A Christmas Carol for our time: the Citadel brings its production to you, at home

Filming A Christmas Carol at the Citadel Theatre. Photo by Raoul Bhatt.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Some day soon we all will be together/ If the fates allow/ Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow….

If there ever was a Christmas carol for 2020, it’s got to be Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. Eighty years old and sounding freshly minted, it weaves its way through the Citadel’s A Christmas Carol, speaking to our isolating moment.

Of the dozen Christmas songs in David van Belle’s adaptation — which propels Dickens’ evergreen 1843 ghost story out of the Victorian period forward a century into the late 1940s — “it’s the most poignant to us right now,” says artistic director Daryl Cloran. The playwright echoes the thought. “It’s the carol for now,” says van Belle. A close second? I’ll Be Home For Christmas.

The lavish 30-plus performer production, a $1 million affair which premiered on the Citadel’s Maclab stage last year after 19 seasons of the Tom Wood adaptation, is back. And this time there’s home delivery: it comes to you, Dec. 15 to 31, in a 90-minute $250,000 film version of the two-hour production, made possible by indispensable infusions from EPCOR’s Heart and Soul fund ($100,000)  and the Edmonton Community Foundation ($50,000).

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Even last March, at the moment live theatre shut down, with devastating abruptness for a whole industry, the Citadel knew in its heart that Edmonton couldn’t be denied its annual Christmas tradition. Not this year of all years. “When we started postponing and cancelling shows, from the beginning it was the show we knew we had to find a way to save,” says Cloran of A Christmas Carol, a venerable civic institution.

“The ever-evolving pandemic restrictions” meant continual reassessment of possibilities. An audio version perhaps? “At one point last summer we thought we might be able to re-stage the whole play (onstage) and film it,” Cloran says. But among all the logistical mind-benders of such a large gathering of artists in these COVID-ian times, 34 onstage and a crew of 20 in the crowded backstage, there was the biggest obstacle of all: live singing.

Filming A Christmas Carol, digital version of the Citadel Theatre production. Photo by Raoul Bhatt.

The Christmas Carol we’ll see from home is “a re-imagining for film …  a sort of hybrid of theatre production and live TV shoot,” as Cloran puts it. The Rice, the smallest of the Citadel’s theatres, became a TV studio, with a film team of five (local cinematographer Raoul Bhatt, video and sound editing by Alpacalypse Productions).

The band pre-recorded their tracks. The actors lip-synched. Rehearsals happened over a few days in in five or six different rooms at the theatre — “in one people re-learned the music, in another the choreography…” — according to “a giant complicated daily schedule,” says Cloran. And in a crazily short eight-day shoot, with three cameras, “we did it scene by scene, four a day, so we were bringing in people in small groups.”

“A bit of a sprint,” laughs van Belle, who had a scant two weeks to write his adaptation of his adaptation. Condensing a two-hour play to 90 minutes has its share of heartbreak for a playwright, of course, “and I can’t wait to get some of the stuff back next year.” But the time constraints were “kind of a good thing; I didn’t have a chance to get too wistful.”

Ted Dykstra in A Christmas Carol, Citadel Theatre stage production 2019. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Phorography

In the songbook of Christmas classics largely culled from the indelible World War II and postwar repertoire, there might be a chorus or two less in, say, White Christmas or It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. But, don’t fret: Scrooge doesn’t meet up with two ghosts instead of the full complement. Jacob Marley (Julien Arnold) et al are present and accounted for. And so is Cory Sincennes’ handsome design for a 1949 department store, Marley’s, along with his costumes of that post-war period and the decades before, when  Scrooge travels back through his blighted past in the company of his ossifying younger selves and the Ghost of Christmas Past.

“We’ve cut a few numbers, Christmas candy that don’t move the plot forward,” van Belle says cheerfully. “We’ve tightened some scenes and eliminated a few peripheral characters (in some of the smaller scenes),” he says. “But the main story is absolutely there! If  people were going to see it as some form of replacement for their holiday tradition, it couldn’t be a greatest hits version!”

Rehearsing the film version of A Christmas Carol, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Raoul Bhatt.

What made the tight schedule possible, both Cloran and van Belle think, is that the cast is, save only two exceptions, exactly the same as last year, again led by the fine Canadian actor Ted Dykstra (originally from these parts) as the frozen-hearted old skinflint whose journey toward human connectedness is at the heart of the enterprise. Corie Ryan, who played Martha, the oldest Cratchit kid, is away at university, so that character isn’t in the show. And the bass player Jeff Gladstone recorded his tracks from Vancouver. Luckily, the dozen or so young performers in the cast didn’t grow too much in 2020; they still fit their costumes. But “one young man showed up for rehearsal and his voice had dropped an octave,” says Cloran.

Patricia Cerra, in rehearsal for the film version of A Christmas Carol, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Raoul Bhatt.

The “big group scenes” are assisted materially by theatre’s increasing dexterity with Zoom-box multiple screen technology, says van Belle. “Instead of trying to fight the form, we found a way to embrace some of those video conventions…. I think you’ll see that.” And sometimes, it’s a matter of optics. “Instead of 30 people, the Fezziwig Christmas party scene is 10 people in a smaller space,” says Cloran.

The sense of liveness, that special lustre of live theatre, is rare and hard-won in film. But a plus is that acting for film, with its zooms and angles and close-ups,  affords a “different kind of intimacy” than you experience sitting in Row R in the Maclab. “I’m really appreciating it,” says van Belle. “And we’re lucky that so many of the actors have film and television experience.” Dykstra is one. Says Cloran, “a great actor like Ted, who has a lot of film experience, has a sense of how to scale his emotion with a look, how to let us in on the the character’s thought with the kind of intimate detail that wouldn’t translate as well in a 680-seat house….”

“We’ve included a narrator and some surprises for people familiar with the show,” says van Belle. And the setting will speak eloquently, he thinks, to audiences in this strangest of years. “In the post-war period there was optimism for sure, but it was also a time of spiritual reckoning, of (grief for) that had been lost…. It’s during the war years that so many of the songs in the show were written.” Van Belle reports that one of the Citadel lighting techs was convinced that he’d re-written the lyrics for Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas especially for 2020: “some day soon we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”   

“I love the way meanings get shaped by the context in which the play is presented,” van Belle says. The uncertainties of this fraught year with its enforced solitude “adds so many layers.”

