New stage comedy Picture This sends up entertainment industry

Sponsored feature: presented by Soulpepper Theatre Company

PICTURE THIS. Soulpepper presents the world premiere of a new comedy from the team behind Parfumerie. A new adaptation by Brenda Robins and Morris Panych, based on The Battle of Waterloo by Melchior Lengyel. Opens Sept 9 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. Tickets available here.

Some people in the entertainment industry will sink to any level in order to preserve their artistic integrity. That irony is at the comedic core of a new play from Soulpepper Theatre Company, Picture This, which follows the pratfalls and schemes of a group of struggling artists in early 20th century Budapest. These aspiring film stars connive their way into accidentally-on-purpose crossing paths with Red, a big-shot Hollywood producer staying at an elegant hotel.

Subjected to the charms of so many hungry opportunists, Red deflects their attention and inadvertently gives an old friend, Brown, a chance to shine as a film producer himself. Brown then unleashes the wild ambitions of under-worked locals by agreeing to produce a film that dramatizes the 1815 Battle of Waterloo – the hitch being they only have two weeks to film it.

Originally created by the late Hungarian writer Melchior Lengyel, the play came to the attention of the team behind Soulpepper’s Parfumerie – specifically playwright/cast member Brenda Robins, and director Morris Panych. In addition to their shared writing duties for Picture This, Robins will act and Panych will direct. 

“The piece appealed to me as an examination of the film industry,” says Robins, adding that Lengyel’s industry critique and character relationships rang true. “My keen interest in any project comes from whether there’s a good romance in it.”

The romantic spark in this story arises between two similarly desperate artists, an actress (Milli) and a director (Romberg). Robins and Panych’s adaptation process focused in part on elevating this relationship and integrating it more closely into the structure of the play. This approach wasn’t so much about adding to the drama as it was creating opportunities for comedy.

Robins also believes that in order for a play like this to work, there needs to be emotional resonance. “It has to have heart. It can’t just be a series of jokes or slapstick.”

Her collaboration with Panych worked well in this regard, as he also stresses the need for a strong story that can help create anticipation for jokes while also allowing playwrights to subvert expectations.

“We’re pretty sure of what’s funny,” he says, “but you can’t always guarantee the laughs. The reason an audience laughs is because they identify with the story.”

As director, Panych’s instructions for actors in this production include “sitting on the jokes,” or not banking on every funny line to get a reaction from the audience. “Pacing is important,” he explains. “You could slow the play down and it would turn into Chekov. The comedy here is based on people making choices at high speeds.”

Every good comedy has a number of show-stopping laughs. But those moments need to be massaged throughout writing and rehearsal – even during the run. That begins with identifying the emotional stakes of the characters, what they care about and the depth of their desire.

“The goal of any good piece of theatre is moving the story along based on conflict and achieving goals,” says Robins. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a comedy. The idea is to get inside the heads of the characters. You fight for them. You want them to get what it is they’re going for. You’re rooting for them.”

In Picture This, the highest stakes come from Romberg and Milli’s desperation to get ahead in their careers and find meaning in their shared path. As the Hungarian film industry throbs with activity and local artists finally get the chance to ply their creative skills in earnest, they come close to tasting the kind of success they each crave.

Both Robins and Panych have seen the struggle in their own professional environments. “I often see people in meetings and relationships and rehearsals where they need to become something in order to give others what they want,” says Panych. “At the core of it, people have their integrity. But in the interim you can do some crazy things.”

“That’s the industry we’re in,” laughs Robins. As to whether Picture This succeeds in helping audiences laugh through a broadly shared need for approval, she’s taking a strategic approach. 

“If the jokes don’t work, I’m just going to blame it on Morris.”

Visit the Soulpepper Spotlight to experience more of the company’s 20th anniversary season!

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