This One Goes to Eleven: David Mackay

Well, the tents are back up in Vanier Park, which means summer and Shakespeare are on their way. Has anyone noticed how good Bard on the Beach has gotten in the last few years? Not that it wasn’t good before but seriously, they’ve really hit their stride. Thanks in no small part to this week’s interviewee, Mr. Mackay directs his second Bard play this year with Twelfth Night, and has been strutting and fretting about the boards on the beach for many years. (He rocked Timon of Athens last year.) His vision of Twelfth Night is an homage to the Hollywood movies of yesteryear. Wicked.

David is also a well-received playwright and a founding member of Yorick Theatre. So, without much further ado about nothing…

1. In one word, describe your present condition.


2. In several more words, describe the present condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.

Some really good exciting stuff (with a little Theatre du Wank.) There’s a lot of talent in this city. An amazing calibre of actors, some very strong directors, but we need more playwrights. I recently worked with some students up at Studio 58 and UBC, there’s more talent on the way. Leah Cordson wrote one of the best first plays I’ve read/seen in a long time. Kevin Stark will graduate from UBC next year, a very talented actor.

3. Why has theatre in Vancouver fallen behind as a popular entertainment choice amongst our younger demographic?

Some of it has to do with theatre media coverage in this city, it’s always been a little lacklustre. I blame the editors not the critics. Jerry Wasserman’s website is an active choice with reviews and bulletins. But ultimately, the responsibility lies with theatre producers. The Arts Club has a nice mix of old, new, crowd pleasers. Bill Millerd is an incredible theatre person in this city. He actively listens to new playwrights, directors and actors. If you have a pitch, he’ll give you his ear. Christopher Gaze is also excellent in nurturing new talent and directors (even though he only sticks with one playwright.) I think the See Seven pass and programming is probably the best innovative going after a young adult crowd. Personally, if I see another Canadian play set in rural anywhere with farm boys getting ready to go to war, I’ll barf.

4. How is your method of storytelling bolstered by placing a historical context on the modern world?

A good play can get moved around in time, place and atmosphere. If the playwright has captured our honest nature, warts and all, you can move a play around. Shakespeare’s so good, he let’s you get away with a lot. He wrote for the ear. He, like Pinter, understands how we actually receive words and process them in our heads into thoughts and feelings. If you respect that you can have a lot of fun.

5. Describe your approach to creating a play in a group setting.

You have to respect everyone as an individual. The best plays are when everyone is working together to tell the same story as an ensemble. That includes the production team as well and designers. I’m new to directing, so I like to over prepare and have a million answers. But if someone has a better idea than me, then that’s what has to go in the show. During any period of creativity everyone becomes extremely neurotic, fuses get shorter, people are more sensitive, but in order to keep a creative environment, you have to keep people open and be vulnerable, (but you have to watch how much you cater to ‘needy’ moments). I love neurosis in people. As an actor and a playwright, I strive to capture honest neurotic-nature.

6. Why is colour and gender-blind casting a beneficial production decision?

Ideally, the best actor should get whatever part they busted their hump to get. Of course that doesn’t always happen. But as a forty something white guy, who’s gonna believe me talking about colour and gender-blind casting. I know, woman on the whole work two to three times harder than men. The leading women in this community are not only talented, but their work ethic is stellar.

7. What is your best piece of practical advice to new directors learning on the job?
I’m relatively new to directing, so I’m still learning. But I try to practice “Be precise in your story-telling”. As a director, you have to monitor the ‘flow of information’. The director has to be the audience member who watches the information go from A to B to C and the audience has to watch the ball passed along that journey. Tom Stoppard talks beautifully about this in an essay called “Pragmatic Theatre.”

For me, James Fagan Tait is an excellent model example for a director. He’s prepared, he’s courteous, he commands a room with a fair authority, and he’s patient. (I’m still working on that). His final speech when he hands over the show to the stage manager, is the most humble and gracious offer I’ve seen in the theatre. Not only is he a brilliant director, he does it with class.

8. How do you keep Shakespeare relevant for the uninitiated?

Let the language be heard. In rehearsal, trust that the funniest guy in the room is Shakespeare. Shakespeare covers so much of the human condition and experience. The thought process he gives his characters to arrive at their perspective follows the minutiae of our thinking and feeling. He includes every doubt, every synapse, every ounce of vanity and fear that goes into our actions. And he did it with poetry! Again, Tom Stoppard in Pragmatic Theatre states: “Shakespeare, did the thing that makes Shakespeare breathtaking and defines poetry—the simultaneous compression of language and expansion of meaning.”

9. Given a time machine, what would you tell a young David Mackay just starting a career in the theatre?
Don’t read reviews, good or bad, you’re wasting time either gloating or seething, read more plays. You have to be your own judge. Be honest and brutal with yourself if you have to be, and respectful and gracious if you trust you did something well. And young David, invest in Apple.

10. What are your top 3 theatre reads?

Every Pinter play (most economical use of the English language by any playwright)

Theatre of the Absurd by Martin Esslin (inspires me to read and write plays)

The Pragmatic Theatre by Tom Stoppard

11. What’s next?

I received a BC Arts Council Grant to write a play about two terrorists who arrive in Vancouver for the Olympics to blow up two BC ferries. Allan Zinyk and I will be the terrorists.

And this fall I will play the lead role in Cyrano de Bergerac at the Arts Club directed by James Fagan Tait. I first listened to this play at the Wilson Recording Library at UBC twenty-five years ago. There is not another role in theatre I can think of that I have wanted to play more than Cyrano.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s