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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Ford's Focus: Ned Cox - The Road to Duplicity

The Duplicity Girls gang: Ned Cox (centre) flanked left to right by Johanna Nutter and Paula Costain with Tanner Harvey in back

By Barbara Ford

Who is this Ned Cox with a play in the upcoming Wildside Festival? Where does he come from and why is he here? Cox’s journey to Montreal has taken a long, not to mention, circuitous route.
He and his sister were both adopted and raised in Short Hills, New Jersey, about 30 minutes outside NYC. Cox eventually found his birth mother, who now lives in Florida and is coincidentally involved in theatre, and remains in touch with her. She met Ned’s father, a Canadian from Nova Scotia, at a cast party in Boston when they were working as actors in different plays. Sparks flew and little Ned was conceived but it didn’t work out between them, so Ned was given up for adoption and the two went their separate ways. Henry Beckman continued to pursue his acting career by going out LA and for a while during the 60’s and 70’s, got a lot of TV work with a recurring role on Peyton Place and appearances on shows like The Munsters, McHale’s Navy, The Monkees and even had a line in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In 1984 he passed through Montreal in A Majority of Two at Centaur. When Cox met Maurice Podbrey, he managed to glean a tiny bit more about the estranged relative he never met. “Maurice didn’t remember much but he did say that my dad was very professional.”

Cox can’t remember a time when he wasn’t writing: he won a prize in kindergarten for writing a poem about a class excursion; he wrote little vignettes for his sister (his first play was for her at the age of eight) and when given a boring assignment at school, he’d usually hand in a short skit instead. Though he was scolded for not completing the assigned task, he won the approval of his teachers, as many were entertained by his creative efforts. He confesses, “I didn’t think I was particularly great at writing, I just needed to do it; it was a compulsion … to entertain others and myself.”

In high school he was tagged to do theatre but the payoff was hefty. He went to an all-boys school and in order to put on plays, they collaborated with the nearby all-girls school – BINGO! He acted in several, the stage adaptation of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood and Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano to name a couple, and also directed (Waiting for Godot). He loved radio theatre and wrote many sketches for that medium as well. Cox mockingly laments an epic poem he wrote that was hundreds of pages long, which he forgot on top of someone’s trunk on ‘leaving day’. Whoever’s in possession of that should hold onto it; it could be worth big bucks one day.

His major at the University of Rochester was film making so when he graduated, he thought he’d whip out to LA, quickly make a name for himself as a writer and eventually become a renowned film director. “I was so naïve at the time; it’s ridiculous.” He ended up flipping burgers and doing telemarketing, working for chunks of time to store up his funds and then quitting to do a whack of writing. He did get a few gigs writing on spec but he admits, “there was no way.”

He had visited London before going out west and while there heard about the tragic 9-day Queen, Lady Jane Grey, and had started to write a play about her, in iambic pentameter no less, that he now wanted to resume. He high-tailed it back to New Jersey, worked in a book store for a year saving up a couple of thousand pounds, then headed back to the UK. Once there, however, he soon realized that the play was rubbish and quickly dropped it.
He was living in a sort of hostel, a charitable trust, where post grads from all over the Commonwealth stayed and which became the subject of one of the plays he wrote during this time. Cox recently discovered the script in a stack of papers and after re-reading it officially declared it unsuitable for human consumption.

Another play that the hostel helped to birth was inspired by a passing remark from a fellow roomer who said that the conversation he and Cox were having reminded him of The Great Papal Schism of the 1400’s. This was a mystery to Cox so off he went, intrepid library researcher that he was, to get to the bottom of this intriguing subject that resulted in a play called Pontifications.

However, it was an historical plaque he had passed a dozen times on his usual route through the back alleys of Holborn that put Cox’s work on the map. The commemorative was dedicated to Thomas Chatterton, a poet who had taken his own life at the age of seventeen in one of the upper garrets. Piqued by the tragic tale, Cox beat a hasty retreat to the library once again to learn more about the young artist and discovered ample inspiration for a play.

He had only written four pages when the girl he was dating at the time suggested he take it to the Edinburgh Festival. He immediately started holding auditions for a suitable actor for the one-man show and found Jonathan Moore, who was more than a little surprised that Cox was shopping around for an actor with only four pages of dialogue. Cox recalls, “he was a real ball of fire with a photographic memory.” Together they finished I Die for None of Them in 1985, with Moore memorizing numerous pages overnight and returning the next day to act them out so Cox could hear them to make the necessary re-writes. The play won the Fringe First Award that year and went on to win the Time Out Award for a revival in 1992. An interesting piece of unproven trivia (which the box office personnel swore up and down was true) is that Paul McCartney and Donovan dropped by to catch the play one evening though sadly, Cox didn’t find out until they had already left the building.

By now Cox was living with his girlfriend in Islington but her mother in Australia had become quite ill so the two left for Brisbane, where they married and lived for three years. Cox continued to write there, though it took a while to shake the English sensibility, and a few of his short plays for kids toured the country. His Chatterton play was re-mounted there as well, though he never saw it. He had found a literary agent (John Timlin) who was a go-getter and had not only imported his Fringe winner but put him in contact with a few of the more talented writers and actors in Sydney and Melbourne, respectively 15 and 30-hour drives from Brisbane. To make ends meet between writing jobs he hit the mother lode delivering singing telegrams, making huge tips on top of a decent hourly wage with the one down side of having to change costumes in the back seat of his car. Cox recalls one night in particular when he was changing into a Miss Piggy costume as five drunken louts were rounding the corner. He thought he was going to die that night but escaped unnoticed and unharmed.

