Fringe Preview: Killing Jayson McDonald

Detail from Gunpowder poster

Jayson McDonald’s name and work are well-known to Londoners, and increasingly to audiences and performers across North America. At the same time he’s performing his solo show Gunpowder in London and touring several other solo plays to festivals across Canada, his play The Last Goddamned Performance Piece is in production at the Ottawa Fringe Festival and his most recent directorial effort, Jeff Culbert’s one-man show archy and mehitabel, is also touring the country.

  1. Theatre in As well as being one of the most prolific (pervasive?) people on London’s theatre scene, you’ve also become Mr. Fringe in the last few years. What convinced you to take your shows on the road? Have your travels affected your approach to writing, performing, directing, etc.?
  2. Jayson McDonald: I had been doing theatre in London for about fifteen years before getting serious about taking it on the road. After such a long stretch, you start to feel like you’re living in a fishbowl, and I couldn’t really trust that what I was doing had any appeal beyond my own tight-knit community. I had been to other Fringes and towns before, mainly touring with Dufflebag Theatre, and that was always a good time. In 2005, we took Jigsaw and The Deluxe Illustrated Body, two very large, ambitious productions, to New York. That really opened my eyes to the feasibility of touring my own shows. The decision to travel with solo shows was motivated by two factors: keeping overhead low, of course, but also to kick my own ass as an actor. I felt I was getting lazy on stage, so I decided to remove all the comfortable elements from the process—no other actors to lean on, and no home audience to rely on for support.

    I was considerably nervous about my first solo outing…I wanted to test the waters first, so I took Giant Invisible Robot to only one festival in my first year—the Saskatoon Fringe, a tiny little festival in the middle of nowhere. It was slow to catch on, but did amazingly well by the end of the run. And then when I embarked on a larger tour the following year, many of the touring artists who saw my show in Saskatoon helped me promote it in other towns, and I began to grow an audience outside of London.

    I think performing in other communities, and being well-received, has given me a great deal more confidence in my art and my process. And the best part about touring these festivals is getting to meet other performers from around the world, seeing their shows, and letting their methods and stories and perspectives help broaden my own world view. I feel like I belong to a much larger community now.

  3. TiL: Last year you were part of five shows during the Fringe, as writer (Spitfire), writer and performer (Trashcan Duet and Fully Insured), director (archy and mehitabel), and host (The NO Show, which was on every night). In this year’s show you’ve killed yourself. Coincidence?
  4. JMcD: It’s always the same goddamned thing. Being self-employed in the arts means that you have to be constantly inventing new income streams just to survive, so it’s always a bad financial decision to say no to a new project (although I’m getting more selective about it, believe it or not). And then personally, you want to collaborate with this person and that person, do a show at that theatre, perform this terrific script, attend that awesome festival, etc. By the time May rolls around I’m always in a state of extreme panic. I’ve accumulated about three years worth of sleep debt at this point.

    But when you see me running around the Fringe, you see me doing okay. Most of the work is done at that point. It’s all the time you don’t see me, the long, long winter, when I’m trapped in my office, chained to a word processor—that’s when it sucks. I spend an awful lot of time by myself, and I’ve started to get on my own nerves. There are times when I want to kill me because as the boss I’m a slave-driving bastard and as an employee I’m a mewling, lazy, petulant ass. So this year I decided to kill Jayson McDonald, on stage, without remorse, in Gunpowder. Only a handful of unlucky people know Jayson the writer and Jayson the director, so it was more dramatic to kill the ubiquitous Jayson McDonald the actor, who hogs all the glory.

  5. TiL: What does the London Fringe experience give you that you don’t get elsewhere (in London and/or wider)? What have other Fringes given you that you haven’t gotten here?
  6. JMcD: London is home. I’ve spent a couple of decades building an audience here, and it’s always nice when things come together and your home crowd settles into your corner and makes you feel like you belong, like you’re part of the family. And the festival environment means that many, if not most, of your contemporaries are hard at work as well. It’s a big old orgy of creativity and to me it feels like London’s peripheral artists—those of us working at the grassroots level making theatre downtown—are embraced more warmly by the larger community. Doing The NO Show at the London Fringe allows me to contribute to the experience as a whole by bringing a bit of synthesis to the event for the audience, and also to make it more fun for visiting artists.

    The Canadian Fringe circuit is sort of a weird hybrid between a travelling circus and band camp. People anticipate your return, and at some of the larger festivals, people actually take their vacations during the Fringe so they can see shows. Line-ups can stretch down the street and around the block, which is super exciting. And the touring performers become your family away from home. We lean on each other, support each other, love each other. The best part about touring for me has been the terrific friendships I’ve made along the way.