Hot young director dumps his career in the can
EXERCISES IN DEPRAVITY, by Ed Gass-Donnelly and James Harkness, directed by Gass-Donnelly, with Karyn Dwyer, Gass-Donnelly, Harkness, Tony Nappo, R.H. Thomson and Tara Samuel. Presented by the Depraved Co-op in association with UrbanImage Theatre at Buddies in Bad Times (women’s washroom), 12 Alexander. Opens tomorrow (Friday, May 26) and runs to June 3, Monday-Saturday at 6 pm. $18. 975-8555. Rating: NNNNN
The clothes are baggy, the hair is mussed. Ed Gass-Donnelly looks like just another intense 22-year-old with a cellphone and a serious sleep deficit. Maybe he was busy raving last night. Or engrossed in a marathon chat-line session.
Take a closer look. He’d want you to notice the details. He’s one of the city’s most exciting young theatre directors. Details are important.
Those dark circles under his eyes are from waking up at 7 am to revise the new script he’s co-writing. His canvas bag with the broken shoulder strap holds a high-power laptop with the script revisions and notes. The cellphone is there to hear if a famous actor has confirmed that he’s going to be in the show.
The show itself, called Exercises In Depravity, opens tomorrow (Friday, May 26) in — are you ready? — the women’s washroom at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.
Call it bathroom-sink theatre.
“When you think of depravity, especially in a washroom, you think of people shitting or pissing or fucking,” he says, lighting up a cigarette and sweetening his coffee in a stale, all-hours diner a few blocks from the theatre.
“I’m more interested in the psychology behind the characters, and working with the coldness and discomfort of what’s a very private place. I’m less interested in setting the play in a bathroom than in using the elements of the bathroom as a theatrical space.”
Depravity, which Gass-Donnelly is directing and acting in and whose writing duties he shares with James Harkness, interweaves the stories of six characters on the margins of society, including a dead prostitute (Karyn Dwyer), a man who wants to cut his face open (Gass-Donnelly) and another (Harkness) whose entire life seems devoted to giving blow jobs.
They’ve just started rehearsals. By coincidence, there are six washroom stalls, one for each performer. There’s room for a lighting board, and the stools and benches — seating capacity is around 15 — can easily be moved in and out so Buddies patrons can do their business.
“You should see the looks we get when people come in and see six of us sitting on the floor,” he laughs.
“We’re going to make sure it’s well mopped before we perform,” he says. “Two of us are nude in the show. But it’s a pretty clean bathroom. I think NOW ranked it as one of the best in the city.”
Gass-Donnelly looks nervously at his cellphone. He’s waiting to hear back from a famous actor who’s considering playing the father of a woman severely disabled by cerebral palsy.
“I think R.H. Thomson is going to do it,” he says. “I’m expecting the final confirmation today.”
That’s not as annoyingly name-dropping as it sounds. Gass-Donnelly, whose father is Ken Gass, Factory Theatre founder and current artistic director, doesn’t play those sorts of games.
“People assume that because of who my dad is I know everyone in the theatre community. It’s not true. I was too young when my dad was really in the theatre. He left the Factory when I was two, then he did a lot of TV throughout the 80s. I wasn’t surrounded by theatre people. I might see the occasional writer or actor at a Christmas party every couple of years, but I never really knew them.”
When Gass-Donnelly directed Tom Walmsley’s The Jones Boy at last year’s Fringe festival, audiences couldn’t believe the cast he assembled, which included heavyweights like Tom McCamus, David Fox and Brooke Johnston.
“I had to look Tom McCamus’s number up in the phone book,” he says. “I had never met him before. I constantly have to fight my fear over talking to actors and directors I admire. Sometimes I think they simply appreciate being asked to do things.”
If Gass-Donnelly hasn’t received any special treatment because of his famous father — like most writer/directors, he’s busy pounding on the doors of the city’s theatres, and writing grant applications — neither does he feel that he’s in his dad’s shadow.
“It was sort of like growing up with an older brother’s legacy,” he says. “I had respect and admiration for him, but it felt almost past-tense. I remember discovering his published works, at 12 or 14, in high school. And that’s when it all started to sink in.”
One obstacle he has encountered, though, is people’s reluctance to take him seriously because of his age.
“That’s all starting to change now because I have a track record,” he points out.
It’s an impressive one. The gritty Jones Boy was a Fringe highlight. Walmsley himself told him that it was the best production of the play he had seen since its premiere. Last season’s double bill of Daniel MacIvor’s See Bob Run and Wild Abandon was spine-tinglingly powerful. So was his minimalist approach to Wedekind’s Spring Awakening at Equity Showcase. His direction of Eric Bogosian’s SubUrbia wasn’t up to par with his other work, but it did show that he has an affinity for young characters with a taste for nihilism.
“There’s a theme that recurs in almost everything I do,” he admits. “It’s people being haunted. In every play I’m involved in there are characters who are haunted, either by something or someone.”
And what is he, a middle-class kid from a comfortable liberal background, haunted by?
“I don’t know,” he laughs. “I think these characters are my alter egos. In so many ways I’ve lived a happy and sheltered life. But I can so clearly relate to their pain.
“My ex-girlfriend said there was this constant sadness in my eyes that she couldn’t understand. Neither do I.”
Gass-Donnelly mentions Richard Rose, George F. Walker and especially Daniel Brooks as his directorial mentors.
He’s assisted each of them on shows. From Rose, who’s directing his new play, Descent, next season at the Factory, he learned how to pare down his writing and establish high stakes from the beginning. From Walker he learned that the best comedy is smart and rooted in character. And from Brooks he learned that truth and honesty are everything.
He recalls throwing a tantrum one opening night, intentionally missing the show’s party and passing out in a dressing room because he thought his actors weren’t being honest onstage.
“There were some technical problems and an awkward start, and the actors were all fazed by it,” he says.
“But if the audience is paying attention to a technical detail, there’s something fundamentally wrong with what’s happening onstage. If they’re looking at a prop, if they’re thinking about that prop, then we’re not doing our job. Fuck the prop, burn it, it’s not about that.
“Look at the play I’m directing now,” he laughs. “It’s a fascinating exercise. We’re in a bathroom. We’re so close to the audience. We won’t be able to fake a thing.”