Embedded Critic: Investigating Comedy in How to Survive an Apocalypse
How to Survive an Apocalypse by Jordan Hall is the winner of the 2016 Flying Start Program, a collaboration between PTC, Touchstone Theatre and the Firehall Arts Centre. The 18-month development process for a new play culminates in a first production at a PACT theatre. The play opens June 2 at the Firehall and plays through June 11. We have thought for some time that it’s unfortunate to wait until the excitement and adrenaline of opening night to open up the development process for commentary. So, as an experiment, we invited Kelsey Blair to drop in and out and write about some of the questions we’re addressing in the development of How to Survive an Apocalypse. This is the second of a series of posts we’re calling Embedded Critic.
Kelsey Blair is currently pursuing a PhD in English with an emphasis in performance studies at Simon Fraser University. She’s also the author of three sport fiction novels for 10-13 year olds, the co-leader of a local senior’s writing collective, and a community sport leader: thekelseyblair.com
What is comedy? It has something to do with laughter – that much seems obvious. But, comedy isn’t simply laughter, and it certainly isn’t humour. I’d never find myself standing, sipping a peppermint tea amongst friends, describing a mutual acquaintance by saying, “She has a great sense of comedy.”
If Shakespeare was right and “all’s well that ends well,” then ending well in comedy historically meant a wedding, and it was this ending that defined the genre.
In theatre, comedy can be traced back as far as Ancient Greece. Unlike tragedies, which usually featured the demise of the main character and a body count rivalling a season of Game of Thrones, the subject of comedies was lighter – a sex strike! (Lysistrata); a tongue-in-cheek trip to the afterlife! (The Frogs) – and the endings usually emphasized balance and harmony, often culminating in a communal or familial celebration in the final act. It is unsurprising, then, that marriage became a short-hand for a happy ending, and as early as the 16th century, comedies almost always featured a wedding, or, at the very least, a proposal. If Shakespeare was right and “all’s well that ends well,” then ending well in comedy historically meant a wedding, and it was this ending that defined the genre.
Jordan Hall’s new play How to Survive an Apocalypse – about four late-twenty-somethings in Vancouver who find themselves in a complex love triangle, held together by quarter-life crises, shifting priorities, and a running conversation about the end of the world – is inspired by comedy’s many traditions, particularly the screwball comedies of the American cinema of the 1930s and 40s. Screwball comedy was the quirky cousin of film noir, and the films frequently featured a battle of the sexes, witty banter, and, most notable, a strong female protagonist, often matched with a male character whose masculinity was challenged or called into question.
The influences of both screwball comedy and theatrical comedy are evident in How to Survive an Apocalypse. Its cast of characters – two men, two women – are enmeshed in a complicated web of love and friendship which recalls, in some respects, Shakespearean comedies like Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night and films like It’s a Wonderful World. The protagonist, Jen, is a strong young woman, a force for any man to reckon with, but particularly her husband, Tim. The dialogue is relentlessly witty, and despite its title, the play is far more about what it means to live in the 21st century than what it means to die in it.
As the play is both a romance and a comedy, the audience might expect a particular kind of ending, and the production team has found themselves grappling with an important question: what kind of conclusions do contemporary audiences want from their comedies? The television and movie landscape – where comedies are frequently so dark they feature drug dealers and serial killers as main characters – has surely changed what people expect from the genre as a whole. But, even the darkest comedy often ends happily. Since weddings are no longer a short*hand for happiness, the question becomes: if a romantic union isn’t automatically the sign of a happy ending, what is? Without giving away too much, the How to Survive both adheres to and undermines a traditional comic conclusion, and its final scene poses a philosophical question worth ruminating on:
In the 21st century, what does a happy ending look like?