July 11, 2009

Ever watch Slings & Arrows?

It was a fantastic Canadian TV series about a struggling theatre festival, one which provided a virtual checklist of all the various types of theatre people one encounters onstage and off. If you've never seen it, get thee to a video store and rent yourself the DVD box sets of its tragically short three-season run. You're sure to recognize types of people you know in it, and hopefully also recognize yourself in there somewhere.

One could very easily make a personality test out of analyzing the show - "Which Slings & Arrows character Are You?" or some such similar Facebookish quiz. The three main male characters in Slings & Arrows (not counting the dead guy, Oliver, whose ghost haunts the theatre) couldn't be more different from each other. There's:

  • Geoffrey Tennant, who is fanatically dedicated to Shakespeare and bitterly opposed to large, corporate theatre. He has nothing but disdain for Broadway musicals.

  • Darren Nichols, a profoundly pretentious avant-garde director whose idea of theatre is aligned much closer with what one might call Dadaist performance art. Has nothing but disdain for Shakespeare, and Broadway musicals.

  • Richard Smith-Jones, who runs the Festival and is very excitable about the business end of theatre. Doesn't really care about any kind of theatre but Broadway musicals.

    Call it pan-determinism, call it schizophrenia, but I find myself easily capable of identifying strongly with all three of these men.

    Although Geoffrey is presented to us as the show's ostensible hero, he's actually just as much an unlikable jerk as the others. He has no patience or understanding of other forms of theatre that lie outside his narrow scope, and has the unfortunate and antiquated view that anything big is automatically bad. Darren is even more arrogant than Geoffrey if that's conceivable, but at least he creates something new and exciting, with no forethought to whether it might suck or not.

    And though Darren scoffs at Shakespeare's works as "dead text", he at least has a cursory knowledge and understanding of Shakespeare. I doubt Geoffrey understands the works of Artaud or Brecht, or has even tried. (Heck, I doubt Geoffrey could even sit through the SITI Company's production of Charles Mee's Under Construction, which I daresay was the most awe-inspiring piece of "Rough Theatre" it's ever been my privilege to witness.)

    Richard, though he may be a nerdly bean-counter in a suit and tie, actually loves the theatre, for its own sake, as entertainment, and not for the brooding, artsy, and lugubrious reasons that Geoffrey and Darren do. Even though he's largely presented as the show's villain, I actually sympathize with him greatly for his dogged and thankless efforts to keep his theatre business afloat. This is something that goes unappreciated by reactionary prima donnas like Geoffrey and Darren.

    And yet, together, these people synergistically add up to something greater than the sum of their parts. If only they could learn to recognize how and why they need each other's existence to balance their own (you know, like William Shatner did when he was split into a good Kirk and a bad Kirk during a transporter malfunction in Star Trek), then who knows what new heights of greatness they could scale together even though they hate each other's guts?

    There's a lesson in there somewhere. Maybe.

    Contact the author at jshpaint@gmail.com

    Jeffrey Scott Holland is the Artistic Director for Catclaw Theatre Company, author of Weird Kentucky on Sterling Press, and painter whose works have been exhibited worldwide. Visit him on the web at jshla.com