“There’s a real, palpable hope for change now. And A Christmas Carol is all about change,” says van Belle of “the call for all of us this year to ask ourselves to change, to move away from selfishness and turn toward each other, toward human values.… We are all Scrooge this year.”   

“My hope is that we can all hold ourselves accountable and treat with each other with more kindness and compassion….. One of the beauties of the theatre is what an audience brings to the art work that’s a vital part of the work itself.”

“There’s a lot of grief in the theatre community; it’s been hit so hard by this,” Van Belle sighs. “A very big part of this project for me is putting all these people to work for a time. A big percentage of the money went into the pockets of artists and theatre workers. I feel really good about that.”

PREVIEW

A Christmas Carol

Theatre: Citadel

Adapted by: David van Belle from the Charles Dickens novella

Directed by: Daryl Cloran

Starring: Ted Dykstra and a cast of 32

Running: online, available at citadeltheatre.com Dec. 15 to 31.

Tickets: $40 per household, good for 48 hours.

  

  

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Three days from opening, Mary’s Wedding is on hold at the Citadel

Tai Amy Grauman in Marys Wedding: A Métis Love Story. Photo supplied

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

After a day of investigating the implications of the Alberta government’s perplexing new restrictions announced Tuesday afternoon, the Citadel Theatre has decided to postpone its upcoming live production of Mary’s Wedding: A Metis Love Story, which was to have opened Saturday.

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Citing “the safety of our patrons, staff and artists,” the decision delays Tai Amy Grauman’s new adaptation of the Canadian classic by Stephen Massicotte, starring actor/playwright Grauman and Todd Houseman, which was slated to run through Dec. 20 on the Citadel’s Shoctor stage for audiences of 100, masked and distanced in the 681-seat house.

Theatre-goers will have noticed that live theatre, a leading Edmonton arts industry, is nowhere even mentioned in the “enhanced public measures document” that accompanied the Kenney administration announcement of a response to the COVID spike. Further clarification from the government, sought by Citadel, indicated that the theatre would fall under “auditoria and concert venues,” a category it apparently shares, oddly enough, with “banquet halls, conference centres, trade shows, non-approved/licensed markets and community centres” on the government website.

To further the confusion, the other possibility, the category of “some entertainment and event services” which can remain open subject to 25 per cent occupancy, would have included the Citadel alongside movie theatres, museums and galleries, libraries, casinos, fitness centres and “indoor entertainment centres.” This was deemed by the government less applicable to the Citadel Theatre than “auditoria and concert venues,” which must be closed for at least three weeks.

The loss in ticket revenue for the run of Mary’s Wedding is “considerable,” says Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran. Since it’s built, rehearsed, and ready to go on the Shoctor stage, the production will be filmed and available for streaming to audiences across the country Dec. 22. And “hopefully…” (Cloran’s new mantra) it will return to live performance for a run in January.

Which means that there are completely built sets prepped and ready for live action on stages in two of the city’s largest theatre venues, the Shoctor and the Maclab, both at the Citadel. The Garneau Block, which was shut down on March 12 after its final dress rehearsal, awaits a live run, too. The financial repercussions are, to say the least, dramatic.

Meanwhile, the Citadel production of A Brimful of Asha, which ran live to limited, distanced audiences in the Shoctor at the end of October, continues to be available in streamed form to Alberta audiences through Jan. 10. And the Citadel’s Christmas tradition will still be happening — but onscreen. A reimagined filmed version of David van Belle’s lavish adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which premiered last year, is available Dec. 15 to 31.

Tickets and further information for ticket-holders: citadeltheatre.com. 

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Le Moulin Rouge: can-cans at The Spotlight Cabaret

Tyler Pinsent, Aimée Beaudoin, Jeff Halaby, Jamie Hudson in Moulin Rouge, Spotlight Cabaret. Photo by Joe McClinton Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“It will be busy once more … give us a month!” says the co-impresario of a night club, pleading with creditors at the start of Le Moulin Rouge. “Times are tough.”

Hey, a cabaret about … a cabaret falling on hard times and trying to survive, “with CERB running out”? Where do theatre people get these ideas?

The man in the gold lamé harem pants — “the only Lebanese guy on a cabaret stage on this side of the river,” as he says with utmost plausibility — has nailed it. Underscoring the playfulness of the high-spirited cabaret that runs every weekend at the Spotlight in Old Strathcona, is the hard current reality that, as Toulouse (you know, Lautrec) would agree,  live theatre, a struggle at the best of times, has to be especially valiant and ingenious, times being what they are.

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Which pretty much describes the esprit de corps at the Spotlight Cabaret, a renovated bistro/bar/club, 18 months old, up the stairs on the second floor of the brick building right across 104th St. from the Next Act and Meat. Yes, chandeliers, Plexiglass, and carefully distanced cabaret tables are involved, along with (sequined) masks. And, in view of  COVID-ian proscriptions against singing from the stage (without elaborate and expensive precautions, like the ones at the Mayfield), the performers currently lip-synch to recorded tracks of their own voices.

The charismatic co-owners, Jeff Halaby and Aimée Beaudoin, are musical theatre triple-threats themselves who met while writing and performing on the sketch comedy TV series Caution: May Contain Nuts. They’re amusing, and quick on the uptake judging by their genial improvised interactions with the audience.

The roster of shows at the Spotlight, which opened a year and a half ago, includes weekly open-mic poetry, burlesque, improv (Thursday nights, with stars Mark Meer and Donovan Workun). As its name suggests, Le Moulin Rouge, directed by Trevor Schmidt, is a spoofy French cabaret, with accents to match, mix-and-match characters in an ooh-la-la assortment of costumes, and a giddy storyline along which the song-and-dance numbers borrowed from pop, rock, r&b (with occasional forays into musical theatre) are blithely strung.

