At 35, Niall McNeil is a theatre veteran. He grew up around the Caravan Farm Theatre in the British Columbia Interior and has appeared in numerous shows there. He has also worked with Vancouver's Leaky Heaven (now Fight With a Stick) where he co-created the 2011 award-winning PuSh Festival premiere Peter Panties, in which he also performed. He is currently in rehearsals for his next big theatre venture. A King Arthur enthusiast with extensive knowledge and endless curiosity, McNeil has co-written and stars in a new production about the legendary medieval hero. The show, King Arthur's Night, is about to have its world premiere at one of the country's most prestigious arts festivals, Luminato.
The production features an integrated cast of professional actors and non-pros who have taken part in "Act Up" classes at the Down Syndrome Research Foundation (DSRF) where McNeil is one of the teachers. McNeil also has Down syndrome.
"I am really proud," he said after a day of rehearsals in late May at East Vancouver's Progress Lab.
The show is a collaboration between McNeil and three Vancouver theatre luminaries: Neworld Theatre artistic director Marcus Youssef, Theatre Replacement co-artistic director James Long (Long and Youssef co-created and co-starred in Winners and Losers) and composer Veda Hille (Onegin).
Youssef, who co-wrote Peter Panties, worked with McNeil to create the story, a process Youssef likens to jamming. They spend lots of time together riffing on ideas, which get turned into a script with help from Long, who directs. Hille, who wrote the music for Peter Panties, composed the songs using McNeil's text for lyrics.
The result is a musical extravaganza in which King Arthur (McNeil) banters with Merlin (Youssef) and romances Guinevere (Tiffany King, another actor with Down syndrome). The ensemble cast of 10 – which also includes Nicola Lipman and dance artist Amber Funk Barton – is paired with a 16-member choir and two live musicians (Christine Fellows and Barry Mirochnick). It's the largest production in Neworld's history; the kind of production that required a commission.
The Luminato commission came about after then-artistic director Jorn Weisbrodt saw Winners and Losers – a show that has played around the world – and asked Long and Youssef to pitch something for the festival. Youssef and McNeil were in the very early stages of King Arthur's Night, and ultimately decided to pitch that.
"At first I hedged – the scale of this work is daunting," Youssef recalls. "But then I went, well, when I have success with colleagues I generally work with them again. Why would it be different in this case?"
McNeil was born in Ottawa and grew up in British Columbia, where his parents were involved in the Caravan Farm Theatre (a rural theatre on a farm property north of Kelowna). He began performing there when he was 5 or 6, he says, in plays such as Romeo and Juliet and Strange Medicine. In addition to his work with Leaky Heaven – he was involved from its 1999 inception – he has also performed in A Christmas Carol at the National Arts Centre in 2010 and acted in Marie Clements's 2010 short Pilgrims. When he isn't acting or writing plays, he works at an East Vancouver grocery store, stocking and bagging. This year marks his 10th anniversary at the Super Valu, which has supported the show with a $1,000 donation to their fundraising campaign and by giving McNeil lots of time off. (Other supporters include the Stratford Festival and Bard on the Beach, which have provided costumes and props.)
Following the success of Peter Panties – a radically reimagined Peter Pan – the team of McNeil, Youssef, Long and Hille reunited to create King Arthur's Night using what they call structured improvisation.
"My experience is that Ni, you're brilliant at associating between things and connecting between things in a way that I as a writer aspire to … that I'm frankly not as good at as you are," Youssef says to McNeil after rehearsal. "I'm good at structure … but I feel like it's a very equal collaboration. That we both bring very real, very tangible strengths – and weaknesses."
Still, there are challenges. The previous day, there was a meltdown; one of the actors from the DSRF workshop became extremely upset, the team explains. Looking back on it, Long believes his notes to Youssef were misinterpreted.
"It was read as Marcus was in trouble," he says; sometimes the lines between fiction and reality can blur for someone who is less familiar with the process. Stress levels skyrocketed. "That triggered an implosion, explosion in every direction."
But that's part of the process. Everyone is learning, adjusting, negotiating, figuring each other out – just as they do during any rehearsal process for any production.
"Every single person who walks in is really, really good at some things. And really, really [crappy] at other things. And that's true across the board for every single one of us," Youssef says.
In separate interviews, both he and Hille talked about how the experience has transformed their own creation process.
"Writing music with Niall has changed the way I write music," said Hille, who took lyrics and melodies directly from McNeil's improvisations. In one case, McNeil recorded a song vocal on his phone at home when the inspiration struck, and e-mailed it to Hille, who has incorporated that original smartphone recording into the show's final number. As this is being explained, McNeil whips his Samsung out of the pocket of his grey shorts (paired with an I Heart East Van T-shirt) and sings one of the lines.
Then from Youssef, who teaches the DSRF workshops with McNeil (Long and Hille teach sometimes too): "It has completely changed the way we work in the room. It's forced us to slow down." Informed by the classes, they have also established rituals for the rehearsal process: starting off by dancing to a song of someone's choice – the playlist is Disney-heavy, but also includes Nickelback and Taylor Swift – a daily check-in where the room may have to wait three or four minutes for someone to answer a personal question, a hand-on-heart moment right before the rehearsal begins.
"All those elements have made our professional rehearsal room way better, way more attentive, way more productive," Youssef says.
"What we're doing is not an act of charity or a favour," he adds. "It is actually making our work better – is my experience as an artist inside of it."
King Arthur's Night is at the Berkeley Street Theatre for Luminato June 15-18 and the National Arts Centre for Canada Scene June 24-26.