Photos, Top to Bottom: Richard Greenblatt as Richard and Ted Dykstra as Ted; Ted Dykstra as Ted and Richard Greenblatt as Richard in the original production of 2P4H; Patrick Burwell as Richard and Tom Frey as Ted; Tom Frey as Ted and Patrick Burwell as Richard in the Belfry Theatre production of 2P4H (Credit: David Bukach)
1) 2 Pianos 4 Hands (2P4H) has been a smash hit for its co-writers and performers over the past fifteen years. What can you tell us about how this show came together?
Toronto actor-directors Richard Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra had very similar childhoods spent training and practicing to become classical pianists through the Royal Conservatory of Music program. Both were very talented young musicians, yet neither ended up with a career in music; rather, both ended up with very successful careers in the theatre (what this says about theatre as a second-best arts profession I’m not sure I want to get into!) Back in 1994 they got together and created a 20 minute piece for the Tarragon Theatre’s Spring Arts Fair that told the story of this shared history, using two pianos as their framing device. The show was very well-received and was developed into a full length production in 1996 which became the surprise smash of the season at the Tarragon Theatre, winning a number of awards. Mirvish Productions picked up the show which went on to play six months off-Broadway, in London and Tokyo, all to rave reviews. Greenblatt and Dykstra eventually left performing the show themselves, but have stayed connected to the many touring versions that have gone on to play at more than 150 theatres across five continents and to over 2 million people. This makes the show one of, if not the, most successful Canadian theatre production of all time.
2) How does the show work with actor-musicians other than Greenblatt and Dykstra in the roles?
As the play is quite autobiographical in nature, with the two characters named Richard and Ted, I wondered how it would work with others in the role. Certainly, in this production the answer is very well. Patrick Burwell as Richard and Tom Frey as Ted have been touring for some time now and the Belfry brought Richard Greenblatt in for a week of refresher rehearsal before opening night last week. These two actors, who must also necessarily be very competent classical pianists, make the roles their own. Patrick Burwell is more of the straight man here, although each actor plays multiple roles so he does get a chance to play more overtly comic roles throughout. However, I found his scene as Ted’s father, where he threatens to take away his son’s lessons and piano, was one of the best dramatic moments in this generally quite light show. Tom Frey is a gifted comic actor who inhabits all of his many roles with great physicality, and is especially good playing the younger versions of Ted, sitting in boredom and frustration over endless hours of practice, practice, practice. The show clips along at a good pace, and keeps the laughs coming, as we watch these two young pianists suffer through a sequence of eccentric piano teachers, high pressure competitions and battles with their parents. Things get a bit more serious in Act 2, when we see both of them try to get into advanced training programs, one in classical music and the other in jazz, and beginning to come to terms with the limits of their talents. As the show ends, we grasp how these two characters have moved on in their lives to accept that while they may never be the best pianists in the world, the country or the city, they can live with being the best in their neighborhood. And for audiences around the world, that seems to be good enough for us as well.
3) What does an audience take away from this show...what is the secret of its success?
As Richard Greenblatt writes in the Belfry program, the Law of Specificity in art dictates that artists need to be as specific as possible in order to potentially achieve universality. There is a huge power in telling our own stories as artists…autobiographical theatre has a long history, from Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams to Spalding Gray’s one-man shows and Pamela Gien’s Syringa Tree. Intrepid Theatre’s UNO and Fringe Festivals are often dominated by these kinds of shows, for better or worse. But a real-life story must contain a way in that allows audiences to connect, to feel like there is something in this true story that they can relate to their own lives. While I am sure that 2P4H has had many audience members who have had vivid memories of their own experiences as piano students brought back to them (as my son did watching the show with me last Thursday night), there are many other points of connection in this show. I found myself remembering, for the first time in years, competing in an elocution competition in Regina, Saskatchewan when I was in grade six and seven. I experienced the same kind of terror, pressure, pleasure in performing and winning and frustration in coming in second as Richard and Ted did in their childhood. Anyone who has ever tried to master an instrument, an art form, a sport or a discipline will find both a way to laugh at and remember fondly when seeing 2P4H. Obviously, given the enormous success of this show, Greenblatt and Dykstra have tapped into a specific life history that has remarkable universal resonance. I’m very tempted to hop a plane to Toronto this fall to see them remount the show one last time in celebration of its fifteenth anniversary!
4) The Belfry has just announced its new season...what can we look forward to next year?
Well, first of all we can look forward to not one but two shows over the summer at the Belfry. Jacob Richmond’s hit show Ride the Cyclone is back in July, followed by a greatest hits version of the Mom’s the Word gang (another example of successful autobiographical theatre!) Then we will be seeing a new French Canadian play And Slowly Beauty, a co-production with the National Arts Centre, followed by a welcome remount of a Canadian classic backstage comedy Jitters by the sadly departed David French. These two shows are followed by a new play from Vancouver playwright Michele Riml called On the Edge and a production of French playwright Yasmina Reza’s comedy God of Carnage. It’s wonderful to see two French plays in translation and two plays by women programmed for next season, which looks like another winner for the Belfry.
2 Pianos 4 Hands continues at the Belfry Theatre until May 15th. Tickets are available at 385-6815 or online at www.belfry.bc.ca