Interviewed by Michael K. Potter; transcribed by Nikolas Prsa
Recently, we had the opportunity to sit down virtually with John Clancy, the playwright responsible for Fatboy, which Post Productions is bringing to The Shadowbox Theatre from Oct 9 – 24. John, who is now the President of Little Pharaoh Enterprises, in Mount Carmel, Illinois, shared insights about the play, theatre, and much more.
Read the video transcript below!
Tickets to FATBOY are available through this website on the HOME and 2020 SEASON pages.
To learn more about LITTLE PHARAOH ENTERPRISES, visit them on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/littlepharaohenterprises/
MICHAEL K. POTTER: Alright. Well, hello John! Let’s start with some context to familiarize our audiences with you. So, tell me about yourself: who is John Clancy, and what has he done with his life so far?
JOHN CLANCY: Man, what a waste. What a waste. So much potential. Well, I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, Midwest America. Studied as an actor at Oberlin College in Ohio, graduated. Spent a year in grad school in Dallas, Texas for acting where I met my wife, which was the only thing I got out of grad school. And, after a year, I went - I started writing, I wasn’t getting a lot of acting work. I was in L.A. for about a year, moved back to Dallas, Texas to be with Nancy, and started writing. We moved to New York City in 1990. She had a good agent, she was sort of a big shot - she did a lot of soap operas and commercials and that kind of stuff. So we moved to New York. I wasn’t getting the acting work, so I started writing roles that I want to play, and I had lots of success with that very early; won some national awards, had some productions in New York, and then I started writing very strange things. You know, you go back to the ‘90s in America, the only real schools of playwriting - big schools - were Mamet and Shepard.
CLANCY: So, you were either writing kinda bad Shepard imitations -- kinda, you know, kinda scroungy, angry, you know. We used to call it, like, ‘Guys With Guns And Girls Who Took Their Clothes Off.’ And you’d break a chair at some point during the play, knives, you know, this kind of shit, and trying to be poetic but usually just being incoherent. Or, Mamet, which was just, you know, just - [imitates staccato] staccato, you know, fucking fast, quick, mean, very much about America. And that was it! So, I wrote a bad ‘Shepard piece,’ I wrote a pretty decent ‘Mamet piece,’ and then I just started writing just crazy shit. ‘Cause my whole impulse was to write ‘theatre’ and not ‘drama.’ To write - you know, when I teach playwriting, it’s like - you know, there’s a huge difference between ‘theatre’ and ‘drama,’ and, basically, if you’re writing ‘drama’ you’re writing a piece of literature. Which is great, beautiful! You know, George Bernard Shaw, all those guys. If you’re writing ‘theatre,’ you’re basically writing a blueprint for a live event and you have to understand that it’s not - it’s just that; you have to write as clear as you can, exactly as if you were an architect and you’re gonna give it to a contractor, and it’s gotta be clear. When it’s all said and done, they have to build the thing, you know, to your specifications, and then they can decorate any way they want to. But you’re basically writing a blueprint. So, I started writing stuff and nobody wanted to direct that, at all, you know. Nobody wanted to produce it. So, I started directing it, Nancy and I started a company - The Present Company - back in ’94, I guess, in New York. And we had a lot of fun, we had a lot of - you know, some success, mostly just a lot of fun. We opened up a little theatre in Hell’s Kitchen. We got the idea for the New York International Fringe Festival in probably ’96, we did that in ’97 with a bunch of people. In that first year, in ’97, we had 175 productions in 21 theatres that were, you know, bars and basements and all this on the Lower East Side - I think one actual theatre - over eleven days. And we put on - if you add that all up - we put on over 1,200 individual performances.
POTTER: Oh, my God!
CLANCY: Each company had five, six, seven shows depending on the length of their shows, and it was nuts! It was insane! Did it with no budget. Did it with no staff, all volunteer. Nobody died, you know, so we kept doing it again, so we did that for - I think it’s still going on, I think, but Nancy and I did it for five years - and then we just kinda got bored because it began to run itself. It became a machine, so the excitement was kinda gone. So, we started our own company - Clancy Productions - took all of our shows that we had been doing over the years and toured the world with them. We had a lot of luck. We broke into the Edinburgh Festival Fringe our first year, and we just had - you know, through some flukes and some good relationships - we killed. We did really well. And so, we kept being able to go back. That’s the gateway - that festival is the gateway to all the other English-speaking festivals, big ones; all the promoters are there, all the producers are there. So, we did that for about eight years and you know, that first recession hit and work just went away. So, yeah, we just sort of jumped around for a little while and now we’re out in, of all places, southern Illinois- just this tiny little, beautiful ‘Mayberry R.F.D.’ county - and we, as of last week, now we’ve bought two big old buildings, an old bank and an old bar that are next to each other, essentially one complex, and it’s the Little Egypt Arts Center. So, we’re gonna try and do what we do out here.
POTTER: That’s excellent, yeah. Bringing together artists of all stripes, right, into sort of a community. Yeah, I love that idea. That’s something that we’re really interested in doing over here, too.
