New faces in theatre: meet designer/scenographer Elise CM Jason in a new 12thnight series

They’re young, bright, and unstoppably creative. And, pandemic be damned, their adaptable, flexible talents are already lighting up the Edmonton theatre scene. In this 12thnight series you’ll meet some of E-town’s sought-after up-and-comers, artists whose work, on- and backstage, is already having an impact in this challenging age — and will have more when the theatre doors are open again. 

Meet designer/scenographer Elise CM Jason first. And look for others in this continuing 12thnight New Faces series.

All That Binds Us, Azimuth Theatre. Scenographer Elise CM Jason, projections by Effy Adar. Photo by Brianne Jang, BB Collective.

By Liz Nicholls,

ELISE CM JASON, designer/ scenographer

If you saw Azimuth Theatre’s All That Binds Us in the fall, you’ll have watched five ethnically/ racially diverse characters intersect in a Canada shaped by a shimmering veil.

Sometimes it was translucent, an effect like seeing the imagery of the world refracted through ice; sometimes it was opaque, reflecting light and hard-edged images back at us. Sometimes it seemed to part.

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The design for this theatrical provocation, created to dispel our white-centric Canuck self-mythology, was the work of Elise CM Jason (they/them). Even before they graduated from the U of A’s BFA-in-design program in 2018, the multi-faceted artist, who identifies as mixed-race, non-binary and queer, has been in demand, in theatre companies of every size and aesthetic stripe, including the mighty Citadel.

Scenographer Elise CM Jason. Photo by Brianna Jang of BB Collective.

For Horizon Lab, a live experiment late last summer on the Shoctor stage, Jason fashioned a single evocative design for five original vignettes by five teams of BIPOC artists. The prompt they shared: “where are your stories?” The stage was dominated by three glowing orbs: a multi-hued galaxy of planets? a trio of tall draped connected figures?.

Where is Jason’s own story? Their portfolio includes design work at companies across town — Northern Light, Shadow, l’UniThéâtre, Opera Nuova among them, as well as an array of festivals (Nextfest, the Fringe, Freewill Shakespeare). It’s weighted to the theatrical outliers, indies with an off-centre bent and an appetite for experimentation, like Mile Zero Dance, Catch the Keys Productions, Cardiac Theatre, that make theatre happen in bars, loading docks and lighting booths, people’s apartments. Or the great outdoors. Jason’s Found Festival site-specific theatre piece On The Margin, developed when they were the fest’s 2018 FRESH AiR emerging artist, took audiences into the river valley, standing in for Banff National Park in 1982.

Jason’s natural home is indie theatre where the division of labour is “me doing five different jobs.” At the Citadel, instead of  “me pulling an all-nighter to finish the set and paint it,” Jason found themself the person assigning tasks to specialists. “It forced me to be a lot more organized than I usually am!”

Jason’s first paying job, as a second-year U of A theatre design student, was a Catch the Keys original. The Runcible Riddle, populated by Edward Lear characters, took audiences on a perambulation through the backstage labyrinth at the Citadel for unexpected encounters in odd spaces with Edward Lear characters. “I really got to see what immersive theatre, in found spaces, is like,” says Jason. “And I loved it!”

A set design kit for Tracks. Photo supplied.

For Tracks, Amoris Productions’ intricate experiment in live online storytelling in May, Jason designed nine quite different home theatres, in which nine performers presented their own personal stories of making art. The designs were delivered in boxes, lights, cords, video stuff, a theatrical Skip The Dishes of sorts, to the nine artists to set up in their own homes.

There’s a collaborative gist to creation at the companies Jason is most stoked to work with; scenography (a designation they prefer to ‘design’) is integrated, from the start. “Everybody is there creating the work together. It’s not a new thing; people have been working collaboratively and innovating together for centuries….” And the artists Jason most appreciates collaborating with, “give me the space to make bold creative decisions, out of my comfort zone.… I’m a person who learns by doing.” 

The goal is the opposite of design as decoration. Most designers are striving for that, Jason says. “I don’t like making a set that looks like acting or performing is happening on top of it. It’s the world (the characters) live in….”

The through-line of Jason’s story is to be found backstage. Growing up, they danced for 15 years before moving, pretty definitively, into theatre — but not as a performer. “I really liked the craft, the making of props and sets,” they say of their high school theatre kid self at Louis St. Laurent. By Grade 10 they were programming shows on the lighting board and creating lighting designs, and into video editing and mapping.

As for watching theatre “the Citadel, Broadway, that was the scope of it,” a traditional sense of theatre that expanded exponentially, at the U of A. And theatre as a career? Where did that notion come from? “This is deeply embarrassing,” they laugh. In Grade 12 “I built the dragon for Shrek the Musical (and got a Cappie nomination). Looking back, it was a terrifying thing put together with bamboo poles and Saran Wrap and spray paint. Deeply chaotic.” From this “hilarious little garbage piece,” Jason decided that “hey, I can do this for the rest of my life!” Which only goes to show that life-changing moments come in every size.

They have a special affection for Mile Zero Dance, where they’ve worked on such pieces as Secondhand Dances for a Crude Crude City (an homage to the late great Edmonton punk band SNFU) and The Great Canadian Beaver Party. “When I work there I always feel like I’m at home.” Among the changes the pandemic year has wrought, Jason’s front-of-house gig at Mile Zero is now officially “Zoom Moderator.”   

Ah, Zoom. “A blessing and a curse,” Jason thinks. They’re “excited to work in video…. I was definitely a kid of the internet,” glued to YouTube, fascinated by the evolving para-social relationships of people creating themselves online. And pandemic isolation year has confirmed Jason in their creative profile as a consumer of pop culture. Their upcoming design work — chances are it’ll be presented digitally — includes Dana Wylie’s Makings of a Voice, SkirtsAfire’s mainstage premiere, and Cheryl Foggo’s Heaven, the third of the Citadel’s Horizon series.

As a mixed-race artist, up-and-coming and in their 20s, Jason has mixed feelings about whether the year of Black Lives Matter and promises about inclusivity have brought about substantial change in the “very white system” in theatre. “I’m trying not to judge too harshly in a weird pandemic time,” they say. But “the proof’s in the pudding. Who’s truthfully committed to being more inclusive?”

“The work doesn’t stop. We never arrive.”




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