War, relationships and theatre

Authenticity is one of the cornerstones of a good play. If the actors don’t seem genuine or the dialogue doesn’t feel believable, it undermines the whole premise. The aim of a play is to tell a story and it’s a story the audience won’t buy if something’s amiss.

Authenticity is of particular concern to Linda Griffiths. The Jack-of-all-theatre is currently in the midst of rehearsing for her one-woman show, The Last Dog of War. The play is about a trip to England she took four years ago with her father to the last reunion of his 49th Royal Air Force bomber squadron that flew missions during the Second World War.

Griffiths took the trip to connect with her father and uncover information about his time served in the military, when he risked his life in perilous bombing runs, some of which she reenacts in the show.

“She ends up getting something she wasn’t expecting– more than just a show,” explains director Daniel MacIvor. “It’s about war, it’s about fathers and daughters, it’s about making theatre, it’s about storytelling. It’s been an interesting journey for us because we’ve done it other times, but never as large a production as this.”

MacIvor has been friends with Griffiths for a long time. It was in 2006 that she first asked MacIvor to help her translate another of her plays– Alien Creature, a story about poet Gwendolyn MacEwen– to the big screen. MacIvor refused, but asked what else Linda was working on.

“Linda was despondent at the time because she felt like she’d done all this work and it wasn’t really adding up to anything,” he says. “I said, ‘What else do you have?’ and she explained, ‘My dad’s going on this trip, he’s 83 and he’s going to his last reunion of the 49th squadron in England.’ She was thinking about going along and maybe get some kind of show out of it. I told her I’d work on that with her.”

The results were better than could have been expected. Without giving too much away, Griffiths and her father were kicked out of the reunion and she returned eager to share the adventure.

“The day after she came back, she had rented out a theatre in Toronto and invited a bunch of people to come and basically improvised the show,” explains MacIvor. “I went in the day of and she told me what she wanted to do. I helped her organize it a bit and then she just did it and improvised it. The show is really about that, it’s about her getting it together to do that and go on this trip. And it’s also about the trip, and her relationship with her dad, which hasn’t been an easy relationship.”

Not many artists can jump from inspiration to performance so quickly. Griffiths went on the trip hoping to find a show and then was able to improvise one the day after she returned– but it hasn’t been an easy ride since then. MacIvor and Griffiths have done the show dozens of times but are still working to perfect it.

“The first time Linda did it, she wasn’t thinking about what she was going to say,” says MacIvor. “After that it starts becoming, ‘What did I say before? How did this work before?’ and all of a sudden you aren’t in the moment any more, you are in the previous time. What happened is that Linda became really good at doing the show and we both recognized that it was undermining the story. It became this show she was doing, but there wasn’t this spontaneity and the immediacy was getting lost.”

That spontaneity is integral for the show, which deals with matters extremely personal and important to Griffiths. The show has been scripted since Griffiths’ first improvised delivery, and if it becomes mechanical, it willl suffer– which is why the pair have worked so hard to maintain that uncontrived, impulsive feel.

“It’s important to try and maintain the wonderful energy and the spontaneity of the initial spark, of when she first did it and not to lose that wonderful presence in something that becomes just a script. That’s something we work and work and work on,” he says. “It’s funny– you have to work really, really hard and know something really, really well to be spontaneous. The first time you do it, it’s spontaneous. Once you start to know it, and you try to be spontaneous, it starts to look messy.”

In describing his role in the whole process, MacIvor admits that the production is Griffiths’ baby, but “I do feel like a bit of a midwife.”

“I know the show better than anyone outside Linda. I’ve been with her through it and through it and through it. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous to say that I was the dad, but I would definitely say I was the uncle.”