CLANCY: Yeah, yeah. It’s important. We really have to get with the local artists, not in any condescending way. You know, it’s like, wow! This is, - I mean, I’m telling you, man - some of the local musicians, and the local visual artists, and some of the theatre people, you know what I mean: top notch! They just never decided to run off to New York or anywhere, they stayed here. But then to cook them up, to be able to do (things) already with some artists from other places is really exciting. It’s just fun to watch, you know, the hybrid of it and the mutual sort of ‘oh, wow,’ and that’s inspired me to do this, you know?
POTTER: Yeah. So, Fatboy then. Let’s talk about Fatboy, that’s the show in question. What led to Fatboy becoming a reality?
CLANCY: Well, it was - it’s funny, I was thinking about this last night ‘cause I knew we were gonna have this conversation - it’s funny, the first maybe five, six pages, the first exchange between Fatboy and Fudgie in Act One, actually goes back to probably 1991. ‘Cause Nancy and I had just been married and I was sitting there and she was making money; I wasn’t making any money. So I’m just sitting there in the apartment trying to be a writer, and it was, basically, just a gag, you know? It was like, ‘Let’s just boil marriage down to its worst, most brutal reality,’ and it was like five pages that I just put away, you know? I mean, I do that a lot. You get a little inspiration, you make sure you write it down, you put it away. Years later, Nancy had - my wife is a brain tumour survivor - in 2002, she presented with a malignant brain tumour. And she had the surgery, she’s still alive, she’s a couple doors down, but that really pissed me off; that really got me angry. And then, of course, what had happened earlier with the attacks on the [Twin] Towers which happened about a mile from where we lived in New York City. And then, of course, we invaded Afghanistan, and that really pissed me off, you know. So I was really just sitting there in this stew of, not rage exactly, but really angry. And I remembered this piece of this lunatic, you know, shouting and yelling, pulled it out. [A] friend of mine, Colin Young of Reverie Productions, had a reading series and he was looking for short pieces and he said “Do you have anything?” and I said “Well, you know, yeah, I could write a short piece” and I wrote the first act of Fatboy and we presented a stage reading. And you’ve been through hundreds of stage readings and they’re usually fun, they’re cool, they’re interesting. This was . . . I’ve never seen anything like this, man. I mean, we rehearsed it for half an hour, right, and sat down in front of, you know, thirty people, folding chairs. And it just - the room blew up! And everyone was, like, yelling, “When are you gonna finish it?! What’s next?!” and I’m like, “Ah!”
CLANCY: So, I just kept writing and Colin actually was the original producer and he said “I want to do this.” So, damn, you know. So, it all just sort of came out. There was no plan to it, you know. It was really just sort of, you know joke-to-joke, outrage-to-outrage.
POTTER: Were you writing it with specific people in mind to cast?
CLANCY: Yeah, I knew - you probably know, one of the great things about having a performing company, you can - you know. I mean, Clifford Odetts wrote Waiting For Lefty with all the Group Theatre guys so he knew their rhythms, what they could do, could see them doing it. Yeah, I did. I wrote it for Nancy, I wrote it for a guy named Del Pentecost who we worked for forever, and Calvedo - most of that original cast, with the exception of Mike McShane, who premiered the role, in Edinbrugh, of Fatboy. We had never worked with Michael, but he was a big star, basically; he in on the original Whose Line Is It Anyway, the English version; he’s ‘the big, fat American.’ He loved the piece. I talked to him - really took a risk, because I had never worked with him. I asked somebody who worked for him - you might want to edit this out, you might not want to - I asked somebody, I said, “Mike McShane is interested in doing this.” The producers, of course, are like, “Cast him! Cast him! He sells tickets! You know, he’s a big star over there.” And I ask, “Have you worked with Mike?” and a mutual friend basically said: “Yeah, I’ve worked with Mike. Two things about McShane: he will always have the best drugs, and no one will be more professional.” And I was like, “That’s a good combination! You know, that’s pretty rare.”
CLANCY: And it was true! He was so great, but then he couldn’t do the New York premiere, so that reverted back to Del. Del did it a couple times, I think. But yeah, I had Joey, Matt Calvedo, I kinda knew they could pull it off. ‘Cause, as you’re finding out probably, it’s a deceptively difficult piece.
CLANCY: It looks pretty straight-up, but it’s very demanding on the the performers, very demanding.
POTTER: Yesterday, actually, we ran the first act with four different tones. I wanted to see what we might be missing, what had escaped our attention because we had been performing it a certain way. At first we did it as sort a zany, (Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker) Airplane! sort of comedy, then as a BBC drama, then we did it as a preschool show and then we did it as a horror. A lot of interesting things came out of that.
CLANCY: I would have loved to have seen that!
POTTER: But, what we found all through the rehearsal process is that it’s play of surprising moments of depth. There are points being made. The play is so outrageous, it’s so in-your-face, that, in a way, you think “This is not a play in which there is room for subtlety or nuance,” but there is! It’s hiding underneath the bluster; it’s underneath the brashness.
