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September 1, 2011

Don’t Crash the Plane – Gregory Prest

Gregory Prest is a graduate of the National Theatre School and has performed for Tarragon Theatre, Next Stage, and the Canadian Opera Company. A recent graduate of the Soulpepper Academy, Gregory has gone on to do a number of shows with the company including Death of a Salesman, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Oh What a Lovely War – for which he received a Dora nomination. Gregory plays the role of Pascal in White Biting Dog, on stage now.

White Biting Dog

Gregory Prest & Michaela Washburn on stage in White Biting Dog. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

I only met Judith Thompson once before the first day of rehearsals for White Biting Dog. It was spring of 2002 in Montreal at the National Theatre School. She was there teaching the playwriting students and we were working on an in-studio end of first year performance of her 1997 play Sled with Sarah Stanley. She came to watch our first run through one morning.

After what was probably a four-hour affair, Judith pauses and says something to the effect of, “I’ve written the text very specifically and when actors don’t get it right or paraphrase or add a word here or there it makes me sick to my stomach and my ears bleed.”

I knew I was guilty. I prepared to be not asked back for my second year.

Side note: I have a vivid memory of the cover of the script for Sled. It was a photo of a tall beautiful woman in a red dress with long gloves and long red hair sort of floating in a forest of birch trees. I had no idea who the woman was but the image stayed with me. Little did I know that the tall beautiful woman would be such an important influence in my life – a Ms Nancy Palk.

Cut to: Several months before rehearsals start, I open my White Biting Dog script and read this note from the playwright:

“Because of the extreme and deliberate musicality of this play, any attempts to go against the textual rhythms, such as the breaking up of an unbroken sentence, or the taking of a pause where none is written in are DISASTROUS. The effect is like being in a small plane and suddenly turning off the ignition. It all falls down. This play must SPIN, not just turn around.”

Cue: cold sweats and internal hemorrhaging.

I knew Judith would be at the first read and throughout rehearsal. I didn’t want to be the kid that crashed the plane. Nancy, the tall beautiful woman, took a chance on me. I became determined to GET IT RIGHT. I would get it word perfect. Then I looked at the text:

Pick up a copy of the play – it looks like this:

WHAT DOES IT MEAN?  What’s the difference between THIS and THIS? Or t-h-i-s and T-H-I-S, let alone th-th-th-thissssssssss?  What does it MEAN mean?  HOW doooo I-inter-interpret the…FONT…font?  How DO I, nnnnnot C-R-A-S-H this plane PLANE?

Cue: colder sweats and external hemorrhaging.

Cut to: First read around the table.  I sat down, pulled out my script and was determined – if I was going down – fired – I’d be fired giving it my BEST s-h-o-t.

The first thing Judith says is, “Everyone open to the page with my note about crashing the plane…” I steadied myself.  “…and just take your pencil and cross it out. Just cross it out.”

Cue: a sound that shoots from my mouth – something between a giggle and a painful cry.