You’d have people confessing things, like ‘I had to go into the stairwell to cry for a bit.’
Cart Before the Horse Theatre Company is remounting Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs, a sellout at the 2018 Ottawa Fringe Festival. You can still read Apt613’s review of the world premiere at Fringe. The show, which Apt613 theatre reviewer Travis Facette described as “snappy and clever… messy and real, and very funny”, went on to win one Fringe Festival award, Prix Rideau Awards for outstanding direction and performance, and two Rideau nominations.
Apt613’s Brian Carroll recently interviewed performers Megan Carty, Matt Hertendy and director Paul Griffin about the January remount of their popular show. This interview has been edited for length.
Apt613: Although Lungs sold out its entire run of the 2018 Ottawa Fringe, you performed it in a small venue. For the many people who haven’t seen Lungs, what’s it about?
MC: Well, quite simply, it’s the story of a couple deciding whether or not to have a child.
PG: And for many reasons.
MC: For many reasons. It takes place in front of a backdrop of climate change and a little bit futuristic when the environment is just a little bit ahead of where we are now in terms of its decline. So there’s even more of a moral and an ethical sort of dilemma that comes along with the decision.
PG: But the beautiful thing about it, I mean that sounds almost like it’s going to be pedantic. But because they’re very glib in their understanding of what this might mean, they just sound like two very human people you might meet anywhere without any real answers, but a lot of questions. It makes them very human, therefore very engaging.
Apt613’s Travis Facette gave a glowing review of the Ottawa Fringe performance. Other people seem to have agreed with his review. Can you give us some details?
MC: The reaction was just so strong right from the get go from everyone. Our dress rehearsal, we just had two Fringe employees or volunteers. They were pretty mesmerized. After that it just continued. It wasn’t just the reviews. It’s the way people talk to you after the show where it sparks conversation.
PG: You’d have people confessing things, like “I had to go into the stairwell to cry for a bit.”
MH: The audience were very attuned to what we were doing because of A) how clear it is in the text, about where we are and B) the attention to detail that we put into making it clear, (so) that the audience can recognize that we’ve changed so much in time and space through the show.
The characters in Lungs start out as a new couple and they make a number of new couple mistakes. Matt, how do you feel when the audience laughs at your character’s gaffes?
MH: I think it just speaks to how relatable these characters are. I think when people are laughing at his gaffes, it’s either because they’ve done it and they know that they’ve done similar things in their life or that they know some man in their life who was not maybe the most dialed-in partner.
Knowing that I am a bit of a vehicle to my character to represent male shortcomings in relationships, and knowing that I’m portraying it well is rewarding.
MC: We didn’t go for jokes. It’s funny because it’s true and relatable!
MH: Playing it earnestly really.
I think 60 percent of the theatre audience was female, so most of the audience identified with Megan’s character. When she pulled a new gaffe, there was laughter of recognition but it was nervous laughter. How did that reaction affect you?
MC: I think the relationship with both characters is very different. I don’t think it’s just because she’s the woman in the relationship. It’s also her character. She’s the one who talks WAY more if you look at the script. She’s more of an extrovert and he’s more of an introvert. When she’s getting laughs it IS different. Sometimes they don’t even feel like they’re laughing at what I’m saying. They’re laughing at his reaction.
The couple sometimes makes mistakes that older couples recognize and laugh at. But the younger audience reaction is “What’s so funny?”. How do you feel about that inter-generational split? Did you notice it?
MC: Definitely. And notice it not just from laughter and what they thought was funny, but what they talked about after the show. I was really intrigued by what my parents talked about the most and how relatable the struggle was to have a kid. it’s not just the decision, there’s other stuff that can happen later.
There were certain jokes in the script when we had an older audience: the “I’ll buy a hat.” line. The older audience loved that. It got the best laughs. The younger audiences, they don’t think this part’s funny,
MH: I had this fellow, I’d put him about 50 something. He said one of my lines out loud before I could. Because he just knew. He just knew where it was going. Yeah, exactly.
PG: I loved this. Somebody would say a line. And you could see an older woman just go and slap the knee of her partner, and say “You’ve said that!” in kind of an endearing way.
Catriona Leger, a local director, says her job is to represent the audience during rehearsal. Paul, how did the audience reactions surprise you during performance?
PG: For such a small-audience type show, around about the fourth or fifth show, I felt like we were in a rock concert. It’s a show where the pace is so tight and so demanding and you cannot break from it. And the audience would slow us down.
MC: Because they were roaring in laughter.
PG: And, it wasn’t just like they’d laugh and pull. They’re like, “Oh my God, that’s so true! That’s so funny. You say it, girlfriend!”
MC: You’re messing up my pace.
PG: I really didn’t know it would cause that.
Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist, has presented data that 65 percent of North Americans don’t talk about climate change. Lungs is unusual in that one of the many things the couple talks about IS climate change. Part of the reason that I’ve left this near the end of the interview is that the show isn’t just about climate change, right? It really is about a couple trying to decide whether or not to have a kid.
PG: Yeah. The last thing we’d want to have is people going “I’d like to go see this show, but you know, do I need to be preached about climate change?” Oh my God, it’s not like that.
MC: I always say it’s the backdrop. It’s happening in the background. It needs to be throughout the play for the payoff at the end, but it’s never at the forefront.
PG: The two characters certainly don’t say at some point to the audience, “This is what you gotta do!”. They’re far too flawed for that actually.
Many organizations talk about climate change. Cart Before the Horse is putting its money where its mouth is for the remount. Tell us about this.
MC: I got a phone call and it was this lady who works for Nature Lab. It’s an organization who reaches out to different companies of all sizes to show them how easy it is to offset their carbon emissions by sponsoring trees.
We’re the first theatre company in Ottawa to offset our carbon emissions.
Okay. And what does that mean?
MC: They have a team who calculates your footprint based off the space that you’re renting. The number of people who are coming to your shows. Roughly how long they’d be driving, the gas they be giving off. It’s a rough calculation.
PG: It isn’t just the show you put on stage. It’s all the audience members.
Is there a question I should have asked?
MC: This isn’t exactly a question, but something that you asked before that I’d like to just add something to.
When you were saying, “audience reactions and what were you getting in this or that?” Something I got for this show so many times, which is the single biggest compliment I could EVER get for my work. It was people saying “thank you”. And that’s just not even about the theatre.
Sometimes (with audience feedback) it’s a critical experience, or it’s about the theatre to put the story, or it’s about what you think of it.
But “thank you” means it’s deeper than that. Like you sparked something inside them.
Lungs is playing at Arts Court Library (2 Daly Ave) from Thursday to Saturday, January 10–12 and 17–29 at 8PM. Matinees Sunday January 13 and 20 at 2PM. Tickets are available online at $12 for floor seating or $18 for general admission plus a service fee at the website. $15 and $20 at the door.