Me and Robert McKee

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

06/11/2010 - 04/12/2010

Production Details

A new play by the author of Foreskin’s Lament opens on Saturday, November 6 
Greg McGee’s new play Me and Robert McKee sees him at the top of his game with a sharp, funny play about the four ‘M’s – money, marriage, mate-ship and mortality.
Circa theatre has scored a coup with the world premier of McGee’s new play. The sophisticated black comedy revolves around the world of film.
According to Billy, a writer, “character is destiny”. He’s facing the certain end of his marriage and the likely end of his career. Reliant on teaching scriptwriting for a living and the bottle for oblivion, his sense of self-worth is teetering on the edge. When Mac, his best friend and producer, offers him a screenplay to write, the offer is not all it seems. Will the gesture start “our hero’s journey from darkness to redemption” – and make them a million – or trigger the final act of Billy’s tragic career?
Along with gifting us an entertaining play, McGee, through Billie, lets us in on some hard-earned secrets of writing that he’s learnt during a long career. As Greg says, “writing isn’t difficult. Everyone does it. Writing something worth a damn is extraordinarily difficult. And making a decent living from writing something worth a damn is harder again.” Billie’s take on writing and writers will be of interest to every aspiring writer and creative artist.
While Greg’s writing career hit the ground running with one of this country’s most successful plays, Foreskin’s Lament, he soon moved into film and television. His television credits include Erebus: the Aftermath, Fallout, Marlin Bay, Street Legal, and Doves of War.  He has co-written films such as Crooked Earth and Via Satellite.
Like every writer, Greg has a variety of responses to his own work. However he is particularly happy with Me and Robert McKee.
‘I really like this play on the page, the way it combines humour and emotion and plays with the realities of the real and the written. And I think it’s very theatrical, without being physical theatre, but the leap from the page to the stage is the big test and, as always, it’s both exciting and terrifying. I’m very grateful to have director Conrad Newport at the helm and Chris and Paul bringing it to life.’
Me and Robert McKee is already an international award-winner – co-winner of Best Stage Play at Moondance Festival 2009 and runner-up in this year’s Adam Playwriting Awards.

It features Christopher Brougham (fresh from Parlour Song and Dead Man’s Cell  Phone) and Paul McLaughlin (Hotel, Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby, Insiders Guide to  Happiness)
Me and Robert McKee
Circa Theatre
6 November to 4 December
Tuesday to Saturday 7:30 pm
Sunday 4:30 pm
Note: Friday 5 November preview starts at 7pm because of Guy Fawkes)

$38 Adult
$30 Students, Senior Citizens and Beneficiaries
$28 Friends of Circa (until 12 August)
$32 Groups of 6+; $29 Groups of 100+
$20 Under 25s
$18 Student/Equity stand-by (one hour before the show)

Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Wellington | tel: 04 801 7992 | email: 

Producer:  Howard Taylor

Telling lies for money

Review by Michael Wray 11th Nov 2010

The Me in Me and Robert McKee is Billy Dolan. Embittered by the loss of his wife to another man, Billy is now cohabiting with his old friend Mac. It’s an odd couple scenario; the two have little in common. Billy is a writer, expressive, giving free rein to his feelings. Mac is a banker, in control and emotionally repressed.

McKee is a silent partner, a reference who is never there. Billy teaches a script-writing course, featuring McKee as a recurring topic. McKee really is a script guru, cited by Hollywood writers. The play’s author, Greg McGee, has attended McKee’s seminar. It would be interesting to know how much of McGee’s opinion of McKee is reflected by Billy.

The play alternates between Billy’s lectures and his interactions with Mac, with whom Billy has a joint venture to fund the development of a film script. Under Jennifer Lal’s light design, the auditorium lights come up for the lecture before transitioning down and into the next scene of Billy with Mac.

Billy opens each lecture with a joke…did you hear the one about the writer, actor, director and producer? Christopher Brougham appears to be having genuine fun playing the dishevelled, damaged writer. His enthusiasm is infectious.

