By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Neil Grahn and comedy.
He’s sidled, plunged, back-flipped into it. He’s written it and improvised it, acted it, produced it, directed it, studied it at a distance and up close, for stage for film for TV. He’s looked at from both sides now, from up and down and still somehow….
By any standards Grahn’s The Comedy Company, commissioned by and premiering at Shadow Theatre, is a test-case for laughter, for the elasticity of comedy and the agility of its practitioners. Based on a true Canadian story, it generates comedy where no one would expect to find it — literally in the trenches: the unimaginable horrors of the First World War.
In the mud of Belgium, members of Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry Division were summoned by their commander to devise musical comedy shows to divert and amuse their fellow soldiers. “You’re in hell, and you’re being asked to come up with light entertainment,” says Grahn. “I just found it really fascinating….”
That’s the story his play tells, interspersed with comedy scenes and musical numbers, some of them lifted right from the original scripts he uncovered researching in Toronto libraries and the National Archives.
An amusing and amused conversationalist whose mind works, sketch-comedy fashion, by approaching a subject from odd angles, in elliptical arcs and zigzag tangents, Grahn is explaining his attraction to the history of The Comedy Company last week. We’re in a cafe near his current writing gig at the game-creation giant BioWare, where he’s been creating characters and weapons back stories for their latest, Anthem (debuting Feb. 21). Strains of Sinatra singing “my kind of town” float through the conversational din. Which seems entirely à propos.
“I used to be a game guy in the olden days,” grins Grahn. “But I had to quit because I have too much of an addictive personality…. I got addicted to World of Warcraft.” His wife did an intervention. “Now all I have is chess on my computer, and I can’t be addicted to it because it’s too hard.”
Grahn provides all his anecdotes with dialogue. Which won’t amaze Edmonton audiences who know that his entry point into showbiz was the seminal sketch comedy troupe Three Dead Trolls, kooky and literate, of which he became the fourth member in the late ‘80s. Or that he was the head writer for CBC Radio’s The Irrelevant Show, cancelled after six seasons: “you know when you’re the top-rated comedy show on CBC radio you’ve gotta expect to be cancelled, right? That’s the price you pay for living in the colonies,” he says wryly. “HQ don’t cut their friends, right?….I always called us the curling of CBC Radio. We’re not cool, but everybody will watch us!”
Back to the war. “So this 50-year-old blind-in-one-eye major, Agar Adamson of Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry Division, who only got his commission because he a lot of hoity-toity friends in Toronto, calls six of his men and says ‘I’m giving you a week to put together an entertainment for the rest of the troops’…. Four or five days into rehearsals, there was a major attack on the Canadian forces, the second Battle of Mount Sorrel (near Ypres). They all got called to the front line to be in a counter-attack, and got pulled back just hours before. Which probably saved most of their lives.”
He pauses. “There was no more bloody war to be in as a soldier, anywhere and any time. A butcher’s grinder….”
Major Adamson had come up with the idea for original shows partly because “there wasn’t enough money to bring entertainments from London to entertain the troops,” Grahn discovered in his researches, enhanced materially by the felicitous discovery of the correspondence between Adamson and his wife back home in Canada. They wrote to each other every day.
“A lot of the entertainment had been classical companies or Gilbert and Sullivan. This was different. These guys made fun of their leader. In one of Adamson’s letters he told his wife that had taken ‘a bit of a stitch out of me but I thought about its and it was all in good fun’…. They made fun of their weapons, made fun of the terrible Ross rifle; a lot of their comedy was about sitting in mud: ‘what did you have for dinner? three cigarettes and a tin of beef’….”
“Their first performance was right after the battle (of Mount Sorrel),” says Grahn. And the audience, which might have been the world’s hardest crowd to amuse under the circumstances, were force-marched for miles to a theatre to watch.
It’s the idea of theatrical performance — we’re the soldier audiences who watched the Comedy Company shows — that made Grahn receptive to the commission his old friend (and U of A theatre school classmate) Shadow’s John Hudson proposed. He’d told John about the story as a great idea for a movie. “Two weeks later John called me, wondering ‘how would that work as a play?’”