CLANCY: Exactly. And if you drop into that, pop right back out, but nail it and then go on, then the piece really builds into a very interesting thing.
CLANCY: Yeah. You know, I had the privilege, or the luck or whatever - when I first directed it, I had written it then, and then we went on tour - two tours actually, back-to-back to England and then to Australia for about eight or nine months - and then when we flew back from Australia, we had to go into rehearsal the next day to then take it to Edinburgh. We had a month and - bang! - over to Edinburgh, so I was just wiped. I thought, “You know what?” and I said, “Let’s just look at this script.” We all had the script, we were all sitting around, and I said, “Somebody else wrote this, man. I mean, I finished this a year ago; it was a different guy, you know? So, let’s just look at it; let’s just do basic script analysis on what we’re looking at before we even get into it.” I found all kinds of stuff where it was just like, “What is this?!” And a lot of it, I realized, there’s a lot of religious shit in it. In a dark, kind of agnostic way, but it’s there. I mean, to the tone of it, the subtlety or whatever, the difficulty of it, I’ve seen three or four productions across the country and it sometimes is heartbreaking. A company did it in a big, naval base town on the south - Newport News, I think - and she was so excited about the piece. She’d seen it and she did it in a tiny, little theatre and it was disastrous! She wrote back - I didn’t see it - but she was like, “I am so sorry, I didn’t realize how tough it was.”
CLANCY: And she cast, you know, good people, but she didn’t prep them for what it was gonna be and they couldn’t pull it off. And I’ve seen other productions where it’s just that; where it’s like you though this was just a farce or whatever, and it’s like - nah, man. It’s opera, in a sense. As far as the performances, also, you gotta be able to pull it and drop in a second and jump. Also, I don’t know what you guys are gonna clock into, but I saw [an] excellent production in Chicago - excellent company, great directors, great actors, great set - but it was too long, and at the end of it, it’s just too much. It’s like -
CLANCY: I say it’s like listening to The Ramones full-blast for a while, and after a little while - as great as it is - it’s like, “This is… turn this off, man!”
CLANCY: It’s a real - it’s a tricky bastard, and it’s a mean play.
CLANCY: It’ll say that about it, which is not really my style - or, I try not to make my style - but this is a mean play. It’s all set up as a trick.
POTTER: Right, and the protagonists themselves are mean people.
CLANCY: Yeah, yeah.
POTTER: They’re unprincipled people. One of our actors described one of the things that the play was demonstrating to the audience was what happens when you don’t see value in anyone else or anything else.
CLANCY: Yes, and one of the impulses I’m remembering now for Act Two - the trial - was Slobodan Milosevic and his war crime trial. I remember this insane image at one point - he was there, he was on, he was in the court - and for some reason, he was eating this big ol’ hoagie, this big ol’ sandwich. And he had mayonnaise all over his face, and it was like, “He’s on war crimes! This is insane!” So, one of the other things that the play taught me about us is, “We’ll allow you” - if you want, Mussolini, you can think about the current American president - “We’ll allow you to be a monster as long as you’re entertaining. As soon as you stop becoming entertaining, we turn on you.”
CLANCY: And then, you’re out, you know. So, sort of a trick for Fatboy and Fudgie is, make sure you’re always engaging with that audience - an actual audience. Keeping them on your side, making them think that, “You’re not talking about me! Ha, ha, ha!” until the end.
POTTER: You know, for me, one the things I really just love about the script is the relationship between Fatboy and Fudgie, right? This co-dependent, resentful relationship that they have. What are you telling us with that relationship allegorically? You can sort of pick up on the psychology of it, but, allegorically, what is that relationship communicating?
CLANCY: It’s really interesting, because - that’s a great question, I don’t know - I think, I know that Fatboy is just hunger, just desire, and it’s finally human; it’s not a political thing. That’s the first layer, that’s easy. It’s a human thing. It’s like - you ever have a child or watch a toddler, they’re monsters! They don’t care! “This goes in my mouth! This goes in my mouth!”
CLANCY: So, he’s hunger, but she is - this might really be reductive as all hell - but, she is “the brains of the outfit.” And there’s that whole classic, Western thing of the woman actually being in charge, the woman being wiser, the woman needing to play her lesser hand but winning the pot. So, there’s some kind of a lock between - she’s got that speech at the very end, “We watch you go off to battle and wait see who will return.” And I think that’s a very mean view of ‘woman,’ but that’s probably - I mean, the allegory’s not Adam and Eve, but it’s, I don’t know, Adam and Judith or something.
POTTER: A lot of people will say that a clown - for instance - clowns are defined and differentiated by their appetites.
POTTER: Fatboy and Fudgie, they have different appetites, right? Fatboy has this appetite for literal consumption of whatever happens to be in his presence, and Fudgie has this appetite for sex for one thing, but what they share and what I think underlies both those appetites is an appetite for power.
CLANCY: Definitely. ‘Cause you think about everyone that Fudgie conjugates with - dies! Fatboy kills the Tenant, but you can hear him shout offstage. She kills the Prosecutor. She kills the Slave at the end. I mean, these are - we assume these are lovers, we don’t really see that. She says, “My beautiful boy” and then she just snaps his neck!
