By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
It started out as an ambulatory theatre adventure. Tracks let its audiences loose to wander in an unexpected assortment of rooms and spaces — a theatre box office, dressing rooms, bathrooms, the playwright’s car — to eavesdrop on intimate moments, the kind people don’t usually share.
Then came a pandemic, and an age of enforced isolation: a time in human history when alienation isn’t just something you drift into if you’re maladjusted, but something deliberate. And Tracks has morphed. In this new world of disconnection, what would become of Mac Brock’s immersive theatre experiment, a demo of the liveness of live theatre if ever there was one? Could a piece based on dropping into different rooms rubbing elbows with the performers still connect in lively, meaningful ways with its audience when the performers can’t ever be in the same room with each other, much less with you the theatre-goer?
We’re about to find out. Born at Nextfest and slated for a live run in Fringe Theatre’s official Off Season this month, Tracks leaves the great big global station called The Internet Tuesday, transformed. The play, which won the 2019 Westbury Family Fringe Theatre Award, now travels in a form specially invented for the online world. You follow it along diverse tracks you choose, on an original, live, interactive platform that Brock, director Beth Dart, and Fringe techno whiz Bradley King have had to create specially for the occasion. And you’ll find yourself en route to nine very different home “theatres” and nine personal stories performed by the diverse ensemble of artists, including Brock himself.
The “dream transformation” of Tracks wasn’t something Brock could have predicted, he says. “My instinct was ‘let’s press Pause and come back to this later’.
Brock, who arrived in Edmonton from his home town Regina in 2017 (his day job is media and communications at the Citadel), credits the adventurous spirit of Dart, “the first person I called as soon as I needed a director … so insightful, experienced and wise in figuring out new rules of engagement.”
Dart, along with her sister Megan Dart and their cutting-edge indie company Catch The Keys (creators of the annual Dead Centre of Town productions), are go-to specialists in rattling and reconfiguring the conventional relationship between stage and audience. The immediate Dart impulse, Brock reports happily, was ‘this is not a hurdle; this is an opportunity. We get to figure this out and do something great with it!”
“Wild!” says Dart of the creation, design, and rehearsal process the team, some 20 people strong, have invented, like the digital platform itself, at every step. Brock, whose play Boy Trouble opened the 2019 Nextfest lineup, has a contagious kind of effervescence about him: the results, he says, are “beyond our wildest dreams!”.
In its first incarnation, Tracks “directed audience members to walk to different rooms. Now we’re making buttons appear. and different pages, different streams …” he says. What Tracks is not is an invitation to watch archival video footage of a pre-existing stage performance. “This is still very much a live performance. The performers are there with you (from their own homes), at every performance. And they want to know that you’re there!”
“Mac created the through-line, from a series of short scenes he wrote in 2017, to revisit how we place value on ourselves and our creative work, how we decide what’s worthy to be presented to the public,” as Dart explains. “When the pandemic hit, we decided there’s actually not a better piece to adapt itself to this situation….”
“There are snippets from the original piece,” she says. “But it’s specially crafted for this platform that we are ourselves just discovering as we create.” King, the Fringe’s highly creative systems analyst, developed a website for Tracks that “offers the streams that we are creating: we are SO lucky to have him….” Brock concurs, vigorously. “We struck gold with Bradley!”
Dart explains. “The audience meets Mac, and at certain moments in his journey he presents them with options, and they can choose which tracks to follow.” The performers aren’t really “characters,” not in the usual sense, she says. “Each has created a solo piece that’s very personal; they’re performing as … themselves.”
“It doesn’t feel like acting,” laughs Brock. “My portion of the show feels a lot more like telling a story to a certain number of friends who are maybe watching the internet. Very personal. Very intimate.…Everyone has created a piece in their own home that feels like an element of their life they want to share. You feel you’re a fly on the wall in their lives. And there are so many inventive ways of letting the audience into their world: comedy, music, dance, visual arts…. Such a range of creative backgrounds and experience in creating theatre.”
Actors, performance artists, sound artists, visual artists … the ensemble runs the gamut. “They’re such accomplished and polished artists whose own stories have never been seen by an audience,” says Brock of his cast-mates. “How are these people not the ones you see every single day on our biggest stages?!”
The need for re-invention has extended to every aspect of Tracks, including rehearsing on Zoom, where a four-hour session feels as long as 10 in-person hours in real space, says Dart. “Your eyes cross!”
“We gather together online for a check-in at the beginning of our rehearsal day. And I send the cast out to break-out rooms. Mac and I bounce from room to room, working on dramaturgy or scene development, or whatever. It’s been bizarre!”
Stage manager Izzy Bergquist has had to reinvent what that job means. Since the cast performs in their homes, designers Elise Jason and Even Gilchrist have created design packages — lighting instruments, sound equipment, microphones, cameras, backdrops, props — for nine very different spaces (“nine tiny home-shaped theatres,” as Dart puts it). And production manager Frances Girard spent last week driving them around, and dropping them off, “contact-less deliveries à la Skip the Dishes,” says Brock. There have been Zoom meetings to talk the performers through “how to install the set design in their basement or their apartment….”
“We’ve all had to become our own stage managers, our own technicians, our own sound designers. And the designers can’t come and trouble-shoot.… Terrifying!” As it rolls along, Track has gathered other collaborators — movement specialists, sound consultants, composer/musician Erik Mortimer, who’s provided underscoring.
Brock sighs. “Our team has never been in the same space — we never had a full cast meeting before this started. And we won’t for a long time.”
For Dart and Brock, the main challenge has been “how to create that sense of liveness with an audience that isn’t in the room with us,” says the former. “We might have an argument about calling this ‘theatre’,” Dart concedes. “But it’s definitely live.”
What does audience interaction mean in the digital world? “We approach from lots of different angles,” says Dart. “Sometimes the audience (a maximum of 30 per performance) type in responses, or play games with performers…. You’ll be able to tell that the performers are in live time, and there are moments of integrating audience feedback. Lots of options and possibilities.”
If the term “audience participation” gives you a frisson of quease, fear not. “Some pieces are very interactive, some not at all,” she says. “But we’re never expecting the audience to turn on their cameras or be part of a scene!” And you can never get lost in digital wonderland. “You’ll always be able to find yourself back to where you’re supposed to be!”
Dart says “I truly believe theatre belongs in real space. And there’s an element of the creative process lost when you don’t get to share space together. But this is a way we can offer a sense of connectedness and community in the situation in which we find ourselves.”
“It’s a giant experiment,” she says. “And everyone has embraced it…. Artists have a beautiful way to offer something other than isolation, whether live-stream concerts or phone-call poetry readings. We can all use a little connection right now!”
Fringe Theatre Off Season
Theatre: Amoris Productions
Created by: Mac Brock with the ensemble
Directed by: Beth Dart
Starring: Asia Bowman, Mac Brock, Fatmi El Fassi El Fihri, Anthony Hunchak, Moses Kouyaté, Marguerite Lawler, Hayley Moorhouse, NIUBOI, Mustafa Rafiq
Where: your own home
Running: May 19 to 24