Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2014 interview: theatremaker Gary McNair
McNair explores the dark side of comedy with Donald Robertson Is Not a Stand-Up Comedian
This article is from 2014.
Gary McNair is one of Scotland’s most promising new theatremakers. But aptly, for the Fringe, his latest performance draws on stand-up comedy. He speaks to Lorna Irvine
Gary McNair’s new show for the Traverse, Donald Robertson Is Not a Stand-Up Comedian, blurs theatre and stand-up comedy to hilarious and often moving effect, tackling issues of affirmation, bullying and identities lost and rediscovered.
Teenager Donald Robertson is bullied on the bus, and ‘Gary’ (an alternate version of the writer / performer) intervenes, teaching the lad the noble art of the put-down, while trying to introduce his protégé to a comedy based not on hate but compassion. And so, through the prism of comedy, the boy blossoms, but not without Gary learning more about himself in the process.
For Donald Robertson, McNair reinvented his performance persona as a smug, nerdier version of his own personality. Where then does McNair end and ‘Gary’ begin? ‘On the Number 42 bus!’ he exclaims. ‘No, we’re different people. I felt an affinity with his situation: as for me, I think it’s important that if I am playing a version of myself, that the character shares the same name as me. You select certain details of yourself, blur the lines, polish off edges – you buff things up. It was very deliberate, primarily because in other shows, where I have played a character called Gary, people have taken it as 100% truth. I want to problematise him.’
Beginning with his own attempts at a stand-up routine, Gary effectively deconstructs the differences between theatre and comedy via a series of (initially, at least) unsuccessful jokes. The conventions and tropes of stand-up are utilised – including a rather hopeful stab at shock comedy – as are theatrical ones, with the use of lighting especially impressive.
‘The structure of the play is one long joke: there are several little punchlines throughout it, working towards one big punchline,’ he says. ‘It was fun making it, as I got to go to the New York Comedy Festival. And I saw a lot of bad comedy – soulless clubs watching nine people do the same routine, trying to make a safe five minutes to get on television. There’s not enough risks, so I wanted to start with failure, the death of the joke on stage’.
McNair believes that the Traverse audience, familiar with more sophisticated theatrical formats, will be receptive to it, but also hopes that traditional comedy followers will go, that ‘the comedy audience who go to be entertained will find a hook into it’.
Comedy as a way of connecting, of sharing and provoking compassion as well as laughter, is a key ingredient in his character’s relationship to Donald Robertson, and this ideal infuses the production. ‘I do hope that there will be people who usually go to stand-up acts exclusively: one of the challenges of the piece is to reach out to people,’ he continues. ‘If there is anything I have as a philosophy, it is to be entertaining and challenging in equal measure.’
Donald Robertson Is Not a Stand-Up Comedian, Traverse, 228 1404, 1–24 Aug, (not 4, 11, 18), times vary, £18 (£13). Preview 31 Jul, 6pm £12 (£7).