in conversation with Amanda Shubert
Susan Coyne is best known for her work on the television show Slings and Arrows (2003-2006), about the fictional New Burbage Theater Festival, a Canadian repertory theater in small-town Ontario that specializes in the plays of Shakespeare. Coyne conceived the series, and along with writers and actors Mark McKinney and Bob Martin, wrote the screenplays for its three seasons. As Anna Conroy, the beleaguered but sweetly optimistic Assistant Executive Director of the Festival, Coyne is also the show’s funniest comedienne. (I’ve written on Slings and Arrows for Full Stop; you can read the essay here.)
A graduate of the National Theater School of Canada, Coyne acted with the distinguished company of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, on which Slings and Arrows’ New Burbage Festival is based, before co-founding the Soulpepper Theater Festival in Toronto. (Slings and Arrows actress Martha Burns is among the other founders.) She has written adaptations of two plays by Anton Chekhov, as well as an original play called Kingfisher Days, based on her memoir of the same name (it is published in the U.S. under the title In the Kingdom of the Fairies). The story of her childhood neighbor who wrote her letters as the fairy Nootsie Tah, Kingfisher Days, like Slings and Arrows, is about that spine-tingling magic that occurs when fantasy and reality, art and life, feel totally, sublimely interconnected.
Susan Coyne and I spoke over the phone about writing Slings and Arrows, the scenes that never made the cut, and convincing audiences to become children.
You began developing Slings and Arrows on your own, and then Mark McKinney was brought on board, and Bob Martin a few years later. How did the chemistry work out between the three writers?
Actually, this is fairly typical of these projects—every time you bring someone on board there’s this bump, this ownership bump. By the time we finally got working on the project, we had this amazing rapport going. By the time we started working on the second and third seasons, we had a kind of short hand together. I realize now that that’s really rare. It’s hard to achieve that kind of respect, where you do your draft and then you kind of sketch in something knowing that Bob will have a pass at that and he’ll have a better tack on that character or that particular story. To be able to work as a team is fantastically fun and exciting. And it doesn’t always happen that way. We all were going through stuff in our lives, and it’s all there in the show, actually, in one form or another. So we got to be very good friends.
It involves an amazing measure of trust to achieve that.
Yeah. And after that we got this incredible gift of getting these amazing theater actors involved as well, who completely understood the territory, and you didn’t have to explain things to them. It was really a team effort. I can’t think of a single person who wasn’t pulling in the same direction. Everybody got what it was about, and everybody, by the time we went into production, knew that the writing was at the center of the show, instead of the other way around, which is sometimes the way it works in television. So there was this great unity of vision. You could image, as could we, how badly this could have come off. I’ve been an actor most of my life, and they’re easy to satirize. That wasn’t exactly what we wanted to do—that’s the easy way out. We really wanted to show people for whom this really matters, and for them not to seem just silly for that mattering to them, which I think is more commonly what you see.
To what extent were the characters written for the actors who play them?
In the first season, not at all. We didn’t have any idea who would be playing which character. Including Mark [McKinney] and me—we didn’t cast ourselves in our roles until they were written. Then after, when we got to the second and third seasons, which were kind of unexpected gifts—we thought we only had one season—we were really able to write for actors. We had the magic of Don McKellar and that amazing character he played [ed. note: McKellar plays the spectacle-obsessed, pseudo-postmodern director Darren Nichols]. That character was kind of an afterthought by the time we came up with him in the first season, but then it was so delicious to write more for him. And also the Mark McKinney character, who in some ways is one of my favorite characters, because he goes so far on such a strange journey through all the three seasons. I thought Mark did such a wonderful job of showing a really complex character. He’s known for being a sketch comedian but he has this amazing complexity to him. Funny as that character was, I also thought he was heartbreaking.
I notice that you, Mark McKinney and Bob Martin cast yourself as the administrative types. Bob Martin plays the accountant in the first season, and you and Mark McKinney play the administrators. I always thought that was a funny joke since you’re the three people in the middle of the creative process.
That’s true! Well, we are sort of the puppet masters, too. What I adored about Anna [Conroy, Coyne’s character on the show]—and again, I didn’t cast myself until we’d written her—is that in every arts institution there is someone like that. They don’t get any glory, they know where all the bodies are buried but they’d never tell, and they’re often true believers in the institution in a way that is often quite embarrassing for those of us who want to roll our eyes about some production. Those are the people who say, “I loved it, you were wonderful, it was amazing,” and I don’t think they get enough credit for what they do, really.
If you had had one more season, which play would you have used? Do you ever talk about that?
Oh, all the time! People keep asking us for another season. We’ve sort of painted ourselves into a corner. Which we wanted to do—people kept begging us to leave ourselves an out in the final season, but we really wanted it to be about endings. It would have been a cheat if it weren’t. We wanted to have consequences to what people had been through. So we wrote ourselves out of a job!
