It turns out that a fictional theatre festival has become Canada’s gift to smart serial television.
I’m not alone in choosing the 18-episode Slings & Arrows, originally produced for The Movie Channel and the Movie Network over 2003-2006, as my favourite Canuck TV creation.
The series started as an idea of actor and writer Susan Coyne, who had performed at the Stratford Festival, was a founding member of Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre, and who plays Anna Conroy, a festival administrator, in Slings & Arrows. Her scripts came to the attention of film producers Rhombus Media, who suggested she work on further development with Mark McKinney, a former member of the comedy troupe Kids in the Hall, who plays New Burbage Festival General Manager Richard Smith-Jones. Finally Bob Martin, best known for his lead role in the musical The Drowsy Chaperone, had worked with Rhombus before, had experience writing TV series, and joined the creative team. Martin has a small but memorable role in the first Slings & Arrows season as Terry the Accountant, who gets the theatre bug after taking a “Shakespeare for Business” seminar run at the Festival.
It’s a hard series to summarize. It starts with a trio of characters: current Artistic Director Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette), once brilliant and now directing safe and lacklustre plays; his long-time leading lady, Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns), passionate, brittle, haughty, yet insecure; and Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), an “incandescent” actor as a young man who played Hamlet to Ellen’s Ophelia, directed by Oliver, and who went mad during that production. Geoffrey has resurfaced, after years of being institutionalized, as director of a near-bankrupt tiny urban theatre. Oliver’s sudden death — he’s a big drinker, passes out on the street, and is run over by a truck with the slogan “Canada’s Best Hams” emblazoned on it — sets in motion the rest of the series. Geoffrey speaks at Oliver’s funeral and his fiery criticism of New Burbage inspires some board directors to ask him to take on the artistic directorship. However, Oliver isn’t quite done with the place yet: whether Oliver’s appearance is a true ghost, or a delusion of Geoffrey’s fragile mental state, Oliver floats in and out of the rest of the series. Geoffrey is forced to take over directing Hamlet, the play that drove him mad.
Season one follows the production of two Shakespearean plays: An underwhelming A Midsummer’s Night Dream and the aforementioned Hamlet, starring an American action-movie star trying to get some cred, hired by the wanna-make-a-buck-eye-on-box-office GM Richard (inspired, I’ve always assumed, by Keanu Reeves’ turn as Hamlet at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in 1995).
Season two follows the Festival and its people as they mount Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth while undergoing a controversial rebranding.
Season three sees the festival develop a new musical and Geoffrey direct King Lear.
Outlined like that, it really doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. But it is: both side-splittingly hilarious and, at times, incredibly moving. While it pokes fun at the foibles of creative life and tensions between art and commerce, it also shows, time and again, the power of theatre to transform. It’s the only TV series I’ve watched repeated times.
It also has the greatest gaggle of character roles ever assembled: from Sanjay the Richard-Nixon-quoting marketing guru (Colm Feore) to insufferable director Darren Nichols (Don McKellar), there’s not a false note anywhere. Canadian Rachel McAdam, now a Hollywood A lister, played the wide-eyed ingenue Kate in Season 1, cast as Ophelia opposite Hollywood action star Jack. However, McAdam’s real-life ascending Hollywood stardom prevented her from continuing the role in further seasons and forced the writers to adjust some of their plot lines; Sarah Polley joined Season 3 as another young actor, Sophie, playing Cordelia to cranky, elderly Charles Kingman’s King Lear (William Hutt, who played Lear many times on stage and who died shortly after the series was filmed).
The series is aging remarkably well. Martin Chilton, culture editor for The Telegraph, reviewed the series as a boxed DVD set in 2013 because he discovered the series via a comment from David Simon, creator of The Wire. Said Simon: “There’s a wonderful Canadian show called Slings & Arrows, about a Shakespearean theatre company, that was so clever it left me with pure, distilled writer-envy.”
Chilton concluded: “The seasons just get better and better and the King Lear-themed climax is deeply moving. Slings & Arrows is a reminder of just how complex and clever television drama can be.”
When the initial scripts were in development in 2001-2002, I worked at the Stratford Festival. The producers approached the Festival with a request to rent the iconic 1,824-seat Festival Theatre, with its distinctive thrust stage and ampitheatre-style audience seating, to film the series.
I read a draft first episode, not nearly as polished as what eventually went to air. It certainly was poking fun at a theatre company and yes, there many pointed insider Stratford barbs. The Festival leaders weren’t all that interested in participating in something that would satirize or mock them; on the other hand, no-one wanted to be a bad sport. My personal view was that the Festival Theatre is so famous and recognizable that it wasn’t the right spot for the show: it would be better if the stages and action could be imagined happening anywhere.
Eventually others must have shared that same view, because that’s what happened. As co-writer Bob Martin explained in a 2013 interview, the show “was at one time called St. Ratford. Right up until we started shooting. Anyway, we all realized that to make it an attack on Stratford, which was really unwarranted, would lessen it. It would be too constraining for us, so we created this fictional regional theatre, and it was far more than simply a comment on the situation at Stratford.”
The series created its New Burbage Festival through a pastiche of locations, filming interior theatre scenes at the Sanderson Centre in Brantford, Ontario and lobby scenes at the Pantages (now Ed Mirvish Theatre) in downtown Toronto. There were swan boats like you’d see in Boston Public Garden and jokes about the winery next door (more of a Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake flavour); a “Reel Toronto” article in Torontoist tracks more of the series’ locations, mostly in or near Toronto.
The series cleaned up at Canadian award shows during its run and got picked up by the U.S. Sundance Channel, where it attracted a new league of followers that continues to grow as people, like Telegraph reviewer Chilton, discover the series. My former Festival administration colleagues tell me that when they go to conferences in the U.S., they’re immediately pegged as the Slings & Arrows festival but then, in the same breath, the American theatre folk will exclaim how the series could be about them. Which, like all good art, it is: both specific and universal in the crazy and loving tales it tells.
Main photo of a well-worn DVD set of Slings and Arrows: Chris Moorehead