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Regional Reviews by Gavin Logan

Interview with Gavin Crawford
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Gavin Crawford
Gavin Crawford
Gavin Crawford, featured actor in Theatre Calgary's upcoming production of William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, is a well-known fixture on Canadian television. Crawford is a Gemini award winner, had his own variety show on the Comedy Network, and has appeared for seven seasons on the CBC network's award-winning satirical sketch show "This Hour Has 22 Minutes"—he is also a contributing writer for the show. ("This Hour Has 22 Minutes" has been running for sixteen years and is a satirical news show with interviews, vignettes, and wacky correspondents, much like "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" or "The Colbert Report.")

Crawford's musical theatre roles are few (You're A Good Man Charlie Brown while an undergrad student at the University of British Columbia), but he is well-known to Canadian musical theatre aficionados as the much-praised host of the Canadian version of "How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?," Andrew Lloyd-Webber's reality show juggernaut, which helped to cast the Canadian production of The Sound of Music.

Born in Lethbridge, Alberta, Crawford's return to Alberta is an exciting homecoming for the actor/comedian, who appears in his first on-stage musical theatre production since university. This may be his first live performance in many years, but visiting the pre-adolescent world of distracted, conflicted and yearning-for-acceptance Leaf Coneybear is not a big stretch for Crawford, whose many characters on "22 Minutes" include Mark Jackson, the pimpled, disarming (in Crawford's words) and completely clueless teenaged correspondent who commonly finds himself interviewing such esteemed dignitaries as Stephen Harper (Prime Minister of Canada), Stephane Dion (former leader of the Federal Liberal Party of Canada), and Hollywood icons such as Alec Baldwin.

I had a chance to meet Crawford last week to discuss his work on television, musical theatre, and even Crayola Crayons. Here's what Crawford had to say ... enjoy!

Gavin Logan:  When working on your variety show or "22 Minutes", do you write your own skits or is it much more of a team approach to the writing?

Gavin Crawford:  There are about seven writers, as well as myself and Mark Critch (of the cast) ... It is a more collaborative approach. It's kind of a mishmash of everything. I'll often write scripts on my own or collaborate with somebody ... It's nice because if there is something I want to say or something I particularly want to make fun of, I can do that.

GL:  As a performer, do you find it more difficult to connect with and understand a character for whom you have not written the dialogue (for example, Leaf Coneybear)?

GC:  It depends on the kind of thing ... you kind find your own way into the world of the character ... it can be hard sometimes to try to figure what it is that they [the authors] are wanting, but it's not really that hard ... (laughs) ... it's what I do ...

GL:  Can you briefly explain how you came to be involved with "How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?" And what are your favourite memories from that show?

GC:  That was hilarious! I had seen the British production and I knew that they were going to do a version here and so I literally just called up CBC and said, "like ... I want to host that show." And they said "well, we're not really sure what direction we're going" and I said "well ... just let me host that show." The British show was really hilarious and fun, and I thought it would be a really fun thing to do. For me, a little musical theatre geek kid from small-town Lethbridge, Alberta, and then the next thing I know I am in London at the Palladium theatre, like, sitting in the bar with Andrew Lloyd Webber, chit-chatting about "Who's the best Maria" You know, that kind of blows my mind, still.

GL:  I think it was an Evita poster you asked him to sign on one episode?

GC:  Yeah, and that's like, my real Evita poster that was hanging in my room. And then he signed it "Tim Rice." (laughs)

GL:  Was it daunting to work with, or at least in proximity to, Andrew Lloyd-Webber?

GC:  Not really ... I mean, I'm not gunning to be a star on Broadway in a musical, so I didn't have that "Oh no, I have to sing for him, to impress him!" kind of thing ... I mean our worlds are so different ... I do comedy, he does ... that. I mean, it was a bit intimidating at first because you look at him and think "Oh wow, you're a crazy genius!" But he's so kind of ... odd and funny, and we just sort of got along right away.

GL:  If asked, would you host another reality show in a similar vein or would you prefer to stick to acting/ writing?