Toulouse (Halaby), “an impressionable boy in the Impressionist period,”  and his partner, the last can-can girl at the Moulin Rouge (Beaudoin), are looking for a new show to revive their failing club. Anyhow, this is an excuse to audition talent. Talent like the perky young Ewan McGregor (Tyler Pinsent), an impoverished, starry-eyed playwright whose eager pursuit of “truth, beauty, freedom, and the greatest thing of all, love!” hasn’t entirely paid the bills. His day job is bartender/server. Incidentally Pinsent, a MacEwan theatre grad with great pipes, actually is the Spotlight bartender.

Ewan instantly falls for a fellow auditioner, the glamorous Satine (newcomer Jamie Hudson, also with a MacEwan degree and a powerful voice), a courtesan/ aspiring actor with a venal streak who….

Why on earth am I telling you the plot? Sheer lunacy (too much isolation). Anyhow I’ll just mention there’s a heroic captain, a Green Fairy, a couple of baddies including a Pirate King and a horny sheik, a mermaid with legs … you know, the usual for plays-within-plays. A love triangle, jealousy, absinthe, and, ah, a guy who took a contemporary movement class a couple of months ago.

There are theatre jokes (“I’d like to workshop her script if you know what I mean” wink wink). And there’s lots of music in this larky little jukebox cabaret: everything from Your Song (Pinsent) to I Put A Spell On You (Hudson) is put to use at prime comic moments, plus Lady Luck, Trooper, Air Supply … not a soupçon of Edith Piaf, incidentally. But the tickets come with an elaborate and delish “French-themed” four-course dinner (and full bar service).

It is for the invaluable arranger/ composer/ sound designer/ sound tech Aaron Macri to figure out the tricky logistics in make the lip-synching work along with Alison Yanota’s lighting and Kesinee Haney’s choreography. And he does. The sound is excellent.

In this theatre town of ours, curiously, cabarets have always been in short supply,  and dedicated cabaret venues virtually non-existent. Bienvenue Spotlight, a welcome addition. As our co-host told us at the outset as he gazed at the twinkling lights on the little stage Eiffel Tower, “better tiny and shiny than big and doesn’t work.” Could it be a theatre mantra for our time?

Moulin Rouge runs Fridays through Sundays at the Spotlight Cabaret through Jan. 10. Tickets: spotlightcabaret.ca.

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Waiting for … everything: a couple of online shows for our time

Bill Irwin, On Beckett / In Screen, Irish Repertory Theater. Photo by Carol Rosegg, Irish Rep Online.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Waiting and wondering in the weird no-man’s land between past and present: that would be us, in late 2020.

Samuel Beckett is the playwright of choice for this moment.

If there ever was a time to ponder the paralyzing perplexities of existence…. Where the hell is Godot anyhow? Self-isolating?

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My Wednesday matinee (online natch) was watching a great clown shedding light on his life-long fascination with the Irish master of the existential crisis. Bill Irwin’s On Beckett / In Screen, is a live-streamed performance of his one-man show from the stage of the empty Irish Repertory Theatre in New York.

I remember seeing Irwin as one of Beckett’s tramps (Vladimir) with Nathan Lane as Estragon, on Broadway in Waiting For Godot a decade or so ago. The pair, two of the theatre’s most expert comic actors, were were brilliantly entertaining — there’s a word that doesn’t invariably attach to waiting around (under a tree, on a country road), day after day, for someone who’s never going to show up.

Anyhow, this digital show, available through Saturday at Irish Rep (reservations are free but required), is Irwin’s re-working for film of his award-winning Beckett show of 2018. And it seems to see into the heart of this COVID-ian world of ours, with its repetition of days and its time-obliterating loops.

It’s an actor’s view — not a philosopher’s or a literary prof’s — of Beckett, the diving in, the performing, the alternate possibilities of a scene. And I found it captivating. He discusses pronunciation (and the curiosity that after World War II, Beckett, who’d worked in the French Resistance, wrote in French not English). Should you say God-oh or Godeau? He wonders about hats, and Beckett’s instructions about bowlers. He explores the push-and-pull contradictions, the fits and starts, of Beckett’s language. “It seems to operate the way consciousness operates,” Irwin thinks.

And, armed with a bowler, a cane, a bowtie, a jacket, and baggy pants, he dips into Beckett’s Texts For Nothing of 1950, the 1953 novel Watt, and some of the most enigmatic and moving scenes in Waiting For Godot. And there’s the fun of Irwin’s memories of working with Lane, Robin Williams, Mike Nichols. Irwin’s inner clown, who has virtuoso chops, bites into the absurdity of the world. He can’t resist improvising with the cane.

The show is kind of a lecture, delivered in a humble spirit. And it’s kind of a demo. The feeling is this (from Texts For Nothing): “I can’t stay; I can’t go.” And then, “let’s see what happens next.”

The evening’s performance (online, natch) at our place was a (mostly) solo show, a film version Heidi Schreck’s Broadway hit What The Constitution Means To Me, available on Amazon Prime. If you get a chance to see it, jump at it.

The dry title will sound like dusty duty, especially in this chaotic election month. But this is a very unusual play (shortlisted for the Pulitzer and nominated for the the best new play Tony Award) that’s surprising in every way. It’s fierce, angry, and emotional; it’s full of jokes. And it’s animated by Schreck’s charm as a performer.

It starts from Schreck’s re-creation of her 15-year-old self, an eager debate champ who actually paid her way through college on prize money from American Legion competitions. And her infatuation with that famous document, and its storied 14th Amendment, is tempered in the intervening years by the knowledge, gathered in the history of her family and her own autobiography, that it protects the rights of white men — not the rights of everyone. Witness the travails of the abused women of her own family.

It ends with an actual debate about whether the Constitution is worth saving or should be scrapped; Schreck’s opponent is a powerhouse 14-year-old girl.

If anyone had told me in advance how engaging it would be to hear heated conversation about the Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, I would have rolled my eyes and got out my Hamilton CDs instead. But like Bill Irwin’s Beckett show, it gains lustre from the darkness of the moment.   

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The complicated world of university theatre: Too Much Zoom Makes Us All Go Blind

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

You can learn to use the subjunctive, make meringues, prune junipers, do a downward-facing dog, tour the Prado, or say screw you in Gaelic … online. No problem.

