The King Stinks:
grotesque humour and horror
An interview with playwright Jon Lachlan Stewart and director Olivier Morin
By Irwin Rapoport
February 23, 2023
The King Stinks, a production of Surreal soReal Theatre in partnership with Casteliers, is being brought to the stage of the Rialto Theatre from March 1 to 5 by Infinithéâtre as part of its 2022/23 season.
States the press release: “The King Stinks is the need to tell the story of a “good king”… a king or president in which the world could put all their hope… a king who, despite their good intentions, would be slowly rotted away by the system he decided to lead. The King Stinks aims to make us laugh and be horrified at the same time. In a world where politics is a circus show and comical memes are mixed in with horrifying new stories, The King Stinks uses grotesque humour and horror to talk about the world.”
Our work is driven by the fundamental belief that theatre that speaks to and about the lives, the hopes, and the tragedies of its home community has the best possibility of creating an electric connection between stage and audience that is the essence of great theatre.
– Zach Fraser, artistic director, Infinithéâtre
In this Q&A, playwright Jon Lachlan Stewart, who also performs, and director Olivier Morin speak about the play and why puppets are used for the performances.
WM: What was the trigger that inspired you to create this play?
Stewart: You know what, now that I’m thinking about it, the impetus for the play was Trump. I thought it was just really crazy that my friends were going on all like, “Trump should die, he’s horrible…” I kept thinking how all my circles hated Bush, and Trump seemed like Bush on crack after eating seven slurpees.
So the question I had was why people blame the faults of a system on the person in leadership. There are so many other factors at play, the land we live on, the people in their administration… And I just started imagining this really good president taking over after a “horrible” Trump-like president… like a Kennedy-type of present… and the people just having so much hope, but that the system or the very land itself would be too rotten to stay together, that this system would infect this president, literally, and that all the people in this country and his administration would be pretending that the stink wasn’t there. Because, well, we all want to believe the system works.
WM: What is the dynamic of the playwright/performer in collaboration with the director?
Stewart: For me, the dynamic was really that, at a certain point, I gave the script to Olivier and let him fly with it. I’m a really implicated writer, especially when I’m performing because I’m a director as well and I have a very clear picture of how I want a concept to be executed. So sometimes, it was really hard for me to just relax and trust that Olivier has his own imaginative world that is just different than mine and that if the story and characters are clear, it’ll stand up to other interpretations.
WM: You’ve worked together with Clara Prévost on multiple projects. How does that affect the creative process of a new show?
Stewart: Clara and I have strong chemistry together in creation, discussions and in performance. I can feel her impulses and the way she wants to move when we’re playing different parts of the show… we’ve really developed a strong rapport and a language of creation together.
So, I think it really makes me feel like I have family with me onstage, someone cut from the same cloth, someone who really gets what the material is and I also really get her and respect her, and I feel really pushed by her. When you find those matches, it’s important to keep hanging out with them and also keep a lookout for when you’re vibing with another person in a similar way.
WM: There seems to be a variety of puppet styles within this show. Why is that? What inspires the design approach to each puppet?
Stewart: It really depends on the puppet show, I think. On The King Stinks, I already had an idea in my head that the physical transformation of a president could be well told through objects or puppetry… but the exploration really went in a different direction.
I think, sometimes, on puppet pieces, different styles of puppets (hand puppet, a puppet with a mouth, sock puppet, objects that are being animated, shadow puppet, whatever) come out depending on what the scene requires and how complex the character is.
Our classic Muppet puppets are characters that talk and have longer stage time. Our hand puppets are minor one-off characters, and the fact that they’re Muppets kind of gives a comical effect. The president’s son, Jakey, is literally a little muscly Thor doll with a puppet head built on it to make him physically smaller than the others, but also gets this idea that he thinks of himself as and actually does become a hero.
“Why puppets?” is a big question but my quick answer is puppets can be very affecting in the sense that if you do a Shakespeare death using a puppet, you can actually kill the puppet. And with The King Stinks, I think I learned that puppets are very good vectors for political/social satire. Think of South Park… imagine if South Park was done as a live-action show or if the animation was less ragged, more smooth; this janky, puppet-like style somehow works. It’s like the animators are pointing a finger at society, saying “this is us… all the good, all the bad, right-wing, left-wing… that’s all of us.”
The King Stinks is a Muppet parade of different facets of everything that is kind of exploding right now.
WM: Will you be performing the play in French? Are there differences in how anglophone or francophone audiences receive the material? Does the place of humour shift depending on the performance language?
Stewart: We have our first French performance one night before our run in English with Infinitheatre!
