NiCk and NOra : Hard- Boiled Detective Work and MArriage

 Art by Jordan Wieben

Art by Jordan Wieben

Kicking off our upcoming 2018-2019 season, Lucia Frangione (who previously appeared in our 2014 production of FAREWELL, MY LOVELY) has adapted Dashiell Hammet's famous story, The Thin Man, for a brand new, world-premiere production. We talked with Lucia about her work in writing and adapting THE THIN MAN, and the heroic couple at the centre of the action, Nick and Nora Charles.

(NOTE: this interview has been edited for clarity and length)

 What drew you to adapt Dashiell Hammet's classic story of THE THIN MAN for the stage?

It was Craig Hall's idea to put me and Dashiell Hammett together. I love to play with rhythm and language and so did he, so it felt like a compatible fit. I did a synopsis for an adaptation of The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon and loved both for different reasons, but I couldn't wait to put Nick and Nora on the stage so I started with them.  I'm always looking to write exciting roles for women in the theatre and this story offers up some juicy characters for both genders and a diverse cast which has always been important to me. I tend to write three plays at a time and all within a certain theme. Right now my focus is on family: how to negotiate differences, the importance of loyalty, functioning as a family outside of the typical construct. Nick and Nora are a family of two. They face the dark underbelly of society together and they do so with elegance, wit and mutual respect. 

 It's rare to find a male and female detective duo, and even more rare to find a detective couple. What special and unique dynamics do you find the heroes, Nick and Nora Charles, bring to the usual "detective story?"

What is so interesting to me is almost everyone I've spoken to fondly thinks of Nick and Nora as a detective team. We want them to be. We remember them that way. But really, if you read the novel or watch the movie, Nora is actually given very little to do. She practically disappears halfway through, popping in occasionally with a martini and her dog, Asta. Though I have been quite faithful to the plot of The Thin Man, I've followed the public imagination and made Nora much more of an equal partner to Nick. In The Thin Man, Nick and Nora are surrounded by a gaggle of hilarious and volatile personalities, especially the Wynant family. As the murder mystery gets unpacked, it's a joy and frankly a comfort for me to see a married couple navigate these murky waters together as a loving, honest and trusting team. There's a real sense that Nick and Nora are the only two sane people in a mad mad world. I wonder if Dashiell Hammett felt that way about the love of his life, Lillian Hellman? Like Nick and Nora, they were an elegant, highly intelligent, "it" couple of their time, but they were also outsiders socially and politically. I find this all very fascinating, the dark and the light in this story. As for what a husband and wife team do for the hard-boiled genre...they lovingly take the piss out of each other constantly. Sometimes this relieves tension, sometimes it creates tension. It keeps the story grounded, Nick and Nora are real, so we care about them and what happens to them. They make being married sexy! 

The original story and hugely successful film adaptation came out in 1934. How have you found it adapting this story for a modern audience? What appeals across time and place? What no longer quite works or makes sense today?

 Whenever I write a show I have to ask myself, "Why am I putting this out into the world?" It's very important to me to entertain my audience while also offering up some food for thought. I love to rollercoaster a plot with highs of laughter and then dead drop into the dark, then shoot back up again with hope. The Thin Man does this. It's tricky doing an adaptation of a work because our sensibilities have changed. Sexism, racism and homophobia run rampant through anything written in this era and earlier. I don't want to put anything on stage that diminishes anyone just because it "was the the way it was". However, I also don't want to white wash the past. Luckily, Nick and Nora are very progressive. I can maintain the grit and prejudice of the 1930s because we experience it through the eyes of Nick and Nora who have a different view. Nora was inspired by Lillian Hellman, Hammett's lover, a famous but notorious playwright, a childless divorcee and a Jewish member of the communist party. All of these things made her an outsider. The actor who played Nora in the film was Myrna Loy. Loy was a studio name given to Myrna who looked "exotic" and started off her career doing "yellow face", playing a lot of Chinese women in films like The Mask of Fu Manchu. So, there is a kind of poetic justice in making Nora Chinese American in the stage version of the story. But it also makes sense for the story itself. Nora is a wealthy heiress from San Francisco who seems to have married later in life and chosen to not have children. They celebrate Christmas with a room full of strangers. It makes sense that Nora, like Lillian, would stand out from the crowd. I love what this says about Nick too: he chose love over social convention. This all supports and deepens the conversation the original story has about family. The Thin Man is funny and sexy but underneath every single character is a deep longing to belong. Don't we all?


