William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg represent the Beat Generation in American Literature. Full of drug-induced episodes, a rejection of authority, and spontaneity, their works have influenced and inspired artists of all genres.
“They’re like the Three Musketeers,” said Jayson McDonald, “flinging themselves headlong into calamity.” McDonald embodies William S. Burroughs in his one-man show, Underbelly. Kerouac and Ginsberg also have cameos, but Burroughs is the star.
In order to emulate his style, McDonald dove into the mind and literature of Burroughs. “It’s a lot of me trying to inhabit Burroughs’ headspace,” he said, “it’s not an enormously pleasant place to be. If I inhabited that world completely I would be putting my health at risk.”
McDonald also explained that it’s hard to know who Burroughs really was because everything about him is half myth, and he would invent stories about himself.
To get into character, there are a few essential things McDonald does: “I age myself a bit, put on a rumpled brown suit, and pop a couple of imaginary bennies [Benzadrine]. I also wear strong prescription glasses — the world looks a bit trippy.” That trippy perspective on the world is just what McDonald needs to feel the drug-induced blur of the Beats.
McDonald also likes to get very involved in the text; he spent a lot of time reading and listening to Burroughs’ work, which includes prose, poems, novels, and audio recordings. “You kind of lose yourself a bit in his work — it’s kind of a trip. Listening to him read it is even more of a trip,” said McDonald.
“They’re like the Three Musketeers, flinging themselves headlong into calamity.”
Jayson McDonald, actor and writer of Underbelly
The words in the show are all his own, but he said the most common question he gets asked is ‘how much of the text is yours and how much is Burroughs?’ “It’s flattering, but also a little aggravating,” he said. The show is so influenced by Burroughs’ work that McDonald seems to have succeeded at emulating his style, which people are recognizing: “I’d say that’s mission accomplished.”
The character in Underbelly is very close to Burroughs himself, but a bit more energetic and with a different voice. “I’m doing an interpretation of Burroughs,” said McDonald. “He had a monotone, drugged, nasally voice, so I couldn’t subject an audience to that for an hour.”
McDonald first performed this character as part of Uno Fest in Victoria, a solo performance festival hosted by Intrepid Theatre. McDonald did a four-minute monologue of Burroughs, and the artistic director of Intrepid suggested that it would be great as a full show.
“I’ve always been interested in these artists from the 50s,” said McDonald, “It was a very interesting and charged time that forged some strong, angry artists.” He said that in the aftermath of World War II and with the threat of nuclear Armageddon, it was a frightful time: “I’m interested in what that does to an artist.”
Along with McDonald’s extensive research, director Jeff Culbert provided invaluable dramaturgy and helped McDonald find the emotional narrative arc. “The show will appeal to you if you’re interested in language and its versatility,” said McDonald, adding, “it requires a great deal of you as an audience member.”
The show has had a good reception on the West Coast, and McDonald said that Vancouver was the most receptive audience when he performed the show as part of the Vancouver Fringe Festival in 2012. The show won that year’s Cultchivating the Fringe award, which entails a run at The Cultch, so he’s back to share Burroughs with us again.
Burroughs’ world is all in the mind. “It’s just me and the stage and the lights and sound that create the world,” said McDonald. “It’s jumping all over the place, and a set would anchor it too much. The less we show you the more your mind can fill in the blanks — that’s always been the appeal of his literature for me.”