I met these fellas last year through a series of events, parties and a writer’s circle. Andrew Thomas McKechnie, Jesse Byiers and Alexi Pedneault make up Living Room Theatre. My first experience with their event New Art Night was when Andrew called me at about 6pm on May 29th, 2012 – two hours before the show – and told me one of their acts had cancelled and if I’d like to perform. I missed the call, so it landed in my voicemail. When I listened to it, my reaction was, “Uh, buh, guh, muh, hubba,” and after, maybe half an hour of making strange sounds to myself, I called him back and said, “Yeah. Sure.” He asked me if I needed any actors. I said, “Sure, a woman would be fine.” I arrived at about 7:40, was introduced to said actress who would read the excerpt of the play I was working on, and that is that. It’s like an improv exercise: just say yes, because, really, you won’t regret it. I met many people I now spend a lot of my time with that night.
On the eve of the third Toronto-instalment of New Art Night, I came to the boys to make a dossier for them.
And this is what happened.
What follows is a rather untraditional entry. Instead of simply responding to the questions I sent via email, or of me actually being there to ask the questions, the boys took it upon themselves to interview each other using the questions I had provided. They recorded it during some sort of electrical storm, or while being attacked by an assassin with Metal Gear Solid-style chaff grenades (this is the only thing I can imagine that can explain the overpowering static in the recording). So as we read the following, just imagine these three guys sitting, probably in the dark of their kitchen, sitting around a many-candled and knife-scarred table. Imagine three men who made the journey from Red Deer to Toronto where they immediately began inspiring everyone they came in contact with.
Are you ready?
Here we go, dossier #8:
(Andrew) Thomas: Who’re we talking with?
Jesse: Is it recording?
Thomas: Yep. We’re gonna send him this whole file. It’s gonna be great, “This is like an hour long. You guys are assholes”
(sounds of coffee being sipped)
Alexi: So… who’re we talking with?
Jesse: Jesse Byiers.
Alexi: Alexi Pedneault.
Thomas: Andrew Thomas McKechnie.
Alexi: Whoa… Thomas.
Thomas: Shut the fuck up!
Jesse: It’s your Soulpepper name.
Alexi: Should we say our middle names too now?
Jesse: I should just go, like, James? I should make up a stage name too?
Alexi: My name’s Luis.
Thomas: That’s not bad except we already know a Luis. We don’t know any James’ though so you’re okay with James.
Alexi: Fuck you.
Thomas: Fuck you.
(sounds of coffee being sipped)
Thomas: What draws you to do what you do?
Jesse: What do I do?
Thomas: I don’know, what do you do?
Jesse: (reading) Oh, playwright, visual arts, acting…
Thomas: I-I-I don’t think it’s, like, I don’t think that’s like Andrew, Jesse, Alexi, it’s just like – like – what are the things – what are the things that you do, Jesse? And why do you do them?
Jesse: Oh, I see.
(sounds of coffee being sipped)
(sounds of coffee being sipped)
Jesse: I-uhhh ok, I act which is my main focus. Um, I also, I also, do devised theatre, uhhh, I am a… man… I don’t know, what else do I do?
Thomas: Just think of what you get fired up about.
Alexi: What fires you up?
Jesse: Okay, someone – Andrew, you answer this first because you obviously have a better grip on this question.
Thomas: I write, predominantly. Um, I produce because there’s a lot of good things happening and I wanna support them and encourage them; I direct because it’s exciting to be sitting in the room seeing those little sparks in people and being like, “Yeah, yeah! Yeah! Go with that!” and being able to sit back and that’s very much why I like to create work because you get to do that in a lot of different roles and you get to be in a group of people and just follow impulses and try things. But, predominantly, I write and I write because I’ve always just communicated, um, received and shared information most effectively through written word. So I write plays and screenplays and poems and books and things like that.
Alexi: (to Jesse) Do you want to think on yours first?
Jesse: Well, k, I – k – I – predominantly, I act. I also study devised theatre and work in collaborative work efforts, so I suppose that involves a little bit of directing and puppetry and all that fun stuff but mostly I – mostly, I guess – mostly devised theatre: creating a piece – creating pieces – in a group environment and a shared work environment. I also do music. (laughs) I perform music? I write music? And –
Thomas: Fills our house with music.
Jesse: – fills our house with music and – and – and amateur poetry.
Thomas: I like your poetry.