CLANCY: She’s kind of the black widow, you know; it’s not consummated until I kill you.
POTTER: Again, you could see that as another kind of consumption: you consume the other until they’re spent and then you’re done with them. You move on.
CLANCY: Yeah, what worth are they to you?
CLANCY: I’ve been thinking about the two levels of how they fit together because Fatboy is intentionally, completely oblivious. He has no sense of what the hell is going on because of his blind ego. He does have a couple times where he’s just like, “I don’t understand what you’re saying,” even though someone’s saying something directly to him; he just doesn’t get it. I don’t think it’s an act. I think he genuinely is like, “That doesn’t fit with my worldview, so I didn’t hear it.”
POTTER: Right, right. Now, the Tenant strikes me, out of the supporting characters - the Tenant is the most interesting to me because he’s a mysterious figure. He enters their world and there seems to be a swagger to him; there seems to be this sense that he’s there playing what he thinks is the same game and he’s outmaneuvered. Where did that character come from and what did writing that character into the script allow you to do with the story?
CLANCY: Yeah. Again, the way they were written was sequentially, although Act Two and Three were kind of written together. But Act One, I saw this character and I knew who was gonna play it – this character as exactly that: as the young – and Matt, who had this stupid little blonde wig on, and when he pulled his pants down, had these ridiculous leopard g-sting thing, he was kinda dressed in this flowing white – he was the classic, male elite. I think that’s the setup. So you’ll see that confrontation between real power and real hunger and violence and danger against the cultured “I kill people for money.” It’s all romantic and shit, and Fatboy’s like, “Really? Let’s go!” And that fight - the way we staged it - it basically wasn’t a fight. He came at him, and Fatboy grabbed him and spent a long time killing him. Matt was just clutching and trying to get to him, but it wasn’t a fight.
POTTER: So the Tenant’s sort of the ideal male violence that you find in movies, right?
CLANCY: Exactly. There’s nothing sexy about murder. One of the hardest rehearsal hurdles we always had was - we called it ‘the murder speech’ - when Fatboy returns in Act One, and that’s a total tone shift. You’re going from this real ridiculous over-the-top, to this fairly long monologue with - I don’t think there’s a joke in there. Maybe one or two.
POTTER: Dark, dark jokes.
CLANCY: It sort of drops it down because that is the most realistic depiction of an event in the whole piece, I think. It happens really early. It’s also, intentionally, not America. The way he’s talking about it, it’s really, in my mind, it was a Western European capital. The old section, the quarter, it’s like, “Hm.”
POTTER: The architecture that he describes and so forth.
CLANCY: Yeah, everything feels like a city in Southern England or somewhere. But once we got that, you get over that and pop back in and you’ve kept the audience, then it should work. Have you had any - just to throw it back on you - is there anything in particular or in general about this script that surprised you when you were actually working on it?
POTTER: Yeah, quite a lot. Act One, I think we finally cracked it last night with the exercise of trying the different tones. I think we finally found the right balance for that particular moment you’re describing, that monologue. Everything else was working, in fact, that monologue was pretty good - it’s been good for a while - but you’re right, it’s out of place in the rest of the act in a way. Finally, I think we found the right balance of tones just through experimentation last night. One of the other things that surprised me about the script quite a lot, and continues to surprise me, is that it’s often billed as a satire of American politics and culture - which it is, clearly - but it’s also, I think, very, very universal in what is being satirized. What’s being satirized, as I understand it now, isn’t particular to the United States, it isn’t particular to any particular culture or anything like that; it’s human. It’s something about humanity. It’s something about human nature. It’s something about what human beings create and destroy that I’m seeing more and more.
CLANCY: Why we do it, why we allow it.
CLANCY: As a director, the way always looked at it, you gotta look at the end. You gotta study the end of the piece carefully and say, “In a way, we’re being detectives and we gotta work our way back; how do we get there?” That last speech is very direct: “Look in the mirror, look at your neighbour.” This is not about America, this is not about George W. Bush. A lot of the end of the second act, his speech, is lifted from the official defence policy - I don’t know what they call it - George W. Bush put out that doctrine. Premeditated - “As long as there’s a tiny little thing, we will act upon it.”
POTTER: The pre-emptive strikes, yeah.
CLANCY: It describes Cheney’s ‘one-percent’ doctrine. And that was a real shift. So much was going on that nobody really clocked it. But I remember reading it and going “Holy shit, man! This is a big, big switch in foreign policy.” Like you’re saying, it’s rooted in there, of course - I’m an American writer, of course we’re looking at the American empire - but there are breadcrumbs all through. End of second act, as well: “L'état, c'est moi.” That’s not America. I even put in, over a lot of people’s objections, I put in “Yes, we can.” Obama. I love Obama, but he was king of the drones, man. The drone strikes over the Obama administration - through the fucking roof. There’s trying to be a lot there - Churchill is in there - but yeah, I’m glad you’re seeing that, because the least successful productions I’ve seen have hammered the “American.” I saw one where, at the very end, the whole thing took place in this hillbilly shack and at the end of it they had a big thing where the roof of the shack rolled down to reveal an American flag. And it was just kind of like - here we go! - and it was funny and the audience liked it, it was fun, but you know.
