Big risks in little spaces: meet Fringe artist Louise Casemore

Louise Casemore and Vern Thiessen in Gemini. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography

By Liz Nicholls,

Like so many bright creative ventures, it didn’t start with a philosophical position. It started with being broke.

That’s how actor/playwright Louise Casemore traces the origins of her enthusiasm for site-specific theatre — the kind of theatre that happens “in found spaces, in bars, alleys, shops….” Anywhere, in short, except conventional formal theatres. As she says, “artists have to be pretty DIY. It starts in the practical: who has four grand a month for spaces?” Poverty is the mother of invention.

And then, it happened. The more Casemore took on the risk of performance up close, the more she grew to love “the intimacy, the obliteration of the divide between performer and artist” that happens when your “theatre” is a cafe or (as happened in Calgary this past year) an Aveda training academy. Or a bar.

That’s where you’ll find Casemore’s latest creation, Gemini, downstairs at El Cortez Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar, where her remarkably nervy OCD premiered in 2015.

Gemini is her first two-hander. And,“writing it was a torturous process,” Casemore laughs. “Writing actual dialogue! I agonized over the script-writing process.”

She co-stars with playwright Vern Thiessen, one of the country’s leading playwrights, fresh from the Soulpepper Theatre run of his play Of Human Bondage in New York. Casemore wrote the part specifically for Thiessen; they met at Keyano (College in Fort McMurray) in 2006. “He directed a show I was in…. Vern was the first supporter of Defiance Theatre,” Casemore’s company. “He bought the first 10 tickets of the first show I ever did.”

Casemore, who moved to Calgary last year to be part of Ghost River Theatre’s creative ensemble, explains that a bar is Gemini’s natural environment; Casemore describes the play as an exploration of bar culture and the nature of the relationships that happen there. Being site-specific, on location, and in a non-conventional space, is a way to “create surprise, and connect with people in ways they don’t expect.”

Edmonton has a whole festival devoted to that, the Found Festival in June. And Casemore, who clearly embraces risks that would make other actors blanche, naturally gravitated to it. She tried something potentially uncomfortable there: a “fully actualized AA meeting for an audience of one.”

The same idea for an audience of 10 in Calgary turned out to be “the most difficult performance experience in my life!” She still shudders at the memory. 

Casemore’s work-in-progress roster speaks to the experimental spirit. There’s Un-Dress, a piece about how hard it is to get rid of your wedding dress — now, there’s a real-life premise with metaphorical reverb — for a Calgary production. And for Ghost River’s sensory series, Casemore, who’s in charge of the sense of smell, is creating “a scent-based experience.”

“There’s natural imagery that comes from a space,” she says. “And it’s important to lean into it as a performer.” And why not, since “Taco Tuesday is clearly happening above you!” she laughs. “Let’s be where we are! There’s honesty in acknowledging the drunk guy in the second row.”

“Not to say it’s always good,” she says of the risky dynamic you thereby invite. OCD, in which played an ever-twitchier and ever-more anxious  volunteer waiting for the show to begin, has toured Alberta and played Winnipeg since its premiere at El Cortez. “Oh, the stories that have added to the mythology of that show!” she says cheerfully. Sometimes members of the audience get impatient, or rude, or storm loudly out. “But those moments compared to the moments of compassion … it’s very small. Sometimes an audience member would say ‘no, I think you’re going to be OK’.”   

“I wouldn’t trade it,” she says of the kind of high-risk performance theatre she does. She laughs,  “sometimes I think that the most masochistic thing I could have done is to write something for Vern, one of our country’s foremost text magicians!”

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