Interview with Brendan Gall

Sep 25, 2008

You’re a successful actor and you’ve studied at one of Canada’s most respected acting programs. When and why did you decide to enter the world of playwriting?
I made little abortive attempts at playwriting as a teenager, but I didn’t seriously start until I was 22. I started writing down scenes in a notebook while I was doing a U.S. tour of Twelfth Night with Repercussion Theatre in 2001. Writing became something to do while I was traveling in minivans and staying in Motel Super 8’s. Then when I got back home to Toronto I hammered the scenes into an order, wrote some new ones to fill in the blanks, rewrote everything, and that eventually became my first play, A Quiet Place.
How has being an actor affected you as a playwright?
I write from character, and plot on a very basic level. Usually a very simple idea presents itself – some version of bees in a bottle that gets shaken up – and then I try to figure out how the characters negotiate the situation, themselves, and each other through writing dialogue and action. I don’t plan very much. I try to let the characters drive the action and see where they take things. Also, I try to leave room for actors (and directors) to make choices. I want my writing to be interpreted by smart collaborators.
What, in your opinion, is the greatest attribute a playwright can have and why?
Discipline. If you wait for inspiration to hit before you start writing, you won’t write very much. At least I won’t. I’m working on it.
Who/what are your inspirations?
Harold Pinter, David Mamet, George F. Walker, Raymond Chandler, Michael Chabon, Sam Shepard, Stanley Elkin, Jonathan Lethem, Jason Sherman, Daniel Brooks, Charlie Kaufman, Stephen King, Jonathan Safran Foer, Charles L. Mee, Groucho Marx, all my talented friends and collaborators, my family, love, loneliness, loyalty, music, movies, chess… And Beckett, I guess. But mostly deadlines.
Waiting for Godot has been called the greatest play of the twentieth century. Were you nervous taking it on? What made you take the plunge?
No. Maybe I should have been. I only got nervous once people started asking me if I was nervous. I tend to get stuck thinking about one thing, and I really can’t do much else until I deal with it. I don’t get a starburst of ideas, I get ONE idea, with everything else backed up behind it. So I got this idea about Godot and why he isn’t showing up, and I had to deal with it in order to move on with my life.
When did you start writing Alias Godot, and what was the process of development?
I got the idea in 2004, but didn’t start working on it until 2006 when I pitched it to Richard Rose at Tarragon Theatre. I developed it through their Playwrights Unit that year, which is basically a series of deadlines for readings and meetings, which was incredibly useful. I got dramaturgical notes from the artistic staff at Tarragon, as well as the other writers in the unit: Hannah Moscovitch, Tara Beagan, Jonathan Garfinkle, Bea Pizano, Greg Nelson. Then, bizarrely, the second draft got translated into Italian and produced in Florence, Italy. It is very strange seeing your play done in a language you don’t speak, especially as a first production. I got dramaturgical notes from the director of that production, my friend and collaborator David Ferry, and then when it got produced by Tarragon last spring, I got invaluable dramaturgical feedback from Richard Rose, who directed, as well as the cast. The play really changed during that rehearsal process, and I continued to make changes with every preview all the way up to opening, and even a couple of times throughout the run. That’s a tough assignment for actors because your footing is never solid, but it’s what happened, and everyone was incredibly understanding and supportive of that process.
Alias Godot has been called “Classic Beckett meets modern cop drama.” What made you think to connect the two?
I think with all the conjecture as to the meaning behind Waiting For Godot I thought, What if there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for his absence? Of course the explanation becomes less reasonable as the play progresses, but that’s where I started from.
Do you think this play would have made the same impact before September 11th?
Well, it would have been a very different play before 9/11, so no. The state of the characters and my version of that city are directly influenced by the fallout from that day, so the play would have been something else entirely without that as a backdrop.
What do you think Samuel Beckett would have said about Alias Godot?
Samuel Beckett didn’t have much to say about his own play; I can’t imagine he’d have much to say about mine. That’s one of my favourite things about Beckett. He refused to confirm or deny interpretations, which is why I think people are still fascinated by him and his work. I want to do that.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m co-writing a feature film, working on an adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, writing two plays for my residency at Tarragon Theatre, and hopefully adapting an American novel into a one-man show.