By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The theatre repertoire has a fulsome measure of stories about gay kids who pull up stakes in their small-town lives and flee to freedom in the big city. In the hit Canadian comedy that opens at Theatre Network tonight is a sort of reverse migration.
In Bed and Breakfast you’ll meet a gay couple who uproot their urbanite Toronto lives — one’s a designer, one a hotelier — to open a B and B in picturesque small-town Ontario. This rural idyll is not without its struggles and setbacks. As Mark Crawford says, “it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.… It’s not Brigadoon. Small towns are complicated.” And so are relationships and the idea of home.
The actor/playwright, one of the country’s most-produced writers of comedies, knows something first-hand about leaving the place you’re from and heading to the city. After all ,the University of Toronto and Sheridan College theatre grad is a farm kid from the countryside near the little town of Glencoe, “somewhere between Lake Erie and Lake Huron.” His dad’s a farmer; one brother’s a farmer, the other is a large-animal vet.” So the actor/playwright is in a position to wonder “what would happen if you went home again?” — and wrote a play about it.
A certain irony attaches to the fact that three years ago Crawford and his playwright/actor partner Paul Dunn (a co-creator of The Gay Heritage Project) gave up their teeny Toronto condo and moved to Stratford. OK, small it may be (pop: 32,000), but the home town of the mighty Stratford Festival is not perhaps a perfect test-cast for Crawford’s question: “it’s the gayest small-town in Ontario,” he laughs. “It happened after I wrote Bed and Breakfast: We got out! A Toronto exit story. We got the last affordable house in Stratford…. With space. And a yard.”
A thoughtful, funny and thoroughly genial conversationalist, Crawford was “an actor for hire” for 10 years before turning playwright. “Yup, Shakespeare, Molière in Sudbury, theatre for young audiences, lots of school gyms…. “I always wrote, but it took me a decade of being in the theatre” to get the hang of playwriting. “I didn’t know how plays worked, the basic understanding of structure, story — character conflict and goals that need to go forward in a play.”
As often happens, playwrights are born out of actorly frustrations. “For long periods you’re at the mercy of other people…. Writing is a way of having some agency in the theatre.” Crawford adds that the common complaint in theatrical circles is the lack of “a Canadian comedy for the season.”
Enter Crawford, the playwright.
Stag and Doe premiered in 2014 at the Blyth Festival, in the heart of southern Ontario farming country, where two other Crawford comedies (The Birds and the Bees and The New Canadian Curling Club) has launched. The title, as he explains, is Ontario-speak for “a pre-wedding stag party for men and women that’s part community coming-together, and part fund-raiser for the wedding. So… young folks in a small town getting hitched.” Ontario allusion it may be, but Stag and Doe has been produced across the country, by both pro and amateur troupes. Crawford is bemused that a translation continues to run in rep in Poland.
Bed and Breakfast was his second play, penned while Crawford was acting at Blyth (in Vern Thiessen’s Vimy). And the multi-character two-hander premiered “on location, too,” as Crawford says of the Thousand Islands Playhouse located rustically near Kingston. Instantly popular in 2015, it’s toured widely since, to theatres large and small in cities and towns, Montreal’s Centaur to Victoria’s Belfry Theatre, with Crawford and Dunn together onstage playing the 21 characters in the story. Now, Theatre Network launches its season with Bed and Breakfast, directed by Bradley Moss and starring Edmonton actors Mathew Hulshof and Chris Pereira.
“I love comedy, as an audience member and a performer. It is really hard, but I love it,” says Crawford, who’s something of a comedy scholar. Sometimes, he laughs, he warms to his favourite subject and people say “OK Mark, but what’s the punch line?”
He speaks of “the journey of classical comedy,” which, as happens in Bed and Breakfast, “begins in death, and ends with a marriage or sex…. ” And comedy “is often about domestic things, relationships, friendship, families…. That stuff is worth exploring.” And, after all, “we’re living in dark times.”
“I don’t mean comedy as joke joke joke. The dark is darker because of the light, the light lighter because of the dark,” says Crawford. His frequent dramaturg Miles Potter “talks about ‘an audience for something with meat on its bones…. Is there something to stick with you?’ It’s fun to take people on a journey.”
Often under-valued in this country as Crawford agrees, comedy “takes us on a journey from the dark to the light…. There’s something deep in us that needs that. The world will continue, we will carry on: it’s a view of the world. We can laugh. And that’s an important part of being alive. Take that away and we are fucked…. The value for the audience is enormous!”
Bed and Breakfast
Theatre: Theatre Network
Written by: Mark Crawford
Directed by: Bradley Moss
Starring: Mathew Hulshof, Chris Pereira
Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.
Running: tonight through Dec. 8
Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca