By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
For the first time ever, Teatro La Quindicina launches a summer season, its 39th, with a live gala screening.
This is happening in a real theatre (the Varscona) — with real opening night snacks and drinks, and real people including the playwright and director. After that, minus the playwright and director of course, screenings can happen at your place, with scheduling created by … you.
Lost Lemoine Part 1, a collection of six short, vintage Stewart Lemoine comedies, is the first of the three digital streamed productions in a four-show season with a live in-person production finale (a revival of Lemoine’s Fever-Land). Directed by Belinda Cornish, a Teatro star and playwright herself, it went on an exploratory mission in the furthest reaches of the Lemoine collection, short play division, back into the ‘80s.
The playwright’s “pandemic project” has been digitizing his work. “Anything before 1996 was written on a typewriter,” says Lemoine. “Initially, in the ‘80s, it was a manual, shortly thereafter an electric one with automatic white-out.” Longhand? “I haven’t had to do that for years,” he says. “By now, my signature is just a feeling.”
Of the 20 or so contenders, culled from a catalogue of 100 or more plays, co-artistic directors Cornish and MacDonald-Smith, with Lemoine, picked six for Lost Lemoine Part 1, varying from five to 10 minutes each and all with only two, three, or in one case four, actors in a scene together at a time. All had been seen before, in assorted permutations for special occasions or in vignette collections like The Argentine Picnic, but some of them not for decades.
The criteria were tricky. Which would work best on film? Which were irretrievably “of the theatre,” as Lemoine puts it? How would they fit together? How would they work with the actors already named to the cast? And how adaptable were they to rehearsals in COVID-ian times?
Teatro was at pains to employ actors already signed for productions, like Evelyn Strange and Everybody Goes To Mitzi’s, that didn’t happen when the 2020 season was cancelled altogether, and were postponed again this year. “It was touch-and-go for so long,” sighs Lemoine. “And people had held the place….”
The six lost Lemoines of Part 1, he says, “were rehearsed, live, as theatre (on Teatro’s home stage, the Varscona), then adapted for the screen….” Which was possible because of generous support from the Edmonton Community Foundation and EPCOR’s Heart and Soul Fund. “It’s certainly a roll of the dice for us,” says Lemoine, “as far as predicting how it’s going to be attended. But we didn’t have to worry so much about ticket sales.”
The results, says Lemoine decisively, are “not Zoom! These are filmed with costumes and set…. We’re using the stage and not apologizing for being in a theatre. And they’re clearly plays.”
There are even scene changes, something of a Teatro specialty and definitely not a filmic device. Lemoine has always considered scene changes “an opportunity to energize a comedy. We work hard on them…. You don’t want things to go slack for a minute!” With a lively scene change, the audience arrives at the next scene pumped, he thinks. And Lost Lemoine Part 1, with its sextet of plays, is a veritable showcase for that art.
The possibilities of film have intrigued him, the interplay of close-ups and long shots, the assortment of camera angles, the imaginative use of recurring imagery devised by director Cornish. The filmmaker Adam Kidd has been invaluable, says Lemoine. Taking a cue from Ludicrous Pie (“Ibsen-esque” as he describes), one of the six plays of Lost Lemoine Part 1, the image of actor Gianna Vacirca working on an actual pie recurs throughout, as the pastry rollout proceeds. “A little extra narrative to move things along,” says Lemoine. “Belinda has created a through-line, with set changes and images.”
Some of the six are “situational comedy,” says Lemoine. In The Gauntlet, for example, “a blind date goes very strangely.” The Crazy Woman features a woman in a psychiatrist’s office, “in a banal conversation that gradually twists and turn into something unexpected.”
Vague Harvest is much different. Lemoine cites the French avant-garde film Last Year at Marienbad to describe the ‘60s way “people drift in and out of rooms saying pretentious things…. I hope people don’t dive too deep — because there is really only a surface.”
Lost Lemoine Part 2: A Second Round of Seconds, also directed by Cornish, opens Sept. 3 at a second live gala screening and then available online. Originally written for The Novus Players, Teatro’s subsidiary company of lawyer actors, to perform in 2016, it’s spun from the idea of speed dating, a concept Lemoine felt needed improvement. “And I was willing to take this on.”
“Although there are there are eight people in the cast, there are only two in any given scene … with only one scene of convergence,” which made it a worthy COVID project.
The logistics are that a woman stays put in a cafe, or a salon, or a bar. And when the bell rings, “it’s the man who rushes off, room to room, to the next encounter.” Cornish and film-maker Kidd opted to shoot it out of sequence, “so we could build a more convincing version of the room, not just a table and chair surrounded by darkness,” says Lemoine. “It goes together like a sitcom but with the pace of a farce.”
The third of Teatro’s digital productions, opening Sept. 10 with a third live gala at the Varscona, is A Fit, Happy Life. It’s a reworked (and re-named) version of a 1985 play Lemoine wrote for a three-night run at the long-defunct Phoenix Downtown. Mathew Hulshof plays an earnest department store bed salesman having an unusually busy morning; Kristen Padayas has the challenge, and fun, of being the series of customers, all five of them.
These high-speed transformational changes are made possible by the medium of film. In the original stage production, the customers were all played by different actors. Rachel Bowron, a favourite Teatro leading lady herself, gets her first design credit doing the costumes. Lemoine and Cornish jointly direct.
“It’s been really educational!” declares Lemoine of the three digital streamed productions that start Teatro’s 2021 season. “Belinda really got on board with the possibilities…. She was all about the performances, and (devising) the storytelling in a different way…. I wandered around making sure the words were right.”
And the Varscona, with its big screen and sound system, gets to play movie theatre for three big gala performances.
Booking, and the subscription permutations for the season, are available at teatroq.com. The three filmed productions, opening on successive Fridays — Aug. 27, Sept. 3 and Sept. 10 — are available for streaming through Oct. 31. Fever-Land runs live in-person at the Varscona Sept. 23 through Oct. 9. Check out 12thnight’s conversation with Teatro’s joint artistic directors Belinda Cornish and Andrew MacDonald-Smith here.