 Lucia Frangione, playwright of  Dashiell Hammett's THE THIN MAN.

Lucia Frangione, playwright of  Dashiell Hammett's THE THIN MAN.

Deathtrap: A thriller that thrills

  Art by Jordan Wieben

Art by Jordan Wieben

The third show of our season, DEATHTRAP, is a returning classic with a terrific director, Jamie Dunsdon! Jamie is the Artistic Director of local indie company Verb Theatre, and she sat down with us to chat about the suspense genre, and Ira Levin's mind-bending script.

DEATHTRAP is one of the most successful Broadway plays ever, with nearly 1800 performances over four years. What do you think makes it so appealing to audiences time and time again?

To quote the main character, "Sound construction, good dialogue, laughs in the right places." The play is built to delight, and I can't get into the details of what makes it work so well without spoiling things, but that alone should tell you what kind of a ride you're in for. And in a thriller, isn't that what we all want? To be thrilled?! The first I time I read it, I gasped out loud many, many times. My cats were worried.

Also, one of the things we discovered during auditions is that the roles are pretty darn juicy. Sometimes when a play relies heavily on plot, the characters can get flattened out or take a back seat, but the characters in Deathtrap are wonderfully playful and nuanced. I think when actors enjoy playing their roles, audiences can feel that and it amps up the electricity in the theatre.

There's a huge amount of "meta-commentary" in DEATHTRAP - self-aware winks to the audiences, references to suspense works, and of course the literal play-within-a-play. What is your personal relationship to the suspense/mystery genre, and what are some of your favourites?

Ho boy, I could write an entire blog entry just on my top 10. I've become a bit of a mystery/thriller nut in the last few years, so my list of favourites is long (and luckily, Deathtrap is near the top!). My own company, Verb Theatre, has even started working on a thriller, so I'm knee deep in the genre and loving every minute of it. I'm partial to thrillers, because there is so much action - characters actively seeking what they want. And I'll take a ghost any day. I worked in a haunted theatre for three years, so a good ghost story will always get me.

The very first Vertigo show I saw was The Mystery of Irma Vep in 2005, and it holds a special place in my heart because it opened my eyes to what suspense has to offer an audience, thriller or otherwise - I'm not sure I valued suspense until then. Plus it was hilarious. The Woman in Black and Evelyn Strange both stick out in my memory as plays that made me laugh and scream, which I think Deathtrap does as well. And actually, The Woman in Black was turned into a movie starring Daniel Radcliffe just a few years ago, which I also enjoyed, but I think the play is better.  Fear is a feeling best felt LIVE! Any Night by Daniel Arnold and Medina Hahn is a wonderful psychological thriller written by a couple of wonderful Canadians that makes the viewer question the nature of reality itself. Oh dear, I'm rambling. And I haven't even mentioned Accomplice by Rupert Holmes! Seriously, this list has barely dusted the surface. I have a spreadsheet of mystery scripts on my computer. No joke.

What do you think is key to building a suspense across a show like this? How do you as a director play with audiences and get them on the edge of their seats?

 Great question. I don't think there's a single key, but a series of careful choices. Casting, design, delivery of plot... and these elements work together to create a sort of atmosphere of curiosity. You need your audience to be asking "but what is going to happen next?" but suspense doesn't work if the audience doesn't care.". And I don't want to dodge your question, but I also don't want to explain too much more because a good production kind of functions like a magic act - the less the audience knows about the machinery, the more magical it is!

