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Quite a few unfunny things happened on the way to stage

Posted: 12/4/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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Comedian Irwin Barker inspired  Bruce Clark's Incongruous.

CNS MONTREAL GAZETTE Enlarge Image

Comedian Irwin Barker inspired Bruce Clark's Incongruous.

Al Rae and Bruce Clark are, admittedly, works in progress. And so are their plays.

The local comedians turned playwrights have written, and continue to keep rewriting, a pair of comedy-driven works that will be presented in dramatic-reading fashion this week in Winnipeg as part of a celebration of the Gas Station Arts Centre's 30th anniversary.

The two veteran comics -- both of whom happily admit to being works in progress as individuals -- will present the latest versions of stage works that have deep roots in their personal experiences as artists, comedians and extremely fallible human beings.

One Man's Show, Rae's semi-autobiographical exploration of how childhood experiences and gender roles affect who and what we become, and Incongruous, Clark's dark comedy inspired by the life and career of beloved Winnipeg comedian Irwin Barker, tempered by Clark's own showbiz experiences, will be performed in tandem on Thursday, Dec. 5 at 7 p.m. at the Gas Station (tickets are $30 each or $45 per pair, available at the Gas Station Arts Centre).

"I think the plays complement each other," says Rae, who has worked closely with the Gas Station for years in his role as artistic director of the Winnipeg Comedy Festival. "Bruce and I have collaborated on a number of projects in the past, and we share a number of creative themes -- we've had a lot of debates and discussions over what constitutes art and what is worthwhile in terms of subject matter for art.

"And I think we both employ a similar device that we both enjoy, which is a form of dark humour that uses comedy to mask pain.... Both plays are about the choices we make as people and as artists, and how those decisions get us to where we are."

One Man's Show, which Rae wrote and first produced in 2010 for the Carol Shields Festival of New Works, is a mostly autobiographical play that deals with childhood experiences, awakening sexual identity, the trauma of sexual assault and, in this newer version, the challenge and eventual liberation of coming out of the closet.

There's an unexpected twist to One Man's Show -- its central character is a woman, played by local comedy mainstay Sarah Constible.

"It explores the various stages of my life, from very early childhood to where I am right now," Rae says. "But I decided that I really wanted to explore gender, and doing it for the Carol Shields festival, with that strong female connection, I began to explore the idea of writing a piece that was about myself but for an actress, so it was always conceived of and delivered with Sarah in mind."

Clark's play, Incongruous, deals with the struggle of a comedian who is steadfast in his belief in comedy as an art form but is frustrated by never having landed that one big break while contemporaries he considers to be hacks and sellouts became rich and famous with inferior material.

Since first staging it at the 2011 Winnipeg Comedy Festival, Clark says he has rewritten about 80 per cent of the play, making major changes to two important secondary characters. It is, he says, a much more mature work than its first incarnation.

"The more you work on a play, and the more keep rewriting it, the more you see yourself in it," says Clark. "Not necessarily in the characters, but more in terms of what you think about life and what matters to you."

Clark has gone through some significant personal changes since Incongruous was first staged at the 2011 Winnipeg Comedy Festival. He finally has confronted and sought treatment for depression, which had plagued him for years. Now in a more peaceful place in his life, he says his perspective on the emotions that drive the play has changed.

"I think the play is much less cynical now," he explains. "The first version was a pretty cynical look at comedy; what I think you'll see in the finished form -- which I believe is pretty close -- is a much more hopeful piece than that early version."

When Incongruous debuted in 2011, well-known Canadian actor/comedian Se°n Cullen appeared in the role of the frustrated artist. He returns to Winnipeg this week to reprise the role, a casting coup that Clark says is crucial to the show's success.

"I really think he's one of the most talented people I've ever seen," says Clark. "I'm not just saying that because he's in the play; he's a tour de force. He's larger than life... I wrote the character, and rewrote the character, with him in mind."

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 4, 2013 D3

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