I can definitely say that humour is very different. The English rhythm is direct. It makes for a really “machine gun” comic timing. French is different – you have to carry the whole idea a bit longer, right until the end. But I think what’s cool is that in English or French, the play is not set in a real country, although we’re definitely referencing an American kind of feel… so, anyway, I think this could look like Québécois politicians or French politicians, or English Canadian or Russian politicians…
Here’s a specific example of some French versus English thoughts we’ve had. In the English production, Victor Dowager (the president) has what is clearly a southern American accent. The reference is clear. In the French production, Victor has a more generalized sort of soft tone inspired by Trudeau. In the English production, the first lady, Juniper Dowager, has a sort of general uptight tone. In French, Clara was able to give her a very precise English-speaker-speaking-French accent… which I have to say is f***ing hilarious. So… I dunno. We’re a bilingual team of actors with different voices and skill sets, it’s gonna land differently.
I think from my experience touring a lot with another piece in a lot of different English and French countries and places, that there’s definitely a big difference between French and English audiences, but I don’t know if I can generalize about that for this piece because we have yet to do it in French.
WM: How would you describe the writing process of The King Stinks, and why go with puppets? What messages do you want the audiences who see the play to leave with?
Stewart: I guess while writing The King Stinks, I was really following the news, following what horrified me, and imagining a character that believed they had what it took to somehow cure the world of those things. I found that just hilarious, so I often was writing what would make me sort of laugh-cry. I really wanted my two main threads, Dion and Claus, to come from a real place despite the absurdity of the play, so I focused a lot on Dion’s journey being about going from feeling like a government pawn in a war (he’s an ex-soldier) to believing he can be this security guard for this great president. Dion is all about believing he can help create a nonviolent world. Claus is mysterious. She really believes in democracy. She wants this thing to work at all costs. She’s dedicated her life to this abstract idea, an idea that’s maybe kind of slowly falling apart. I loved working on her as a character because she has so much passion and has a kind of code, like a samurai.
Why puppets? I sort of said it before – puppets are mouthpieces for absurd political discourse. They can help us take on large issues with a bit of lightness without belittling the subject. I feel this actually helps us get more into the subjects. This play would have totally been done without puppets, having two actors shapeshift and physically interpret all the 20 some characters… but I dunno, I love puppetry, and there’s something more physical and visceral about having the objects. A lot of this is about seeing a president become physically transformed, like a solid turning into a liquid, turning into gas, so it felt right to go with puppets.
For me, The King Stinks is about people who are driving and driving and driving in their work, how we drive to keep a system afloat at all costs, and how maybe that system one day might stop working. How the ground, the very land on which these systems have been built is kind of, maybe, rotten. And is it possible to reconcile that now? Do we have to just… keep believing? Is there any kind of alternate system we can use? How do we get a whole society to adopt a different system?
WM: You are one of the actors in the play. What is it like to be acting in one of your plays? How does being an actor affect your writing?
Stewart: Acting in my own play is awesome. I feel really connected to my own words, and I really feel like I’m adaptable, and I love it when my team adapts on the fly too. I love having my own body there on the stage, delivering the words and sharing the story. I really think that’s where theatre happens – physically there, in front of us.
Acting in my own pieces affects my own writing because after the play is already in its “final draft,” it continues to change a lot from rehearsing and improvising when we’re with a live audience. I really believe in this, and it comes from my experience doing a lot of solo work. At some point, we find the best version in live performance, and then we make the changes to the script.
WM: What drew you to writing plays? How would you describe your writing style, choice of themes, and view of the role of the theatre?
Stewart: I started writing plays because I was a rebellious little shithead kid with a problematic relationship with my father, and I had major questions about authority and about what it is to be in a city, and what it means that the world and its cities are getting bigger and bigger.
I started writing plays to find a platform to yell at things and make fun of things and laugh seriously at things. I had a really problematic relationship with my family and specifically my father – he basically didn’t talk to me from age 12 to 24, and this is really influential to me. I spent a lot of my life feeling like my brain, and my way of thinking was pretty different (I had some problems as a teen and had a bunch of therapy and medication imposed on me). I also hung around a lot of kids who also felt this way and spent a lot of my time with punks, gay friends, reject anime lovers, skateboarders, and suicides. I saw a lot of death, I think, when I was young.
So I really love writing about people who feel like they have a part missing in them or people who feel like they can’t really “stay in line” with the way you’re supposed to be in society. I’m Scottish in my heritage, so I think I have a connection to some darkly comic British, Scottish, and Irish writers like Beckett, Bond, Mcdonagh and Conor Mcpherson, as well as queer writers from the 90s like Daniel Macivor, Mark Ravenhill, and Sarah Kane.
