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Mark Crawford on small town settings and the importance of comedy in the face of tragedy

By Natalie Dewan, May 1, 2018

Playwright, actor, and Stratford resident Mark Crawford is currently in Toronto playing the bumbling Dr. Miles MacGreggor in “Prairie Nurse” at Factory Theatre. With a broad Scottish accent and a penchant for hunting when he should be at the hospital, Dr. MacGreggor is one of the well-intentioned citizens whose lives intersect with two nurses newly arrived from the Philippines in 1960s Arborfield, Saskatchewan.

I spoke with Mark about this charming production, the importance of comedy in the face of real-life tragedy, and his previous work with Stratford Festival favourite Graham Abbey’s Groundling Theatre.

1) You are a playwright as well as an actor, and several of your plays are, like “Prairie Nurse,” comedies set in small-town Canada. Is that a genre and a setting that you find yourself drawn to, or is that similarity a coincidence?

It’s a coincidence that I’m acting in a play that’s also set in a small town. Although, “Prairie Nurse” premiered at the Blyth Festival in 2013. Two of my plays, and a third coming up this summer, premiered at Blyth. Because of Blyth’s geography and mandate, often the shows that premiere there are set in non-urban environments.

As a writer, it is something that I’ve been really drawn to talking about in my work. Also, all of my work has premiered outside of Toronto… so it’s also a case of writing for a specific theatre and a specific audience.

2) “Prairie Nurse” is a farcical comedy and your character is fairly broad. How do you balance characters that do feel very relatable and grounded, with that kind of farcical, often physical comedy?

That was a real balancing act through rehearsal.

I would sometimes say to the director, “I don’t know if this is in the world of our play, I don’t know if this is too big.” Or at one point we were working on a scene and the director said, “I think we’ve got to try to get rid of the psychological realism of this scene because it’s a comedic bit.”

It’s about that balancing act of being in the world of the play, and everybody being in the same world. I was also just figuring out over the course of rehearsal what my job is, what my function is in the play.

Catherine-Fitch, Belinda-Corpuz, Isabel-Kanaan, Prairie nurse factory tehatreCatherine-Fitch, Mark Crawford , Belinda-Corpuz, Isabel-Kanaan.
Photo Joseph Michael

It was cool to figure that out and to bounce ideas off of the other actors and the director, and to sometimes rehearse from that place of realism and ask all the questions that you would ask if you were doing a Chekov play or a David Mamet play, or whatever; “Who am I? What am I doing here?” To make sense of it.

And then, if you have that foundation of feeling like you’re a real person with real things going on, then you can go as big and broad as you can, as long as you can still touch base with some reality.

3) The play is inspired by playwright Mary Beath Badian’s mother’s real experience. But it is a little bit outside of reality because it is so comedic. Were you as a cast aware of what was based in reality and what wasn’t?

Mary Beath was with us over the first few days of rehearsal. She told us the story of her mom coming to Saskatchewan from the Philippines in the 60s as a nurse. So we knew the story, and there are a lot of names, and references, and places that are real. All of that is great and lets us base it in reality. But the actual events of the play are not real.

Prairie-Nurse-Mark CrawfordMark Crawford, Isabel Kanaan. Photo Joseph Michael.

There was a doctor who worked in that circuit of hospitals apparently who was Scottish and they could never find him, he was always off somewhere. But it’s not like we’re doing a biography where we had to go and research these real people… I think she [Mary Beath] took bits and pieces of things she heard and used them as a jumping off point to create something that’s very theatrical, very stylized and larger than life.

4) On a much more serious note, I noticed that the playwright put a note in the program recognizing that the Humboldt tragedy took place just outside of Arborfield, where the play is set. I imagine that must have been tough to grapple with when the play is such a light comedy, but people coming into it might be aware of this tragic connection. How did you as a cast deal with that?

It’s interesting the timing of things. The massive crash with the Humboldt Broncos happened while we were in rehearsals. So we came into rehearsals the next day just going, “Oh my god, not only did this thing happen, and that’s an enormous tragedy that we’re all feeling across the country. But also, from Arborfield, that is a 25-minute drive down the road.”