Jesse: Thank you. Um… the reason why I do what I do is because I do a lot of things okay. But I’m not really good at one thing and maybe acting isn’t what I’ve always wanted to do but there’s nothing else I’ve spent as much money on in education and as much time and endeavoured my entire life towards so it has to mean something.
Alexi: Ah, well my first passion was visual arts so in a way the reason why I did visual arts was more because I felt like it was more like a therapy, but, like, not just therapy. It was just a way to have my own way of expressing myself without being just loud and obnoxious and then I went into theatre where I could be loud and obnoxious and be art-feely with my little small world which is visual arts. So I got the best of both worlds. Um. But it’s just about creating. I just – I just loved creating and loved collaborating. I loved talking with people, building on what their ideas are and that’s what got me into art in general. It’s just – it’s just so much love and passion. I want to keep building it, not just in one field, because I went to school for theatre-acting, but just that wasn’t enough. I wanted to do everything, I wanted to try everything else. I didn’t want to just limit myself to one title. What draws me to do what I do is a most pure love and adoration for the arts.
Thomas: Why New Art Night?
Alexi: No. You skipped one.
Thomas: Oh, shit!
Alexi: You skipped a question, sir.
Thomas: It was – it seemed like a boring question. JUST KIDDING! It sounds like a great question.
Alexi: Andrew, it’s a great question. Gaboury that is. Ummm.
Thomas: Have we…?
Alexi: Let’s read that one.
Thomas: What is the – (beat, laughs) What is the earliest memory you have of wanting or needing to do this?
Alexi: I don’t know.
Alexi: Um, the first thing that comes to my mind is of – of – of – I’ll say theatre. First thing that came to my mind that I always wanted to be in this was the first time I ever saw a play, I guess. It was me being 12 and seeing this live performance of Cinderella which was actually really damn good in high school –
Alexi: Anyways, Cinderella, um, and it’s – and what made it so great is the fact that you shared this room with these people and you saw things live and you saw this story live. And what makes it even more special is that you saw them fuck up live, which was why I love theatre: mistakes. Because you just see the most interesting things come out and I guess that was the first time I [remember. Wanting to] be a part of their fuck-ups.
Thomas: You’ll get plenty of those in Living Room Theatre.
Alexi: Oh, there’s plenty of those.
Jesse: (clears throat) Hi! You are a yummy yummy yummy yummy yummy. Yeah that’s a vocal [warm-up], yeah.
Thomas: Please include that in your interview.
Jesse: Uh, kay: the reason why I got into theatre, I never wanted to do theatre or be an actor until I was 18 / in grade 11… so I guess I was 17. My dad was a cabinet maker and I worked for him for a very long time and the plan was to become a cabinet maker and live out in a shack in the woods. Um, but there was a girl that I had a crush on in my band class and, uh, and, uh, in order to impress her, I don’t know how this was supposed to impress her, I memorize and recited the orchard monologue, “But soft what light through yonder window breaks,” from Romeo and Juliet.
Thomas: Can you still do it? Can you still do it? Can you still do it?
Jesse: I can barely…
Thomas: Do it right now!
Jesse: No, I can remember some of it but I…
Thomas: Go as far as you can go.
Jesse: Cause now I’m learning new things and I suck at Shakespeare, so I can’t even talk properly. Um, I memorized the speech for her and recited it for her. She half listened to it and then she ended up dating a rig pig so I stopped talking for a week.
Alexi: What a bitch.
Jesse: But I – then I took the drama program, the one limited drama program my town had, and my friend said I was good and so I don’t really know why or how that was the particular reason that made me audition for Red Deer College’s theatre program but, uh, for some odd reason I did it and then I ended up getting in, so, uh, despite the fact of being offered a free tuition and spot at SAIT for cabinet making. I turned it down and went to acting instead.
Thomas: The rest is history. (beat) I was in like grade seven? And we had this creative writing assignment where we had to write a page and I ended writing this, uh, I was super jacked about it and the teacher forgot that the assignment was due that day but I was so excited that I walked up to the front of the class and put in on her desk and she was like, “Oh yeah! Everyone hand those in!” and my classmates were very angry with me.
Thomas: Why New Art Night?
Jesse: Well I never really got involved, I never really had my own thing in it until we moved to Toronto because Andrew said that instead of doing a full show why don’t we do this thing instead, that we were doing in Alberta?
Alexi: But it started even earlier then that with Love and Time Machines.
Jesse: But I never curated a night until Toronto.
Alexi: Do you remember the night that we all took turns kinda curating it because of one giant fuck up? I think that was the first time I –
Jesse: Where all three of us –
Thomas: You mean the time at the Nickle Studio?