That said, one thing I will say is that I always try to surround myself with experts. That goes for any play, but I think is particularly important in a play that relies so heavily on the individual pieces doing their job. Designers who understand the subtleties of creating atmosphere, actors who can both build and diffuse tension, playwrights who can drop a red herring with just the right amount of eyebrow. I'm SO excited to have Vertigo's former Artistic Director, Mark Bellamy, playing the lead role in our production, bringing his years of expertise and skill, alongside so many of Calgary's favourite actors - Tyrell Crews, Barbara Gates Wilson, Karen Johnson Diamond, and Kevin Corey.

Fun fact: Kevin Corey and I grew up in the same small town of Coaldale, Alberta. Irrelevant but it's a small town, so I enjoy the coincidence.

 Jamie Dunsdon, director of Deathtrap and Artistic Director of Verb Theatre.

Jamie Dunsdon, director of Deathtrap and Artistic Director of Verb Theatre.

Might As Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery ADapted by Joseph Goodrich, from the novel by Rex STOUT.

The fourth show of our upcoming 2018-2019 season, MIGHT AS WELL BE DEAD: A NERO WOLFE MYSTERY, sees the return of Playwright Joseph Goodrich's work to our stage. Goodrich previously adapted the Ellery Queen mystery CALAMITY TOWN for our 2016-2017 40th anniversary season. We talked with Joe about the fame of Nero Wolfe, working with Vertigo, and the unique opportunities of adaptations.

 Nero Wolfe is perhaps one of the most beloved of fictional American detectives. What drew you to adapt him to the stage?

 After Calamity Town, I wanted to bring another of the “Golden Age” detectives to life. (What constitutes the Golden Age of Mystery Fiction varies from person to person, but it refers to works created between 1920 and 1960.) Wolfe was an obvious choice – his popularity is undiminished in mystery circles, and he’s still recognized in the larger world of non-mystery fans. I’ve met a number of Wolfe fans who don’t read any other mysteries; they just love spending time with Nero and company.

 You previously debuted CALAMITY TOWN at Vertigo Theatre in 2016, an adaptation of Ellery Queen, another famous fictional American detective. How do Wolfe and Queen compare for you?

 Both are super-sleuths and descendants of Sherlock Holmes, the king of all gifted (and often eccentric) detectives. Apart from that, the two are complete opposites.

 Ellery Queen’s character went through a number of changes over the years, moving from a bloodless intellectual to a much more human figure – a change which began with Calamity Town. He becomes involved in the lives of the people who come to him for help. Nero Wolfe’s character remains essentially the same over the years, which is one of the continuing pleasures of the series; his foibles endear him to readers. Rex Stout created a world as palpable for Wolfe fans as Victorian London is for the devotees of Sherlock Holmes.

The Queen novels are densely plotted and challenge the reader to solve the crime before Ellery does. This rarely happens! The Wolfe stories, on the other hand, are much less concerned with plot machinations. The heart of the books is the relationship between Wolfe and his assistant Archie Goodwin. It’s a classic case of the immovable object – Wolfe, a sedentary figure who almost never leaves his brownstone on W. 35th Street – and the irresistible force – Archie Goodwin, who pokes and prods Wolfe into crime-solving when finances run low. Archie narrates the stories; his “voice” is classic mid-20th century demotic speech. He’s young and breezy. Wolfe is stolid and middle-aged. Readers love the clash of temperaments. It’s the reason the books can be read over and over again even though the reader knows who the villain is. 

What are some of the challenges of adapting these stories to the stage? What are some of the opportunities?

 The question of “voice” was one of the major challenges. The books are in the first person, whereas the stage is relentlessly third person. I had to find a balance between narration and action.

