And back to the live! a horizon-expanding experiment at the Citadel

Horizon Lab, Citadel Theatre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

On Friday March 13 I went to the theatre — the Varscona, to see Shadow Theatre’s production of Heisenberg, starring Amber Borotsik and Glenn Nelson.

I haven’t stepped into a theatre since. Until Saturday night.

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Which is not like nipping out for a leg stretch or a breath of fresh air before Act II, you have to admit. Five-and-a-half months: A lot has happened in the world since then (and there’s been a lot of not-happening and staying home, too). 

It was the second of the sold-out two-night run of Horizon Lab at the Citadel, a collection of five original 10-minute pieces by five teams of BIPOC, LGBTQ and disabled artists. They, along with designer Elise CM Jason, were prompted by a simple but probing question. “Where are your stories?”

The Citadel closed its doors March 13, right after the dress rehearsal for The Garneau Block, which would have gone into previews the following night. An entire industry was, abruptly, cancelled. As the idea of live theatre blurred into some sort of distant ever-receding horizon, it  felt strange to be out on a Saturday night. In actual clothes. With shoes and a destination. Even pulling into that parkade under the Citadel, where I’ve kvetched about shelling out money  thousands of times (yup, 10 bucks is still the evening rate), seemed almost exotic.   

Instead of the usual queue at the box office in the lobby, there was a welcome desk just inside the south door: two masked people with smiling eyes, a clipboard, hand sanitizer. The instructions: Go up to the Shoctor lobby, stay distanced, wait to be ushered into the theatre, one (or one party) at a time, stay put for the duration in the seat assigned.

Small clusters of masked people stood around, expectantly. I recognized a playwright here, an actor there, a theatre couple over by the windows. In theatre, where the hug is the universally recognized equivalent of the handshake, the greeting was the wave. Plus a lot of eyebrow acting. 

Hand sanitizer bottles where the glossy programs are usually stacked. More hand sanitizer applied by the masked usher at the door of the Shoctor who pointed to the masked usher inside, who assigned a seat.    

Horizon Lab, Citadel Theatre.

Only 100 tickets, free but reservable, were available for Horizon Lab, for socially distanced seats in the 681-seat Shoctor Theatre. Being part of a 100 per cent masked and distanced audience felt reassuring. But the distances seemed vast (the couple in front of me was five rows away; the theatre-goer “beside” me was 10 seats away). But there we were, inside the wood-lined plush-seat venue. I’ve been there so many times in the decades; I haven’t really looked at the place in years. And, as a playwright/actor I know said to me, in the lobby before, “you’ll find it kind of weird at first, but as soon as the lights go out you’re home.” He was right.

Oddity: there is no one beside you, shoulder to shoulder, laughing along with you, clapping in unexpected places, and just breathing in with you at crucial moments. Theatre is, after all, based on the live communal feeling of being part of a crowd. Bonus: there is no one beside you coughing and fishing around in their purse for a candy to unwrap loudly and a cellphone to check surreptitiously. Along with all of you, I’ve been in audiences of way less than 100, but in intimate spaces, not 681-seat houses. 

Under circumstances that felt oddly formal (and very safe), but celebratory too, the Treaty 6 land acknowledgment had an unusual resonance, as presented by the exuberant Metis-Cree artist Tai Amy Grauman, one of the trio of summer Citadel artistic associates (including Helen Belay and Mieko Ouchi) who’d dreamed up the Horizon Lab initiative.

The impulse was part of the Citadel’s program of welcoming diverse, marginalized artists, who’ve often been excluded from theatre-making. The most graphic was the opening piece, Part of This World (a collaboration between Carly Neis, Patricia Cerra, and Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks). “Can we get Carly Neis to the stage?” says a stage manager voice.

Maybe, but it’s tricky. Neis’s story — the story of disabled artist, whose day job is administration and box office at the Citadel — was demonstrated as a physical odyssey towards the ever-elusive stage, a dangerous and often discouraging quest full of obstacles and delays for her and a remarkably calm, stage-savvy support dog Oakley. How do you find your light, centrestage, when your motorized wheelchair might not fit in elevators, or doors, or be visible over high counters? “Don’t worry about it. I’m still OK down here,” she sighs, after every setback. “When will other folks catch up to my normal?”

This show, she says poignantly, is “the start to my happily-ever-after….”

For The Boy and the Sun (by Cree artist Todd Houseman and Latinx artist Lady Vanessa Cardona), the three disks of Jason’s lovely design, glow like planets. An exasperated Sun (Christina Nguyen) calls out an “Alberta boy” (Sheldon Stockdale). “Look asshole … you’re a racist and racists go to hell….”

The most whimsical, a sort of fantasy coming-of-age adventure quest for a plucky kid and a single father, is Please Don’t Put Me In A Situation. It’s created and performed by queer multi-disciplinary artist Elena Eli Belyea and Sudanese-Canadian actor/ writer/musician Mohamed ‘Moe’ Ahmed.

The Book of Persephone, by Mac Brock and Tasana Clarke and performed by the charismatic latter, finds in the myth of Persephone, who disappears “over and over again,” a powerful image for the longing to be reinvented, to find another self, “stop running,” and be home.

In the finale Delay, created and performed by Richard Lee Hsi and Morgan Yamada to their own musing voice-over text, the quest for a livable, meaningful identity in these strange times comes home … to the theatre.  Both are eloquent physical actors and both are masked.

Am I still an actor?” wonders Lee Hsi. “I’ve forgotten what to do with my hands?” Yamada revisits questions she once mocked, like “how do you memorize all those lines?”

As actors, robbed of their raison d’être by a virus, they’ve discovered “a delay between mind and body.” And in beautiful synchronized sequences, their bodies “act” that delay out. When they connect hand-to-hand it’s briefly, and followed by hand sanitizing.

“I wake up and every day is the same day,” says Lee Hsi. We all know now what that means. And we know now that we’ll be back in the theatre — in a strange new way perhaps, but we’ll be back.

Stay tuned. The Citadel will be posting a digital version of Horizon Hub soon. 

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