By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Andrew Ritchie has spent the last year spinning his wheels.
He’s been up on his bike writing the solo play that shares a lane with an audience this weekend for the first time. Cycle, which launches the 2023 Thou Art Here season, is up on its wheels, literally, for a two-night workshop production in Studio B at Fringe headquarters. And Ritchie will be on his bicycle for the duration.
He’s playing “versions of myself and other characters,” he says. And he’s been experimenting: “spin classes for the first time, intense! Trying a fat tire bike, interviews with people around Edmonton about their bike experiences, a lot of reading about bike history, studying urban design….”
Thou Art Here’s co-founder (with Neil Kuefler) and artistic director, Ritchie has a history with urban bicycling that weaves through his high school years, university, after university. It was his mode of transportation in Edmonton, Regina, and Toronto where he got a master’s degree in directing and theatre creation at York University. His experiences as a bicycle food courier in Toronto were, he says, one of the vivid inspirations for Cycle. “As someone who couldn’t afford a car for a long time, I saw pretty quickly how we prioritize (that) one way to move around a city, how we design our roads, our neighbourhoods….”
Cycle explores the links between bicycling and some of the hot urban issues of our time. “There’s been a shift in thinking in North American cities, due to increasing population, inflation, the climate crisis catastrophe,” says Ritchie. “It’s about how do we design our cities to be more people-focused and less car-focused.”
“There’s a reason Whyte Avenue is the way it is, the density of businesses and activities. And there’s a reason there isn’t a Whyte Avenue in Windermere right now.”
If you’ve casually dropped “bike lanes” into dinner conversation lately, you know what it’s like to create a provocation. Ritchie, who does have a car (and drives in the city and loves road trips), points out that there’s frustration about traffic, too. “People say bike lanes take over their parking or driving lanes. But for every person walking or biking, there’s one less car on the street. And it’s a huge difference…. There are more people biking in Edmonton since bike lanes were introduced. Way more.”
Let’s face it, you had to be a risk-taker extraordinaire to be a cyclist in the Edmonton traffic of yore. “As we take on the infrastructure to make it safer, it’s more likely that families, the elderly, e-bikes for people with different mobility levels, are going to be out and about.”
And Ritchie doesn’t buy the winter argument that Edmonton weather should negate civic spending on bike lanes. “There are tons of things we use for different seasons — ice rinks, outdoor swimming pools that are well loved and open for a couple of months in the two months in the summer…. We’re a winter city. I think the possibilities exist if you open your mind to it.”
Cycle is the start of a new identity and mission for Thou Art Here, a 12-year-old theatre collective that took Shakespeare to the people wherever they were … rarely in conventional theatre spaces. The season is comprised of all new Canadian work, in-progress for full productions to follow.
Performed atop a bicycle along with some members of the audience also on bikes, Cycle does reference the old Thou Art Here, though, since it is, in its own way, site-specific. Ritchie, along with director Kristi Hansen and choreographer Ainsley Hillyard, “have been exploring all the kinds of movement I can do on a bicycle.”
Besides, you can’t help thinking that if there had been bike lanes between Verona and Mantua, that whole misunderstanding in the Capulets’ tomb could have been averted. And Romeo and Juliet would be alive today.
Theatre: Thou Art Here
Written by: Andrew Ritchie
Directed by: Kristi Hansen
Choreographed by: Ainsley Hillyard
Where: Studio B, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: Friday and Saturday