It was a fit, a theatre piece about theatre. “It’s a great story. And when the guys argue about who’s gonna play the girl — someone’s got to be the girl — it’s really quite fun.” Grahn, incidentally, can’t quite believe his luck with the casting: Hudson has acquired a notable contingent of Edmonton’s top actors.
Does comedy have particular the most traction in terrible times? Grahn considers. “For me comedy gets the best traction when you’re not doing it for comedy. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen this: good actors in a comedy start acting like they’re in a comedy. Please stop doing that! Don’t try to be funny. Play the scene!”
The secret, he thinks, is commitment. “I think it comes down to that… Comedy should be a byproduct, not a goal!” When that happens, no subject matter is beyond its reach. One of Grahn’s most memorable comic moments, he recalls, was when the Trolls mentored and directed kids creating sketch comedy they fashioned into The Teen Show, part of the Citadel’s Teen Fest during the Robin Phillips regime in the ’90s.
“It was a wild show…. A 16-year-old girl, who’d lost a leg to cancer three or four years earlier wrote a scene ‘How To Meet Boy, Tip #69’. So she’s onstage, getting off a bus. Her leg falls off and one of the boys hanging around picks it up and brings it to her: ‘hey, you dropped your leg, wanna go for coffee some time?’ We asked her if she was sure she wanted to do it. And she was, like,‘was it not funny?’”When she realized we thought it was, she was good to go! One of the best moments….”
The memory makes Grahn, a congenital brain-stormer, recall his half-serious idea of “getting some smell-o-rama into the show…. I read about this theatre guy in New York who did that. Mustard gas has a sweet sickly smell.” He gave it up: “too much for a three-week rehearsal period.” If he had “a West End budget” he’d investigate the special effect of having a shell tear through the theatre during a performance, the way it happened one time in Belgium. “The shell would be amazing. Like the chandelier, man!”
His muse may be comic but his instincts are theatrical. “I’ve never approached improv purely as comedy,” says Grahn, who does improv regularly at the Grindstone. I’ve always approached it as ‘how can it be amazingly theatrical?’” Improv, he thinks, rarely works on TV and film. And a lot of theatre bores him. “I get so mad at theatre that just does proscenium shit. The movies and TV are kicking your ass! You need to touch me! Come and blow in my ear.”
Grahn has co-written plays before, to be sure. One of the Trolls’ signature was fashioning sketch comedy into full-length plays, like Saskatchebuzz, a 1992 spoof in which a grim Saskatchewan farmer and his wife turn the economy around, spectacularly, by planting a new cash crop. When we met, day #1 of legal pot, Grahn’s fellow Troll alumnus Wes Borg had just posted the entire play online. With director/playwright Ron Jenkins Grahn co-wrote The Horror, The Horror, a satire spun from the premise of privatized jails and executions. But The Comedy Company is “the first full-length play I’ve written by myself…. It was a bit lonely. But I had my dog Manny with me, so it was OK. Manny makes me walk around the block and re-think things.”
After the war Princess Patricia’s comedy troupe amalgamated with The Dumbells — “no one’s heard of them now!” Grahn marvels — who toured the country and even played Broadway. “Truly they were the very last of the soldier entertainers, the last of that breed.… Now if the military want a show they’ll get Shania Twain or Brent Butt,” says Grahn. “These guys gained fame. Their command performance for the King of England in London in the Albert Hall was cancelled at the last minute when they were called to the front line for the attack on Vimy Ridge.
“These guys were the beginning of sketch in comedy,” says Grahn. “They were the ones who inspired Wayne and Shuster. Without them, no Frantics, no Kids in the Hall, no Codco, no Three Dead Trolls…. We all build on that.”
The Comedy Company
Written by: Neil Grahn
Directed by: John Hudson
Starring: Julien Arnold, Nathan Cuckow, Sheldon Elter, Jesse Gervais, Steven Greenfield, Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Nick Samoil,
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: Thursday through Nov. 11
Tickets: 780-434-5564, shadowtheatre.org