And theatre? You can attend a lecture on Roman theatre, or read Titus Andronicus, online. But can you teach, or learn, acting, the mysterious human connection that goes into the performing arts … online? Or create a play, cast it, rehearse it, then produce it live … on a digital platform instead of a stage?

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That is the question, instead of to be or not to be, facing university drama departments these days. It’s complicated. At the U of A, some classes are online, others are in-person and distanced, with cohorts in separate dedicated rooms so that interaction is strictly controlled. Professor David Ley, an expert in voice, “reimagines the work on a daily basis to deal with distancing issues…. I walk around with a stick so that if I have to give students a physical correction I can do so without encroaching on their space.” But the elaborate precautions are worth it, he says. “There is a lot to be said for our ability as humans to be affected by personal presence and even in our masks we are buoyed by this connection!”

The U of A’s Studio Theatre season opens in early December with three in-person socially-distanced performances of Chrysothemis, by U of A playwright-in-residence Meg Braem, commissioned specially for graduating theatre students.

At MacEwan University, too, it’s a hybrid of online and face-to-face classes, with hopes for live shows in March/April.    

At Concordia University, Dave Horak, the much Sterling-ed artistic director of Edmonton Actors Theatre who’s taught at both the U of A and MacEwan University, is experimenting. Originally he’d been hired to direct a production in the fall term. Times being what they are, a full-bodied production onstage didn’t seem safely workable.

Instead, Horak has been working with his 10-member student cast on a “creation-based project” that’s now designed, given the rising COVID stats, exclusively for presentation online. Too Much Zoom Makes All Of Us Go Blind, broadcast live starting Nov. 20 on CUE TV (Concordia’s website), is a volley of original short plays inspired by the long-running production Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind by Chicago’s venerable Neo-Futurists.

Horak’s idea was that”if we’re going to do something on Zoom, it might be great to have the students do the writing,” he says. “I wanted to tap into what they’re interested in, their voices.”   

Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind, which ran 50 weekends a year from 1988 to 2016, was a live ever-changing Neo-Futurist experiment in random rotation (pricing by dice throw) and performance art brevity. Their object: 30 plays in 60 minutes. “The aesthetic is that they’re personal, they’re a bit political, they’re fast-moving, they play with genre…. The essential thing is that the plays are all really short, and that works so well in the online world,” says Horak, citing his own “limited attention span for watching full-length anything online.”

The Concordia casting wasn’t limited to theatre students. Like the actors themselves, the plays are diverse. “They run the gamut, from realistic kitchen-sink drama to wild theatrical experiments with lights, sounds, images, movement.… Some are monologues; some are full ensemble pieces. And I’m really trying to make them theatre, not movies.”

Edmonton audiences who saw Horak’s holiday season production of Burning Bluebeard at the Roxy on successive years, already know something about the Neo-Futurist aesthetic that found its way into  Concordia project. (Bluebeard playwright Jay Torrence is a former Neo-Futurist artistic director). “They’re interested in (gathering) an ensemble  from different walks of life. They’re not all actors; some are poets, playwrights, musicians, circus performers….. It’s almost like a cabaret of different skill sets. Somebody sings a song, somebody does a tightrope walk, or a dance. It’s a mish-mash of genres,” says Horak.

At Concordia, casting is open to all, not just theatre, students. For Too Much Zoom Makes All Of Us Go Blind “they’re learning dramaturgy, learning playwriting, learning design. Some of them are wanting to be mentored in directing…. My job is less a director and more of a facilitator, organizer, coach.”

In Zoom rehearsals,“I’d suggest a prompt and say ‘you have 10 minutes to write something short’.” says Horak. “Or ‘here’s a newspaper article; write a poem based on 10 words you find in it’.… And ‘what if this turned into a play? Who would be speaking?’”

“It’s always driven by who they are, what they care about, how they see the world, what they want to say,” says Horak of his actors. He was curious about that. “Everybody,” he discovered, “is spending a lot of time questioning what’s the point of doing theatre? of being creative?”

At Concordia, where like the U of A and MacEwan, some classes are online, others in person, Horak’s rehearsals are Zoomed in two-hour instalments. “The students have gotten very good at giving each other feedback,” he says, “which is a skill, especially when the pieces are new and all so personal” and the actors are often playing a version of themselves.

Last week the lineup for Too Much Zoom Makes All Of Us Go Blind was still in flux. But Horak estimates there will be nearly 20 plays, ranging from 30 seconds to two minutes.” And the hour-long production will be performed live, from a bunch of homes. “We’re playing around with green screen technology,” says Horak. “The actors are all creating little studios in their homes…. We have a program where we can put two people in the same virtual space. And three or four of them are actually cohorts anyhow.”

Unlike many of his fellow theatre artists, Horak is himself a student of technology, and unafraid of tinkering. “It’s a lucky thing, but I was trained as a computer tech when I was in my 20s and early 30s, in Toronto, gigging as an actor…. A bunch of former actors were looking to hire and train theatre actors and musicians as technicians — because we’re friendly! We can go into banks!”

What has surprised Horak about the creation project he initiated is that “the plays, “short but full-length,” are not all about COVID. “That’s embedded, maybe. But they’re about Now, about these particular people living in the world today, and dreaming about things that have been, and hopefully will be again.”

“Some are songs; some are dances. One is set in the 1950s.… They’re about isolation, uncertainty, not knowing, political statements about diversity.” Compared to skits or sketches, “there’s a bit more weight to them, but they’re still fun and entertaining.”

Too Much Zoom Makes All Of Us Go Blind runs Nov. 20 to 22, and 27 to 29, 7:30 p.m. on CUE TV. Tickets are free, and the link is here.

   

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Listen to the music: Keep Calm and Rock On at the Mayfield. A review.

Keep Calm and Rock On, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ryan Parker

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“What the people need is a way to make ‘em smile,” declared astute social commentators The Doobie Brothers in Listen to the Music in 1972.

