A night walk through Strathcona: Workshop West launches season with ‘an adventure into the unknown’

Here There Be Night, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo by dbphotographics.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Workshop West Playwrights Theatre is back in action next week — live, on its feet, and in motion. And it’s with an original promenade adventure that takes you on a nocturnal walk through Old Strathcona.

The logistics of Here There Be Night (since there is no live theatre without intricate logistics in this new world) amount to a tour: eight locations (outdoors or in found spaces), eight original five-minute plays, for a solo actor and an exclusive audience consisting of you (or you and a partner) and a cellphone.

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The great outdoors, the built-in distancing, the (very) small cast size and audience, not to mention the short attention span required … Here There Be Night could have been specially created for these COVID-ian times. Oh wait … it was.

As Workshop West’s new artistic producer Heather Inglis explains, Here There Be Night, the highlight of By Fire (Part 1 of the company’s 2020-2021 season), was designed, from the outset, “to use the restrictions of COVID as theatrical conventions.” And the idea was a theatrical adventure that showcased playwrights, as per the Workshop West writer-nurturing mandate. “The language has been pivoting to online experience. But theatre is live!” declares Inglis, who arrived at Workshop West last year from Theatre Yes, the indie company she founded and led. “It’s a different medium than anything recorded electronically. Artists who work in theatre specialize in creating experiences for people who are in the same space together….”

Alternative theatre, immersive “guerrilla” experiences that happen in unconventional spaces, have been something of an Inglis specialty. The Theatre Yes archive contains an assortment of off-centre initiatives, installations, immersive experiments in re-working the usual dynamic between performers and their audiences. Anxiety, for example, gathered original “performance installation” responses to the title epidemic from six of the country’s leading indie companies, and then bused audiences to a secret Edmonton warehouse location to experience them. The National Elevator Project redefined “intimate theatre” by commissioning original short plays performed in a succession of downtown Edmonton elevators.

“Like everyone else in the country, we spent a lot of time thinking how to move forward, what programming could be in a changing environment, with new information every day,” says Inglis of the extreme and unforeseen circumstances of her new gig at Workshop West. “There’s such a huge risk in conventional theatre production on a number of different levels, since the house capacity has to be very small.”

“All across the country we were having conversations about how to keep some energy pulsing through the theatre,” Inglis says. The immediate inspiration for Here There Be Night she credits to a conversation last May with actor/ director/ dramaturg Brian Dooley, a veteran Workshop West artist now Montreal-based. In his time as head of new play development at the Citadel, he’d experimented with Encounters, a series original playlets performed by one actor for an audience of one, the personal touch in theatre.

Inglis extrapolated. “If we were going to do this, now was the time to go forward…”  The performers would be spread out, outside or in intrinsically safe spaces, within a three-block radius in Old Strathcona. The audience would access them, guided by their cellphones.” That was the geographical proposition. And, says Inglis, it involved an element of surprise in the ‘where’; that was part of the fun.”

Here There Be Night, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre.

The dramaturgical proposition for 10 playwrights, of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds (and varying degrees of theatre experience from emerging to starry), started with the requirement to write for one actor performing for an audience of one or two, in a five-minute piece, strictly no longer. And “built right into the writing at the very beginning, was that each piece was created for the specific scenario of COVID and the environment they’d be performed in…. The idea was using the space between the audience and actors as an important component of the theatrical experience.”

“It felt important to engage a bunch of artists to create, to practise their craft at this time, as opposed to doing a longer work by one playwright for 15 people a night.” Two of the ten writers are a husband-and-wife team, Aksam Alyousef and Amena Shehab. Their fellow playwrights include Beth Graham, Josh Languedoc, Bevin Dooley, Mieko Ouchi, Jason Chinn, Harley Morison and Mūkonzi was Mūsyoki. The audio narrator you’ll hear on your cellphone is award-winning filmmaker and horror writer Susie Moloney.

Their “thematic prompt” to the writers, says Inglis, was “the potentiality of the un-seen: the things we can see, the things we can’t see , the potential to find something in the darkness.…” It takes its cue from these uncertain times, “when everyone has spent a lot of time wondering about next week, next month, don’t ask about Christmas, the what’s beyond our present.”

“It’s certainly not a haunted house,” Inglis laughs. “But it ties in with the spooky season … the connection with what might be on ‘the other side’.” She reports, happily, that the “responses from the playwrights have been as individual as they are…. The audience will be treated to a collection of short stories that reflect unique Edmonton visions.”

“The pieces all adhere to distancing rules we must enforce. But they also involve the audience in some way. Not with ‘audience participation’ but the storytelling happens with them.” Although most of the playwrights are themselves expert performers, only Amena Shehab appears in her own piece.

The four directors  — Inglis herself, Patricia Cerra, Lana Michelle Hughes and Trevor Schmidt — are provided by the participating theatres, Workshop West, Theatre Network, Catalyst, Northern Light, and Theatre Yes. It is likely to be the season’s only example of BYOD (bring your own director) theatre.

The logistics of preparing the production are intricate, as you might surmise. Zoom has been only marginally involved. Rehearsals have happened, masked, disinfected, and on an elaborate schedule of staggered start times in the large hall at Workshop West headquarters near NAIT.

COVID: it’s not an age that’s been kind to musicals or romances, as Inglis points out “What makes Here There Be Night viable is that, after a big first day on Zoom, we don’t all have to be together…The director, actor, and stage manager can be very spread out.”

For both the artists and the audience, “this is theatre as going on an expedition into the unknown.”

PREVIEW

Here There Be Night

Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre (with participation from Theatre Network, Catalyst Theatre, Northern Light Theatre, Theatre Yes)

Written by: Aksam Alyousef and Amena Shehab, Jason Chinn, Bevin Dooley, Beth Graham, Josh Languedoc, Mieko Ouchi, Susie Moloney, Harley Morison, Mūkonzi wa Mūsyoki

Directed by: Patricia Cerra, Heather Inglis, Lana Michelle Hughes, Trevor Schmidt

Starring: Helen Belay, Nadien Chu, Patricia Darbasie, Sheldon Elter, David Madawo, Jameela McNeil, Christina Nguyen, Amena Shehab, Melissa Thingelstad

Where: eight locations in Old Strathcona (meet at the Theatre Network at the Roxy box office 8529 Gateway Blvd.; wear warm clothes and bring a cellphone, at least iPhone 6 or Android 4, plus mask and earbuds.

Running: October 22 to Nov. 1, staggered start times

Tickets and schedule: workshopwest.org

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