By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
In The Snow Queen, a strange and haunting fairy tale by the 19th century Danish master Hans Christian Andersen, a magic troll mirror distorts everything it reflects. It shatters, scattering icy splinters across the world. Anyone who gets a bit of troll shrapnel in the eye will see only the bad and the ugly.
A young girl travels far and wide through fantasy lands and into the epicentre of the Snow Queen’s frozen kingdom to discover her own power and rescue her childhood friend held captive there.
It’s a tale with global, and contemporary, reverb. The Snow Queen has inspired film animations, live-action movies, animé, stage and radio plays, musicals, operas, ballets, video games — and in the case of Disney corp, a movie and a Broadway musical. Now, it’s inspired a contemporary live adventure adaptation, an experiment in “immersive Escape Room puzzle-based theatre,” as Vanessa Sabourin puts it.
This is not a tired category, to say the least. The Snow Queen, which runs tonight through May 27 (202 10545 108 St.) in a workshop debut, is a new and original collaboration between the theatre pros of Azimuth Theatre and a corps of high school theatre kids.
Sabourin, and her Azimuth co-artistic director Kristi Hansen, took time from their day of Freewill Shakespeare Festival rehearsals for A Comedy of Errors to describe the initiative. It’s been a long time coming. “Fifteen years ago, Vanessa, Amber Borotsik and I were thinking about an adaptation of The Snow Queen,” says Hansen, fresh from a starring role in The Silver Arrow: The Untold Story of Robin Hood at the Citadel. Other theatre intervened, but they remained haunted.
“There’s something about an epic journey through a fantasy world,” says Sabourin, “finding your own grounding points, and how you interact….” The protagonist Gerda “goes a great distance to find somebody who is important to her,” a journey framed by the troll mirror and its fall-out: “it infects the whole world, making it hard to enjoy the truer things in life.”
These resonances made Hansen and Sabourin think young. “It’s about the experience of growing up and finding oneself,” says Hansen of the fairy tale. They consulted with young people, but getting feedback wasn’t enough. “We’re making a lot of guesses about what teenagers are like these days. We need them in the room with us, their influences, their pop culture references, the way they use social media, the grand ‘eye’ watching everything.” If someone did go missing now, as Gerda’s friend Kai does in the Snow Queen original, there would be an veritable epidemic of Facebook shares.
A true creative collaboration was born, one that syncs with Azimuth’s idea of “ensembles that combine professional theatre artists and emerging artists,” says Hansen. She and Sabourin, along with fellow mid-career pros Borotsik, Belinda Cornish, and Aaron Macri, plus emerging artists Andrés Morena and Michelle Diaz, teamed up with a “very game” seven-member ensemble of high school creator/performers.
And tonight, in a venue far from the soft seats in rows of conventional theatres, audiences — a max of 20 a night — will puzzle out a puzzle for themselves. “They’re a vital part of the process,” says Sabourin. “We won’t know what we have till we see what happens, how the puzzles reflect the story of Gerda’s journey, video game logic…. It’s something from nothing; the world shifts and moves in a single room.”
Designer Tessa Stamp, has thrown her experience in creating Escape Rooms into the project, too. And the Azimuth creators were influenced by Everyone We Know Will Be There: the Tiny Bear Jaws production was an actual real-time teen house party in an actual suburban house.
So, what exactly is a play-based Escape Room? How will the audience pick up clues? You’ll have to show up and be part of it to find out. “We think of this as a sketch book piece; not everything is a final destination,” says Sabourin. She and Hansen laugh. “The whole point of doing this is not knowing how to do it.”
The Snow Queen
Created by: Aaron Macri, Amber Borotsik, Andrés Moreno, Belinda Cornish, Michelle Diaz, Kristi Hansen, Vanessa Sabourin, Michael Watt, Zachary Nay, Olivia Staver, Maya Parkins, Joshua Graham, Rashaun Ellis, Jacquelin Walters
Directed by: Vanessa Sabourin
Where: 202 10545 108 St.
Running: tonight through May 27