January 18th, 2016
Mark Bye, Artistic Director of the Rural Arts Project and director of Moon Over Buffalo
QDF: How did you get involved (in producing theatre) with The Rural Arts Project?
Mark: When I was fresh out of The National Theatre School back in the 80’s, a few friends and I from Huntington and the Chateauguay Valley ran a summer stock theatre out of Grove Hall for three or four years. We couldn’t buy the building back then; it was too much being fresh out of school with all sorts of school debt. After 20 – 25 years of being in the business, the Grove Hall came up for sale, so my wife and I bought it, and with the help of community volunteers, we have turned it into a Performing Arts Centre. The Rural Arts Project is the not for profit organization that produces and supports local arts and artists.
QDF: Why did you choose to do the project in Huntington?
Mark: This is where I come from. This community is very distinct in a lot of ways, it’s a very isolated community, it is very traditional and rural. The voice of the artists in our milieu is very different from those in an urban setting. It has always been my goal to do theatre there; and give a voice to this area and its population. There are an amazing number of talented people living in the Chateauguay Valley.
QDF: Why did you choose Moon Over Buffalo over another play?
Mark: I picked this script because we did ‘Lend me a Tenor’ last year with this fantastic troop of actors. Every once in awhile, one is lucky enough to stumble across a bunch of collaborative artists who click and feed off of each others’ energy and ideas. The quality of the work is exponential to the number of participants in the group. This troop is magic beyond what one normally finds. It was like this with Tenor. We all enjoyed working with one another and the production received rave reviews. So, I went looking for another eight-hander play for this cast, and I came up with Moon Over Buffalo. It, coincidentally, was from the same playwright Ken Ludwig, and with same casting demands. Stylistically, it’s similar, but presented with fresh and exciting creative challenges for the company. We also know we have a good audience for this, people have been asking for more. So that is why we went with Moon Over Buffalo. It was picked for this cast and plays to our strengths .
QDF: How has your experience been directing it?
Mark: I’m having a really good time with it. I’ve spent 25 years being a production manager and lighting designer. After spending thousands of hours sitting in rehearsals with some of the best directors around the country you learn quite a few things. It’s very interesting to now use some of what I have picked up being around people who are really good at their craft: acting and directing.
The casting is a hard to explain; it’s made up of ‘volunteer theater professionals’, if that is a term. A lot of the actors are experienced in theater. For example, Richard Hansen who is our costume designer and he loves to act. He brings his talent to both sides of our curtain; on the stage and in the dressing rooms with costumes and wigs other companies pay thousands of dollars for. He is part of our Rural Arts family.
Like I mentioned, we’re all ‘volunteer professionals’, we’re not professional performers in terms of “union rules”. I am not a professional director but I have been a theatre professional and professor for 35+ years. As a company, we are getting into projects that are fun, but that we never had a chance to do. It is ‘Bucket List Theatre’ by ‘Post-Professionals’.
QDF: I love the description of the show: If Noises Off and Lend Me a Tenor had a love child it would be this show. Why are they the parents of Moon Over Buffalo, what characteristics does the show have from both shows?
Mark: The speed of all of those shows. They are all fast and intense. They depend on timing (Doors and Sardines- getting them on, getting them off). Two of the three are on 2 story revolving set with a back and front side, each with a minimum of 6 entrances. Scenes from all three scripts play to the “front” (audience) and “back” (as in backstage)- a play within the play. The experience is, people coming up and down the stairs, on and off stage, sword fights, people rolling and doing physical stunts.
Additionally, which adds to the enjoyment, all three scripts are very ‘self aware’ in that they play with stage-conventions and satirize the concept of farce itself. It’s physical comedy dependant of spit second timing; it’s a challenge for us. During 35 years, you experience many genres and styles of theatre, and develop a certain ‘been there / done that’ kind of attitude (I have done 6 different Macbeth productions). With these pieces we are pushing our limits, and having fun with it.
QDF: You talked about having a lot of fun on this production, and 35 years in the theater world, what production do you still remember most?
Mark: Hands Down Strange Medicine, have you heard of it? It’s a Canadian musical, that was developed at Caravan Farm Theatre in BC in the late 80’s; and was directed by the great Nick Hutchinson. It was a hard hitting musical satire of the pharmaceutical/ medical cult. Two weeks into the run, the Canada Council was coming to us; offering money to send it on tour. However- it got shit-canned by the medical industry. One can no longer get permission to do this play; or even find the script. Interesting.
The Rural Arts Project is a perfect venue for it; we can handle a large cast production. We have the facility to do shows with 20-25 people on stage. We just did The Nutcracker with 60 dancers; we have the backstage space, our facility can handle large scale productions, which is fun after dealing with ‘Canadian Performing Arts Economics’ for so long. In our ‘Volunteer Professional’ model, we no longer have to be limited to doing shows with small casts because we can’t afford equity rates. With this shift in thinking, we have the ability to do any production we want. It gives us complete creative freedom. We are beholden only to our community and our artists.
QDF: And can you tell us about a show that you have in the back of your mind?
Mark: Laughs. I don’t know if I can speak of it, until it’s written. We have playwrights chained to the grind stones- even as we speak. I can’t say more.
QDF: For people who don’t know the Rural Arts Project, what would you like to say to incite them to come see the show?
Mark: You’re coming to a different place for performing arts, like I said this company is producing performing arts shows for a rural population. The rural population might not be what the urban population think they might be. Truth of the matter is, a farmer with a grubby hat and jacket sitting in a restaurant, she is probably worth more than 3 million dollars. Farming is a multi-million dollar business.
Out here, there is no public transit. That changes the whole way of life. We live where we are 150 times more likely to hit a deer on the road then to be mugged on the street. We do things differently. ‘City people’ don’t understand where we are coming from sometimes. At the same time, we have a better economic situation out here, where we can open and run a performing arts center, without any government aid. It’s hard to explain in terms an urban arts scene. You can rent Grove Hall for a month for what you would pay to rent a space in a theatre in Montreal for one day.
The economics are completely different; lately we’ve had a lot of fun playing with that. We’ve had a few co–productions with artists and companies from the city, who can come out here and take advantage of the facilities and the professional staff. We, together, can mount these productions without a needing grants or subsidises. There has been more and more co-productions, which I think is important. We are a professional resource company, and we are willing to help produce/ realize other theater artists’ ideas. I think it’s important for your readership to understand, that we are open to producing other companies’ ideas. The projects being proposed to us have to have some interest to our community, but we want to help other city companies. We like to use the term ‘incubator’ space.
QDF: For an emerging artist, what do you wish you knew back then?
Mark: It was what I already believed: just do it. Don’t ask for permission, don’t fill out a grant applications, don’t sit on your idea, just go and do it. Doesn’t matter where, a church basement or even in an alley. The people who make it in this business are people who have that kind of spunk. Follow your muse- be a do’er.
Moon Over Buffalo will be playing from January 22nd-February 7th.
Produced by The Rural Arts Project
Playing at Grove Hall
Photo Credit: Erika Rosenbaum