From the depths of the Beat Generation’s Bohemian hedonism comes Jayson McDonald’s Underbelly, a look at the life and times of American novelist, poet and artist William S. Burroughs.
Dubbed an “Hallucinatory autobiography … based partly in reality and partly in myth,” Underbelly is a spoken word piece based on the writings of Burroughs and other writers from the Beat Generation, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
McDonald, best known on the Fringe circuit for his shows like Giant Invisible Robot (Victoria Fringe 2011), takes a departure from his comic style, but his knack for storytelling shines in Underbelly.
“Underbelly is very different from anything else I’ve ever done,” says McDonald, artistic director of Stars and Hearts theatre in London, ON. “My other works … there’s not a ton of research involved. They’re all very personal shows. They’re all fiction and I tend to improvise when I write and see where that takes me. With Underbelly, however, it’s an homage to this wonderful artists’ life works. So because I don’t have any measure of the talent Burroughs had, I’m trying to adapt all his various processes and techniques and create something original which is not only a tribute to his life and his work as an artist, but also to the scene as a whole.”
Only one line of Burroughs’ work appears in Underbelly — from his final journal entry — the rest is entirely original work by McDonald.
“It’s his life as it would be described by him, using his voice,” says McDonald. “Keeping in mind that he’s a very unreliable narrator.”
“It bounces around a little, but there is a narrative. It’s an emotional narrative, and as far as the techniques are concerned, it’s basically linear as well.”
Underbelly came to life out of Intrepid Theatre’s Bring Out Your Dead event in 2010. “They invited a bunch of performers to do monologues about their favourite dead celebrities, and Burroughs popped into my head,” says McDonald. He then spent eight months researching Burroughs’ work, reading his journals and listening to audiobooks, then writing the piece. It had an underwhelming, although critically acclaimed run at the 2012 Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver Fringes, thanks in part to the challenging subject matter, style and delivery. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to sell,” he says. “I think it will have legs outside the Fringe circuit. I think it’s the best show I’ve ever done.”
“I’m not especially a fan, and I’ve never been terribly influenced as a writer by these guys,” says McDonald. “I’ve always been fascinated by the era though — nuclear war is a brand new horror for everyone, they felt like their futures had been stolen from them, and that affected their lifestyles and their art … every artist owes a page to this guy, although he never got any credit, at least until he died.”
Underbelly is appropriate for audiences over the age of 16. “It’s all about junkies and prostitutes and swearing,” says McDonald. “Young audiences would be bored out of their tree.”
Intrepid Theatre’s Uno Fest
Metro Studio (1411 Quadra)
Sun., May 26 at 8pm (pay what you can)
Mon., May 27 at 8pm
$20 or five shows for $69 at ticketrocket.org or 250 590 6291