When I heard that Red Stitch were putting on a play by John Clancy I immediately went 110% frickin bananas before I realised that I had no idea who this John Clancy character was (is). I knew he wasn’t Tom Clancy, which dashed my hopes of finally watching some submarine-based intrigue on a Melbourne stage, but at least there was no danger of me repeating a Madagascar Moment and spending an hour wondering why the MTC had transformed a delightful animated romp about zoo animals into a completely lemur-free drama. So this is who John Clancy is: he lives in New York and writes and directs theatre and has won five Fringe Firsts in Edinburgh and lots of other awards too. He sounds a little bit like a younger Alan Alda. Let’s have a closer look.
Fatboy is inspired by Alfred Jarry’s Pere Ubu. When Ubu premiered in 1896 it caused a riot. Audiences don’t riot much these days. I feel a bit like I’ve missed out. What do you think, John?
“Exactly. You read that and you think ‘what would one have to do to..?’ What I’ve read is that the riot was from the opening word, because he shouts ‘merde!’ That was it. They didn’t even wait to see the rest of the show. Just seeing this hugely-padded man shouting ‘shit!’ was it. It was done.”
Fatboy’s opening lines set a nice petit fours tone, too: “Motherfuck! Cocksucking fuck-headed motherfucking fucks!” Clancy calls the piece a “pretty mean play” but it’s in keeping with some strong views about the poverty of the American theatre scene.
“For me the great cancer of the theatre is subtlety. Being careful about what you say or being precious about what you say. One of the reasons for Fatboy was: I want this piece to be undeniable. We’re going to take a point and we’re going to hammer it on the head over and over for 70 minutes. So you may hate the show, you may like the show, but there’s no question – ‘I think I know what he was talking about. It’s pretty clear what that was about’.
“In general in American theatre subtlety seems to be the name of the game. It’s about painting these masterpieces and alluding to the point of what you’re talking about, but it’s all just become this kitchen-sink realism or television sitcom realism. It’s very, very rare to hear a voice that is angry. Think about it. We’ve been in Iraq for eight years. There’s not one piece you could point to that is about that conflict. They’re all British imports that do that.”
Clancy sees the past twenty years as pretty dire ones for the American stage. Where earlier writers such as Thornton Wilder or Elmer Rice had created a tradition of formal experimentation, by the time he began writing there were really just two faiths a US playwright was encouraged to join: the churches of Shepard and Mamet.
“You had people trying to write this quasi-rock ‘n’ roll theatre with rangy people breaking furniture, incredibly boring stuff, or else this very clipped, sharp, aggressive stuff. But both Shepard and Mamet are essentially realism. A little lyrical maybe but essentially telling these stories on stage, wanting you to care about the characters. We’re trapped in this little prison-yard of the past. And you know, everyone’s to blame. Frankly there are a lot of critics who just don’t really understand how to see past that. There’s a lot of audience members for whom that’s what theatre is.”
While New York (and Melbourne) stages seem to be dominated by the kind of rounded, insular play that gestures to very little beyond itself or hands out reassuring platitudes to its audience, Clancy seems unafraid to create productions that are political or offensive or just plain blunt.
“I would love to write something beautiful and uplifting but these are fairly dark times to be in America, and to be working in a public forum it feels really irresponsible to whisper a beautiful bedtime story to people. When the house is on fire, you need to tell people to wake up.”
He even uses a deeply unfashionable term that catches me by surprise: he talks about 'messages' in Fatboy.
“The one is that we as a society allow monsters. We allow this stuff to go on as long as we’re entertained. I think back to Idi Amin and Mussolini and Slobodan Milosovic. We let these monsters run the world either because we’re too tired or bored or else they entertain us in some way. That’s the larger political message, but the real message for me at the end is: we are all Fatboy. We all have beneath the surface this insatiable hunger and greed and selfishness and we’ve gotta watch it. We have to be careful to behave, but there are no monsters out there. We’re all capable of these things so let’s be careful. I mean, it’s not a particularly nice message and in a weird way it’s different from some of my other stuff. It’s a mean play. It’s setting out to sort of trick an audience. The idea is to get an audience laughing and I’d always say the job is to seduce an audience, to get them complicit and on your side, so that there is that moment of: you’re doing terrible things, I’m watching you do terrible things, and yet I love you. You’re hilarious. I’m going to be on your side. So by the very end when the actor’s staring at you and calling you fuckhead, calling you a cocksucker, it’s like ‘wait a minute. I thought we were talking about all those idiots out there in the world, and now you’re talking to me?’ There’s this terrible moment where you realise you’ve been had. And then lights out.”
(Daniel Frederiksen as Fatboy)
The play was written in 2003, at the height of the Bush administration's time in office. Red Stitch’s will be its first Obama-era production. Are things any better?
“You know, honestly, they’re not. I’m an extraordinary supporter of President Obama so there was this wonderful feeling of relief that the idiots had left the building. And then for America, which is pretty much defined by racism, it was a tremendous historic achievement – that we actually did that, what a tremendous thing. But really, sadly, Guantanamo’s still open. Now they’re talking about going back to the tribunal to get more guys in there. We’re still in Iraq. Not a lot has changed. There’s been some disconnect. Even in my relatively short lifetime, I’m 46, we’re in a period in America where the citizenry, the people, honestly do not feel that we have any control. We sort of
have this thing where every four years we kind of wake up a little bit to get involved, but day to day, week to week, it’s an incredibly disconnected populace. That’s frightening. It allows these things to go on and on because we feel we can’t control it.”
When it premiered in Edinburgh, Fatboy was seeing around a dozen walkouts every night. Clancy told his performers that they must be doing something right. It certainly wasn’t about the length – the playwright has a very promising respect for the show that doesn’t overstay its welcome. “I can’t remember a show where I didn’t walk out thinking they could have cut 20 minutes from it. You know, sometimes that’s true of my own work.”
His company began by staging shows in New York bars, where an overheard conversation can often be more interesting than what you’ll see on stage in a theatre. If you’re asking people to make their way to a venue and sit through your play, then, you need to make it clear pretty quickly why this is as interesting as what they could find on the street.
“That’s not going to happen if you take fifteen minutes at the top of the show to subtly weave some sort of spell on an audience. I’m gone. I’m checking to see how many lights there are, checking to see if anyone else has fallen asleep. We don’t have that kind of time. How do you think I have time for your beautiful art? Don’t you live in this world?”
Fatboy opens March 17 at Red Stitch Actors Theatre.