Dan Bray: Bringing Back Those Old School Jacobean Classics

There are certain people who wear their particular passions outwardly, like a multicolored vest. I know that my eyes sparkle with extra delight, and I become over-zealous when certain discussions of musical and Canadian theatre crop up, especially if they are unexpected. While I was studying at the University of Toronto, I quickly noticed that a fellow student named Dan Bray would perk up significantly whenever the words “Shakespeare” or “Elizabethan” or “Early Modern” were uttered. Therefore, I was not particularly surprised when he told me of his theatre company, Vile Passeist Theatre, and its production of The Duchess of Malfi playing until August 29th at the Walmer Centre Theatre.

I was eager to speak to Dan about his new company and this production because he is quite knowledgeable, delightful and has a fun sense of humor. We used the power of email correspondence to conjure up this interview for you! I hope you enjoy it.

Amanda Campbell (AC): Who are you, where are you from and how did you get so talented? Also, where did your interest in early modern drama stem from?

Dan Bray (DB): My name’s Dan. I’m a Masters Candidate at the University of Toronto’s Graduate Centre for Study of Drama (just like Amanda!), and I’m from a bunch of places. My earliest memories are in Stratford ON, where I attended Falstaff Elementary and would have continued on to either Romeo or Juliet Middle School, and finally King Lear High School, if I hadn’t moved down the road to the rural hamlet (ha!), Mitchell. There, I had my first encounter with Shakespeare in the form of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I can’t explain it (and I’ve tried), but I immediately felt a connection with the text. The next year, I landed the part of Francis Flute in the school play but moved just after the first rehearsal (alack!). Then my family and I moved to a Nova Scotian stretch of road called Kempt Shore, where I had the pleasure to work with a succession of really great English teachers who taught me some of the plays that (I still think) are of most interest to high school students (Romeo & Juliet, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, Othello); this good fortune continued into my undergrad, where I had the opportunity to work with the likes of Roberta Barker, Christina Luckyj, Ron Huebert, and John Baxter.
AC: How did the idea for Vile Passeist Theatre Company come about? What is the significance of Vile Passeist?

DB: As any reader of Amanda’s blog knows, she and I were involved in U of T’s Futurist Cabaret, which (obviously) placed a great emphasis on the works of Filipipo Tommaso Marinetti, who slammed all forms of classical theatre in his manifesto, calling it (among other things) “vile” and “passéist.” Now, not to insult any Futurists amongst your readership, but when I was working on the cabaret, all I could think was, “I really, really, really miss that vile, passéist theatre.”

AC: What made you decide on Webster’s Duchess of Malfi for your first play?

DB: If you’ve read this play, then you know how amazing it is. It is definitely the best non-Shakespearean tragedy– in fact, it’s even better than many of his plays. Webster had the same depth as Shakespeare and the same ability to create complex characters. Furthermore, his verse is more accessible and arguably more intense than the Bard’s, to the point where Webster even omits words if he feels like they’re slowing down his lines. When planning my show, I decided I wanted to do something that was not completely obscure for our first show, but still something that was still largely unproduced.

AC: What makes you confident that this 500 year old play will still resonate with contemporary, urban, Torontonian audiences this summer?

DB: It’s the same reason that Hamlet still resonates. Webster’s themes are timeless and universal. Cliche but true! The Duchess of Malfi is a story about human rights and human weakness. It’s about continuing to love the person that your family hates. It’s about being ostracized because of your gender or social rank. It’s about trying to keep control (and losing it) in a hostile and unrelenting world. It’s about the struggle to do the ethical thing as opposed to doing the thing that will make you the most money. These are elements that we have to deal with every day, and they’re all elements that Webster explores in his tragedy.
AC: As a director, how do you work around the language challenges that are present in Webster’s play? Have you changed any of the text in attempt to facilitate your modernization. If no, why do you feel that keeping the language intact is crucial to the work as a whole?

DB: We haven’t changed any of the actual text, but we have made cuts. This is mostly to shave some time off the show, and also to spare us from some of Webster’s more obscure moments. Webster is not a particularly funny fellow, and when he tries, his jokes are often too archaic to register with contemporary audiences. Maybe they were funny once… Not that the play isn’t funny! It really is!

AC: Why did you decide to modernize certain aspects of Webster’s play? Do you think that an audience immediately connects to characters in a different way when they are dressed in a way that is familiar to them?

DB: I don’t know about that… I’m sure, to an extent, it helps the audience connect to the characters and emphasizes the timelessness of the text. I decided to use contemporary costumes not only because it’s cheaper, but because that’s what early modern actors did. They didn’t dress up in period costumes: they wore Jacobean clothes. So it’s cheap and clever!
AC: You have recently spent a year studying at the University of Toronto working on your Masters in Drama Studies, did any particular research or scholarly activities aid you in any of your directorial decisions or your interest in producing this work?

DB: Well, I took a Renaissance Tragedy class with the Department of English that was very interesting, but I didn’t get to explore Webster’s play as much as I would have liked to. My early modern study classes with Dr John Astington were obviously helpful, in particular the Elizabethan Performance class that explored how they staged shows in Shakespeare’s days. Performing and dramaturging for the Queen’s Men production of Clyomon and Clamydes was also helpful, since it actually put early modern theories into practice and reminded us that even the most unperformed of plays are still entertaining and worth performing.
AC: Why do you think this play is so seldom produced? Can you speak a little bit about some of the reasons that other Elizabethan/Jacobean playwrights besides William Shakespeare are typically so unknown within the public sphere of knowledge?