I’m almost always writing about disturbed people who feel like they have a piece bitten off of them, taking down their fathers or their mentors, and working at all costs to finally fit in or come to terms with not fitting in.
WM: Do you have any favourite plays and playwrights?
Stewart: Shakespeare is a big one for me: Macbeth, King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, Richard II, The Tempest, and Romeo and Juliet are amongst my faves of his.
Samuel Beckett, I love very very much. My fave play of his is NOT I, but I also enjoy Act without words I and II, Krapp’s last tape, Rocakby and Footfalls… and just his ideas and other peoples’ ideas about him.
I also really love Sarah Kane. Cleansed is maybe in my top three plays of all time.
Other playwrights I love are Mark Ravenhill, David Greig, Edward Bond, Pinter (only a few of his…), Annie Baker, Henrik Ibsen, Sam Shepard, and Roland Schimmelpfennig. For Canadians, Erin Shields, Cliff Cardinal, Joseph Schragg (a local!), David Paquet and Rebecca Deraspe, Connor McPherson, and Daniel Macivor (only for his earlier works).
WM: Can you tell us about previous plays that you have written?
Stewart: Sure! I started writing really through wanting to perform pieces myself. There were a lot of solo concepts:
Little Room, which I made when I was 18, is about punk rock, death, the city, and a kid who could see his future.
Big Shot is a play about a violent incident on the Skytrain in Vancouver seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy who’s trying to find his filmmaker father.
Lavinia is another solo about Lavinia (from Titus Andronicus) and Proteus (from 2 gents of Verona), with Lavinia confronting Proteus about his very questionable advances on a woman named Julia.
Grumplestock’s, which was co-written, and a parable about four puppets (played by humans!) becoming sentient.
The Survival of Pigeons as studied by human lovers about a couple moving in, realizing the pigeons on their balcony are more suited for a relationship than they are
The Genius Code was a love triangle where each audience member wore headphones and heard a different side of the story, depending on where they sat, as they would have private “asides” delivered to them exclusively by one character.
In short, my ideas for plays come from mechanics or concepts I want to see in action. They are sort of a play written where I’m already directing the play.
WM: What led you to become a director, and how have you grown as a director?
Morin: I had been acting in the theatre for seven years before I started directing other actors 12 years ago. I worked with many great directors over the years, secretly dreaming about directing myself, studying how they approach a play, a scene, different types of actors, and conflicts, and always curious about everybody else’s craft. And, of course, I learned a lot more while directing plays and facing problems! I created my own company, Le Théâtre du Futur, together with Guillaume Tremblay and musician Navet Confit so we could do shows the way we want to.
WM: How did you prepare to direct this play, and how would you describe the difference between directing actors on stage and actors as puppeteers?
Morin: Jon Lachlan Stewart had written a first draft of The King Stinks and asked me if I’d be willing to have a look at it. The play was already very funny, and I was thrilled by the challenge of telling it through puppets and only two actors. I had never worked with puppets before. And the stink… How do you show an odour? Fortunately, Jon organized a few workshops over time to try and figure out different directions, finish the play… I quickly realized the actors themselves had to become some kind of puppets themselves. As the story progresses and the stink gets stronger, there are more and more puppets, it’s like an infection!
WM: What are some of the plays that you have directed?
Morin: I directed most of the plays by the Théâtre du Futur: Le Clone est triste (2019/22), La Grosse noirceur (2022), Les Secrets de la Vérité (2018), Épopée Nord (2015), L’assassinat du Président (2012), and Clotaire Rapaille l’Opéra Rock (2011).
I also directed Peer Gynt by Ibsen (Théâtre de l’Opsis, 2017), Queue Cerise by Amélie Dallaire (2016), La Mort de Kubrick by David-Alexandre Després (2012), as well as different musical shows with the OSM, La Fille à Raymond, Les Hôtesses d’Hilaire, and Peter Peter.
WM: How do you win the trust of actors and get the best from them via performances?
Morin: I do my best to make them feel safe, comfortable, and confident during rehearsal so they feel safe to try weird and goofy things, and I encourage creativity, inventiveness, and boldness. I try to keep a warm balance between positive reinforcement, thoroughness, and a will for constant progress. I try to be the kind of director I would like to work with!
WM: What are some of the performances and directors that have influenced you as a director?
Morin: As an actor, I performed in many plays directed by Serge Denoncourt after I got out of school. He’s a very generous director and teacher, I learned a lot watching him work. I also like to watch my fellow actors work, young and old, and I also get inspiration from movies, paintings and music.
Images: Caroline Hayeur
Irwin Rapoport is a freelance journalist with Bachelor degrees in History and Political Science from Concordia University.