BWW Interviews: Cast of Toronto's PIG

BWW asks the cast of PIG, "How far would you go for love?"

It's that exciting time of year again - temperatures outside may be cooling, but the Toronto theatre scene is definitely heating up. But the mercury is off the charts over at Buddies in Bad Times theatre, where things are painfully hot. Buddies, the world's largest and longest-running queer theatre, is kicking off its 35th anniversary season with a well-aimed shot to the gonads with the World Premiere of PIG. Written by talented Brit Tim Luscombe and directed by Buddies Artistic Director BrenDan Healy, this exciting and provocative play has all the markings of becoming the most talked about theatrical event of the season.

Featuring explicit language, sexuality, nudity, violence and just about every other NC-17 warning you can imagine, PIG explores boundaries in relationships and the outer limits of love within the gay community. Moving and unsentimental, it ventures into unexplored theatrical territory, following three couples as they delve into the space where the lines between shame, hatred, love, and obsession cease to exist. If that doesn't peak your interest, then take a look at the cast. Bruce Dow, Paul Dunn and Blair Williams are the brave and adventurous men forced to flex their well-chiseled acting muscles to bring this challenging story to life.

Although all three possess well-balanced resumes, each actor is best known from working at the larger festivals on classic plays; and the first of the trio, Broadway veteran Bruce Dow, is known mostly for his work on Musicals. How would they handle the grueling challenge of doing a World Premiere of this rough-and-dirty contemporary British play? In advance of their Opening Night this Thursday September 19, I sat down for a stimulating chat with the three gentlemen and found out not only how difficult it was to 'go there', but also how difficult it was just to say 'yes' to the job.

Excited and scared.

I can attest, there's nothing quite like working on a brand new play to flood you with mixed emotions. There is an uncertainty in how to proceed from every level. Sometimes the script undergoes large last-minute changes. Sometimes the director re-blocks scenes at the last minute. And unlike every other show already in existence, the actors have no roadmap of how to create their roles. The freedom of choices can actually be paralyzing, filling everyone with extra doubt. When you add all that to the explicit nature of the material, well, emotions obviously run high.

Paul Dunn, the youngest of the cast, who has performed in numerous Shakespeare plays in seven seasons of work at the Stratford Festival, explained that "agreeing to do this play scared me, but in a good way. Respectfully, you don't get to do this at Stratford; I mean, never. You don't get to live in these kinds of people. This entire process has been a negotiation of 'This is absolutely terrifying... but it could be awesome!'"

Blair Williams, a Shaw Festival regular both as actor and director, admitted that he nearly said 'no' to PIG. "Yeah, it took me like a month and a half - I postponed and postponed and postponed saying 'yes'! It was a very difficult thing for me to agree to do." And Bruce Dow, who last year shone in Buddies' OF A MONSTROUS CHILD: A GAGA MUSICAL, winning the Dora award for his outstanding performance, noted that his nerves went a step further. "I was so thrilled to be asked, because I never get a chance to do this kind of thing. But, then, I have been pooping my pants for the last three months... up until yesterday, and this morning in fact."

Famed acting teacher Lee Strasberg wrote that the basic problem for an actor is how he begins to make his material alive to himself. When one considers the explicit material of PIG, it's easy to see what is making these actors so nervous. Getting comfortable with each other became a real priority. "We were all acquainted, we'd seen each other's work, we'd met each other socially," explains Dow. "But, I mean, I haven't had my pants on for one day of rehearsal. Literally every day at rehearsal, five minutes in and my pants are off. So you just go, 'Really? Am I doing this?' It's just absurd. At this point, it's just - 'I don't care anymore'. It's fun to be committing an act of self-abuse and trying to remember your lines at the same time. It's an adventure!"

Williams, giving his best Mona Lisa smile, is happy to remain quiet, letting Dunn further explain the process of getting to the truth of these characters. "We were just talking about Bruce taking his pants down, and I'm probably taking my clothes off today; but all of those things were presented as options. (Director) Brendan (Healy) has never said 'This has to happen' in terms of any of the stuff that you'll see. Rather, he said, 'Here's the way this could go - we could do this, or we could do it this way.' It was totally up to us to go, 'No, this feels right.' Ultimately, I'm willing to put each scene where it should be - in terms of where the audience expects it to be, and in terms of where I expect it to be."

Dow also gives credit to his director's supportive touch. "I was very impressed with how respectful Brendan was of the material, and of us actors. The language of the play is very hard, but in terms of what we physically have to do, it's all very respectful. I joked earlier about my pants always being down, but I mean, I pulled them down. That's where the character has to go. And it's what he's got to do."

