Mark McKinney Reflects on Beloved Canadian Series 'Slings & Arrows'

Diane Snyder
Q&A Acorn TV

It’s been 16 years since Slings & Arrows premiered, and there still hasn’t been anything else like it on television. The travails of the New Burbage Theatre Festival as it attempts to stage Shakespeare and stay solvent ran for just three seasons and 18 episodes (2003-06), but the Canadian series struck a chord with critics and viewers for its colorful and poignant characters, original storylines and unique look at the creative process.

It’s the kind of niche program that could have been designed for the Peak TV era, and Acorn TV is making it streamable one season at a time in November and December. Inspired by Canada’s Stratford Festival, it was created and written by Susan Coyne (Anne of Green Gables), Bob Martin (the musical and upcoming film The Prom) and Mark McKinney (The Kids in the Hall).

Paul Gross starred as actor and director Geoffrey Tennant, whose world crashed years ago after he triumphed in Hamlet. Geoffrey returns to the festival to direct the play following the death of his estranged mentor, Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette), whose ghost, in a nod to Shakespeare, lives on to haunt him.

The show gave audiences an early peek at Rachel McAdams and recent Emmy winner Luke Kirby (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), who play the actors cast as Ophelia and Hamlet in Season 1.

Luke Kirby and Rachel McAdams (Acorn TV)

McKinney, who also played New Burbage’s general manager, Richard Smith-Jones, was bounding with enthusiasm for Slings & Arrows, an in-the-works prequel to the series and his current show, the NBC sitcom Superstore, when he spoke to TV Insider.

When did you all realize you had something that was going to go down in TV history?

Mark McKinney: [Laughs] Never! I think we knew pretty early on that we were all doing something that we were tremendously passionate about, but I don’t know if we could have ever prognosticated this kind of lifespan, though we’re really pleased with it. [When we started writing,] I saw an early screener of The Sopranos. Before that, an hour of a television series meant a kind of specific, boxed-in thing to me, and that opened up the whole landscape. When Susan and I and Bob grew it to an hour—it was originally going to be a half hour—we all just started pouring in our experiences to date.

The driving force isn’t finding a killer or saving someone’s life, as it is on so many TV shows. It’s “How should we stage Hamlet?” and “Can we be commercially successful without compromising our artistic integrity?” Yet the stakes feel very high.

So many people we drew from work in classical theater, so yes, these are the stakes. And they’re life-and-death stakes. Money’s always tight in theater unless you’re a big festival, and then if you’re a big festival, you’ve got to maintain your overhead. It’s this endless war. We were generally passionate about this question. We were able to pull in an audience to understand it because we did take it seriously.

Paul Gross, Don McKellar and Mark McKinney (Acorn TV)

The three of you have writing credits on all 18 episodes. How closely did you work together? Would you be in the same room when you were writing?

Oh, yeah. We all wrote around Susan Coyne’s kitchen table in her house in Toronto. Before that, she’d come to New York a few times when I was there, but especially when Bob joined on, we just talked and talked and talked for three or four hours every day and just kept telling the story and improving it and going back and reworking it. It was a highly indulgent process, but really fun. We took a long time with it. I think we started writing in 1998 or 1999. The thing wasn’t produced until 2003.

But you didn’t take that long with subsequent seasons. They came pretty quickly after that first season. 

Toward the end of writing the first season, we’d already started saying, “Too bad we can’t do this, too bad we can’t do that.” We came up with the idea of the three ages of man: Start with Hamlet, which is young and vital and bloody, and then the Scottish play [Macbeth] and then [King] Lear. We wanted to say things about certain aspects of life in theater, like what it’s like to get old and feeling on the cusp of being forgotten. There were so many pieces that naturally came out of the conversations we were having in Season 1 that the other two seasons were already seeded. Written, not expanded upon, but kind of all just there waiting to be born.

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When did you and Susan Coyne decide that you were going to play Richard and Anna, the festival’s administrator? 

I don’t know how it happened, though I think we both had to audition.

You had to audition for a show that you cowrote?

Yeah, out of deference to our director [Peter Wellington], who didn’t know us. It’s one thing to take a job; it’s another thing to say you’re going to direct all six episodes and you’ve got no say in [who plays] your major characters. I auditioned from a hotel in Winnipeg in the middle of a winter storm and sent it out. And I nailed the audition, obviously. [Laughs]

Susan Coyne (Acorn TV)

What’s happening with the Slings & Arrows prequel that you, Susan, and Bob have written?

We have an enthusiastic Canadian broadcaster, but we’re looking for an American partner. We’ve written most of it already. It’s based on the true story of the festival that inspired Slings & Arrows, where it was literally invented by people who were complete amateurs and gifted with that energy and enthusiasm. It’s a period piece. We’re going back to the beginning of the festival itself [in the 1950s], sort of like the moment where the seed of Shakespeare spins from England at the end of the war and lands in young North America to sprout anew.

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You’re well into Season 5 of Superstore on NBC. How’s that going?

It’s a miracle. The cast is wonderful. We’ve been through five seasons and the writing has stayed crisp and fun, and we get offered up these scenes and stories that are great to play. It seems to lean into America in an interesting way in these times. It’s fantastic.

Mark McKinney on Superstore (Tyler Golden/NBC)

Slings & Arrows, Season 1 Streaming Now; Season 2 Streaming Monday, November 25,; Season 3 available Monday, December 16; Acorn TV