By 1985 Cox was back in England and soon after divorced from his wife. His previous affiliation with the Australian agent opened doors for him once back in the UK, and he landed a London agent and some lucrative work writing pilot projects for TV, radio and film. He became involved with the Soho Theatre Company, first through their writers group, and was soon shoulder to shoulder with the London theatre crowd. During this period about a dozen of his plays were produced while a temp agency provided a steady stream of secretarial jobs, many for the BBC, to get him through the leaner times.

Cox first met Johanne, his second wife, in 1978 in London. She was the best friend of the woman who married his best friend and whenever she was in town, they would all hang out together. He reconnected with her in ’98, moved to Montreal with her in 2000 and by 2002 they had a son, Jeremy, the production Cox is most proud of.

In 2004, he had a play in the Montreal Fringe Festival called Mimi on the Beach, starring Paula Costain. Working with her would have far-reaching consequences but not before Cox wrote two more plays that made it to Montreal stages.

Hellavator, the story of an endlessly bickering couple stuck in an elevator with a strangely suspect repairman, debuted Halloween weekend in 2008 and was staged in a freight elevator of the Warshaw Building on boul. St-Laurent. By now, Cox had become a member of Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal (PWM) and was in a writing unit with 7 other artists, one of whom was Alexandria Haber, who read the female role whenever the group workshopped his play and killed Cox every time. She urged him to get it produced and promised to show it to her actor/director husband, Alain Goulem. Cox had seen and admired Goulem’s work but hadn’t known the two were married. Goulem loved the play and agreed to direct, bringing with him Neil Napier and Michel Perron for the remaining two actors.

Cox teamed up with Haber to co-write the dark family comedy, Four Minutes If You Bleed, about four sisters and their love interests for the Just for Laughs Zoofest in 2009. “I love writing with Alex. We have the same sense of humour. If I get stuck and can’t come up with anything, she’s got my back.” The two are writing a sequel which Cox maintains stands on its own; no need for a summary of the first instalment. A Very Special Four Minutes If You Bleed Christmas received a timely reading in December as part of a food drive for the NDG Food Bank.

In the spring of 2010 Cox’s Mission Drive played at Mainline Theatre, starring triple threat (actor/writer/director) Paul Van Dyck as the perpetually optimistic minister in a tiny parish who takes in a single mom and her baby girl. She coincidentally grows up to become a TV messiah, forced in Act Two to face the consequences of Van Dyck’s reckless bargain with evil in Act One.

About six months before Mission Drive, re-enter Paula Costain, who for years had been mistaken for fellow Montreal actor Johanna Nutter and vice versa. The two constantly met at the same auditions and were routinely congratulated for TV commercials that the other had starred in. Inevitably they ended up taking a workshop together and the true doppelganger nature of their relationship was unleashed. They thought it would be a hoot to find a two-hander about sisters and unbeknownst to Nutter, Costain asked Cox if he knew of anything that would fit the bill.

Cox chose instead to go home and write a new play for them … overnight. The next morning he called Costain to say he had a vehicle for them and Nutter was so honoured that someone had written a play for her, she agreed to do it sight unseen, something she never does. Nutter met Tanner Harvey through Jeremy Taylor, who had directed her award-winning My Pregnant Brother. She gave Harvey the script and after sending Cox an impressive outline of his creative ideas for the intense comedic drama, Harvey was hired as director. “I couldn’t have dreamed up a better team,” admits Cox.

Duplicity Girls is the story of twins, Perdita and Isobel, inextricably joined, locked into dysfunctional daily rituals in a constant play for power. It premiered at Nutter’s newly formed co-op, the Freestanding Space, in the fall of 2009. It steadily gained attention until the last few performances reached critical mass and were completely sold out. Cox then called in some favours and found a way to take the production to London where it was also well received and where he got the opportunity to introduce “his” London to the DG team, which included several animated pub crawls and walking tours. “This is where Peter Sellers walked his dog … and this is where the highwaymen made regular pit stops.”
Now the play, which continues to evolve for both director and actors as Cox watches patiently from the sidelines, returns to Montreal as part of Centaur’s Wildside Festival (January 4 to 16). Refining their capacity to connect with the audience in the previous smaller spaces has prepared Costain and Nutter for the larger Centaur space. “We can use lighting to recreate the intimacy we had in the smaller venues,” states Harvey who used to be the Centaur’s House Technician and is now the Interim Technical Director … lucky break for a team with no lighting designer.

Cox has several plays on the horizon. Two are noir ideas in the manner of Raymond Chandler, a third, either titled My Shit’s Fucked Up or Mercenary Moon (I favour the former ‘cause who can’t relate to that?) and another, Book Club, scheduled to play at Freestanding in the spring with Paula Costain, Alex Haber, Paula Jean Hixson and Johanna Nutter, directed by Ellen David.

London still holds the number one slot in Cox’s heart but Montreal is slowly but surely easing itself into the coveted position. “The theatre community is tighter here than in London and once you’re in it, it’s great. I feel like I’ve arrived.” Finally!

For information about Centaur’s Wildside Festival, call (514) 288-3161

1 comment:

  1. Ned Cox sent me an e-mail saying that his Fringe play "I Die for None of Them" actually premiered in Edinburgh in 1980, not '85. Sorry about that Ned.


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