 Another challenge related to plot. The books aren’t plot heavy, but they still have them. I streamlined and compressed the plots in both plays because, unlike the reader, an audience member can’t turn back the page to check a detail. The audience must never lose the thread of the story. The play must always be one step ahead of the spectators.

Rebecca Stout Bradbury, Stout’s younger daughter and the manager of his estate, only stipulated two things:  I couldn’t change the title of a book or the identity of the criminal. Readers feel passionately about Wolfe and his world, so I tried to be true to the spirit of the stories, even though I altered something here and cut something there. Any dialogue I invented had to match the language of the books.

Form was also a consideration. Because The Red Box was published in 1936, it was appropriate to use the conventions of the classic well-made play, something you’d have seen on Broadway during those years. Might As Well Be Dead was published twenty years later.  The theater scene had changed, which gave me permission to shake things up a bit. Box had one location, Wolfe’s office. Dead travels all over New York City, from Wolfe’s office to Greenwich Village, from mid-town to the City morgue, from a prison cell to a courtroom…and I’m probably leaving a few out.

 The main influence on the play’s form was Vertigo’s production of Calamity Town. I was deeply impressed by the staging and the projections. Locales shifted in the blink of an eye – one moment you’re here, another moment you’re there. I kept that in mind when working on the adaptation. I can’t wait to see the Vertigo production!

 One of the great pleasures of moving Queen and Wolfe from the page to the stage is the opportunity to introduce them to readers and audience members who may not have heard of them before. They’re classic sleuths, part of a great tradition, and they deserve to be celebrated.


Might As Well Be Dead. Art by Jordan Wieben

Jonathan Christenson and The Invisible Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare

AgentsofInfluence Final@0,5x.jpg

We asked Jonathan Christenson about Catalyst Theatre's upcoming production of THE INVISIBLE- AGENTS OF UNGENTLEMANLY WARFARE. THE INVISIBLE will be premiering May 11- June 9 as the fifth show in our 2018/2019 season.

 THE INVISIBLE - AGENTS OF UNGENTLEMANLY WARFARE has its roots in real-life history, including Canadian Millionaire William Stephenson's WW2 contributions to British Security in the fight agains the Nazis. How are you going about researching these stories, and what excites you about what you've learned so far?

 The first book I read was A Man Called Intrepid. It's a biography of William Stephenson that was written in 1976 before people generally knew much about the Special Operations Executive (SOE) – the agency Churchill secretly set up to fight a covert war of espionage and sabotage in Europe during WWII. The book was originally considered a work of non-fiction, but over the years its veracity came into question and it was recently reclassified as fiction. Which is interesting because I imagine that in the world of espionage the truth can get very slippery. Anyway, I started there because Stephenson was this Canadian who had a huge impact on WWII and on the evolution of espionage during the last half of the 20th century. And I'd never heard of him. I'm interested in Canadian stories that have the potential to speak on a global level and I was struck by the international nature of this story. It had a significant Canadian connection, but it had equally strong ties to British, European and Asian history.

More than anything, though, I was interested in the women who were recruited by the SOE as secret agents. I had no idea that women played this particular role in WWII. And these women were fierce. They weren't the agent/seductress sort of female spies that populate the work of writers like Ian Fleming. So, I got my hands on as many books as possible about them. There have actually been a lot of them written over the past two decades. And as I began reading these books, I also started to see the stories of these women cropping up more and more in popular culture. There seems to be a growing interest in them.

One of the women that I became most intrigued with was someone named Vera Atkins. A lot of people say she was the real-life inspiration for Ian Fleming's Miss Moneypenny (much as many people say that William Stephenson was the inspiration for James Bond). Vera was very high up in F-Section – the branch of SOE that was dealing with agents in occupied France and she became very involved in the lives of the female agents. Before they set off on their missions, she was often the last person to see them.  At the end of the war, many of these agents were missing and no one knew what had happened to them. Vera made it her personal mission to go to Europe after the war and find out.  She spent months investigating and, if not for her, the stories of many of them may well have been lost forever.  I find Vera an endlessly intriguing character and she was the first to really take hold of my imagination.