POTTER: We’re leaning hard on the Americana aspect of it but what we’re trying to do is universalize through the particular. We’ve actually very - not at all subtly - added a Canadian element to Act Three; the Slave’s costume is a stereotypical Mountie costume -
POTTER: - because that’s the role I believe Canada tends to play with the U.S. But it’s all of us. And I think if you don’t find those threads in Acts One and Two, the speech at the end of Act Three comes out of nowhere. It doesn’t belong unless you’ve found those threads.
CLANCY: You and me can talk afterwards if you got a sense of it - I’m not that familiar with Canadian politics, but if there’s a line that you wanna pop into that speech at the end of Act Two that will resonate with Canadian audiences, that will sort of wake them up a little bit - go ahead, man!
POTTER: Okay, thanks!
CLANCY: Let me know what it is and I can pop it in -
POTTER: One of the things that I don’t think a lot of Americans realize about Canada is that we are voracious consumers of U.S. culture. We watch U.S. news - I was raised to practically worship the U.S. I had to memorize all the U.S state’s capitals and rivers before I knew any of the Canadian provinces. And especially here in Windsor, we’re just a stone’s throw from Detroit. You can walk to the river from my house. People from the rest of Canada find the accents here strange because they’re very influenced by Detroit. In Canada, our population is so concentrated on the border, and we consume so much U.S. media, that I think Canadians are fooling themselves when they draw firm lines, firm boundaries, between the cultures.
CLANCY: Here we are, my buddy C.J. Hopkins is a genius - he’s a playwright. He - years ago, years ago - I was talking about something and he said, “John, countries don’t matter anymore man.” And it’s, really, an almost 19th century way of thinking. It’s all transnationals. We’re all consuming the same media. Obviously, if you go to Zimbabwe or something, it’s a little different - but not that much! It’s amazing - you got to these tiny little places and they have the VCRs, they’re watching the same shit that we’re watching. The culture, it’s one - yeah, I hear you man.
POTTER: There’s this interesting cultural homogeneity that’s been growing for decades now, and now we’re also seeing a backlash against it with these assertions of national identity in various – but it’s a backlash that exists because of exactly what you were describing in many ways.
CLANCY: On our side, our course, it’s like how many Canadian actors and big stars in Hollywood - and nobody knows they’re Canadian. Everybody’s like “What?! Jim Carrey’s Canadian?!” No, he’s not American.
POTTER: Any Canadian actor has to move to the U.S., or else they’re spending their days working a day job because you can’t support yourself as an actor in Canada. [laughs] One of the things that I’m really fascinated about, that I find really unique about Fatboy too is the structure of it, and you’ve talked a little about it. In a superficial sense, you’ve got that Mamet thing where each scene is its own act, but it’s clearly not a Mamet sort of play. You’ve got even influences, as I see, from the old pantomimes; Fatboy and Fudgie’s sides to the audiences. And then you’ve got the Entr’actes. So, explain the structure of this to me: how did this come together?
CLANCY: Well, I’ve always been fascinated with vaudeville, which is really - with the exception of the 20th century musical - is really America’s only genuine contribution to world theatre. Vaudeville was - one, a minstrel show, that came out of vaudeville - but that sense of always acknowledging an audience, always acknowledging the artificiality of what’s happening on stage. I think that leads through almost anything I’ve ever written that I think is any good is, at some point, reminding the audience, “Hey! You’re sitting in a room with a bunch of other people watching me do this! Don’t fall asleep!” So, I think those two things, there’s a fun -there’s entertainment value - of telling people, “Here’s a big, red curtain, and we’re all dressed up. It’s a show!” Not really mocking that, but having fun with that. But also, the entr’actes and the bullshit about “We’re not getting paid, this is a bunch of shit, our public is sending us telegrams” is just, again, another way to break it down and, in a sense - this is a kind of a loaded phrase - keep the audience from taking it seriously, but also making them take it seriously. Making them go, “Oh!” When I teach, I try to tell the students that theatre is, first of all, a physical act. You have to be there, you have to breathe, you have to perform and be there. Secondly, it’s a social act. Even if it’s in a drawing room, even reading in your living room, it’s a social act. Then it’s a political act. And it takes a while for it to get to be a psychological act or emotional act; it’s kind of far down the list. I think the detour of American theatre is the primacy of psychological and emotion. That’s what we’ve been trained to think about, as writers, directors, performers, designers: “How do we make it real? How do we get that psychological depth and how do we tap into that emotion?” And it’s fantastic - Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, and all their descendants - but I really feel it’s a detour. Once they invented film, once they invented photography, the serious painters realized, “We gotta do something different. We can’t keep making it perfect and making it look like a window; you can do that with a photograph, and much better. We gotta find our limitations; two-dimensions and colour, and how do we make that amazing?” And in theatre, you’ve got those limitations. If you wanna say - I mean, Shakespeare knew how to do it. Shakespeare was doing his stuff in broad daylight, on an essentially bare stage, in front of crazy, loud, drunken groups, so he knew how to do it. They’d walked out there and, “Well, here we are in Verona! Get it? Now we can move on.”
