Veteran director Mary Walsh thinks Gordon Pinsent's greatest strength as a playwright is the way he builds characters with language. But that same forte can get him into trouble, too.
The latest play from the actor and writer, Easy Down Easy, has undergone numerous facelifts along the way to the more polished incarnation that made its public debut in the refurbished LSPU Hall in St. John's Wednesday night. And to hear Pinsent tell it, that's largely because the personalities took over.
"I have a tendency to be more character-driven than anything else," Pinsent says from his home in Toronto. "That was so successful I really didn't keep my mind on the plot as well as I should have."
Enter Walsh for a theatrical reality check.
"Mary has helped a great deal - she's gone straight for the throat," Pinsent says, adding that the show is now one long act, rather than the original two, and that a much larger cast has been trimmed to just three actors - the newly cast Aiden Flynn as "Louis," and Berni Stapleton and Kevin Woolridge returning as "Joanna" and "Nipper."
In his gravelly, grandfatherly voice, the venerable actor from Grand Falls, Nfld., adds of Walsh: "Not a shy lady."
When Pinsent first brought Walsh the script, a ghostly tale of a man who learns one cannot ever truly bury one's past, she trimmed two and a half hours of material "to about 47 minutes" in just one phase of the evolution of Easy Down Easy, which she describes as "an emerging piece."
"Because I said, 'Gordon, we can't just meander. We've got to go from A to Z.' And at the end of my 47-minute thing Gordon said, 'Yes, Mary, yes, it's good. Now you get on the train at A and it goes to Z. But I can't get my dinner on the train!' And he was quite right. So it's been a real process," Walsh says. "It's been great to be able to work with Gordon."
Pinsent says the play's world premiere, which was staged at the Grand Bank Theatre Festival in July, was "a good test," but that all the hard work has been leading up to Wednesday's public opening, staged by the Resource Centre for the Arts. Still, for all the anticipation the piece has generated in St. John's, he remains coy about its contents.
"I have to say, I've never been quite sure about the practice of outlining a piece before it's seen. I always thought of it as sneaking down and finding out what you're going to get for Christmas, and it spoils the next day," he says.
He's constantly asked whether it's "a Newfoundland piece," but promises that "this might be a bit different" from the Rock's standard theatrical fare.
Pinsent's most recent trips to Newfoundland saw him making cameo appearances on the popular CBC show Republic of Doyle, and he still spends a great deal of time with a pen in his hand. Now aged 80, he insists he isn't slowing.
"I've got a lot of stuff up there," he says of his mind, which hasn't lost an iota of its quick wit. "I've got screenplays that may never get produced, but I keep writing anyway. That's the Canadian way."
And he playfully jabs one of his fellow octogenarian actors, 80-year-old Christopher Plummer, who may be the only aging Canadian stage icon who's more prolific than Pinsent, having just landed yet another marquee role as Henrik Vanger in the Hollywood remake of Steig Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
"He's got that role! I opened the paper this morning and I felt like committing suicide," Pinsent says, feigning indignation and laughing heartily. "I mean, that was something that I wanted my people to go and try to get. I have an agent in England and a manager in Los Angeles - both of them must have been asleep at the wheel because I just didn't hear about this. [Plummer's]really got this nailed. I suppose I stay home too much."
On a more serious note, Pinsent admits he gets more than a little nervous at the prospect of sitting through his new-ish work, not to mention the talkback session he's promised to host. He finds penning plays harder than other kinds of writing, mostly because of the weight of audience expectations, which may help account for the sparseness of his past playwrighting credits.
"If you're sitting there, you feel as though everybody's kind of waiting for you to react," he says. "I get scared, you know. Whether I'm on stage or not on stage, I get scared."
But then he adds, with a touch of relief: "In Newfoundland, the audiences are wonderfully kind. And really good."
Easy Down Easy runs in St. John's until Oct. 17 ( www.rca.nf.ca).