The experimental spirit lives on in Edmonton theatre, live and in unusual hybrids

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

By Liz Nicholls,

Calling the pandemic an “obstacle” to live theatre, or maybe a “challenge,” is a bit like saying COVID is the flu.

The pandemic has had a devastating effect on an art whose raison d’être is the experience, interactive by very definition, of real live people sharing a space. But as they continue to prove, there’s been a remarkable resilience about theatre-makers. Performing for, communicating to, audiences … it’s what they DO. And dammit, they’re going to figure out ways to do it.

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I wrote in July (have a peek here) about the resourcefulness of theatre artists and companies struggling to jump-start their craft after the fateful, heart-stopping industry-wide shutdown in March. In exile from live stages, they taught themselves, fast, to write for, and perform on, unfamiliar virtual platforms. Or they took live theatre to The People instead of the other way round, one backyard deck at a time.

The financial implications for the industry are potentially ruinous, as the stream of lay-offs, cancellations, indefinite delays continues. But as the weather turns frostier, the spirit of experimentation lives on — in the gradual return of audiences to live, scaled-down in-person theatrical experiences, and in new virtual/live theatrical hybrids. It’s time to check in on the scene again. This week, when there are lively, and welcome, examples of all of the above, is a good time to do it.

Inviting size-small audiences inside into size-large theatre spaces for small-cast productions is a test of ingenuity in creating intimacy (and also in making the money work, in even a modest way).

Workshop West’s Here There Be Night, continuing its run till Nov. 1, is an experiment along the opposite route. It takes us out. And it’s intimate by definition: one-on-one immersive theatre that takes audiences, singly or two at time, to a series, of eight original five-minute solo plays that are custom-tailored in the writing, the directing, and the performing, for eight unexpected locations, mostly outdoors, in Old Strathcona — and for the eerily isolating times in which we live. In each case we’re part of the play; we have a role in the script.

We’re caught (as the cellphone app narration has it) between destinations, the world as we knew it and the unknowable world-to-be. Everything about it, including the locations (I mustn’t tell you about them in advance), speaks to the unnerving experience of being in a familiar world but seeing it in a new way. Here There Be Night takes you to  odd nooks in Fringe Theatre Land, from  jagged new angles. If you can possibly score a ticket, put your mitts on and sally forth, and prepared to be immersed. (WWPT’s Heather Inglis talks about the show here. We went out and saw the show Friday night. Read about that here. 

Colin Matty, Curio Shoppe, Catch the Keys Productions. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography

Curio Shoppe (running through Oct. 31), Catch The Keys, purveyors of the annual Dead Centre of Town excursion into Edmonton history at Fort Edmonton, is a clever experiment in turning an online experience in the lurid annals of Edmonton history into an interactive grave-straddling experience — a haunting on location at your place. The story unfolds based on your choices. Eerie? Ask not for whom your cellphone rings, it rings for thee. Check out thoughts from director Beth Dart here, and our experience with the show here.

Speaking as we are of playful creative experiments in the online world, I wish I’d seen an intriguing venture from The Fox Den Collective (Queen Lear Is Dead). They crafted an online mystery, S.I.S.T.E.R.,  live streamed to audiences on five-member teams that are visited in Zoom break-out rooms by a succession of suspects. The teams are invited to collaborate to ask questions, assess clues, make deductions. Sounds like fun.

We’ve already had the benefit of the increasing sophistication of Zoom and YouTube fractured-screen experiments. The plays have  been especially successful when, like Mac Brock’s Tracks which premiered in June, they’ve used the online medium itself as a sort of metaphor, and they’ve actually been created to be about COVID-ian feelings of disconnection and isolation.

Girl Brain has been savvy and playful with that thought. Catch their very amusing video series mining the Zoom disconnect and discomfort for comic sketches about the ambiguities and perils of dating in a pandemic. In the summer, the Citadel’s [esc] Series of playlets commissioned digital theatre experiments that were all about the domestic and professional miscues and mixed signals that are inevitable disruptions when life is live streamed instead of live.

Cherish Violet Blood in Deer Woman, Article 11. Photo by Prudence Upton.

The riveting live-streamed Article 11 premiere production of Tara Beagan’s Deer Woman, presented online by Calgary’s Downstage Theatre (starring Cherish Violet Blood), took this gut-wrencher of a play out of the theatre and into the woods. It’s a solo show till it isn’t —a visceral, galvanizing production that chronicles an escalating personal quest for some sort of social justice in a world of violence for Indigenous women. It isn’t cautious or polite in its exposé of white hypocrisy.