Hear hear. The Mayfield takes this sage counsel to heart by upholding, against all odds in 2020, its many-decade tradition of a new “holiday season musical revue.” Keep Calm and Rock On, by the writer/compiler team of veteran Will Marks and newcomer Poppy Topalnitsky, is an expedition, typically expansive, into the vaults of ‘70s rock where Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd et al party on, keeping ribcages world-wide vibrating and neighbours awake.

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It opened live last week, with a dizzying array of COVID safety protocols in place, onstage and in the house (to a distanced audience reduced from 450 to fewer than 110). Prophetic they may have been, but in their cavalier claim that “it ain’t so hard to do if you know how” the Doobie Brothers were certainly not referring to doing musical theatre live in pandemical times.

The pre-show projection cautioning the audience, as per AHS rules, to resist the temptation to unleash their “inner rock stars” and sing along, is a tip-off. Every musical revue looks for a theatrical premise to string together the songs. When the safety rule of the moment is that all singing must be done behind enclosures, extreme ingenuity, an awful lot of plexiglass, and a blithe disregard for the usual rules of dramatic engagement, are called for. In Kate Ryan’s entertaining high-energy production, far from calm, check all three.

It lives in a cunning tri-level plexiglass galaxy (designer: Ivan Siemens) of twinkling starlight and reflections, refracted angles, and an imaginative non-stop swirl of projections (by Matt Schuurman). These veer from recognizable locales to mutating grids to psychedelic eruptions, and, video-game style, frame a glowing neon proscenium.

Pamela Gordon and Erica Peck, Keep Calm and Rock On, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ryan Parker.

If there are awards for artful ingenuity with plexiglass (and if not why not?), Keep Calm and Rock On should kick butt. Gail Ksionzyk’s lighting takes to its surfaces like sequins to Spandex, and plays around with the reflective possibilities from every conceivable angle. And to be vivid, which it is, the sound design (by Harley Symington) has to take plexiglass barriers into account, too. When there’s singing to be done, the performers repair to plexiglass booths, “the boxes of rock.” And a level up, in a plexiglass container of indeterminate shape, the five-member band (musical director: Van Wilmott) rocks on with expert stylistic know-how. It’s a period of famously flamboyant guitar solos, and Symington rises impressively to the occasion.

The script that’s amusing, playfully kooky, cheerfully shameless really, about its premise. Five members of a band that fractured, acrimoniously (I mean, when has that ever happened?), more than a decade before, find themselves deposited magically together in a sort of fanciful escape room/ video game. Hey, it could happen, though the band members don’t know why, and say so.

The omniscient voice of Siri explains they’ll need to score points singing their old hits, and meet “rock star challenges” like The Red Carpet Roll Call, for example, in which the contestant has to address dumb questions from moronic interviewers. Or The Morning After, pertaining to hang-overs from week-long benders and trashed hotel rooms. Which is as reasonable as anything on reality telly for the last 50 years, and a lot more hip to absurdity.

Anyhow, what seems clear is that years have not dimmed the loathing that the members of Malaise of Time — Lee (Kieran Martin Murphy) aka Le Package who has the biggest ego in the room, Nancy (Erica Peck), John (Brad Wiebe), Janis (Pamela Gordon) and the younger last-to-join Ty (Jahlen Barnes) — still feel for each other. Bickering, one-upmanship, the dredging up of embarrassing on-tour debacles, ensue.

The five actors, who are all exceptional singers, throw themselves full-force into Christine Bandelow’s punchy and remarkably strenuous choreography, full of ’70s allusions and outbreaks of hair-tossing. They’re always on the move (it’ll either make you want to join a gym or order another drink). And as propelled by Bandelow and sneaky stagecraft by director Ryan, they invariably end up dancing into those transparent recording studio booths at either side of the stage and just above it — signed, sealed and delivered so to speak — to lace into the hard-driving repertoire of the period, including Joan Jett, Heart, the Eurythmics, David Bowie, Joe Cocker, Bon Jovi … Barracuda to Black Dog to Bootylicious, I Hate Myself for Loving You to Young American.

The double signature of Mayfield musical revues is the expert capture of musical styles and the sheer never-say-when amplitude of the song list. You may not be allowed to sing along. But there are no AHS rules for your pulse.

REVIEW

Keep Calm And Rock On

Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre

Musical direction: Van Wilmott

Stage direction: Kate Ryan

Starring: Jahlen Barnes, Pamela Gordon, Brad Wiebe, Kieran Martin Murphy, Erica Peck

Running: through Jan. 17

Tickets: mayfieldtheatre.ca

  

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“Terror and festering dread,” and a mystery narrator to unknot: We Had A Girl Before You at Northern Light. A review.

Kristin Johnston in We Had A Girl Before You. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

We’re isolated from each other, alone in the dark. Haunting wind and sea sounds surround us, threaded with wisps of melody and … are those human cries? (composer/ sound designer Dave Clarke).

When we enter the theatre a shadowy figure in funereal black is already there, on an outsized wrought-iron chair between banks of flickering candles. There’s an open volume on her lap.

What happens in Trevor Schmidt’s new solo Gothic thriller We Had A Girl Before You, is the opening of that volume and the recounting of a ghostly tale of “fear and wonder … terror and festering dread,” a cocktail for our own uneasy time. Is it a true memory? A dream? A feverish fantasy of an unhinged Victorian mind? Has the loveless Miss Edwina Trout (“Weenie” to her friends, if she had any) cast herself as the heroine in a first-person Gothic romance novella of her own device?

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She is not entirely sure, as she turns the pages of her diary conjuring people and encounters for us. And neither are we. Which is the seductive fun of Northern Light’s atmospheric season-opener, re-crafted by playwright/ director/ designer Schmidt from its original purpose as a two-night fund-raiser. In the 300-seat Westbury Theatre it’s a model of safe social-distancing for a masked audience of less than two dozen.

The uncertainties attached to the narrative are skillfully gathered. What IS sure is Schmidt’s deft and stylish homage to the elite perpetrators of the Gothic romance — the heaving bosoms of its aspirational orphaned governesses longing for love, its alluring but elusive mystery men, its crumbling manor houses teetering atop its remote cliff-top settings, its ghostly trail of unexplained deaths, its terrible weather.

