By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Here’s a strange, unsettling thought: We are all hybrid creatures. That’s how we have to live now, forever straddling the live and the digital, not fully existing in one world or another. Are we then our own artistic creations, our own live-streamed works of art? Discuss.
There’s a play about that — by David Gagnon Walker, directed by Geoffrey Simon Brown — opening online this week. Or, wait, is it a play? The “live-action hallucinatory freak-out,” as 366 Days is billed, “is our opportunity to meet the moment,” says Brown of the latest from the high-profile experimental theatre collective he co-founded, Major Matt Mason. “It’s theatrical, but we’re deciding whether or not we feel it’s a play.”
“It’s a weird thing,” says Brown (whose own play Michael Mysterious recently premiered in a Pyretic production here). “Unlike anything I’ve done before.” Which is a declaration that counts, considering the original innovative experiments that make up the Major Matt Mason Collective archive.
366 Days, he says, is “exclusively built for the medium it’s on,” or in, since it’s set in the overlap between live and virtual space, a theatre “where the medium meets the message, and lines are blurred.” It’s live, it’s digital, it’s live-streamed, and “reality” has live animation layers to it, too.
“Whenever we come up with a project we ask ‘why is this live?”“Why does it have to be in front of an audience? And if we can’t come up with an answer, we don’t do the project,” says Brown of “one of our guiding philosophies as a live performance company.” With 366 Days, “we flipped the question. Why does it have to be online? Why does the audience have to engage with it in a digital space?”
For one thing, the narrative demands it. The person we meet in 366 Days lives there. “He’s trapped himself in that space,” as Brown explains. And we’re meeting him there, on his home turf, so to speak. Blair has spent a year in self-imposed penitential isolation in a small apartment, connected by live-stream to the internet. His presence in the world is virtual.
The story in 366 Days picks up Blair, the other characters, and the narrative after the events of Premium Content, the Gagnon Walker play Edmonton audiences would have seen live last fall if COVID hadn’t been continuing its rampage. “It was about the intersection between art and the internet and real life,” Brown says.
The new piece, commissioned by Major Matt Mason, takes us into Blair’s digital world, into the art he’s creating from his life, into his website, into his head. Brown credits the animator Tyler Klein Longmire with integrating live performance and animation in ways he’s “never seen anywhere else before — all executed live.”
“The real room can be toggled into a digital room that looks exactly the same. So a forest can grow out of it. Or it can float into space…. Other characters come in as floating heads wearing masks of their own faces…. The play exists half in live recorded video and half in animation. And all of it happens live.”
Like Premium Content, 366 Days “asks a lot of questions about art.” What is it made of? “What are you allowed to use from your life? What are you seeking by bringing your own life into?” And then it goes further: “can you solve anything in your life, can you heal, making yourself into art?”
The process of making art about the blurred boundaries between real and digital blurs the boundaries between real and digital. The creation of 366 Days has a certain striking synchronicity with its content. For one thing, it assembles talent across the country. “Four or five of us are working in person. Thirteen or 14 or us are working remotely,” says Brown. The full set is in a Calgary studio. And that’s where the animator (Klein Longmire), the stage manager (Meredith Johnson), and the designer (Lauren Acheson) are located. One performer is in Vancouver, one in Toronto, two in Calgary. Director Brown (who is also the producer, alongside Evan Medd) and the costume designer (Whittyn Jason) are in Edmonton.
In addition to the challenges of isolation, “I’m feeling a lot of ‘imposter syndrome’,” laughs Brown. “Especially when it comes to animation and streaming…. Suddenly I find myself directing the movement of an animated cast. In live theatre I don’t know how to hang and focus lights, but I know how long it takes. With this, I have no idea how much time it takes to build the world!”
At every step the play re-invented the way of producing it. “Did I want to come into the room and direct from the space?” On reflection Brown decided no. “When I direct a stage play I don’t do it from the stage; I direct from where the audience is going to sit. And with this play the audience is going to be sitting on the other side of a screen.”
And as for acting, “our performers are also puppeteers of animation, acting and puppeteering their digital avatars…. It’s a little bit like rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time,” says Brown. “There are moments in digital puppeteering where movements need to be more exaggerated than onstage. Sometimes, when the masks are dropped, that theatrical language has to fade away and become far more intimate than we’d do on any stage.”
“We’re all trying to figure out which tool to pull from our various tool kits,” says Brown of a collective process that’s been evolving since 2018. “We’re trying to do something we’ve never done before, and create an experience we haven’t seen before.” Welcome to the theatre of our new world.
Theatre: Major Matt Mason Collective
Written by: David Gagnon Walker
Directed by: Geoffrey Simon Brown
Animation and video design: Tyler Klein Longmire
Performed by: Mikaela Cochrane, Vanessa Jetté, Evan Medd, Jay Northcott, Mike Tan
Where: streaming online
Running: Nov. 11 to 13
Tickets: pay-what-you-can, mmmtheatrecollective.com