Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Ross Dungan: Life And Sort Of Death

By | Published on Monday 8 April 2013


We first came across 15th Oak Productions’ stage show ‘The Life And Sort Of Death Of Eric Argyle’ at last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and liked it a lot. When we heard that the production was headed to the Soho Theatre this month, we were keen to talk to its talented writer, Ross Dungan. So we did.

CM: What’s the play about (without giving too much away, obviously…)?
RD: Well, the play is about a 58 year old man named Eric Argyle who, one morning, is knocked down by a car and killed. Eric, prior to his untimely death, is convinced that he’s wasted his entire life and that everything that’s gone before his collision with the car has been one missed opportunity after another.

Unfortunately for him he’s asked to look and review these supposed moments of failure in an afterlife-like setting, and is forced to answer precisely why he’s done what he’s done. However while he does so, he’s unaware that his death has set in motion a chain of events that might prove his life wasn’t as worthless as he thinks.

CM: Given the play’s fairly sombre premise, one might assume that there’d be no room for humour… but our Edinburgh reviewer described it as “hilarious”. how easy was it to juxtapose the dramatic with the funny?
RD: Whilst the play is peppered with moments of huge regret and features a number of traumatic experiences, there is something that can be inherently funny about someone recounting the numerous mistakes that they’ve made throughout their life. They might not necessarily find them all that humorous at the time, but taken out of context, like they are in the play, they become those moments when the only thing you can do is laugh.

And while we may remember particularly bleak or joyous periods from our lives, chances are it wasn’t quite as black and white at the time. It’s very rarely just something very tragic happening or just something very comic happening. There’s nearly always some crossover.

CM: What inspired this play?
RD: Oddly enough, the idea for the play initially came to me in the format of a sketch comedy show. The basic premise being that the main character had just died and then had to watch his life play out in front of him again through a series of sketches.

But as I thought about it more and more, and what kind of characters I wanted to be in it, and how I wanted them to interact with each other, it seemed more and more like the idea would lend itself a lot better to a stage play being performed by a full company (the sketch comedy group it was intended for, A Betrayal of Penguins, had only three members, meaning that was more or less the max amount of characters I could have on stage at any given time). So once all the more traditional sketch comedy elements of it were stripped away the whole thing changed a good deal. Numerous other characters were added and several different sub-plots quickly arose throughout the writing of it.

But, as I think about it now, after boiling the whole thing down and taking away its numerous other elements, the play is still more or less a dead man watching his life being re-enacted in front of him through sketches. The cast just probably wear slightly less silly hats than they would have done if it had been a sketch show.

CM: This is your second highly acclaimed play – is there a third in progress?
RD: Yeah, the two experiences I’ve had with taking plays to Edinburgh have been really positive so far and it’s been amazing getting to work with the phenomenally talented casts that I’ve got to work with, so I’m really looking forward to starting a new project with 15th Oak and seeing where it takes us.

Thankfully, I’ve finally gotten around to starting the process for writing something new (meaning that I’ve gotten my laptop fixed) which will be on at some point later this year in Dublin before hopefully being brought over to Edinburgh in 2014, if it’s not a total, unadulterated catastrophe.

The new show is still very much in it’s infancy though, so I doubt I’d make any kind of sense if I talked about it. But it’s most likely going to be quite different to the last two shows though.

That really doesn’t narrow things down an awful lot.

CM: You were a member of successful comedy troupe ‘A Betrayal Of Penguins’ – how does writing plays compare to writing sketches?
RD: I think that is quite possibly the first time word ‘successful’ and ‘A Betrayal of Penguins’ have been used in such close proximity to each other. If we were still in existence as a group, that one word quote would almost certainly be plastered over any and all of our publicity items.

I always really enjoyed the writing stages of the show and the rehearsal process (a fairly generous term for it) but generally hated the idea of performing until we eventually got on stage. From that point on I even occasionally found myself more okay with it, even liking it sometimes. But the worry and apprehension about performing was always the least enjoyable aspect of the whole thing. My phenomenal lack of talent as a performer may have somewhat played into this.

But it was always a lot of fun writing sketches and the idea of creating something short and stand-alone that could be about 5 minutes long and which didn’t have to follow the tropes of a fully-formed drama was always a fairly liberating thing to do. It’s nice to be in a situation where if things aren’t working, the solution can often be to have a character walk on in a funny hat to draw a response from the audience, something which often wouldn’t clear up difficult third act problems in something like The Crucible (and again, this is one of the reasons why Eric Argyle was better off not being a A Betrayal of Penguins show). So in that way it makes for a great break from writing plays, because it can either make you miss writing one or else can offer relief when you’re getting a little bit fed up of working on them.

CM: Who or what influences your writing?
RD: My favourite playwrights would be people like Brian Friel and Arthur Miller and then for more modern influences I’d read a good bit of Martin McDonagh, Marina Carr and Daniel Kitson’s work. In terms of influencing me, they’re the main dramatists I like so I’d tend to look to them and their work and try to figure out what makes it work so well when I’m trying to come up with a coherent structure for something that I’m writing.

Outside of that, my influences really could be anything and everything. I often find it pretty hard to trace back any ideas I have or what’s made me think of them in the first place. Which means it’s not unlikely I steal absolutely everything from somewhere else.

CM: You’ve also written for TV – how similar is that to play-writing, and do you enjoy it?
RD: It’s funny because it’s just a completely different experience to theatre. Whether it’s writing for soap, kids TV or for a drama, the experience is always the same. Deadlines are constantly looming, and as opposed to your drafting or redrafting of a play affecting the actors, directors and occasionally the designers, when it comes to doing TV you could be drastically changing the workload of hundreds of people without even realising it.

For whatever reasons, whether it comes down production issues or problems with a scene there are times when things are being re-written to be shot the next day or even that afternoon. At times like these it can really feel like everything is getting away from you but at the same time that high pressure situation is great experience. You can’t just ask for some time to think about things and then give your answer at the end of the week, things need to be solved at that exact moment or else they won’t be solved at all. It’s fairly invaluable and makes you a good bit more disciplined with how you spend your time. It also makes you catch problems far earlier in anything you write.

It’s also not exactly a recent phenomenon but some of the best drama and comedy is on TV at the moment, and it’s coming from all over the world as well. There are so many exciting shows taking place at the moment and so many opportunities to invent a set of characters and then watch them grow and develop over the course of multiple seasons. Very few other formats can offer writers the opportunities to do that.

CM: What happens to ‘Eric Argyle’ after the Soho run? Is it going on elsewhere?
RD: Yeah, it’s a fairly pertinent question at the moment. We have an offer from a theatre in New York to do the show throughout September, which would be an amazing experience for the cast and the company. But apparently bringing a large set and 8 actors and 3 crew across the Atlantic isn’t the most cost-effective enterprise so we’re currently looking at different funding opportunities, some of which will hopefully have positive outcomes and will get us enough to get us over the pond.

We’re currently lining up an Irish tour and are talking to different people around the UK about a tour here too, both of which we’re very excited about. I’m thrilled that something that started out so small still holds so much interest still.

‘The Life And Sort Of Death Of Eric Argyle’ is on until 20 Apr. Info and tickets from the Soho Theatre website, here.

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