By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“Hello? Hello, can you hear me?” — Arkangel by Liam Salmon
The “sci-fi/ horror play that premieres on the Nextfest virtual MainStage Saturday revels in the elusive, the unknown, the mysterious. Which in a way makes Liam Salmon’s Arkangel a natural for these uncertain times.
“I love ghosts, weird stuff, the paranormal,” says Salmon, whose new play rolls as a series of interviews — “by someone, or something, an organization” — of people talking about strange things that happened in a creepy small town. “I love the not-knowing what the reality of what’s happening is….” The Arkangel trailer (check it out on YouTube) is a barrage of mysterious cutaways, shadowy imagery, echoing voices, fragments of interviews that look “real,” that dissolve into static. And it comes with an intriguing assortment of warnings: “adult content, death/dying, kidnapping/abduction, religious content.”
In the absence of certainty “you imagine things,” says Salmon. “The audience fills in the blanks. To me, that’s prime for horror.” And that appetite has filtered his way into a playwriting career that has taken off since his return from the National Theatre School in Montreal to his home town.
The pandemic has been hard on creative urgency, as many of Salmon’s fellow artists will attest. After months struggling with the pandemic-induced “feeling of paralysis” after his podcast play Local Diva premiered as part of The Alberta Queer Calendar Project last winter, Salmon returned to writing with “half of Arkangel.”
“It was a weird idea and the first thing I was able to explore!”
Nextfest’s call for theatrical projects designed for digital presentation, “made a shift in my brain,” says the playwright, who’d originally thought of the play with an onstage chorus of character/storytellers. He changed tack knowing Arkangel was going to be online.
The “interview format,” recorded in monologues, fit the unnerving subject matter (“very much of the genre of horror videos on YouTube), both in the rehearsing and the performing. And he tapped the creative talents of a pal, Ontario-based video designer James McCoy, a horror fan, too who instantly signed on. The feeling of webcam interviews with people in their bedrooms has atmosphere and narrative implications in Arkangel. With a cast of eight (including two voice-over actors), playing characters with “code names” — Father (a priest), Grandmother, Girlfriend, Doctor, Daughter, Customer, Waitress, among them — “it’s a big show that feels like a small show.”
The production was rehearsed on Zoom and so could gather collaborators from here and Calgary, Quebec and Ontario.” That “cross-province” access was one silver lining pandemic discovery. And so was the way the online format, so dramatically meaningful in Arkangel, proved an antidote to the “the weird pain, the sad feeling of watching theatre over Zoom; it’s so not theatre.”
Salmon has a history with Nextfest, a festival that finds multiple ways to launch and nurture arts careers. His play Silence of the Machine, “about A.I. and female body autonomy and all those questions,” has sci-fi resonances too. An A.I. is forced to get pregnant to validate her female credentials. “At the core of sci-fi, Salmon thinks, is metaphor, with societal vibe. Arkangel is “about faith and loss, I would say.”
Two years ago (“it feels like 15!”) he was part of Nextfest’s “Collaboration Project”: “I ‘acted’, in quotation marks, in that.” And he’s taken part in the festival’s queer cabarets and Nite Clubs. But his Nextfest history, which includes his play All That’s Left, has been mostly about writing.
The Alberta Queer Calendar Project was “a cool opportunity to see how sound design can tell a story,” says Salmon. Arkangel is a chance to explore film. “In theatre we’re guests in other mediums at the moment. This is still theatre, but we’ve plunged into the possibilities of film: close-ups, cutaways, establishing shots and all that stuff.”
After this, when the pandemic gong show is finally over, “I’d love to write a comedy,” he says. “A dysfunctional comedy: garage sales, where no one really buys anything and everything keeps getting recycled…. I think it’s a perfect metaphor for family.”
Nextfest, the festival of emerging artists
Theatre: Hypothetical Bad Idea
Written and directed by: Liam Salmon
Design, editing and post production: James McCoy
Starring: Jacob Margaret Archer, James McCoy, Eleanor Neylon, Meryl Ochoa, Liam Salmon, Tucker, Kiana Woo, Alana Wrenshall
Running: Saturday 7:40 p.m.