Paul McLaughlin must play Mac within narrow confines. He does a great job of giving us a Gordon Gecko-like greed is good veneer, a dry wit that hints at an underlying angst. As we get to explore a childhood trauma, the mask slips and McLaughlin offers a great contrast between the two sides of Mac.

Brian King’s set is based on the theme of writing. Giant extracts of the script serve as curtains, a drinks shelf is an F and a desk is a K.

Director Conrad Newport successfully balances the comedy with the drama, producing an entertaining 75 minutes of theatre, particularly for anyone who’s faced the terror of the blank page.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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McGee is back with urbane new play

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 08th Nov 2010

Me and Robert McKee, Greg McGee’s long-awaited return to the theatre, is a funny, moving, elaborately structured and highly entertaining crossword-puzzle kind of a play about writing for film – and of course, theatre.

Think the Cohen Brother’s Barton Fink, Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation and Roger Hall’s excellent play State of the Play. Like them Me and Robert McKee is about writer’s block and above all the artifice of storytelling while the artifice itself is revealed for the trickery that it is, but such is our conditioning or gullibility we still willingly suspend our disbelief. 

The central character of this short, neatly directed two-hander is Billy, a Kiwi film script writer, who lectures his New Zealand audience of would-be script writers, just as Robert McKee, a Hollywood script writing guru who can boast 26 Oscar winners as former pupils, has done for many years. McKee’s book Story (all about narrative structure) is on display at Billy’s seminar until he contemptuously tosses it aside. The Aristotelian-like rules of writing for film are becoming too prescriptive, too inhibiting.  

But Billy is clearly sliding down the razor blade of life, to quote Tom Lehrer. His marriage is disintegrating, he’s drinking too much, his friend Mac, a movie producer, is after him to finish a movie script, and worst of all he’s facing the terror of the blank page as ‘the rats of uncertainty are gnawing away’ at his soul. 

The play cuts film-like between the seminar and Billy’s confrontations with Mac. What is discussed or laid down by Billy in the seminar (dialogue, structure, pace etc) are subtly and not so subtly but nearly always amusingly exemplified in the scenes between the two friends. Write about what you know is the usual advice and Billy eventually learns to do so but from a surprising source – Mac’s unhappy childhood recollections.

Robert McKee thinks the script for the movie Casablancais the greatest of all movie scripts so its sentimental theme song, As Time Goes By, occurs in an emotional farewell scene between Billy and Mac. McKee, like Chekhov, says that if a gun is to be fired then it must be seeded early on, so Billy reveals to the seminar that he is carrying one.

Endings are problematic says Billy with a knowing smile at the audience and the revolver comes into play in the final scene. ‘Happy endings are not for Art House movies’ says Billy but McGee contrives to create an amusingly ambiguous open one for this Art House play.

Paul McLaughlin’s Mac is very much the slick suit with financial know-how and his childhood memories are touchingly revealed. While Billy, all staring eyes and sudden emotional outbursts, is clearly heading for a nervous breakdown Christopher Brougham somehow manages to keep the meltdown real, funny, and poignant in a fine performance in this urbane, skillfully wrought play.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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Elusive, allusive and ephemeral

Review by John Smythe 07th Nov 2010

It’s a wonderfully elusive beast, Greg McGee’s Me and Robert McKee. The minute you attempt to describe it, you know it’s really about something else. It’s as intriguing, attractive and slippery as that brilliant idea artists are forever attempting to capture and trap in their chosen form.

In part it’s about film-making, banking and investing. “Telling lies for money,” as Billy the scriptwriter puts it, begins with acquiring cash-flow to buy the freedom to develop the story; to make something from nothing …

Freedom may well be another word for nothing left to lose, and nothing may well be good enough for ‘me and Bobby McGee’ (as Fred L Foster and Kris Kristofferson put it) although everybody is looking for something (according to the Eurythmics) and who am I to disagree?