THE INVISIBLE is titled as such because it refers to spies in the Second World War, but there's possibly another meaning about this story being "hidden" by history, while other more famous aspects of the war are celebrated. Was it important to you to write an "untold" story? What excites you about being able to bring this to the stage?

 Yes, absolutely. As male agents were increasingly identified & targeted by the Nazis, female agents were recruited from around the world & trained at secret camps throughout the UK & Canada. Women, it was believed, could coordinate the resistance without being suspected, without being observed, without being detected.  Women could be invisible. We're reimagining the stories of this international team of female agents through a 21st Century lens. Drawing on historical research, film noir, spy fiction, & graphic novels, we're working on creating a genre-busting, multi-lingual, "film noir musical" for our times, a contemporary portrait of 7 extraordinary women who risked their lives to fight a dangerous war of sabotage, propaganda & espionage during WWII, only to find themselves betrayed by the very world they believed they were fighting for.

Catalyst and Vertigo previously collaborated on NEVERMORE, which went on to tour nationally and internationally, including a run Off-Broadway. What are you looking forward to when working with Vertigo again? What unique aspects do you find Vertigo brings to the table?

We had a great time working at Vertigo in 2011! The Vertigo audiences were fantastic – so supportive and enthusiastic about NEVERMORE. So, I'm definitely looking forward to sharing this new work with them! Also, Vertigo has a fantastic team! Artistic Director Craig Hall and Executive Director Rose Brow have been amazing! It's not easy committing to something that only exists as a concept. It requires a lot of trust and confidence. It asks everyone involved to take a leap of faith. That’s not easy – stepping into the unknown – and even in the world of theatre, people can be reluctant to take that risk. But Craig and Rose never hesitated and I've really felt, from the very beginning, that we're all in this together.  It's been a real gift to begin a creative journey by such trust and support.

 Photo of Vera Atkins, Spy mistress.

Photo of Vera Atkins, Spy mistress.


This month on VERTIGO VOICES, we talk with Braden Griffiths and Curt McKinstry, two of our actors in SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE AMERICAN PROBLEM. Griffiths and McKinstry tackle the world's most famous detective duo as Holmes and Watson respectively, and we chatted with them about stepping into the shoes of these colourful characters.

 Curt McKinstry as Watson (left) and Braden Griffiths as Holmes (right), costumes designed by Deitra Kalyn, photography by diane+mike photography

Curt McKinstry as Watson (left) and Braden Griffiths as Holmes (right), costumes designed by Deitra Kalyn, photography by diane+mike photography

You're both familiar to Vertigo's audiences, having acted in several roles at the theatre over the years. What do you feel is different about taking on this famous duo? What feels similar?

Braden:  To a certain degree, there’s nothing really different about the process of bringing this production to the stage, regardless of the notable source material. The job is always to inhabit a character and hope that you can illuminate something of the truth of what it means to be a human being. Now, I say that, but, the truth of the matter is, Sherlock is an EXTREMELY important character to many, many people. People have “their” Sherlock: whether it’s Rathbone, Brett, or Cumberbatch. I have no intention of doing an impression of any of those performances, but I think understanding the different flavours of Sherlock is important when you are playing a cultural touchstone.  I can only ever play my version of this character, based on my own opinions of what I’ve researched and, based on this specific script, but, hopefully, all of the prep, has led me to a version that honours at least some of what people are hoping for. 

Curt: In previous productions I’ve been involved with at Vertigo, the audience wasn’t necessarily familiar with the characters, and the plot is typically new to them. With Holmes and Watson there is an immediate relationship that is understood and expected. The Vertigo audiences knows these characters just as well as we do, if not better at times. So ultimately, the stakes are raised somewhat from other productions. That being said, from an acting perspective, I can’t say that I approached the character any differently than I would in any other production. The fundamentals are the same, there is just more of an awareness of what people expect.

