesn't really bother me. I was sitting in a rehearsal once and we were just going, going, going, and the director turned to me and said 'Take a break,' and I said 'This is my break!' It's fun, is what I'm trying to say - as busy and as hectic as it is, it's a lot of fun for me. There are problems here and there, but ultimately, I just think, 'I'm going to die in about 50 years, I might as well do what I enjoy.'"
Eli Pasic's FALSE CLAIMS runs from August 2 to August 11 at the Alumnae Theatre, 70 Berkeley Street, Toronto, ON.
For more information or to buy tickets, visit https://falseclaims.simpletix.com/
Pasic's SOMETHING FOR THE BUOYS will premiere October 6 and run to October 20 at the George Ignatieff Theatre, 15 Devonshire Place, Toronto, ON. Tickets will be available for purchase closer to the show's opening.
Photo courtesy of Eli Pasic and Emily Dix