Interview: G-Men Defectives

You’ve probably seen Ray Besharah and Sterling Lynch walking through the fringe, dressed in black suits and ties, warning people about the dangers of Communism. “Often, people think we’re Mormons,” says Ray, “until they see the little guns with the plastic tips. Then they think we’re either very dangerous Mormons, or we’re with the fringe.” Then they hand you a flyer, inviting you to attend their training session: their show, G-Men Defectives, plays at the newly-christened Janigan studio at the Ottawa Little Theatre.

Ray relates how the show came together. “It started in 2006, with Matt Domville and I. He’s an Ottawa U student, heavily into theatre. We got together; we wanted to make some kind of play that let us do the jokes that we’ve always wanted to do onstage. So we kind of built the play around that. And it had tonnes of versions and edits, and it ended up becoming this training seminar. Domville and I did it here [in the 2006 Ottawa Fringe], and then we took it to New York for an off-Broadway festival, and then Domville wasn’t into touring any more, but he gave me permission to go ahead and take somebody else on board and taking it across country if I wanted to.”

Enter Sterling Lynch, who is one of the busiest guys in fringe theatre this year: Sterling is acting in another Janigan studio show, Deliver’d From Nowhere, and also wrote The Prisoner’s Dilemma, showing at Studio Leonard Beaulne. If that wasn’t enough, he’s editing The Jessie, “Ottawa’s newest and most scandalous arts newsletter,” and gave a presentation at the Friday edition of the Fringe Lunchtime Artist’s series.

“I had met Sterling before,” says Ray, “from doing one of his plays – The Root of All Squares, a long time ago – we met here and there along the road, and then we did the Ottawa Theatre Challenge last year together. I found immediately that I worked really well with him. And then I could see him in this role. So I asked him and he was on board.”

Sterling directed Satanic Panic at last year’s fringe, in which Ray acted. Adding Dave Dawson in the role of the Stage Manager, a new team for G-Men Defectives was born. “He directed it and added a lot to it, and then we had people like Jonno Katz and Jayson McDonald along the road who have seen it and appreciated it, gave us suggestions. Really, after four years of touring, we’ve had a lot of people chime in and add their polish to it. But the same essence that was there in the beginning is still there.”

The show has toured the show over the years to different fringes: Ottawa (twice), New York, Saskatoon and Edmonton. They’ll be off to Winnipeg after this. “Just Ottawa and Winnipeg this year,” says Ray, “because I just got a full-time job: touring’s really hard. I actually got the time off as a signing bonus, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”

I ask Sterling how it’s felt to come into a show that was crafted by someone else – how it felt to fill those boots. “It’s clearly a script by two guys who knew each other, liked each other, knew the insides of each other’s head,” he says. At first, the direction was a little awkward. “In the beginning, [the original version of the show] was all I had for a frame of reference,” relates Ray, “all I could inform Sterling with was, that joke you just did, Domville did it this way, and it got a laugh. So whether you want to do it that way – or if you can find a new way of doing it… but I had to start from there, because I had no way to tell Sterling what I’d seen before, how I’d seen it work.”

Sterling added a new set of eyes and allowed the show to grow in new directions. “We got this whole different perspective that adds to the jokes and stuff,” says Ray. “Sterling’s the type of guy who’s not going to come in and destroy everything, he’s only interesting in building it to be the best it can be. So some things that bugged us from the beginning, Sterling was able to flag those so we could get into it deeper.”

The show takes the form of training seminar, where Sterling and Ray’s characters Garfield and Marmaduke educate the audience on the perils of Communism and how to identify Commies. “We’ve built it in such a way that there are chances for us to improv throughout the play,” says Ray. “That was part of the whole thing at the beginning, that we’re going to make this a fun play to do. If I want to bring out a character and make fun of him for saying something wrong, make fun of each other, have fun with it, that’s what makes it such a safe play for us to do because we’ve gotten to a point that we’re so comfortable with each other onstage in these characters, that anything can happen, anything at all, and it will be fun.”

“Like the board breaking in Edmonton,” recalls Sterling, “and all the lights going out. Mid-show, the whole thing just came to a grinding halt. 170 people out there, sold-out show, roll with the punches.”

I ask why Ray decided to bring this show back to Ottawa, instead of trying something new. “I was amazed at how many people we packed into this place (Studio Leonard Beaulne) on a nightly basis, and then there will still tonnes of people who never got to see it, but because they’ve been seeing the success of it everywhere, people were asking us to bring it back, who wanted it. I don’t think normally I would have brought a show back a second time, I think people like Keir Cutler can do that, and sell, because he’s got really great writing, does a great show. But for my show, I never would have thought that’s possible, but because the public is basically asking for it… so they’ve got it coming.”

Sterling echoes the sentiment. “This is a homegrown show that has gone away and evolved, and has become a tremendous success, nationally and internationally. And now we’re coming back to say thanks, you guys got us off the ground with your support. Various people helped make it better. People who have seen it before are not going to see the exact same show, it’s going to be different, so if you enjoyed it, you will enjoy it again, there will be enough new stuff that you’ll appreciate seeing the new version. It’s not so different you’ll be saying, oh, that’s not the G-men I remember, what’s with all this poetry…?”

“At the end of the day,” says Ray, “I’m insanely proud of this version, where we’ve taken it to. Having Sterling on this project, we’ve been able to take it those couple of steps further that we wouldn’t have been able to with just the same set of eyes. Having all sorts of different perspectives on it, has helped to build it to something. At first I was totally proud of it, and I loved it, I was more than willing to get up and do it. And now I feel even more secure that it’s accessible to a broader audience.”

G-Men Defectives plays at the Janigan Studio of the Ottawa Little Theatre, with just three performances left: Saturday June 26th at 2:00pm and 7:00pm, and Sunday June 27th at 4:00pm.

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