We Had A Girl Before You, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

There are sly hints of Rebecca and The Turn of the Screw. There are clever echoes of the motifs (brother and sister, mysterious illness, encroaching madness) and the great opening gambit of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. The reverb here is unmistakeable: “The house loomed above me, towering over the cliff, leaning as thought it meant to hurl itself to the crashing sea below.” And if the Brontes are your jam (I confess!), you’ll strike gold here. Whiffs of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights drift by in the mist: fire in the charred north wing, a toxic water-filled dungeon, a locked room with a mystery inhabitant…. In Miss Edwina Trout, there’s a wink at the novella-addled heroine of Jane Austen’s gothic romance satire Northanger Abbey.

“I was drawn to the to the unknown … I was ready for an adventure,” says Miss Trout of the employment opportunity as a “lady’s companion” — in a manor house called Desolation atop a cliff on a remote island — that will rescue her from her dreary life at the Wexlington-Sheffield Home for Foundlings, Orphans and Unfortunate Unwanted Children.

Kristin Johnston in We Had A Girl Before You, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

“Weenie,” the only character we meet in person in this full-bodied Gothic romance, single-handedly populates it, blowsy barmaids, taciturn coach drivers, vicious orphanage matrons, boatsmen with one cloudy eye. The list is impressive. Playwright Schmidt clearly relishes the heaping-on of similes and circumlocutions, a great zest for words, built into the genre. And the striking Kristin Johnston, who tread so fearlessly in Northern Light’s Origin of the Species and Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs, is remarkably skillful at identifying a whole cast of colourful characters by voice, verbal inflection, accent, facial expression, as well as recording for us Weenie’s declension into terror and possibly beyond. She is a commanding presence.

In this Johnston is materially assisted by the narrative contributions of Roy Jackson’s virtuoso lighting design: this is a production where theatrical lighting can change time and place, not to mention atmosphere, in a blink.

The tale is gift-wrapped in a deluxe way. It’s for us to unwrap it, and instead wrap our minds around the possible status of the character who sits before us, telling us a “true story.” Intriguing, playful, and fun. Who doesn’t need that now?

Check out a 12thnight PREVIEW with playwright/ director/ designer Trevor Schmidt here.

REVIEW

We Had A Girl Before You

Theatre: Northern Light Theatre

Written, directed, and designed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Kristin Johnston

Where: Westbury Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: through Nov. 21

Tickets and COVID protocols: northernlighttheatre.com

 

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Doing musical theatre in 2020? It’s an intricate challenge: the making of Keep Calm and Rock On at the Mayfield

Pamela Gordon in Keep Calm and Rock On, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ryan Parker

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

You’ve got to be ingenious to make live theatre. And no one (sane) ever said it was slam-dunk easy money.

But bringing a musical live to the theatre stage in late 2020 in the middle of a pandemic? It’s just about the most nerve-wracking thing you could possibly do. Just ask Van Wilmott, who’s opening one this week at the Mayfield Dinner Theatre.

The Mayfield artistic director was on the phone last weekend to shed light on the multiple creative complications that went into Keep Calm and Rock On — and the maze of ever-changing safety rules and work-arounds that have gone into rehearsing it. “Zoom and plexiglass,” sighs Wilmott. “If only we’d known … we’d all be rich.”

Off the top, of course, there’s this to work around: in musical theatre people sing. And although singing, regarded all summer as the riskiest of COVID-spreaders, was downgraded to join loud talking on that risk list, “there’s still no singing in Alberta without a giant asterisk,” as Wilmott puts it. Masks or barriers of some kind are de rigueur. “And we will not lip-synch here under any circumstances.”

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It’s a principal reason (along with budget) that the intended lineup, dotted with big-cast big-budget jukebox musicals — like Rock of Ages last spring and Mamma Mia! slated for the spring of 2021— were scrapped, for later. Instead the Mayfield season opened in September with a one-man play, Playing With Fire: the Theo Fleury Story, for a distanced audience, 35 per cent reduced (less than 110 in a 450-seat house). The plexiglass barricade between the stage and the audience, and the barriers between tiers of the house, made theatrical sense in a hockey play that happens on a rink.

In any case Wilmott had long wanted to bring in the hit Ron Jenkins production, starring the compelling Shaun Smyth (on real skates) as the troubled hockey star who “had a shit-storm dealt to him, and he overcame his demons and came out on top!”

“We’ve never had a show with 455 F-bombs in it,” says Wilmott, a wry and candid sort in conversation. “But they were so tied to the character that 98 per cent of the audience was just fine with it.” And Wilmott thinks the play’s “direct address, a guy talking right to you,” was ideal for engaging the audience, especially since Smyth’s performance was so visceral and captivating.

A solo play, with dark currents, was an unconventional Mayfield choice. But it counts as a success at an unusually adventurous dinner theatre. “We did the (box office) numbers we could,” Wilmott says of filling the reduced house capacity. And in a commercial house, “the best case is a break-even…. It was a way for us to put our toe in.”

Keep Calm and Rock On, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ryan Parker

Stay Calm and Rock On, the original jukebox musical that opens this week and runs for 11 weeks over the seasonal holidays, goes beyond a toe dip. It comes closer to a full-bodied immersion experience — with elaborate COVID-ian logistical adjustments in size, budget, stagecraft, and rehearsals. “The clear expectation of the Mayfield Christmas musical (traditionally the theatre’s biggest money-maker and a magnet for office parties) is that it needs to be rock, and it needs to be silly and shticky,” says Wilmott.

“The budget has been streamlined, for 35 per cent occupancy,” says Wilmott. The production staged by Kate Ryan has a cast of five, instead of the usual nine or 10, along with a five-member onstage band. And “the cast is living in as close a bubble as we can make it,” Wilmott says.

Bubbles are easier to maintain with out-of-town performers whose domestic lives are elsewhere. Of the five actor/singers, four (ensconced at the Mayfield Inn & Suites, home of the theatre) come from away, and two (Pamela Gordon and Brad Wiebe) are a couple. The fifth, Edmonton’s Kieran Martin Murphy, has “taken one for the team,” by actually leaving home and moving into the hotel for three months be inside the cast bubble.