GC:  In a second! If they ever do it again, then I would, yes. It got great ratings ... Elicia (MacKenzie, the eventual winner of the contest) was fantastic ... it was a crazy experience but it was very, very fun.

GL:  Moving on to the reason you're in Calgary ... can you tell me how your involvement with Theatre Calgary's production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee began?

GC:  They called me ... Dennis Garnhum, the Artistic Director or Theatre Calgary, went to school with me at UBC. He was getting his master's degree, I was getting my undergrad, and he actually directed me in a production of You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown way back in the day, and so he kept emailing me and saying "You should come out and do something for Theatre Calgary." I told him to let me know if there was anything they were doing that he thought I'd be right for ... so he emailed me and said "We're doing Spelling Bee ... do you want to come play Coneybear?" I was like "hmmm ... okay!" And I have family here, so I thought it would be nice for them to come out and see me in a show.

GL:  Do you find it difficult to switch from working on television to the very different discipline of the stage? What specific differences do find the most challenging between the two mediums?

GC:  It is completely different. I mean, live theatre is so much more fun in a weird way because you're there, with the audience. In TV, sometimes we tape with a live audience for some of the stuff, but most of it you're just there, with sets of cameras and equipment. But it's funny, too, because it seems we have an inordinately long rehearsal process for this, because I'm so used to doing things like getting the script the night before and then shooting it the next day. And it's good for me, because I have to learn how to dance ... it takes three weeks. We have Lisa Stevens, who is just a kick-ass choreographer. The dancing is ... well, it's not just specialized moving, it's real dancing (laughs). Luckily, I'm playing Coneybear, so if I'm a beat behind everybody else, it makes sense.

GL:  Can you briefly describe your character—who is Leaf Coneybear? What are his motivations for being in the bee—what's your interpretation of that character?

GC:  Well, his motivation, to me, is that he just likes doing stuff. He likes to spell, but he has his own special little world that he lives in. I think it's just exciting for him to not be at home, getting home schooled, to be at a real school with other kids, not his brothers and sisters. It's a whole new world that's opened up to him. For me it's fun because I just get to have that kind of "brand-new enjoyment" of everything every single time we do the show, like "Wow ... what is this? What is this? What is that?" It's very fun, and he doesn't have the greatest attention span in the world. His family picks on him a little bit; he's not the sharpest knife in the drawer and they let him know that, so he wants to go in and prove to himself and his family that he's not the "dumb kid" of the family.

GL:  What is the most challenging thing about portraying Leaf Coneybear?

GC:  It's to pay attention but act as if I am notpaying attention. It's very strange ... it's hard not to actually phase out when you're deep in thought about whatever Leaf Coneybear might think about. But really, it's not that difficult. It's fun, really. It's ... it's all things that, as an adult, you're not supposed to do, as Leaf you get to do, so it makes it really fun. I guess the hardest thing is that I have to fall down a lot ... and dancing in a football helmet is not an easy thing to do!

GL:  If you could be any character, in any musical, in any time period ... who would you be and why?

GC:  I'd like to be Sweeney Todd, but I'm just waiting until I get old enough. I really like that musical a lot.

GL:  It's my number two favourite!

GC:  What's your number one?

GL:  Evita.

GC:  Actually ... (mischievous grin) ... If I could be anyone, then I'd like to be Evita. I'd be Eva Peron.

GL:  Well, you'd get to sing "Buenos Aires," I mean come on!

GC:  Exactly.

GL:  If Crayola were to name a crayon after you, what colour would it be?

GC:  It would be Cayenne Pepper.

GL:  Which politician or celebrity do you have the fondest memories of "harassing" in character on "22 Minutes"?

GC:  Randomly, this year I got to speak to Alec Baldwin ...it was totally random. They said he wasn't there, then he just happened to show up. Then all of the ET Canada people went down and I was just lingering there and he skied down and he was really fun ... he was really funny. And apparently he was in a good mood, too!


Theatre Calgary's production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs in Calgary, Alberta through May 9th. For more information visit theatrecalgary.com.


Photo: Courtesy of Gary Goddard Agency

--Gavin Logan



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