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In conversation with...Michael Peng

Michael Cox speaks with the Stage Award for Acting Excellence nominee and star of Bashir Lazar.
Michael Cox: First, tell me a bit about the character of Bashir?

Michael Peng: Bashir is a beautiful character to play – rich with contradiction, playfulness, stubbornness, mischief, wisdom – and a survival instinct born of his circumstances as a new immigrant to Montreal, Canada. He has a deep love – and respect - for children that again comes as a result of his own experience, and a deep suspicion of institutional bureaucracy. The tragedy (and drama) of the piece is that he becomes paralyzed by bureaucratic systems that he desperately wants to break free of, while dealing with his own very personal grief from the life he left behind in Algeria. He wants to start over (in Canada), but his past continues to haunt him and his present only reminds him of what he cannot break free from. He is heroic in many senses, but also a child himself, awash in a world he can’t quite understand or master, no matter how hard he tries.

MC: How did you come across the play?

MP: Our director, Piet Defraeye, who is also a professor at the University of Alberta Department of Drama in Edmonton, saw the original French production of the play (directed by the playwright’s partner, Daniel Briere - who has another show, “Leo,” at the Edinburgh Fringe this year). That production toured Canada in French - I think it was in 2007 or 2008. He fell in love with the story, the language and the themes of the piece and decided to mount it as part of an educational theatre exchange in Germany and Austria in 2009. That’s when he brought me in as a professional to play Bashir (I had just graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Theatre Directing at the U of A), and we began working together on the piece – starting from scratch in rehearsal with movement and music – making our piece much more physical than others that preceded it. Our production is also unique in that Piet decided early on to physicalize the presence of the women in Bashir’s life – his daughter, his wife, the school principal, other teachers, etc. That had never been done before. Kim McLeod, also the dramaturge on our production, plays that other character, and the choreography and relationship the two of us share on stage is part of the distinctiveness of our production. It keeps the piece from falling into simple naturalism and allows us to more deeply explore and express images and metaphors on stage than would have been possible with a single actor.

MC: You are also serving as Producer. What are the difficulties of appearing in a play you are producing?

MP: It can be awkward at times. Obviously it is collaborative and we have close working relationships, but the Director has the final say in rehearsal, and the Producer has the final say in terms of audience approach, publicity, budget, etc. So when those worlds collide, or opinions differ, those issues have to be worked out. Mostly, it’s been fine, but sometimes in rehearsal the director just has to decide what he wants and there is no more discussion. Sometimes the Producer has to make the final call.

For example, I initiated and oversaw our efforts to take 10 minutes off our running time because of schedule limitations and because the piece needed tightening. As Producer I collaborated with Kim (dramaturge) on a proposal, and while Piet was consulted and there was dialogue surrounding it - and in the end we all worked together and agreed on changes - my job was to ensure it happened. Piet’s already lobbying to bring some things back from our other production for when we get back to Canada!

MC: What made you decide to bring the play to the Edinburgh festival?

MP: The Edinburgh Fringe is a rite of passage for many actors in North America. To have played the Fringe is to have played to the world. It is also a huge showcase for potential promoters and agents who may be able to help our show tour internationally. To have been chosen to be programmed by Assembly, and to have received such universal critical acclaim – not to mention the Best Actor nomination - means our production stands up with the best in the world. That is a huge accomplishment for a small Canadian company with an obscure piece at it’s first Edinburgh Fringe with little promotional support. This piece has universal themes that will only become more and more prominent. The Arab Spring has made issues of intercultural relations, human rights, identity and freedom of expression central again, and becauase the piece is so personal rather than ideological, it has much to teach us all about how we can work together for a common future.

MC: Have you seen anything during the Festival that has made an impression?

MP: I haven’t seen as much theatre as I would like (we are staying in Leith – a good 45 minute walk from Assembly...!) but I enjoyed the scale and precision of “Oedipus,” and “Alphonse,” performed by fellow Canadian actor, Alon Nashmann, was a lovely bit of storytelling and character work.

Bashir Lazar performs at the Assembly in George's Square until August 28.

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