The original idea was “a contemporary Vegas show,” says Wilmott. “It got pulled by budget, so we reinvented.” Instead this latest from the prolific Mayfield collaborator Will Marks is a deep dive into the archive of ‘70s hits. And the premise, as Wilmott describes, works assiduously around COVID safety protocols (and got OK’ed by the government). It starts with this, tailored expressly for the times: “when you’re singing you’ve got to be in a box.”

The concept is “a band who haven’t been onstage together in years — because they absolutely hate each other. If you took Spinal Tap, and mixed it with Fleetwood Mac and the Mamas and Papas, and A Minute To Win It….”

Now “stuck with each other,” they’ve landed in a sort of escape room/ game show situation. And their way out is via a variety of musical challenges. “They’re re-living their hits, and they have to score points to get out….”

“When a song kicks in, the singer has to be in a (plexiglass) box, kinda like an isolation booth in a recording studio.” The live band, laughs Wilmott, the musical director, “is encased in Plexiglass. Like Madame Tussaud’s.… We keep the actors away from the musicians. Which is never a bad idea.”

It was, he sighs, “an interesting show to stage.” And it came with “the weirdest rehearsal period ever,” says Wilmott. “Everyone has to stay healthy, come hell or high water.” Everyone wore a mask or shield. “We kicked people out of the rehearsal room every 30 minutes so fresh air could circulate.” At 9 every night when rehearsals ended, “the ghost-buster people came with big spray guys to disinfect the room for (the requisite) 12 hours before the next day’s rehearsal.

Stage director Ryan, who directed a Zoom production of Sondheim’s Assassins with the Citadel Theatre Young Company this past summer, says the learning in musical theatre continues:  “More breaks, less people in the room, spacial relationships are everything, and technology is our new friend.”

“Not exactly what you’d call efficient,” Wilmott sighs. “A challenge for sure. But it’s a new world. And there’s no choice. If you’re going to DO this, this is how it has to be,. It’s the only safe way….”

PREVIEW

Keep Calm And Rock On

Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre

Musical direction: Van Wilmott

Stage direction: Kate Ryan

Starring: Jahlen Barnes, Pamela Gordon, Brad Wiebe, Kieran Martin Murphy, Erica Peck

Running: through Jan. 17

Tickets: mayfieldtheatre.ca

  

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Antidotes to a gruesome week: here’s a couple of surprising beautiful theatre “concerts” on film

Hailey Gillis (lighting by Patrick Lavender) in Ghost Quartet: In Concert. Photo: Crows Theatre.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Looking for an antidote? It’s been a gruesome nail-biter of a week on multiple fronts; everyone knows what exactly what that question means.

So, the doctor is IN.

I caught a couple of truly original and surprising, beautifully filmed theatre “concerts” this week. The Spike Lee film of David Byrne’s American Utopia (on HBO on demand, Crave and other streaming services) is one. Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet: In Concert is the other.

Maybe start with the Byrne, since it has such an unexpected, joyful, uplift to it.

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The stage version (spun from Byrne’s 2018 album) opened on Broadway last fall, and then got felled by COVID four months later. Byrne opens holding a model of the human brain, and meditating on the weirdness of humanity from the inside out. I know, right? A week like we’ve all been having, and you’re bound to wonder about that body part.

On the move throughout, Byrne and a great multi-national band, barefoot and in identical gray suits, perform some 20 songs, including some of the big Talking Heads hits. The visuals are dazzling: Annie-B Parson’s clockwork choreography, inspired by Byrne’s oddball interest in ‘color guards’ (i.e. marching bands), and Rob Sinclair’s virtuoso lighting effects on a translucent curtain that seems at times to be made of hanging chains.

The Spike Lee film is amazingly inventive at capturing the stage/audience energy in a packed house (the 970-seat Hudson Theatre). Apparently there were 11 camera placements from every angle, including overhead, à la Busby Berkeley. Lee acknowledged that unexpected inspiration in a fascinating New York Times interview last month.

Under our circumstances, songs from the Before Time, like Burning Down The House, seem to wear a new mantle. The protest song Hell You Talmbout includes reading out the names of African-Americans killed by police officers.

At a moment of isolation and disconnection, there’s a spirit of community, social justice, and inclusion about the whole thing that wards off despair. It ends in a strangely hopeful way. “Everybody’s comin’ to my house/ I’m never gonna be alone.” With that Byrne et al take to their bicycles and go out into the streets of New York. You feel like cheering.

There’s a strange updraft, too, at the end of Dave Malloy’s weird and haunting Ghost Quartet In Concert. There are only a couple of chances left, and you shouldn’t miss the experience of this dreamy production by Toronto’s Crows Theatre adapted for film. It’s superbly staged by director: Marie Farsi and lit with other-worldly invention by Patrick Lavender. TheloMalloy is the creative original behind Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, a highly unusual musical extrapolated from chapters of War and Peace.

The original cast — Hailey Gillis, Kyra Guloien, Andrew Penner, Beau Dixon — returns. And they really bite into the characters who wander through the past and present interchangeably, in this free-floating, open-ended, un-hinged fantasia of ghost stories.

It’s certainly not storytelling in the conventional sense, with any narrative chronology that I could figure out (Malloy has called it a song cycle). But it’s full of stories, Scheherazade-style. And haunting figures — two sisters, a dead child, an astronomer, and a bear (who’s at “the last piano in the universe”) — recur in different permutations. The “monk” turns out to be jazz guru Thelonious Monk; the show is kooky that way.

The actors (including the wonderful Guloien, whose parents are ESO bassist Rhonda Taft and the reed virtuoso PJ Perry) are first-rate musicians. And their songs move blithely between jazz, rock,  folk, and something like classical recitative (or maybe that’s just the way Malloy’s oddly expanding lyrics work). Maybe we are all ghosts in our own memory-scape (to be discussed, over whiskey). Tickets: crowstheatre.com

If you’re up for venturing out of your house in person and not just in your mind, there are a couple of lively antidotes available. One of them I’ve seen, and can recommend: A Brimful of Asha at the Citadel, finds the hilarity, and the affection, in the gap between fractious generations, in the true-life account of a mother’s vigorous, and repeatedly failed, attempts to arrange a traditional marriage for her son. Read the 12thnight review here.