DB: I think people are afraid of the play because of its reputation. Everyone assumes Webster is infamous for absurd and over-the-top violence, but really plays like The Duchess of Malfi serve to emphasize the ridiculousness and fruitlessness of such behaviour. And when one approaches plays like Webster’s expecting the ludicrous, they miss much of the beauty and power of his verse and characters. Similarly, I think that people shy away from Elizabethan/Jacobean playwrights because they’re scared of them. This reaction seems silly to me, since I know from experience that all manner of people–regardless of age or education–can enjoy even the most obscure early modern play.

AC: I know you are a lover of the Stratford Festival, what was the best Shakespeare production you ever saw there?

DB: Hmm… Tough one. I have a special spot reserved for The Tempest in 2004 with William Hutt because it was the first show I saw there, and it was just beautiful and hilarious. It made me realize how much I wanted to be a part of that community. I also enjoyed a lot of aspects of Hamlet last summer; I thought that production was pretty classy, even if there were some lacklustre elements. McAnuff’s Caesar and Cleopatra was absolutely amazing–Christopher Plummer was hilarious and the scenery was just unbelievable–but that was Shaw, not Shakespeare.

AC: Do you have any specific role models or heroes, either Shakespearean actors or directors, who have inspired you to work on early modern theatre?

DB: Well, I have a lot of respect for William Hutt because of his commitment to the Stratford Festival. The fact that he left Broadway and the big bucks for Stratford is pretty impressive, and I like to imagine that I have the same level of integrity (a guy can dream). My other hero is fictional. Geoffrey Tennant from Slings & Arrows is the kind of director I want to be (though perhaps not as mentally unstable). He’s so passionate and intense and eloquent and he doesn’t take any crap. It’s inspiring. And hilarious.

AC: Why should potential theatre audiences in Toronto choose The Duchess of Malfi this weekend over seeing Macbeth in Stratford?

DB: Well, overlooking the fact that it was panned by almost every critic in North America, our production is cheaper and located right in the heart of Toronto! More importantly however, we are remaining true to the text: while MacAnuff seems completely focused on the concept rather than the play itself (which was the same reason his Romeo & Juliet was not particularly well-received), our production is relies on the actors’ talents and Webster’s words rather than fancy sets or special events. Furthermore, The Duchess explores the ways in which we can bridge Elizabethan conventions while still making them accessible to contemporary audiences. For instance, we try to find ways to incorporate the galleries and soliloquies and candlelight without making it contrived. I guess we’ll find out within in the next couple days whether or not we succeeded.

AC: There are two young performers in your cast- Chelsea and Daylen. I was curious how they connected to the language and the themes in Webster’s play. Did you approach your tactics as a director differently when working with them? How much historical context were they given to help enrich their performances?

DB: Daylen and Chelsea are both extremely precocious kids, and they took to the play and the cast right away. Unfortunately, however, neither one of them has any lines. That said, they’ve connected to the show very strongly, which is really something when one considers that the Duchess’ children only show up in the most emotionally-taut scenes. As for directing them, I like to think that I’m pretty laid back in rehearsals as it is, so I don’t recall doing anything differently. Besides, they’re both such pros: they can handle anything. My dream is that one day they’ll play the Duchess and Antonio and think back to their wacky, fond, old director…

AC: Does VPT plan on producing more Early Modern work written by the less celebrated playwrights of the time, or is it likely that this company will be producing Shakespeare’s plays as well?

DB: WELL AMANDA, WE’RE GLAD YOU ASKED! Next year I want to do one show (a comedy by Massinger, perhaps) but perhaps in a dramaturgical capacity (The Duchess completely wiped me out), with the intention of eventually mounting two shows at the same time, using a repertory-style model featuring the same actors in roles in both shows. Ideally, the shows would be a comedy and a tragedy that share a similar theme: so, for example, ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore and A King and No King or Dr Faustus and The Devil is an Ass. I also have the idea of touring condensed versions of the University Wits (Lyly, Greene, Peele, Nash, Lodge, Kyd, and Marlowe) among post-secondary institutions. Eventually, I’d really like to do an extremely condensed Complete Works of Shakespeare series featuring conceptualized versions of Shakespeare’s plays (I’m such a hypocrite) in alternative venues (i.e. Henry IV in a pub, Measure for Measure in a church). I’d also really like to do the Bad Quarto of Hamlet at some point in the future.

AC: Dan Bray, you are also a very talented playwright- when can Toronto expect to see a production of a Bray original?

DB: Well gosh, Amanda Campbell, aren’t you so sweet that you make sugar taste like salt? I’m really hoping to get that ol’ semi-autobiographical play about Castor and Pollux into the Toronto and/or Halifax fringe festival next summer. I’m also working on a stage adaptation of The Master & Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov which I hope can get done sometime… There’s simply not enough days in the year.

AC: You mentioned the Garbage Strike in your press release, what was the worst aspect of that experience for you?

DB: Walking through Chinatown and Kensington Market.

AC: Do you have any advice for me in coping with the Hurricane (Bill) that is expected to hit Halifax within the next 12 hours?

DB: I like to think WWKLD?: What Would King Lear Do? Then, I would do the exact opposite.

Well, if King Lear would have skipped The Duchess of Malfi on account of his horrific guilt, I strongly urge you to be vile and passe and do the opposite.

The Duchess of Malfi runs from August 24-29 at the Walmer Centre Theatre (188 Lowther Ave) in Toronto (see below). Pre-order your tickets ($10.00) today by calling 647.828.7713 or emailing dan@vilepasseisttheatre.com (include “Duchess tickets” in subject line).

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