Film-making and banking can both get very ruthless, as recent history has proved, leading outside observers – and some who thought they were on the inside – to ask who has been used and /or abused, by whom, for what and why did it have to be that way?

Derivatives – so called because they are derived from other assets – play a key role. And as we learned from the recent financial melt-down, while play-making may be about holding the mirror up to nature, trading in derivatives can see mirrors held up to mirrors to the extent that the original asset is lost sight of.

At its core, Me and Robert McKee confronts the fundamentals of drama and life: the quest for ‘truth’ amid the existential search for identity (whaddarya?). And the flipside of that is oblivion: a consummation devoutly to be wished, in different ways by both characters.

In prosaic terms, Billy the scriptwriter seeks it in drink while Mac the banker seeks it … in a way I cannot reveal here. Suffice to say it seems at first he is seeking immortality rather than oblivion. And here it must be noted that Me and Robert McKee is a derivative of McGee’s This Train I’m On, which premièred at Circa in 1999.

There, Billy is a novelist turned scriptwriter who has ‘stolen’ a traumatic episode in his lawyer-mate Mac’s childhood to write the ‘child alone’ novel which shot him to literary stardom. Here, Mac is a banker – and principal of McManaman Enterprises – who needs Billy to write a ‘film property’ that will give him, as producer, cash flow.

Billy therefore needs Mac to reveal the details of his traumatic childhood experience, not least so he can capture the voice of his protagonist. And, as with derivates, the original is lost in the deflection of reinvention (if we take it as given, in This Train I’m On, that Billy’s novel had already nailed the ‘truth’ of that essential element).

The (unseen) wives are the same: Billy’s Jenny has now “changed trains” with gynaecologist Gerald; Mac’s Mel is now destined to be ‘collateral’ in the bigger scheme of things … It’s as if the same story idea changed to a different track, which has taken Billy into the adult education classroom where, with us as his students, he takes issue with Hollywood scriptwriting guru Robert McKee.

“Character is destiny and destiny is story,” Billy quotes from McKee in the opening tutorial, before throwing the text book away. But the joke he starts with – about a writer, actor, director and producer stranded on a boat in a shark-infested bay – conjures up the image which captures the essence of the story to come (is it McKee or someone else who advocates that?)

I’d have to see it again to analyse to what degree McGee complies with McKee’s imperatives – like the positive v negative interchanges at the turning points – because the evolving story is too interesting, moment by moment, for that part of my brain to notice. And that is a plus.

Despite the play’s post-modern deconstruction of the very craft it floats within, Christopher Brougham’s Billy and Paul McLaughlin’s Mac – deftly directed by Conrad Newport – hit their emotional marks to compelling effect while tripping lightly over the playful elements, including satire about the film industry, much milking of metaphors and esoteric references to McKee’s earlier plays Tooth and Claw and This Train I’m On.

Brian King’s set of alphabetical furniture and sliced strips of play script, lit by Jennifer Lal, allow the story to progress as fluently as a film, and the challenge this presents to the actors is met with alacrity.

A couple of things switch me back to objective appraisal, like the sudden introduction of Mac’s soliloquies without a convention (like Billy’s tutorials) to support them, and wondering why Mac doesn’t question whether Billy’s passport is valid, let alone consider the name thereon (given where the play goes regarding the use of pseudonyms).

But as the metaphysical elements transcend the prosaic realities, and the moral questions come into strong focus, such concerns fade. On opening night the audience was fully tuned in, gripped by the tensions, laughing aloud at the moments of release and increasingly intrigued by the moral complexities and a growing awareness of how ephemeral our hold on reality – on what we think the reality is – can be.

In the end it is the elusive, allusive and ephemeral qualities of Me and Robert McKee that leave us excited by McGee’s metaphysical magicianship. The foyer was abuzz afterwards.

Footnote: The question of pseudonyms and why one might use them – intriguingly raised in the play – may be further explored by investigating Who the hell is Alix Bosco?


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