Another challenge facing these actors is the emotional and intellectual territory that PIG covers. Hardly a flippant piece of shock-theatre, they must convincingly present arguments that deal with the essence of being gay, about issues of identity, about desires, S&M, HIV/AIDS, and pursuing intimacy at all costs. "PIG pushes everything to extremes," adds Dow through a slightly clenched jaw. "Although the core truth of searching for love is universal, I think the intention is to shake people up a bit."

Blurred lines.

From reading the script, playwright Luscombe pushes reality so far, it appears to become illusion. Dunn expands on the idea. "There is a point where the literal representations of the subculture switch over into a metaphorical exploration of relationships, and limits, and love and death. I feel like that's where the play goes, rather than being 'Hey, look at these people who do this stuff.'"

Blair Williams continues the thought, showing the intellectual heights to which these actors can climb. "Yes, it's extremely theatrical. We go into metaphor, as Paul said, rather than portraying a literal world - it becomes an exploration of an idea, on a kind of Pirandellian plane, if you will."

Indeed, Buddies' website http://buddiesinbadtimes.com/shows/pig/ makes the claim that PIG may stand alongside such classics as ANGLES IN AMERICA and THE NORMAL HEART, and Dow backs up the claim. "I think one of the reasons why Brendan wanted to do the play was that - it's not a direct response - but it's a 'further-down-the-road' response to ANGELS IN AMERICA, which is now a period piece. It's a very important piece, a beautiful piece of writing. And it's a something that people still don't really know about. But this play (PIG) is also saying that being gay has definitely changed - a lot."

If it's true that only through an examination of the past can we begin to conceive of a hopeful future, Buddies seems to have programmed the right play at the right time. Williams pointedly speaks of how PIG reappraises attitudes toward the straight mainstream in general and the advent of civil partnerships in particular, noting that "In the play, there are arguments about why should we want hetero-conformity. Why is there a big segment of the gay community aiming for that?"

Dow passionately jumps in with both feet. "The question I think is, 'What is queer identity?' Is it fighting for equality? Does equal rights mean equal behavior? Or do you still identify yourself as sexually different? Is it the happy home of 2 parents, the child - adopted or biological - and a dog and a condo regardless of gender, or is it something else? How do you self-define in a new world? I think we think we're much further along than we really are. In specialized parts of big cities, we feel like it's all there... but it's really not."

Multiple personalities.

Have I mentioned yet that each actor also has to play several characters, often in quick succession? Dow explains his technique on handling that particular challenge. "You just have to run off stage, throw off the character, put on the other character, and run back in. It just comes from doing it. Sometimes you notice one character is creeping in on another, and we're trying to weed it all out right now, to make everything really clear and specific."

Have I also mentioned that all the characters have different dialects from across the UK? Williams happily explains that "Diane Pitblado (the resident dialect coach at Soulpepper) has been helping us with that, which has been great." Dunn adds "We had to make a decision off the top to go quite extreme with the dialects, for the North American ear. We kinda have to go... 'Posh!' then 'Cockney!' so that people can go, 'Oh, I get it, now he's this guy.'"

After a one-week workshop, three weeks of rehearsal, and one week of tech with four previews, these three brave actors appear ready to collapse. It's readily apparent that they've taken this production very seriously, noting their responsibility for giving a voice to part of the gay subculture who has never had one before. It's heavy stuff that they're lifting, and it has a cost.

Indeed, as the interview nears its conclusion I catch each man's gaze periodically drifting off, showing that they're still in the midst of processing it all. When Williams drops his guard for a moment, his vulnerability briefly shines through. "I still find the emotional terrain - and the psychological topography - to be very difficult to traverse. I had a very difficult time memorizing it because of that. It was just a really hard place to go to."

And this is why actors should be commended. For 'going there', into those hard places. For bearing their souls. For searching for the truth of the human condition, no matter how twisted or perverse. For shining a spotlight on those aspects of ourselves that we're keen to keep away from the light.

Buddies' 35th season is setting out a bold challenge to the theatre community by continuing its long-standing tradition of using the theatre to create a more compassionate and understanding society for us all. That's why I encourage you to head down to 12 Alexander Street and pick up their tickets. PIG begins previews September 14 and only runs until October 6. If you like provocative, in-your-face theatre, don't miss it.

Photo Credit: Tanja-Tiziana

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