And here are two promising possibilities I’m looking forward to. Northern Light returns to live action tonight at the Westbury Theatre in Fringe-land (the ATB Financial Arts Barns), with the premiere of Trevor Schmidt’s new gothic thriller We Had A Girl Before You. The production, starring Kristin Johnston, runs through Nov. 21. Tickets here.  And at the Mayfield Dinner Theatre, a new musical ventures into the ’70s rock archive with Keep Calm and Rock On, which runs through the festive season till Jan. 17. Tickets here.

Take a couple, and call me in the morning.

 

     

  

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We Had A Girl Before You: what happened to her? A new Gothic thriller opens the Northern Light season

Kristin Johnston in We Had A Girl Before You, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

O no O no…. Don’t look through that keyhole. And don’t open that door.

Trevor Schmidt’s new gothic thriller looks through that keyhole, and  opens that door (and the Northern Light Theatre season), Friday. In We Had A Girl Before You we meet a Victorian orphan spinster who’s accepted a position as a lady’s companion. O no: at a remote country manor.  O no: on an island.

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What has happened to Edwina Trout’s predecessors in the job? It’s a mystery that “the new girl” (Kristin Johnston) is increasingly apprehensive about, but highly motivated to explore.    

We Had A Girl Before You, joins a select group of Schmidt’s own plays produced by NLT in his tenure of nearly two decades there, among them Flora and Fawna’s Field Trip, Cleopatra’s Sister, Water’s Daughter. And it’s a rare example of something tricky onstage: a solo thriller.

“The protagonist is trying to piece together a mystery, along with the audience,” says Schmidt of this complex playwriting and acting challenge. “It’s someone recounting their terrifying experience…. She walks us through it: ‘I felt my skin crawl’, that kind of descriptive language. And the audience is trying to get ahead of the story as well, to figure out where it’s going.”

Kristen Johnston in We Had A Girl Before You, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

“With narration, you can have her talking to someone through the keyhole. You can do creeping dread. You can do suspense. You can’t do jump scares, the shocking things like that,” he says of his chosen monologue form. The events of the story “have to be doled out differently in a monologue.”

As a veteran writer of award-winning monologues, sometimes play-length and sometimes an interlocking series (Watermelon Girls, Tales From the Hospital) Schmidt says “I love the idea of an unreliable narrator. Is this a ghost story? Or is this person crazy? Are we being told the truth?” After all, “we only get introduced to other characters through the protagonist. We’re only seeing their version of these people.”

Schmidt, who has long gravitated to writing for women, is “a huge fan” of the gothic thriller genre. “I love the old black-and-white movies, the ‘40s costume melodramas!” he says, warming to a favourite subject. He can’t get enough of the BBC Rank Studio movies based on the novels of Lady Eleanor Smith (The Man in Gray), or Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca), or Henry James (The Turn of the Screw).

The scenarios are time-honoured. “A young woman who ends up in a castle or a manor house. Sometimes she’s married to an emotionally distant man with secrets. Or she’s the second wife battling the memories of the first. Or  the governess. And if only she can uncover his secrets and help him heal, he’ll fall in love with her and her life will change.” Ah, or maybe it will change for the worse; things aren’t easy (in economic, romantic, or fashion terms as Schmidt points out) for the women of the Victorian age.

It’s an attraction that goes way back with him, back to a boyhood self whose TV access, of economic necessity, was delayed, then limited to three channels. “Saturday mornings when other kids were watching cartoons I was watching old black-and-white movies,” he says. “I was raised on them…. I think it’s why I’m so attracted to colour onstage. It’s the first thing I notice, and it’s very important to my design work.”

And that appeal includes the particularities of the acting style. “The best actors of that era have a heightened way of playing things,” says Schmidt, who’s nailed that delivery himself in such Guys in Disguise hits as BitchSlap! in which he was Bette Davis opposite Darrin Hagen’s Joan Crawford. Crawford, “fully commits to … everything! It’s so good. You have to play it straight, a full-on heartfelt commitment.”

The style “is very difficult for young actors today to grab onto,” as Schmidt puts it. “It’s just not accessible to them. They kinda want to send it up. To secretly make it a judgment instead of buying into it…. If you fully commit, it will work; if you hold back it won’t fly.”

Kristin Johnston in Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs, Northern Light Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Johnston was an ideal choice, says Schmidt, witness her big bold performances in such NLT shows as Origin of the Species and Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs. “When we started rehearsal, I told Kristin I didn’t know what the tone was — was it straight-up homage? Or a satire, because she is so funny? Can we straddle both? It starts off with lots of comedy, and becomes a lot more gripping and serious.”

That arc is what Schmidt and Hagen have aimed at in their outrageous Guys in Disguise comedies. “Darrin and I call it ‘the sucker punch’. You bring ‘em in thinking they’re getting one thing, then you give ‘em something more.… I love to pull the rug out from under people. You thought you knew, and now you don’t! ‘Cause life is like that.”

These thoughts find their way into a production originally intended as a two-night Northern Light fund-raiser in late November.  COVID meant the cancellation of the intended season-opener, The Oldest Profession, with its five-member cast of women of a certain age. Then “Fringe Theatre bumped us up (from the 60-seat Studio Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barn) into the (300-seat) Westbury. “It allows for more social distance, and for more seating…. We had to re-envision a solo show for a much larger space. That was the challenge.”

Actually, the sense of isolation in a big dark space works in favour of atmosphere, he says of a design that is more about candlelight, draperies, and sound designer/composer Dave Clarke’s contributions on theremin, than a set per se. “There’s a lot of telling; there’s not a lot of showing. So the audience has to engage their imagination and envision what’s being described.”

“You can’t just sit there!” says Schmidt, who’s no fan of kitchen sink drama (“where water runs in the tap … that doesn’t interest me.”). The less you can see the more you can start to imagine….”

PREVIEW

We Had A Girl Before You

Theatre: Northern Light Theatre

Written, directed, and designed by: Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Kristin Johnston

Where: Westbury Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: Friday through Nov. 21

Tickets and COVID restrictions: northernlighttheatre.com

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