Thomas: That was the second – that was the second – waitwaitwaitwait –
Jesse: Ok, start with – start with Love and Time Machines.
Thomas: Yeah, yeah let’s go there. The very first time I did anything like this was in October of ’09 when I was lookin’ to raise a bit of money for a Fringe bid. I got a local theatre space donated to me by the owners who were friends of mine in exchange for some bitch labour around the place and I just got a bunch of my talented friends to put stuff in. I had a couple of musicians a couple of actors, good stuff, and I carried on doing that. We did one in the in October of the next year, which was the first time I worked on a project outside of school with Jesse and Alexi where none of us got cast in – there were 6 people we had an acting class of 18 people and 6 didn’t get cast for a show, so we said, “Fuck it, we’ll make our own show.”
Alexi: Instead of the praire show.
Thomas: Yeah, yeah fuck that show.
Thomas: But it ended up being this excellent, excellent show that we just made in two weeks for funzies. Uh, called Major Tom’s Last Night on Earth, which involved Jesse playing David Bowie and Alexi and I playing identical twins. This is funnier when you realize that Alexi is a kinda short Philipino guy and I’m a really tall Aryan dude and we’re clearly not twins, but yeah, just a fun, fuck-around kinda show. Essentially what the impetus behind it was is that I have a lot of friends who are good at things and it seems a damn shame that these things are not being consistently and avidly shown. So I started doing New Art Nights. That was the second New Art Night – uh, no, that was the first New Art Night as such. We did the second one in Jan. of 2011..? Yes?
(Jesse looks across the room at a New Art Night poster, with dates saying May 28th, 29th and 30th)
Thomas: No that was the first one in Toronto. We did the one in October that was Major Tom and then the one in January which was Better Worlds.
Jesse: Oh yeah.
Thomas: And then June was The Hangoverture and Brown Toast and –
Jesse: That’s right.
Thomas: The legendary show. Brown Toast I was actually super excited by because it was essentially like two days before the show, uh, the day before the matinee show. We did like a Friday show, a Saturday matinee and a Saturday evening, and the Friday evening I was told that one of the acts for the Saturday matinee was dropping out and I was like, “Yeah! Fuck! Yeah! Fuck!” So then two of the guys who were at New Art Night on Friday, I was like, “Hey do you wanna put something together for like… 2pm tomorrow?” and they were like, “Okay,” and they ended up writing this wonderful little show about two dudes writing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and it was super good .
Alexi: And the toast.
Thomas: Yeah, while just, like, making toast constantly –
Alexi: The toast became –
Thomas: The Brown Toast story, very much for me exemplifies what I like about New Art Night. Brown Toast exists because I threw two people into a desperate situation of needing to make a play and ending up being a great play and they ended coming back in the evening and then taking it to Alberta Culture Days in the following Fall and it had a life past that and it was very exciting.
Jesse: Me and Alexi were always in the photo in the paper.
Thomas: Yeah! There was always the photo in the paper. Jesse and Alexi were always in it.
Alexi: What? Really?
Thomas: There was the shot from Jordan’s play.
Jesse: The shot of you and me staring at each other doing some sort of Meisner thing.
Alexi: Oh, yeah.
Jesse: And then we did Jordan’s, “Who hates Jordan?” circle.
(laughter – lots of in-jokes apparently)
Jesse: The weird thing.
Thomas: It was a weird day.
Jesse: And then we were in the hallway for Better Worlds.
Alexi: Right, rightrightrightright. I didn’t even realize that
Thomas: And then when Jess and I moved to Toronto we wanted to keep doing it because it’s always been a really wonderous time; we get bring people together and try things and inspire creativity and… and fail boldly. So we kept doing it.
Alexi: What kinds of things can we expect to see at New Art Night?
Thomas: Why don’t you talk about your piece?
Alexi: Uh, I thought it was a question in general about –
Thomas: But as a case study in the kind of stuff, because I think that’s very much the kind of stuff we want to do.
Alexi: Oh, ok. Well I have a piece. It’s an experimental piece. Something that I always love is the dog park and I’m always very happy there and I was also really interested in the idea of not having to have a set theatre space where [the performers] could essentially go anywhere. Anywhere you want to do the show and could have a crowd of people. So for this one I had this dog mask that was specially built by Evan Harkai who does masks. It’s about a man who’s unable to realize the two realms of a soulmate and having a companion, AKA a dog. In order to cope with his dog’s death he becomes his dog by wearing this mask around the dog park. It also involves improv theatre. Where I don’t know how to experiment with improv theatre, so it’s great to be able to try something in front of audience and see how they would react. This would be a first step because I don’t want to act in the show; I want to write it and direct it but this gives me a chance to try it in the meantime.
