Outrageously Entertaining: 'Slings & Arrows' Slings & Arrows, a highly regarded Canadian series, followed the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of a Shakespeare troupe. Repeated on the Sundance Channel, the show is now available on DVD.

Outrageously Entertaining: 'Slings & Arrows'

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When "The Sopranos" ended its eight seasons with a door opening in a diner, it was sometimes hailed as the best television series ever. But a number of critics used that obscure ending as an occasion to say that actually TV's best show ever was a Canadian series that was repeated and praised on the Sundance Channel in the United States.

"Slings & Arrows" is the story of the Canadian Shakespeare Festival facing hard times. The backstage toilet is stuffed, the lights are shaky, and their new artistic director, Geoffrey Tennant, is a certifiable madman who holds a soiled plunger on stage as he explains to his actors a scene from "The Tempest."

(Soundbite of TV series "Slings & Arrows")

Mr. PAUL GROSS (Actor): (As Geoffrey Tennant) A theater is an empty space. As per the 400-year-old stage direction, we begin with a tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning.

(Soundbite of a lightning)

Mr. GROSS: (As Geoffrey Tennant) It is a storm of color and sound, a dense, unnatural storm.

SIMON: For three seasons "Slings & Arrows" winds through romances and rivalries, glories and disgraces onstage and off. For the first time, all three seasons are available on DVD from Acorn Media.

SIMON: Mark McKinney, one of the former "Kids In The Hall," created, co-wrote and appears in the series. The series stars Paul Gross, still familiar to many Americans as the mountie from "Due South," Martha Burns and a whole gaggle of the most gifted Canadian character actors ever, including the young Rachael McAdams. Paul Gross, the actor and director, joins us now from Calgary where he's directing a new film.

Mr. Gross, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. GROSS: It's a pleasure.

SIMON: And Martha Burns joins us from the CBC in Toronto. Thank you so much for being with us.

Ms. MARTHA BURNS (Actress): Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: And maybe we should explain you're married but for the moment separated by art.

Mr. GROSS: Yes.

Ms. BURNS: Yes, and our large country.

SIMON: What were, if I can ask each of you, what were the special pleasures of doing this series?

Mr. GROSS: Really, I think the greatest pleasure was the material itself, the writing, then it brought this - an amazing combination of, kind of, craziness and great tenderness to all of these characters. And secondarily, just working with everyone that was involved in it. It was a terrific cast, and it was just an awful lot of fun to go to work every day.

SIMON: Martha Burns?

Ms. BURNS: I feel the same way. The writing was a huge attraction - very, very funny - but also with a great deal of heart, and that it never felt like episodic. It was always the bigger arc of the character in this - what seems to be very small lives. The people are worried about petty things, you know. But passion in the workplace is something that everyone, not just theater people, could relate to all the wants and dislikes and desires of our characters.

Mr. GROSS: And I think the other thing for all of us is that because we were always dealing with Shakespeare as the underpinning of everything, it had - the pettiness could get laid against this - the grandeur of the great plays of Hamlet and Macbeth and King Lear. So I always kind of felt, well, even if this scene isn't particularly engaging, we at least have King Lear to balance things out.

SIMON: I want to play another clip, and this is important in the progression of the series. This is a flashback and it's after your character, Mr. Gross has had, by all report, is a stunning and shattering performance as Hamlet. You and Martha Burns and Stephen Ouimette as Oliver, the director, and it's the three of you sharing, I think, an enthusiasm that, maybe save for childbirth, that might be very difficult for people to know about. This is the three of them after that play.

(Soundbite of TV series "Slings & Arrows")

Mr. GROSS: (As Geoffrey Tennant) In my life, I have never felt anything even remotely like this feeling. You were incredible tonight. You broke my heart. And not just mine, I mean, everybody's. Did you hear that woman, the one in the second row on the left? She was wailing like she had lost her child. Oh, but listen, listen, this is the thing. We've got to make it exactly like this every night, every single night. Exactly like this, and how are we going to do that?

Mr. STEPHEN OUIMETTE (Actor): (As Oliver Welles) Aye, there is the rub.

SIMON: Let me ask. Is that the rub? I mean, is that what drove your character, Geoffrey Tennant, mad?