It would be hard to argue that there is any director in North America (perhaps the world) who knows more about the mystery genre than Mark Bellamy.

How familiar are each of you with the original stories by Conan Doyle? How do you feel about how this new production presents your characters? 

Braden: There has also been a lot of Sherlock reading. I can’t claim to have read every Sherlock story but, it was important to me to understand where this timeless character was born and for me to understand something of what Arthur Conan was originally trying to do with his brilliant character invention. I’ve spent a lot of spare time in the last year with this character, which is not something I can say for most plays I perform in. The nice thing about this script is that R. Hamilton Wright was obviously EXTREMELY familiar with the entirety of the canon. He has stayed beautifully true to the literary character of Holmes but, he has also allowed for the different flavours (that have been offered by Cumberbatch; Brett and Rathbone) to colour this scripted version of Holmes. It’s also a wonderful thing that we have Mark Bellamy directing. It would be hard to argue that there is any director in North America (perhaps the world) who knows more about the mystery genre than Mark. Having that kind of expertise to guide the proceedings is absolutely incredible.

Curt: As part of my research into Watson I read the majority of the Conan Doyle canon. As a rule of thumb, I try to stay away from film and television adaptations that may have previously been done, but with these characters it was difficult. I felt that NOT watching the Benedict Cumberbatch and the Jeremy Brett versions of the series would be doing myself a disservice. In all honesty (don’t tell the playwright), I kind of feel that Watson is a little underestimated in this production. He comes across as being a little slow to the punch, and isn’t very sharp. In the novels, Watson is quite astute and often provides Holmes with an unforeseen perspective on things. That being said, I still love Watson in this version and we still see all the lovely dynamics that are shared between Holmes and himself.

A frequent trope of Sherlock Holmes stories is the inclusion of historical figures, and this play is no exception. Who would be some Sherlock contemporaries - or even some anachronistic ones - that you would love to see on stage, and why? 

Braden: It would be fun to see Holmes and Watson bump heads with Erwin Schrödinger: maybe they could figure out whether the cat in the box is in fact dead. Maybe they could find Shoeless Joe Jackson’s shoes. As far as more anachronistic figures are concerned, watching Holmes discover the true identity of D.B. Cooper might be exciting. Also, I’m morbidly obsessed with serial killers and the psychology that would lead someone to a mental state in which they are capable of such atrocities, and so watching Holmes solve the Zodiac murders is like a dream case for me.

Curt: I’d have to say I’d love to see Mary Shelley appear on stage. We’re all familiar with her famous novel Frankenstein, but few people are familiar with her extraordinary personal life. I think the Vertigo audiences would find her quite an intriguing character.

Actors are pretty good at surprising us.

What is another dream casting you might like to see for Holmes and Watson (big screen, small screen, sky's the limit)?

Braden: Ralph Fiennes would be an UNBELIEVABLE Holmes and, I’m a ridiculously big Mark Ruffalo fan, and his Watson might match Fiennes’s Holmes nicely (though I can’t attest to Ruffalo’s British accent, maybe it’s terrible). Or if you’d like a lady Holmes and Watson, I would love to see Cate Blanchett in the role of Holmes with an Emma Thompson Watson. Or, come on, Tilda Swinton as Holmes - gimme-a-break - Tilda Swinton as Holmes and David Oyelowo as Watson. That one. That’s the pairing I choose.

Curt: He has since passed, but I would have loved to have seen Alan Rickman try his hand at Sherlock Holmes, and maybe Derek Jacobi as Watson. I don’t know though, it’s hard to say. Actors are pretty good at surprising us. 

This Interview has been edited for clarity and length.

 Behind the scenes at the photoshoot of diane+mike photography

Behind the scenes at the photoshoot of diane+mike photography