Jesse: I feel like we never had a mandate for New Art Night. It’s always more like a workshop – it’s not like a workshop were you can get feedback and people are like, “Ah! Yes, I liked this part of but I would have liked more of this” – it’s more so like you’ve put up something you’re working on and creating and you have no idea what it looks like or sounds like and it’s this foetus and you ripped it out of the womb and put it in a jar before it was done growing and then you’re like, “I wonder if this baby’s cute?” And then putting it in front of a crowd of people and asking –
Thomas: This analogy is fucked up!
Jesse: No, then you see if the crowd is like “Awww” or if the crowd is like, “AGH!” and try and step on it.
Thomas: That’s really the heart of New Art Night.
Jesse: And then you will know if your baby is ugly or, y’know, a mutant and you need to destroy this thing and start again or if it’s – if you’re on the right path and you to like, add something, put eyes in to it and add fingers.
Thomas: Are you clear with how birth works?
Alexi: This is like a Mr. Potato-baby.
Thomas: That’s not – it’s not – that’s not how that works. There’s like a gestation period.
Thomas: You don’t just, like, put eyes on babies.
Jesse: Well, anyways, it’s like – anyways. It doesn’t necessarily have to be just theatre, theatre is the only thing that really needs [something like this]. There’s lots of other stuff where you can write a song and put it up on Soundcloud and have people judge it. From that you can put it on YouTube and have people say whether it’s shit or if it’s good or not, where with Theatre you can’t do that; there’s no opportunity for people to put there stuff up –
Alexi: Unless you’re in school.
Jesse: Yeah, unless you’re in school. You have no chance to put up your piece that you’re working on and hear and audiences laughter or an audience claps or an audience’s silence.
Thomas: Theatre has to be evaluated live.
Jesse: Theatre has to be evaluated live so we have no other option then to just put it up. And of course you can get it work-shopped by professionals or something but that costs money, that costs their time. But this a chance to have an actual audience.
Thomas: What I get really excited about is, since they are these weird little weird, test-tube babies that don’t have eyes – is that the analogy we’re using to describe the art we’re creating?
Jesse: It’s like Frankenstien’s baby.
Thomas: What I like most about that is that so many of these things are sort of odd little Frankenstien creatures that could not stand on their own. So there is no other place to see a young lady reading poetry while projected video plays over her for three and a half minutes. This is sort of the only venue for that sort of stuff and just the sort of weird, interesting assortment of stuff that we have on a night by night basis. That this sort of event is the only one where we can get such an interesting and diverse mix of things. What do we have? What going on for this one? We got, suicide plays, a fairly straight realism piece about a coffee shop, a bit of pick up artists, and a sketch comedy troop, and then me and a bunch of people are going to go into a room with a bunch of poems and just make something on Monday and we don’t know what that’s going to be but we’ll find out Monday evening when we put it up. SO! So it’s consistently a strange and wonderful evening of literary and theatre art.
Thomas: What’s your favourite memory from a past New Art Night?
Jesse: Oh! Can I take this one! Can I take this one first.
Thomas: Yeah, yeah hit it.
Jesse: Okay, so first my favourite New Art memory, there’s a few good ones, but my top-notch one has to be, yeah, it has to be New Art Night May 28th, 29th, 30th 2012? Yeah, 2012. The first one that ever happened here in Toronto, we didn’t know any body, we had – we had this one professional group come up and there was like two people in the audience so they were super unimpressed but the second night there was about 4 or 5 people in the audience and then half way through it these two drunk guys stumbled in. They had no idea what it was they just accidently stumbled into this place. The guy’s name was Vladimir and he sounded like he was from The Cure almost and he’s just, he’s started talking to Andrew (Thomas) and Andrew’s like, “Hey this guy’s a bit drunk but he wants to do something for the next New Art Night.” And I was like, “Cool!” So I told him to come in a little earlier and we’ll have an audition for him, and thought this was cool: meeting new artists. And he was going to sing some songs with his guitar, put on a little concert. So he came in and we sat and watch him and he wasn’t… awful… but he wasn’t spectacular and me and Andrew decided to take a risk on him. That’s what New Art Night’s about, failing, taking risks; so we’ll take a risk as producers and we’ll just put him up. So like… five minutes before the show starts, he says he’s changing the song, that he’s going to sing a different song than the one he sang before. And we’re like, “Okay!” and at that point were kiiinda worried about it but we’re like, “All right! Okay. You do what you need to do.” He’s like second last or something and me and Andrew are sitting next to each other and he opens the door and comes in with his guitar and as soon as he slams the door behind him you know something bad is going to happen. He then takes his shirt off swings it off stage and then starts playing this 40 minute long song with like 20 different endings and the entire audience was like – this was the one time was actually had a very good crowd for New Art Night as well and everyone just stared at this guy and a couple of our friends came up and said they thought it was a joke, they thought he was going to say, “This is how long I can lead you on this terrible song. Look how long you held on to every single note.” And every time he hit the chord you were like, “Oh good it’s over” and then he’d hit another one and you’d be like, “Okay, it’s over… okay, maybe not… okay, it’s over… okay, maybe not,” and I remember Andrew grabbing my knee and squeezing it and I could feel myself turn red. That was my favourite memory.