Like everyone hungry for theatre, I’ve been watching a huge assortment of theatrical productions created with a film version in mind (the deep-dive into the National Theatre, RSC, and Shakespeare’s Globe archives). Some locate you amongst real audiences in real theatres, from the Before Time. Some are playful with the conventions of YouTube viewing. And some, like the Old Vic’s series of solo or two-hand plays (Lungs, Faith Healer, Three Kings with the mesmerizing Andrew Scott), with distanced actors onstage in any empty house, capitalize on the premise of distance and an empty theatre.

The Twits, hosted online by The Guardian, is a filmed “theatrical reading” of the delightfully gruesome Roald Dahl story. It was storyteller theatre reduced to its base elements: a book with a story in it, a couple of (distanced) top-drawer actors on a stage in an empty theatre, clutching the book and a prop or two, selecting what to dramatize. It was a model of apparent simplicity. I learned something from that.

Nathan Cuckow and Beth Graham in Victor and Victoria’s Terrifying Tale of Terrible Things, Kill Your Television Theatre

Guys in Disguise experimented with radio play theatre earlier in P.T. (pandemic time). They reconfigured Dragula, their gothic Fringe spoof of a decade ago for voices inhabiting a clever space-defining sound design. Now Kill Your Television Theatre has just launched a YouTube audio version of their spooky and ingeniously framed gothic 2012 thriller Victor and Victoria’s Terrifying Tale of Terrible Things, by Beth Graham and Nathan Cuckow.

until the next breath, Catalyst, Grand Acts of Theatre. Photo by Alan Kellogg.

But the hunger remains for a live experience. Catalyst Theatre’s until the next breath (part of the National Arts Centre’s Grand Acts of Theatre series across the country), a hauntingly lyrical outdoor extravaganze in a clearing in Victoria Park, was the largest-scale theatre experience of the fall: a cast of 50 actors, musicians, dancers, performing for an audience of 100.

Increasingly, theatre companies have ventured back to in-person performances of limited-cast shows inside theatres. “Safe” isn’t a kudo to which the risk-takers of theatre would have aspired a year ago. But safety is the starting point for the return of audiences to theatre. And theatre companies have been exemplary.     

Nimet Kanji in A Brimful of Asha. Photo by Citadel Theatre.

The Citadel has launched a three-production Horizon Series LIVE with A Brimful of Asha, a hit-two-hander based on a real-life story, about the subterfuges of a mother trying to arrange a marriage for her son, who’s pushing 30 and still single, on a “vacation” to India. The show, originally destined for the Rice, has been moved to the Shoctor, for a 100-member masked audience with sanitized hands. That’s where it opened this past weekend. Meet director Mieko Ouchi here, and co-creator Ravi Jain here. More on the show to come.

Musical theatre specialists the Plain Janes experimented with reconfiguring theatre space for pandemical times, with the playful and ingenious Scenes From The Sidewalk: An Inside Out Cabaret. A masked audience of 20 distanced and in the Varscona Theatre lobby, looked out at the world through the big theatre windows, where six performers reached out to us through the glass, singing, dancing, presenting poems. The configuration was a metaphor for the subject matter, the pandemic experience for musical artists, looking wistfully at theatre from the outside (and vice versa). It felt both happy and poignant to be there. Read about it here.

Teatro La Quindicina returns live to the actual Varscona theatre stage for Welcome Home (two of the three Fridays of performance remain), a variety/ concert/ interview show with singing, dancing, and an original distanced Stewart Lemoine comedy for four actors. Have a look at the 12thnight preview here.

Improv is back live and in a theatre, too , with full COVID precautions. From the Grindstone (which includes live streamed versions of all shows), I caught a performance of Good Head by the amazingly dexterous Gordon’s Big Bald Head (Mark Meer, Ron Pederson). In a movie edition of their hit Fringe show they offered to “do” their own version of any flick in cinematic history. On the night I saw them, the duo did Gothika. Really.

Taking their cue from their chosen line of work, the ever-adaptable always-ingenious improv company Rapid Fire Theatre has moved to a flexible black box space, the Backstage Theatre at the ATB Financial Arts Barn, that’s more adaptable to changing COVID restrictions than the fixed-seat Zeidler Hall at the Citadel. For now, at least, they’ve improvised  cabaret tables. And since they’ve never met a high holiday they didn’t like, their programming (which includes live streaming) features a Halloween show, Murder at Makeout Point, “an improvised teen slasher” that opens tonight.

Next week there’s more. An actual musical revue, Keep Calm and Rock On by the mysterious Will Marks, opens at the Mayfield Dinner Theatre (table service for an audience reduced to about 150 in a 450-seat house). And Northern Light Theatre has moved its season-opener We Had A Girl Before You, an original psychological thriller by Trevor Schmidt, from the Studio Theatre at the ATB Financial Arts Barn to the much-larger Westbury Theatre. Look for 12thnight coverage of both shows.

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