The play I would like to do is Richard III. That’s such a funny dark play, and I have some ideas about how our characters would react to it. [Laughs.] It has a lot to do with Darren’s character. He really seems to take over at the end of the third season.
Was there something you were really attached to in the script that got cut?
Oh, there were lots of things! Anna organized a Christmas party one time. It was disastrous. There was a whole plot this one time about—do you know about these Shakespeare deniers who think the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays? That was in the second season for a long time. There was a group that was planning to kidnap Geoffrey and make him issue a manifesto about the Earl of Oxford. Those people are crazy! They’re fanatics, those people who think Shakespeare didn’t write those plays!
In a CBC interview you did in 2005, you commented that Slings and Arrows is meant to be “more Chekhov and less television.” Can you explain what you meant by that?
Chekhov is my other theater god, after Shakespeare. I think [I meant it] in the way that it’s always a hair’s breadth between laughter and pain in Chekhov. It’s so like life, and it’s so much about people…I don’t want to say failing, but not succeeding in worldly terms. Never getting the timing right for when you should have said “I love you.” It’s all that messy business of life. That’s what Chekhov is about for me. It’s all about the comedy of deep embarrassment, of saving face, let’s say, and how painful that is.
Of course, the very best television nowadays is as good as Chekhov. It’s not what you usually think of television, until recently. Things have changed on both extremes. I think we have some of the stupidest television ever, and some of the smartest television ever.
Was Chekhov an influence on your play Kingfisher Days?
I have no idea what I was doing when I was writing [Kingfisher Days]. I was basing it on my own book, and I knew I was going to have to be in it, because I just couldn’t imagine giving it away. And then I knew I was going to have to play myself as a five year old, and then I knew that it was going to have to be about time, because here I was in my forties playing a five year old, and there are so many pitfalls about how badly this could go wrong. Then I invited my friend Martha [Burns] to play the fairy and my friend Joe [Joseph Ziegler] to play Mr. Moir. I was so grateful they all signed on, because they so caught the spirit of it that I thought would be impossible to explain to anyone else. At one point I looked at Martha and I said, “You’re playing a fairy, and I’m playing a five year old. This could be career suicide.” [Laughs.] We weren’t doing it in a children’s theater either. We were doing it in the Tarragon, which is kind of like an off-Broadway theater — like the Public [Theater in New York]. It’s a place that has a lot of attention on it. It was terrifying. Anyway, I felt it really had to be not just about me as a five year old but about my life as an adult. Anybody’s life as an adult. How far we’ve come from being five years old.
You mention the sense of time in Kingfisher Days. The narrator is late for the opening of the play, and her opening monologue includes facts about cosmic time and outer space. None of that is in your memoir. Why did you make that change?
I felt I somehow had to seduce the adults into listening to a children’s story. One [influence] was a book I read about directing, which said, Try never to put too much real information in the first ten minutes, because everyone’s still getting used to the idea of being in the theater, and whether they’re comfortable or not, and whose arm is bumping up against whose. But he said that if you’ve done your job, by the end of the play the audience becomes one person. You can look out from backstage and see the faces of the people in the audience, and they’ll become like children. You’ll see them mimicking the expressions of the people on stage. I’ve had occasion to do that, including in King Lear. I was waiting to make an entrance for a curtain call, and I could watch the audience every night watching [William] Hutt, as Lear, bring Cordelia on stage [in the Stratford Theater Festival production, 1988]. I could see the magic of these adult faces becoming children, reflecting the pathos of the stage, being so unguarded. It’s a magical thing when that happens. They’ve lost their self-consciousness and they are breathing literally as one person in the audience.
How can I persuade a group of adults to become children while watching this show? I want to put them at their ease by saying, I don’t want to get into that magic stuff right away—I’m just like you, I’m freaked out about time. Being late for the opening is really kind of me—completely scattered, never quite having it together, the keys are lost, I’m in a meeting and I have to step out to deal with my son who’s burned a hole in the pot in the kitchen. I felt it was only fair to come clean. I couldn’t be the omniscient narrator right off the bat, I had to screw it up, and with the audience try to allow us all to go back and hear a simple child-like story, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious. As an actor, I felt like I had to go through the process, if the audience was going to go through it. It seemed like the only way I could feel this was going to be comfortable and honest, in a way.
It’s a hell of a thing, telling your own story. Standing up there and saying, “My name is Susan Coyne and I once had a fairy write to me.” And not have everyone gag!
It reminds me of what Geoffrey tells Oliver in the first season of Slings and Arrows, that “drama is that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment that constitutes poetic faith.” It seems that the idea of poetic faith is really vital in your work.
Stanislavski calls it “the magic if.” It’s such a lovely expression for any kind of art. It’s always the magic if.