CLANCY: I say to the writers, “If you want to make beautiful, psychological drama, write a screenplay, man! Number one, you can do it better, and number two, you’ve got a chance to make a whole lot more money.
POTTER: Although, they aren’t being produced so much anymore, those types of films. So, it might mean that theatre can come back and fill that void.
CLANCY: One of the most moving experiences in the theatre I’ve ever had was Death of a Salesman on Broadway, with Brian Dennehy, and it was magic! And it’s not a realistic play, really, but the acting, and it was so - and I got to see Uta Hagen once, and it was like, wow, no words - so I value that, I respect it; I’m just not interested in it and spending my time doing it. So, to make a long answer short, I said “Let’s make it old school so it’s instantly recognizable… act, entr’acte, act, entr’acte…” It’s a three-act play in a short, short period of time, and those limitations, I think, help the audience along. You get a rhythm, you get to understand what’s gonna happen next, then it surprises you what happens in-between, but the structure is comforting.
POTTER: That vaudeville influence explains the inclusion of “Three Little Fishies” in Act Two. All of a sudden they break into song - we had to cut it because we aren’t allowed to sing with an audience - but we did find a fun little bit to replace it with. But, I’m curious, why that song in particular? Why “Three Little Fishies,” of all things? [laughs]
CLANCY: It’s such a silly, little song! It’s hard not to sing that song without smiling! [imitates ‘Three Little Fishes’] The words are stupid, the rhythm is stupid, so - depending if anyone knows the song - it’s sort of this discordant, “What are they saying?!” [both laugh] Yeah, we had a lot of fun with that. We had a lot of fun with that. We even did a bit where Jody - he played live piano a lot through it whenever he wasn’t on stage - so Del was, “And that’s my sooo-!” And he just kept on doing the big ending and Jody kept vamping and vamping and vamping. He kind of got lost in it, he was having so much fun. And so, Del runs out of breath, “-oooong!” and he’s just staring him down and finally just walks over to the piano and breaks Jody’s rhythm and Jody collapses onto the keys and - clunk!
POTTER: That’s perfect!
CLANCY: It was really very funny!
POTTER: I’m also curious about how this play has been received. How was it received when you first premiered it and then, over time, has that changed?
CLANCY: It’s interesting. Like I say, it’s a mean play. It’s meant to sucker punch you. The original production in Edinburgh, 2004, was a huge hit. Reviews, crazy reviews. I thought it was gonna transfer to London, I had a deal on the table but, like all theatre deals, it didn’t come through. [laughs] But it was interesting too because the profanity, we kept talking about that. So, opening night, I think - no, we had already opened. We were playing the - have you been to the Edinburgh Fringe?
POTTER: No, no.
CLANCY: You should go, it’s amazing. If we ever have the opportunity again. We were playing a fairly large theatre - a 300-seat theatre, big for the Fringe. I watched a lot of it. I had at least watched the beginning and then gone out just be able to listen and make sure it was working. I’m sitting down in the fifth row one afternoon and there was this nice, English gentleman sitting next to me. Curtain-up, pretty big house, and Mike screams out, “MOTHERFUCK! Cocksucking fuckheaded motherfucking fucks!” and this gentleman sitting there goes, “Nope, not for me!”
POTTER: [laughs] That’s amazing!
CLANCY: But I was so happy! We talked about how it was received - critically, through the roof - but it really split the audience. We didn’t have regular walkouts, we didn’t have one or two: we had fifteen, twenty people get up and walk out, and I’d have to tell my performers what a gift that was. ‘Cause number one: if they’re hating it, that energy is gonna be in the room and it’s actually gonna fuck up other people’s enjoyment of it. So, if you’re really hating it, I tell that to people directly, “If you don’t like this, get out, man! Life is short! What are you doing?” I’ll walk out of a theatre - I don’t storm out - but I’ll walk out of a theatre. I’ll be like, “Meh, I’m not enjoying this” - leave. But, the other thing is - clearly, it’s hard for a performer sometimes - you say, “Look, you’re doing something. You’re provoking enough. How rare is that to be able to do in the twenty-first century in theatre that moves somebody to the extent of that they’re like, ‘I can’t watch this?’”
CLANCY: Of course, the flip side is you’ll get people who cannot believe what they’re seeing. We had the most amazing - you’re reminding me of something in that performance. You had in the theatre like, thirty other companies playing - this was a multi-venue, it has six or seven different little theatres within one building - and so, we all had our little mailboxes. Every company had a little mailbox up front by the ticket office. So, I go in there one day and there’s just this little note - just a piece of notebook paper. It said, “Dear Fatboy, this is Skint Girl” - I didn’t know that word, ‘Skint,’ it’s a Scottish word which means ‘broke’ – “I won tickets to your performance on the radio and I saw it yesterday. I saw my landlord and my boss and my friends and myself. Thank you so much! Skint Girl.” I was like, “Wow, man! What would cause somebody to-?” You know, you like the show, you go home and tell your friends you liked the show, but to actually put in the effort to write a note and put it in - that was the best review we ever got!
