By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Dusk is shading into dark, the break-out time. And the wilderness is encroaching.
The solo play that opens late twilight Thursday in Rundle Park invites us into the mind of a person who feels themself straining at the human leash, transforming in the darkness. Into a wolf.
Night, “a drive-by play by Geoffrey Simon Brown,” is an invitation, as well, into the mind of the Major Matt Mason Collective, an innovative artist-run troupe of theatrical provocateurs with Calgary roots, named for a Mattel action figure. They’re known nationally for their inventiveness, and connectedness with youthful artists and audiences. From your car you’ll be there in person (!), watching a real live actor (!), Zoë Glassman, and tuning in to a character’s thoughts on your radio, tuned to FM.
Night isn’t exactly an Edmonton debut, live and against the odds as it is, for Major Matt Mason. But sightings here have been few and far between. MMMC’s Air, which toured the Fringe circuit, was at the 2015 Found Festival, as Glassman describes it “a small and explosive four-hander, in a house, very hot and crowded, 30 people crammed into Patrick Lundeen’s living room.” Another MMMC production, David Gagnon Walker’s Premium Content, was slated for a November run at the Backstage Theatre — until it wasn’t, times being what they are.
Glassman herself, a 2014 U of A theatre school grad who frequently takes on MMMC’s producer role, is Edmonton-based. So, from time to time (when he isn’t in Toronto or Montreal), is playwright Brown. “One of my goals: I finally get to introduce this company to my community!” laughs Glassman, an actor whose sensibility and skill set easily erases the border between dance and theatre. Her stage work has mostly happened in Calgary. Edmonton audiences will remember a rare Glassman performance here in Dave Horak’s Sterling Award-winning 2017 production of Stupid Fucking Bird.
“I still don’t feel it’s real,” she says of Night. “It’s a weird stress but I’ve kinda let it go…. Whatever ends up happening is perfect.” If regulations at the moment permit 10 people in outdoor seats (in addition to the one-household in-auto audience in 15 cars) at each performance of Night, so much the better. “I’m safe; everyone else is safe. And we actually get to see each other.”
Night seems so perfectly custom-made for our pandemic moment, the feeling of emerging changed, less human, from this strange and isolating bubble of time, that it’s hard to imagine Brown didn’t create it as a COVID allegory. Not so. Glassman says he started writing it seven years ago. And it was workshopped in 2017 at Calgary’s Verb Theatre. “At its core,” says Glassman, “Night is a story about a person convinced they’re turning into a wolf…. It’s also about anxiety, claustrophobia, relapse. It’s very easy to watch this play as an allegory for addiction, an allegory for mental health (in jeopardy).”
The character we meet has moved back in with their parents after living alone, and an unspecified crisis. “They’re trying to get better, but they’re drawn to the moon, to animals, to animalistic freedom, to running….”
The agoraphobia, the claustrophobia, the attempts to follow the rules and ‘don’t come anywhere close to me!’ that’s part of our shared experience…. “I’d love to give people the opportunity for a catharsis,” says Glassman. “No one really wants to watch a play about COVID, I think. We all have COVID fatigue.” Instead, Night charts its strange parallel course. “There’s something weirdly mythical about this play.”
Physical movement and dance are built into the premise, says Glassman. She toured in the Punctuate! Theatre production of Matthew MacKenzie’s Bears, another play where there’s animal transformation and the storytelling happens crucially in dance. “Matt and I talked about the way dance goes below language, the way it ducks language, and hits emotions without people realizing it.”
In case you’re tempted, you should know that becoming a wild animal — “the running, a lot of it on all fours” — is a real physical test. “It was literally impossible to speak and move as intensely as required,” Glassman found. So the spoken text was pre-recorded, and that’s what you’ll hear on your car radio: a direct channel into the character’s mind. “You’re getting a soundtrack of this person’s thoughts.”
“An image that keeps coming to me,” says Glassman, “is the classic horror movie moment where a couple drives into a secluded wooded area for some privacy. And suddenly there’s a wolf there…. In Rundle Park the city disappears. It’s one of the places in Edmonton where you can forget where you are, and feel you’re in another world. And it’s getting dark.” It’s a scenario that puts Major Matt Mason in synch with Beth Dart, the artistic director of Common Ground Arts (Night’s host) and a specialist in site-specific theatre that experiments with new ways of connecting audiences and artists.
Major Matt Mason has found its spot. “The common thread in our work is doing things we’ve never done before, a paradox of an answer,” Glassman laughs. “New work and working with young artists we’ve never worked with before” are also in the MMMC playbook.
“The reason we started in the first place was so we could hire ourselves to do the work we wanted to do…. Now that we’re 30, we’re re-evaluating what it means to tell young stories. And part of that has been making relationships with young artists.” Artists like Night director Yousuf Liepert (“he’s 21, and he’s kooky and incredible!”).
It’s a company talent-scouting model based, not on internships or assistant gigs but handing over “power, creative agency, in a project that has support,” as Glassman puts it. “Here are the reins; if you need to make mistakes, fine, we’re here for you.”
“I’m proud of being able to pay our artists…. It’s the rewarding thing about being a producer. I remember how significant it was for me,” says Glassman. Stupid Fucking Bird was the first time, outside Major Matt Mason, that I was paid to do (theatre), and the trust of that is so transforming….”
And as for audiences, “my focus is ‘how do I make plays for people who don’t go to see plays?’…. The classist rituals of theatre are very unappealing to me.” She’s drawn to make theatre in “inner city public access spaces.” Even when MMMC puts on a play in an actual theatre, as in the case for Little Red, their visceral modern re-telling of Red Riding Hood (in collaboration with Ghost River Theatre) at the Calgary’s West Village Theatre, the experience is far from formal. “We want the audience to feel included … whether feeling complicit or having to fight afterward about What The Fuck Just Happened There!”
The collective is looking to tour Night after its Edmonton premiere. And Glassman, Brown et al are pondering possible locales and spaces. What about a big platform surrounded by … trampolines? (Glassman’s idea). “I don’t want to do anything twice,” she laughs.
Meanwhile the return to rehearsing live instead of online has been a transforming experience. Glassman has been rehearsing in her back yard, trying to avoid the holes her puppy has been digging. “Now, suddenly everything makes sense to me in a new way,” she says of this return to live theatre that’s live. “I feel like a different human in front of eyes. I’m not self-conscious in the way I was before; I’m just so glad to be doing it….”
“I’ll never say No to karaoke again!”
Night (a drive-in play)
Theatre: Major Matt Mason Collective, presented by Common Ground Arts Society
Written by: Geoffrey Simon Brown
Directed by: Yousuf Liepert
Starring: Zoë Glassman
Where: Rundle Park
Running: Thursday through Sunday and June 24 to 26
Tickets: Common Ground Arts Society