How much are you willing to bet on yourself? That's the big question surrounding Scottish writer and actor Gary McNair's one-man show A Gambler's Guide to Dying. Telling the story of McNair's grandfather, the performance looks back on the life of a man who made his fortune with a winning bet on the final match of the 1966 World Cup, but was willing to risk it all when faced with death. After receiving a cancer diagnosis, the talkative gambler placed the wager of a lifetime, staking everything on the chance that he'd live to see the year 2000. Willing to bet on himself as well, McNair takes the stage alone to share this deeply personal family tale, which won The Scotsman's Fringe First award for new writing at last year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
"There are a lot of characters in the show, but I suppose I've been in quite a few shows where I'm the only performer. I guess it's part of a canon of work in a way. I've enjoyed exploring the form of the one-man show quite a lot," says McNair. "This show, I believe it's a good story — loads of characters, loads of voices. I wanted it to feel like that sort of story that someone tells you in the pub that captivates the whole room. You just get hooked in. In that respect, it had to be one performer."
While he may be the only person on stage, McNair knows that he isn't alone in A Gambler's Guide to Dying. Acting as guiding hands throughout the show are director Gareth Nicholls and composer/sound designer Michael John McCarthy, who provides the score. But aside from the help of his fellow collaborators, McNair also recognizes the need to consider the audience as a key part of each and every performance.
"Whether the show is really personal or entirely made up, I always try to bring myself to the audience so that you feel like you're having someone really talk to you. There's a sort of vulnerability in that. It allows for some intimacy between the audience and myself that allows for some respect to the fact that I'm there to tell a story and you're there to hear something," he says. "It's always much less about me, and much more about you, the audience. You're the guys who have taken time out of your lives to come have an experience in the theater. I feel the need to focus on the audience, first and foremost."
According to McNair, he tries to explore something new with every show that he performs. Whether he's acting in a show that delves into the financial market, examines how epilepsy affects the brain, or recounts the death of a loved one, McNair recognizes the need for humor when connecting with a crowd. Although A Gambler's Guide to Dying is about much more than just laughs, the comedic aspects of the performance serve as a way for McNair to reach audiences on a deeper level and get them to a place where they truly feel the weight of the show.
"One thing that's most important to me is humor because through the humor I can get you to a place where you can feel the heartbreak. Through the humor, I can get you to a place where you can feel the sense of loss or sense of injustice or I can get you to understand the bigger systematic problems in society," he says. "Through humor, you can bring people into a space where they feel welcome, and then once they're in and they trust you, you can start to open up and talk about things. Whether that be things that need questioning or things that need resolved or need answered, you can do that together if you've shared that space."