Big, memorable, and live: Catalyst is part of Grand Acts of Theatre across the country

Caitlyn MacInnis and Margaret Thompson in Something Bubbled Something Blue, Grand Acts of Theatre. Photo by Scott Cooper.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the fateful summer of 2020, Jillian Keiley’s thoughts turned to … live. And she was not alone.

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Four months into the new, weird, screen-dominated pandemical world, the artistic director of the National Arts Centre’s English Theatre found “I was missing the live show. And also really missing the event of being at the show. The moment of it. The experience.”

Jillian Keiley, artistic director of National Arts Centre English Theatre. Photo by John Arano.

True, the NAC had already done “something great, something I was really proud of,” says Keiley of #CanadaPerforms, an online series launched in mid-March that paid artists, whose livelihoods were suddenly and indefinitely on hold, to livestream their shows. “Seven hundred performers from across the country, broadcasting from their bedrooms,” as she puts it.

“What we weren’t able to do was to have artists come together and create something that showed design and metaphor in how it was put together, in how the story was told, how it had meaning in how the story was told. I really longed for that!” she says.

Grand Acts of Theatre was born in that longing. Keiley’s bright idea was a cross-country string of original large-scale outdoor events, happenings, to be performed — once — for a live audience, and then captured in short videos. What she had in mind was something with big theatrical impact, meaning, and community reverb. Something to capture the public imagination, inspired by the times.

“A big statement, something that people would remember, that would have deep meaning to the community where it played…. And the community would extend to the people who will watch it recorded as well,” nationally (and internationally).

So, with the assistance of the Jenepher Hooper Fund for English Theatre (“to do something special”), the NAC commissioned 11 (soon to be 12) innovative Canadian theatre companies from across the country, St. John’s to Vancouver. Keiley and her co-curator Sherry Yoon of Vancouver’s Boca del Lupo chose Edmonton’s Catalyst Theatre to be one of them. The Catalyst creation, until the next breath, happens Sunday night at a secret urban location, with a cast of 50 and a live audience of 100. (More about this in an upcoming 12thnight post). 

On the phone from St. John’s (“if you’re working from home you might as well be home”), Keiley amplifies her idea of  “a grand sweeping statement,” something with impact in inverse proportion to length. “When I was a young woman I witnessed someone throw a grand piano off a cliff,” she says. Now, there’s the  kind of no-intermission event that sticks with you. 

“We gave each company $50,000 to create something, with a bit extra to make the film. You can’t really make a two-hour show with that. So this is more of a performance burst, an event. We asked the companies to ‘put all your efforts into this one statement’…. It’s an opportunity for theatre-makers to boil down what they usually stretch out over an hour and a half.” So far, the creations run mostly in the 10 to 15-minute range, she reports.

As for size, “big” is an elastic concept, both in cast and audience. It varies show to show, not least because it depends on the changing COVID safety restrictions in every locale. For another it depends on the nature of the show itself. And after all, it only takes one person (and a crane) to hurl a grand piano off a cliff.

She and Yoon drew up a “master list of 60 companies” across the country, with a view to diversity, racial and artistic. “Just to be fair,” the pair ruled out Boca del Lupo, where Yoon is artistic director and St. John’s Artistic Fraud (Keiley was the founding artistic director for 18 years before she arrived at the NAC in 2012). No geographical area got more than one event. In the next couple of weeks the NAC will announce a 12th company, in the North. Interestingly, the series doesn’t include events in either Toronto or Ottawa.

Intramural.e, designed by Peatr Thomas for Théâtre Cercle Molière/ Synonym Art Consultation, Grand Acts of Theatre. Photo by BNB Studios.

The turn-around was fast. After all, this is Canada. And the seasonal clock is ticking. “We wanted this to be happening in September and October, before the snow flies.…We looked at companies with long histories of big-impact outdoor events. High impact, high metaphor, high mystery, different kinds of artists.” In July the NAC asked 11 companies to say Yes or No, and get to it. “The only provocation we gave,” says Keiley, “was ‘do something that speaks to these times’.…

The series began Sept. 12 in Barrie, Ont. with Something Bubbled Something Blue, a collaboration between Barrie’s Talk Is Free Theatre and Toronto’s Outside The March. It was a wedding which had the happy couple in big separate inflatable bubbles. Trespassers Waltz, from Regina’s Curtain Razors (Sept. 20), says Keiley, who’s seen the pictures, was “holy cow! a sweeping vision of people out on the prairies, Queen Victoria out surveying her land.”

Slated for Saturday are performances from Kaha:wi Dance Theatre of Six Nations, Ont. and the Canadian Academy of Mask and Puppetry in Calgary. Vancouver’s Electric Company and Neighbourhood Dance Works in St. John’s are coming up in October. So far, the series finale is Oct. 11 with Montreal’s Black Theatre Workshop.  

But before that, on Sunday, is Edmonton, and Catalyst’s until the next breath. The company isn’t known for outdoor work, true. But the Catalyst aesthetic tilts to bold theatricality, high-impact visuals and physicality in performance. Keiley is a long-time admirer. She still remembers, lo these many years, seeing Catalyst’s Abundance in Edmonton (in the ‘90s). “A bunch of, wombs?, inside a warehouse, a big meaningful installation…. I love their work.”

The goal, as Keiley puts it, was to create performance that would be part of people’s memories of a strange time. “So people would look back in 10 years and say ‘remember the pandemic? remember when we went to that wedding in balls?’”

The idea wasn’t a “play,” per se. Not for this project.

“We’re in a place now where we really have to re-think theatre. And I’m happy to challenge these companies to do that…. I don’t think theatre as we know it is over forever. But I think that people are starting to find some really interesting ways to tell stories that still have a theatrical edge but don’t require soft seats and a backstage.”

The variety in Grand Acts of Theatre is striking — in tone and spirit, in aesthetic, in perspectives on the divisive, uncertain times we live in. “Some are funny, some very political, some beautiful and dreamy, about isolation…. It made me cry, too, to think about resilience. People are just so resilient. When you think about the time we’re in, you think you just want to go back to bed. But then you see people being so clever, so resilient, getting around it, and you think something beautiful can come out of this!”

Check the Catalyst website for updated details on until the next breath.

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