It’s weird when worlds start to overlap. And in a play like this you can’t let it seep into the world because obviously this play is set in 1967, that hadn’t happened yet. And also just the lightness and the sweetness of the play, I don’t think can kind of sustain that kind of tragedy inside of it. But it was a reminder at an interesting point in rehearsal that this is a real place.

And just the other day… we all went away for the day off on Monday, and that’s when the crazy tragedy happened in Toronto. So then you come back to the theatre and you are in the city where that happened and you have to do a fast-paced, hilarious, sweet-as-pie comedy.

What I really felt on Tuesday night… a play like this is really cathartic because it really lets people come together and laugh and just have a ridiculous, joyful time, and that actually has great healing value.

I think we can slip into this thing where we think, “People are terrible, it’s all awful, everything is dark and terrible.” But a play like this especially, reminds us that people are also ridiculous, and flawed, but flawed in very silly, relatable, loveable ways. And I think that that has value too. So it feels like good timing to be doing this play.

5) In addition to “Prairie Nurse,” I did want to ask you about working with Graham Abbey’s Groundling Theatre. You were in two very special productions (“The Winter’s Tale” and “Measure for Measure”) performed at the Winter Garden Theatre here in Toronto in 2017. The set-up was very interesting, with the audience on stage and the actors’ backs to the house. What was it like performing in that arrangement?

It was cool. It was a bit of a mind trip… I think that’s the only time that any of us have worked in the Winter Garden. It’s such a beautiful theatre, and its such a perfect theatre, it’s so perfectly designed, that your actor instrument is trained to face out and to give it to that big, beautiful house. So that’s weird.

And also just the geography of it, just figuring it out in that space was a really fun challenge. It’s a really special theatre and I just felt really lucky to get to perform on it.

Not to get too ooga-booga, but just knowing that most theatres that we perform in have only been around since like the 70s, but that theatre’s been around since the turn of the century. It hosted all of the major Vaudeville acts of the early 20th century.

Especially for me playing the clowns in those shows… to think that some of the great clowns of the last 100 or 200 years have tread these boards. I’m in good company, I just felt sort of taken care of in that way, that I could muster that up somehow.

Also in “Measure for Measure,” I got to enter through the orchestra pit; to get to the orchestra pit there’s this crazy, creepy little concrete staircase that you go down. And then you go down this little concrete tunnel under the stage where a technician had to go with me with a flashlight. It was crazy; there’s stuff written in chalk on the wall from like 1911. It’s really cool and you realize that very few people actually get to go in there.

6) So it was really special, and special to do those shows in that space and to figure them out for those spaces. And great people, amazing people.

I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I think we all thought, “Oh man, I wish that this theatre got used more for plays.” Because it’s so spectacular, it’s so beautiful.

So what’s next for you. You mentioned that you have a play premiering in the summer?

Yes, I have a brand new play that opens at the Blyth Festival in June and runs into August. It’s called The New Canadian Curling Club. It’s about a group of new Canadians, one from Jamaica, one from China, one from India, and one from Syria, who take this learn to curl evening once a week over the course of a winter and become a very unlikely curling team in this small town. I’m really excited about it. We have a great cast lined up, Miles Potter is directing it. It’s great people.

Then “Prairie Nurse” goes to Thousands Islands Playhouse, it’s a co-production, so we’ll take it to Gananoque in August and September.

My play the “The Birds and the Bees” has three productions coming up really soon. It’s in rehearsal right now at Theatre Orangeville, and then it will be at the Lighthouse Festival Theatre and at Drayton at three venues.

And then my play “Bed and Breakfast” is going to be at Soulpepper as well. It’s a brand new production at Soulpepper which is kind of crazy and exciting.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Details, Details:
Prairie Nurse
Factory Theatre, Toronto.
Now through May 13th
Purchase tickets online

Dewan-CircleNatalie Dewan
Natalie Dewan is a Toronto-based arts administrator with particular passions for the outreach, communications, and the performing arts. She holds an MA in Arts and Heritage: Policy, Management, and Education from Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Natalie can usually be found writing about, working for, or enjoying arts and culture in Toronto and beyond. Read all Natalie Dewan’s stories

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Mark Crawford on small town settings and the importance of comedy in the face of tragedy

Natalie Dewan
1 May 2018
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