POTTER: It’s so personal!
CLANCY: Well, I’ve had people who really hated it - friends, you know, people I respect - and they’re just like, “It’s just too obvious and it’s too repetitive. It just goes on-and-on.” I had a great critique - there’s a guy named Aaron Posener, who I’ve known forever, a very, very successful and talented American director and adaptor. He’s adapted a bunch of great Chekov shows - one of them he called Stupid Fuckin’ Bird - he’s directed a lot of Chekov shows all through his career so he knows them in-and-out, so he makes them modern. Anyway, he saw the premiere performances and he said “Amazing! Amazing! Amazing! You gotta work on the third act, because the second act, as a piece, works better than any of the other acts. It’s just a piece of Marx Brothers farcical - just as far as structure and craft, it really works. Then, you gotta top that.” In the original premiere, I really didn’t. He had all these suggestions, and that’s why there’s that Shakespearean bit at the top. I was trying to just, you know, take it to another place, but then that seemed like a gag that Fatboy wouldn’t put up with for that long; it’s too much work for him to think up all that shit.
CLANCY: So, yeah. And the language. I’ve had people just say - that’s the trick too, man, you talk about ‘mean’, I put that in there - and I got one person, I got my aunt who saw the New York production, and she said, “Yeah, John, it was great, but - [tuts] - the language, the language, the language.” I said, and this is mean, “Alright, ‘kay,” - she’s actually Nancy’s aunt - “just let me be clear on this: the fact that the character kills a Jew in the middle of a court, that’s not what you were offended by? You were offended by that he says ‘fuck’ a lot? That’s interesting. That’s, uh, hmm. Hmm!” And that’s being an asshole, but that is kind of built in there. It’s like, “What are you offended by?”
POTTER: Right, right. You know, honestly, my nightmare is quiet appreciation and polite applause. I want people to feel something and it honestly doesn’t matter so much to me what it is they feel as long as they feel it intensely. Ideally, I’d want it to be a sense of delight or joy -
CLANCY: Of course.
POTTER: - or fascination. But if it’s rage, I’m okay! You know, our most successful production so far was an original musical that we wrote called Another Fucking Christmas Play: A Fucking Musical - and yeah, we had a lot of walkouts!
POTTER: It’s in the title; what do you think you’re coming to see? But we also had a lot of repeats, a lot of people coming back to see it multiple times. The audience was split; there was absolutely no one in that middle zone that I hate. The audience was split. That’s what I want.
CLANCY: There’s an amazing play, if you can find it - I don’t think it’s in print - it’s called The Adventures of Nervous Boy. It was done - it was in a collection that I put together that never got published - James Comtois is the playwright. He worked with - this was done in the late ‘90s in New York - it’s an amazing piece, I can’t describe it.
POTTER: I would love to read it!
CLANCY: It’s amazing, and I was talking to these guys because I loved the play and I wanted to put it in this collection. I was like, “Tell me what the original impulse was, and what was it like?” and James says, “Well, we rehearsed it and got it up and it was opening night, and me and the director were standing there waiting for the crowd to come in” - maybe fifteen people - “and, suddenly, I got nervous. Not that people wouldn’t like it, but that people would think that we were emotionally deranged for even putting it up!”
CLANCY: And it is! It’s like, “Oh, my God!” But it’s fantastic; one of the stage directions is “Guy’s at a bar, and somebody kills the girl next to him and a demon comes in and drags her off,” and that’s the stage direction!
POTTER: Oh, I love that!
POTTER: Well, have you ever felt that Fatboy went too far at any point in the script, or didn’t go far enough?
CLANCY: Yeah, I‘m sure it didn’t go far enough. As far as content, no, nothing goes that far. I mean, to be in New York City, and have Fatboy say, to strike the testimony, “Your honour, the witness is a Jew!” and let that just sit there in New York City - amazing. It was a hip, downtown crowd, of course, and you could feel that - suddenly - it went too far. You could feel the tension, tension, and then the judge would do the thing, tension, tension, and then they’d do the laugh. At that point, the laugh had been Pavlovian enough that the audience would go, so I’m sure we could go farther. I really believe this man, everything’s funny if you can find the funny. A barbecue at Auschwitz is funny if you can figure out how to get there; I can’t!
POTTER: Maybe, some things, it’s just best for certain people not to try.