Thomas: And now I see him everywhere!
Jesse: Yeah, everywhere
Alexi: Andrew (Thomas) will be like, “That’s the guy!”
Alexi: I guess it would go back to the first New Art Night. Not the first one in Toronto but the first one you did in Red Deer. I just loved doing that weird and funny and just collective show of Major Tom’s Last Night on Earth. Just two weeks of talking and talking and talking and then ten days before the show we put up this just really absurd show of David Bowie’s apocalypse circus and it was the silliest thing ever but still to this day I love it. I giggle about it. And his – oh God! There’s another good memory was that fucking monologue that was about nothing! There is no transitions –
Thomas: It’s a page long monologue of non-sequitors.
Alexi: Non-sequeitors, and then Andrew’s (Thomas’s) like, have fun with this and perform it! And I’m like, “Aaandreeew” but it was awesome.
Thomas: Alexi comes to me and he’s cramming in Theatre History, he’s just totally tuned out because we were in school at this time. He just totally tuned out in theatre history and he’s just cramming this monologue and he’s like, “Andrew, we need to cut part of this so I just scan through the non-sequitors and found a place that I can jump it.” And then I just cut the middle of the monologue right out and it’s just a series of non-sequitors so it just jumps to the next one and he’s like, “Good that’s much easier.”
Alexi: And then I was thinking, with that memory, is how did you write a monologue with non-sequitors. Like, where did you pull this shit up? The best! The worst and the best and it turned out to be quiet a fun show and to this day I find myself bragging about that show, like “Half of our class got to do this prairie play by this Canadian playwright, we did a play about David Bowie”
Thomas: I would say – yeah, no, I – you, uh – I want to say: every night I get something different. Every night there’s a second or a line or a moment that’s transcendent and to pick one out would seem to diminish all the others so I’ll say the Brown Toast is a favourite memory because it was created by two of our friends in a morning and an evening and a morning out of total desperation and involved making a loaf of bread’s worth of toast onstage. And Jesse walking on stage without pants on. It was just this insane show, in fact: not only was it good enough to use it was great and they brought it back and they carried on with it.
Jesse: I liked the Nickel Studio because it was a cabaret setting so you couldn’t tell how many people didn’t show up, whereas in Unit 102 it’s all seats so it’s like, “This many people showed up!”
Thomas: But then at the final show of the last New Art Night we had to find chairs to fit more people in. There were so many people.
Thomas: It’s says he wants us to describe New Art Night in three adjectives, what if we each said an adjective and – uh…
Jesse: Can I say a phrase?
Jesse: Okay, yeah, I can do one adjective. I don’t wanna start, but –
Thomas: Do we have anything we want to share with us? With “us?” Andrew, you’re the only person who runs this. Us! Oh, the audeince is us.
Thomas: A story, a photo, a song, a video, these can be plural.
Thomas: I suppose we should get the Stop Playing – er, “Stop Praying, Start Playing” recorded we could send that.
Jesse: Why not send him everything? You write him a story, Alexi paints him a photo, I’ll send him a song.
Jesse: And then the video.
Thomas: Spit roast?
Jesse: Yeah, spit roast.
(indistinct mumbling, i.e. conspiracies)
Alexi: Okay. Okay.
Thomas: That’s not like a thing that you need to –
Jesse: That’s off the record.
Thomas: Yeah, that’s – let’s just not include that bit about spit roasting in the video. Um, that’s not something that needs to be audio recorded, so we’ll stop recording now as we’ve already given you more then half –