New faces in theatre: meet theatre creator/ designer Even Gilchrist

They’re young, adaptable, and creative. And as theatre returns in this late-pandemic grind, and the doors open to live audiences, we’ll be seeing the work of these theatre artists light up, and transform, the scene here, on- and backstage. You’ll meet some of these sought-after up-and-comers in this annual 12thnight New Faces series. Here’s designer/ theatre creator Even Gilchrist, in a continuing 12thnight series that began with designer Beyata Hackborn , actor Rochelle Laplante, and composer/lyricist Simon Abbott.

Designer/theatre creator/ scenographer Even Gilchrist. Photo by Janice Saxon.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

EVEN GILCHRIST, designer/ theatre creator/ ‘experimentalist’

If you found yourself in a back alley in Strathcona last summer chatting with a stranger — who happened to be a puppet running a bar in a parking lot (don’t you love when that happens?)— you were experiencing theatre dreamed up by Even Gilchrist. 

The 27-year-old designer/ theatre creator, an “experimentalist” as he identifies, found a way to restore something that had gone AWOL in these pandemical times: a sense of connection.

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Gilchrist, the Found Festival’s 2021 Fresh AiR artist-in-residence invited half a dozen fellow artists, of every stripe, to create puppets who “come to life and greet you” to tell original stories, in a series of encounters in unexpected locations. Theatre for one cohort group at a time. COVID nixed the original idea of random meet-ups in crowded Strathcona bars, so it was improv time for the puppets. “And there was something fun about going around in back alleys and parking lots….” 

Puppet Pub Crawl, Found Festival 2021, Photo by Mat Simpson

The idea of “found theatre,” up close in locations you’d never expect to find artists, is highly appealing to Gilchrist, who arrived here from Ottawa in 2019 for the U of A’s design program. “There’s something scrappy about it,” he says. “I really appreciate limitations and parameters…. What does the space sound like? What does the space smell like?” 

“Sometimes it’s way more enriching as an experience than sitting in a dark theatre and breathing silently with a bunch of other people,” thinks Gilchrist. “I like those experiences too, don’t get me wrong…. But there’s something electrifying about serendipity!” 

Naturally, Found was a true find for the Edmonton newcomer; so was Catch The Keys Productions, specialists in site-specific, immersive, ambulatory theatre like Dead Centre of Town. “Hang on! That’s exactly the kind of thing I want to be doing!” he says of his preliminary research into the scene here.

Gilchrist’s entry point into theatre wasn’t the seductive portal of the limelight. No being onstage, singing the title number, sucking up applause fr him. “It was the exact opposite of stardom,” he laughs. He’d arrived in high school in Barrie, Ont. “without ever really seeing a proper professional production of anything.” His introduction to design, though he wouldn’t have used the word at the time, was his alma mater’s contribution to the Ontario-wide school competition, the Sears Festival. It’s a memory of late-night hilarity. “We had to find something free,” he says of a play called Ten Thousand Cigarettes. Fifteen kids auditioned; 15 kids got into a play with four characters. 

Something had to give. The creation that resulted, “a strange ensemble piece,” had “people in black suits, buildings made of cigarettes, smoking zero-nicotine e-cigarettes … white masks from the Dollar Store. Something that would be in a Euro-farce!”

Gilchrist was the stage manager, and “the quasi-co-director…. the other director bailed. It became (about) creating with friends. That was the start of it.” And lo and behold, “we won the municipal round.… We had to saw our cardboard set in half in order to get it on the bus.”  No one had measured.

“I was the one trying to build the set; I didn’t realize I was designing it. I was the one putting together the costumes; I didn’t realize I was designing them….” He was working the lighting board. “I was everything that wasn’t Actor.” 

It was Gilchrist’s introduction to the multi-tasking rigours of indie theatre, and, needless to say, the concept of working all night. “It was training me from the very beginning,” he laughs. “My understanding of theatre, what it looks like, what it does, was broken open when I went to university…. I wasn’t jaded about theatre or the scene in Canada. It was a fresh new page in the book.” 

That happened in Ottawa, where he went to university and “theatre in unconventional spaces is part of the bag,” a given, says Gilchrist. 

Since his arrival in Edmonton, he’s gravitated to indie theatre, in a variety of design assignments, including such high-profile off-centre projects as Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play (You Are Here Theatre), Tracks (Amoris Projects), All That Binds Us (Azimuth Theatre). 

Patricia Cerra and Ray Strachan in The Mountaintop, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Ironically, for a designer attracted to the off-centre architecture of devised projects, there’s a rigorous sense of reality attached to his most recent design assignments, at least as a point of departure. One was the dingy Memphis motel room in which Shadow Theatre’s production of The Mountaintop unspools. On Martin Luther King’s last night on earth, cheap lino cedes to magic realism and it suddenly starts to snow, and conjure a vision of the future.

And at the U of A, Gilchrist’s  degree project was Patricia Darbasie’s production of Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, a play that chronicles the declension into moral chaos of two couples in the recognizable setting of a bourgeois living room.Meanwhile, Gilchrist’s own play Re:Construct, which he began before coming to Edmonton, is getting its next stage of development as part of RISER Edmonton, a national initiative designed to support and enhance the profile of indie theatre. The premiere at the Backstage Theatre, originally slated for February, has been delayed till spring courtesy of the pandemic.

God of Carnage, Studio Theatre. Photo by dbphotographics

The stops and starts of the pandemical world have been cruelly destructive to theatre, as he readily concurs. But, “overall, I do remain optimistic,” Gilchrist says. “I really am hopeful. We are tired, and we hate the word ‘resilient’. But theatre endures. There’s no way we can not do art. It’s been that way from time immemorial.” 

“Theatre is certainly exhausting. But it’s not dying…. Our need to see it is way more urgent than it was before — for our brains and our hearts!”  

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