CLANCY: If you can’t pull it off, it’s terrible. you know, I admire stand-up comics more than I admire any other artists. I mean, Jesus, that’s it, man, if you can pull that off. Then you get the really great ones who are not lecturing or hectoring, but are going to places that no man or woman dare tread. I’m a big student of stand-up comedy and there’s a great thing called Talking Funny. Ricky Gervais is interviewing Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Louis C.K. - years ago, before C.K. got disgraced - and they’re talking about the use of the n-word. Louis C.K. and Chris Rock use it all the time because they’ve figured it out, they can make it work. Somebody said, “Can you imagine Jerry Seinfeld using that word?” and Seinfeld, very cleverly and correctly, says, “I have never found the funny in that, nor do I seek it.” He’s like “No, not my wheelhouse.”
POTTER: Right, right. He’s the wrong person for that job.
CLANCY: I’ve seen a couple specials where he says “fucking” and it was a little shocking! I’m like, “Jerry!” [laughs]
POTTER: It’s like the first time you see Bob Saget do stand-up, and he hasn’t quite figured how to do it without being just shocking because he’s Bob Saget. He hasn’t found a way to make it funny, I think.
CLANCY: Oh, him doing The Aristocrats -
POTTER: In The Aristocrats, that is a good bit. That’s - [laughs]
CLANCY: It’s like, that’s just the top of - it’s like, “Oh, my God.”
POTTER: He and Sarah Silverman steal The Aristocrats, I think. [laughs]
CLANCY: They really do!
POTTER: Would anything change if you were to write this play today?
CLANCY: Sure, sure. I don’t know what, but absolutely. To call back to what you were talking about earlier is the universal in the particular - great phrase, gonna steal that - I like to be writing for your actual moment. And your place, often, but certainly your moment. So, that piece was written, by and large, in the outrage of America’s War on Terror, America’s invasion of Afghanistan. No land army has ever taken Afghanistan, nor will they ever take Afghanistan; the Soviet Union, Genghis Khan did that. Donald Rumsfeld did not know that. And then, of course, Iraq is going on, so it just felt like the world was being run by idiots and clowns. So, if I were to write it today, obviously, I couldn’t avoid our current president but I think a lot of the rest - yeah, I don’t know how to answer that, but the short answer is “Yeah, of course it’d change.” It should change.
POTTER: Of course, it has to, too because you’ll be at a different point in your life and all of that as well. But, when you’re staging it, when you’re producing it, something we try to be conscious of especially with something like Fatboy is, “How do we make it ‘this production, of this moment?’”
CLANCY: Yeah, exactly.
POTTER: A good script can be adapted to sort of any moment in history - it can fit into all sorts of things - because there’s something human in it that, ultimately, you can relate to whatever’s going on. Here, some of the choices we’ve made in our production are precisely because of the state of things right now, and I hope they don’t embarrass you. (laughs)
CLANCY: I’ll be honest with you, it’s great to be in a place with this piece, but also - I’ve been writing for a while. I used to be very precious and very defensive and possessive of every syllable. I’ve written so much since Fatboy. I had a great experience of having a monologue of mine - The Event - become a big hit in Germany, a German translation. It was made, it was playing - I don’t think it’s playing right now - but it’s had a lot of productions out there. And I didn’t know this. Friend of mine - Mark Ravenhill, who is an English playwright, told me, “They’re doing it in Germany?” And I said, “Uh-huh.” And he said, “Well, get ready.” And I said, “What does that mean?” He’s had a lot of work done in Germany. Over here - certainly in America - playwright’s king. You take somebody’s play - well, man, you don’t change a word, you don’t change a syllable. It’s all perfect, and that’s how it is, or you get sued, man! Not so in Germany. Germany is a director’s field. And so, what they’ll do is - it’s just what it is, it’s cultural - they will option your script or whatever, they’ll say “We’re gonna do your production,” they’ll pay you, great. God knows what you’re gonna see when you show up! I’ve seen video - you can see it on YouTube - and it’s amazing! It’s like, “What the hell is happening?!” There’s these weird things circling around a thing, the guy is up - it’s a one-man show that is about the experience of performing a one-man show. It’s incredibly meta-meta-meta-meta, it’s all about that. I saw a production where they had five people on stage! [both laugh] And they’re all sharing the lines! I don’t know man, it sounds like you guys are on-point. Like I said, maybe adding a line makes it more pointedly, includes - Canada includes the audience, that could be helpful - but just have fun with it. It’s in the stage directions, the author’s notes or whatever, if you really stick to that - it’s really quite fast. If the actors will commit to the huge laughter - making it past the point of once you feel like it’s gone on too long, add another seven seconds. Really, really beat that in - and then it’s just shouting, lyricism, shouting, lyricism, keep the thing moving and it should work!
POTTER: It still makes me laugh in rehearsal when I’m watching it, so that’s probably a good sign [laughs]
CLANCY: That’s a good thing. Oh, I’ll still run lines in my head sometimes when I’m bored and I’m like, “That’s funny! That’s still funny!” [both laugh]
POTTER: Well, I think this is probably a good point to end it. Thank you so much John for your time, this is very generous of you.
CLANCY: Thank you. Listen, I don’t think you’ll find a writer who doesn’t enjoy talking about his work!
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11/16/2020 - THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE: Meet the Cast
10/5/2020 - FATBOY: interview with playwright John Clancy
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