Catalyst commits a Grand Act of Theatre: ‘until the next breath’ comes to a secret outdoor location Sunday

By Liz Nicholls,

“A grand act!” sighs Jonathan Christenson. “It’s everything I miss about theatre. I want to go to a big event. Where something happens. And it matters!”

“Grand!” declares Bretta Gerecke, lingering over an alluring word that’s dropped out of the arts lexicon of late. “Impactful! The idea of thrilling people, transporting people!”

No wonder Catalyst’s artistic director and resident designer found the proposition of Grand Acts Of Theatre irresistible. It came this summer from Jillian Keiley, artistic director of the National Arts Centre’s English Theatre. Says Christenson, she reached out “with the notion that right now one of the things we’re missing is the ability to create work on a large scale, something writ large, big metaphors. To invite audiences to a live experience that speaks to our collective experience, now….”

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The Catalyst artistic duo was listening. In these micro-sized screen-bound times, it was music to their ears.

The Edmonton theatre with the archive full of original highly theatrical musicals was chosen by the NAC as one of 11 innovative companies from across Canada commissioned to create a Grand Act Of Theatre. Their creation until the next breath happens Sunday night, one time only, at a secret Edmonton location, performed outdoors by a cast of 50 for a masked, distanced audience of 100, under strict COVID precautions.

“Do you want to do this? And can you do it in two months max?” Those were the two questions posed to Christenson and Gerecke at the end of July. The answers: ‘Yes!’ and ‘Wow! What will we do?’

Christenson and Gerecke loved Keiley’s examples of Grand. The Newfoundland company that trundled a grand piano to the top of a cliff, and dropped it over the edge. Or the grand theatrical ‘happenings’ of the green movement Extinction Rebellion, with their m.o. “of creating an event that makes people stop and stare, and see the movement in a different way,” says Gerecke, chatting with Christenson (and 12thnight) on her first day out of quarantine after crossing the Atlantic from her London home base.

These are the sorts of experiences “that stay with you.… Surprise and imagination! The unexpected!”

BIG was a rare kind of draw. “We normally can’t do huge-cast shows,” as Christenson points out. “This is a chance to work with a lot of performers!” Says Gerecke happily, “we’ chose to max out. Maximum number of performers, maximum number of audience members — a two-to one ratio of audience to performer — in a big space. We’ve gone for it!”

On paper the single performance proviso sounds like a limitation. Au contraire. “Liberating!” says Gerecke. “An opportunity!” says Christenson. “Normally you have to be able to re-do it every night.” Gerecke thinks of Burning Man, where the design goes up in flames as the one-off finale. 

The majority of the $50,000 budget for under the breath goes to artists. The cast of 50 includes “a mini-orchestra” of eight, eight singers, and 34 actors and dancers, with a crew of 10. “No one’s busy right now. And everyone is like us, craving (expression),” says Gerecke.

Fifty people can’t rehearse indoors. So the scripts, the score, the choreography video (by Laura Krewski) are distributed this week. And there are four-hour on-site rehearsals Saturday, one for the actors and dancers, and one for the musicians. Everyone comes together for a final rehearsal Sunday afternoon. And then, show time! It might be a new speed record for a company that normally develops work over months, sometimes years.  

What was the inspiration for Sunday’s event? “The idea of the liminal space,” says Christenson, of these strange, isolating pandemical times where certainties, both past and future, seem to have vanished into thin air. “The in-between period. In coming-of-age rituals it marks the moment between what you were and what you will be….”

“We felt it spoke to the time we’re in, that feeling of being in-between. We don’t have what we had, and it’s unclear if we’ll have it again. And do we even want to have it again?.… The experience of resistance, that part of you that desperately wants everything to change, and the part of you that doesn’t, the fear and anxiety about what comes next.” 

As admired and successful theatre artists whose careers had come to an abrupt and indefinite stop-work, he and Gerecke, continents apart, spent the summer musing on the threshold moment when certainties seem to have evaporated. “We wanted to give expression to this feeling….” The tone was liminal too. “We didn’t want under the breath to be a dark statement but at the same time it couldn’t be glibly upbeat,” he says.”What mattered to me was creating an experience that gave expression to that feeling….” 

He thinks that’s what Grand Acts of Theatre is getting at, “the ability of theatre to make a big statement, where you recognize (something of) yourself. That’s one of the things art can do, validate your own feelings….” 

“And it’s something that can only be done now,” says Gerecke, who was in the final tech rehearsal for a production at Birmingham Rep when theatre suddenly, completely, stopped. “How we are now is, I’m certain, very different than how we will be six months from now.”

A Grand Act is a chance to think about “how do we mark the time artistically when the doors are shut to our normal access point for storytelling? How do we create something that you look back on and say ‘Wow! That’s how we were!’.”

The process of creating under the breath “paralleled our own experiences trying to work through where we were at in our own journeys,” says Christenson. “We’re trying to figure out, in different ways and different places, how to move past. How do you get to the place where you step into the ‘what’s next’?” ”

Gerecke echoes the thought. “What do you want to change? What do you want to hang on to? We’re all being tested across the board…. If you build something that crumbles, how do you find a way to re-imagine your future? How do I reinvent my career” She notes that two of her four upcoming theatre projects are “digital, augmented reality.… You help define what comes next.”

“What we landed on was the idea of breath,” she says of the experience Edmonton audiences will have Sunday. Breath is dangerous, times being what they are, and precious too. Nature, at risk in the world along with humans, has breath. “We’re in a state of inhale, of holding our breath….”

But you can’t hold your breath forever. Says Christenson “We’ve all been shut down. And now we have to move forward.”

12thnight talked to NAC artistic director Jillian Keiley about Grand Acts of Theatre. Check out the PREVIEW HERE.


Grand Acts of Theatre: “The NAC Foundation wishes to thank the RBC Foundation as Presenting Partner of Grand Acts of Theatre. Also made possible by support from The Jenepher Hooper Fund for Theatre.

until the next breath

Theatre: Catalyst, as part of the National Arts Centre’s Grand Acts of Theatre

Created by: Jonathan Christenson (book, music, lyrics) , Bretta Gerecke (design), Laura Krewski (choreography), Matthew Skopyk (sound)

Directed by: Jonathan Christenson

Where: a secret urban location in Edmonton

Running: Sunday, 8 p.m.

Information and free tickets (now a waiting list): A five-minute video version will be posted by the National Arts Centre when Grand Acts of Theatre is complete. 


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