Mr. GROSS: I think so. I think it drives a lot of people kind of crazy. It's, you know, the theater has the great - the wonderful thing about it, of course, is that you do have an interaction with an audience, and it is played live. But when you do have those times when you think, oh, I've got this just right, it's almost impossible to recover it. So it can be extraordinarily frustrating.

SIMON: May I ask you - I gather you two at one point met on stage years ago?

Ms. BURNS: We did. In a rehearsal room, actually, but to prepare for a play called "Walsh" where Paul played, interestingly enough, a mountie, and I before the days of cultural appropriation played an Indian princess, and we - I don't think we actually spoke together on stage but we managed to create a few glances and, yeah, and that's where it all began.

Mr. GROSS: And then we would neck off stage and I'd be covered with Indian make-up and then going onstage.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, that's why the cultural appropriation came in, so...

Mr. GROSS: That's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: ...you were referring to, I guess, stage make-up that he would - and, Martha Burns, there's a scene in, I think, the second season with a young actor played, in fact, by Rachael McAdams and which you, as the somewhat older actor, counsels her to go off with her boyfriend. And she says she'd rather stay there at the festival and play Juliet next season, and your character says, don't play Juliet, live her. Is that an anxiety that sometimes plays with actors that they're playing life not living it?

Ms. BURNS: I think so. Anything that you do as an actor, I guess anything that you're passionate about, you're totally immersed in. But I think there's something about doing the classics, too, where it takes, too, you know, such a large part of yourself. And you - for two or three hours a night or for 10 minutes in front of a screen, you're living your life to the very fullest. And that's so attractive and seductive, and you can decide that that's really where you were having the fullest experience and then that the day-to-day difficulties of life can seem like something that you can avoid.

SIMON: It does strike me that, on the one hand in the "Slings & Arrows," you have to be a gifted performer of a certain kind of light, sprightly and well-written comedy but you also - the Shakespeare stuff has to be persuasive. Is that hard to get in one actor?

Mr. GROSS: I think the thing is that, you know, when we're - people who are accustomed to playing Shakespeare, a lot of the dynamism comes out of the use of the language and the performance. And when you fall back into thinking about it in the context of a stage performance, you feel like you're not providing enough dynamism when you're on a set but, of course, you forget that the camera is there and throwing in a whole lot of energy.

So it was really refreshing to see this stuff. I think the toughest performance insofar as the Shakespeare is concerned would have been Luke, who played Hamlet in the first year, because he had around him all of these people who have either played Hamlet or been in "Hamlet" or played it. And he was deluged with this tonnage of unsolicited advice about how to be really good at it.

SIMON: This is the - he plays the young American film star who's brought in to give a little pizzazz to the box office.

Mr. GROSS: That's right. Yeah.

SIMON: Let's have another clip if we could. This is at the premiere of "Hamlet" and Mr. Gross, your character, Geoffrey Tennant, is instructing his star, the American movie star, how to go through the soliloquies one by one.

(Soundbite of TV series "Slings & Arrows")

Mr. GROSS: (As Geoffrey Tennant) You are disgusted with yourself. You are a coward. You are not a man. You are weak and passionless, a failure.

Mr. JEFF BERG (Actor): (As Luke) Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I.

Mr. GROSS: (As Geoffrey Tennant) On some level you long for this to be over, you long for rest, mental and spiritual rest. I know this one.

Mr. BERG: (As Luke) To be or not to be - that is the question.

SIMON: I think that this is just the best short sequence I have ever seen about how to make a play move. And I have to ask you - you're directing a lot now, Mr. Gross, is it true?

Mr. GROSS: You know, I played Hamlet not all that long before we were doing this - we were doing "Slings & Arrows" and I think that the writers actually got it. It is kind of the true, if you can hit those soliloquies - and they're the islands you go to, then you kind of - you can negotiate your way through the part. And I think, just in general, what they managed to bring to Geoffrey was - is the pure enthusiasm for theater at its absolute edge, that the core of Shakespeare is as relevant today as it was 400 years ago. And, you know, much of this stuff can get lost inside of commerce and in contemporary culture. But when it's really honest, it's going to move people.

SIMON: It's been delightful to talk to both of you. Thank you very much for all of your time.

Ms. BURNS: Thank you so much for your interest.

Mr. GROSS: It was a great pleasure to talk to you.

SIMON: Martha Burns in Toronto, Paul Gross in Calgary. The entire three seasons of the acclaimed television series "Slings & Arrows" has just been released on DVD by Acorn Media.

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