I attended three performances last week, none of them in conventional theatre spaces. And I attended a rehearsal in a living room, for an indie production that may culminate in workshop/performance in equally unconventional space.
There is something truly inspiring and welcoming about using found space to create and share performance, about taking advantages of the quirks of the location to develop site-specific performance, and about bringing live entertainment to places the audience is already comfortable with, rather than trying to draw new audiences in to a conventional theatre with all its inherent cultural expectations (do I dress up? do I fit comfortably in their seats? what if I get restless? can I afford it? can I bring refreshments? etc).
Two of the performances I attended this week were staged readings rather than fully staged productions. That means that the actors had the scripts in front of them, on music stands. There were no sets or props, no fancy lighting or sound effects, just the narrative and the actors delivering it.
Alberta Playwrights’ Network hosts a “Script Salon” once a month, a public reading of a new script by one of their members. This month it was Blaine Newton’s Bodice Ripper. (Blaine Newton’s play Bravo! about nuclear testing in the south Pacific was performed by Shadow Theatre a few years ago). Tracy Carroll directed the reading, and the readers were Perry Gratton, Jenny McKillop, Sam Jeffrey, Patricia Cerra, Jacob Holloway, and Jake Tkaczyk. The actors took turns reading the setting description notes and stage directions, and from these we learned that the action all took place in the main room of a small holiday cabin in the mountains, in the 1960s. The premise is that a group of friends borrows the cabin retreat with a plan to write a novel collaboratively – maybe a romance, a bodice-ripper, maybe a murder mystery or thriller, they can’t agree. Without a visible set, I pictured something like the cabin in Teatro’s Sleuth a few years ago, or maybe the Mayfield’s stylish Long Weekend, or the one in Ruth Ware’s thriller novel In a Dark, Dark Wood. As was pointed out in the lively talkback discussion afterwards, setting it in the 1960s “raised the stakes” for female characters who had been resenting the men who underestimated them – and it also provided for a fully-staged production to benefit from the audible and visual business of feeding paper into a typewriter, typing (quickly, slowly, or clumsily with mitts on), and pulling paper out to crumple it or file it. Script Salon is open to the public, admission by donation. The April session will mark five years of the project, and promises to also have cake and live music.
The other staged read I attended was Social Studies, a play by Winnipeg playwright Trish Cooper. The reading was in a suburban community league hall, hosted by a regular seniors’ social group there – there were folding chairs, a small stage, and a cheerfully-staffed snack bar, but no other theatre amenities – no dimmed lights, no sound amplification or hearing-assist loop, no reserved seats, no programs. And of course no set pieces, props, or actor movement. But I loved it regardless. Kristin Johnston plays Jackie, a young woman who arrives with suitcases (and metaphorical baggage) at her childhood home after a breakup, only to find that her mother (Leona Brausen) has given away her room to a Sudanese refugee (Deng Leng). Rebecca Merkley plays teenage sister Sarah. The play’s narrative intersperses snippets of a class presentation Sarah gives to her class about the Lost Boys of Sudan and Sudanese refugees in Canada, with scenes of how this works out in real life in the household. I thought the dialogue was well-written, credible, funny, and affectionate. It reminded me of a mix of Kim’s Convenience and Schitt’s Creek, in the way it portrayed 21st-century mismatches between parents and children, and between well-meaning people of different cultural and religious backgrounds. Specificity made it more powerful (audience members at the reading shared afterwards that they were familiar with the meat-packing plant in Brooks hiring Sudanese workers, as mentioned in the text). The readers were all good, bringing life to the script with comic timing and pathos, with Leona Brausen particularly powerful as the slightly-hippie single-mother/activist. The reading was directed by Jake Tkaczyk, who also read the stage directions.
In a change of pace from the staged readings, Tuesday night I attended opening night of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with Gregory Caswell in the title role, Marisa West playing her husband Yitzhak, and musicians Matt Graham, Sean Besse, Connor Pylypa, & Sam Malowany as the backup band. Brennan Doucet directed. It was fully staged, with all the rock/punk music and over-the-top costumes. And it was performed in Evolution Wonderlounge, the small subterranean LGBT+ nightclub down the street from Rogers Place. This worked perfectly with the musical’s storyline that Hedwig and her band are performing in a low-prestige venue near where her estranged former lover/protege Tommy Gnosis is playing an arena show – and every now and then Hedwig throws open a door and we “overhear” Tommy Gnosis’s over-amplified between-songs musings.
Hedwig is a cult phenomenon, an off-Broadway show that opened in 1998, a film version in 2001, and a first Broadway version in 2014-2015 (I saw that one, with Neil Patrick Harris and Lena Hall in their Tony-award-winning performances). It’s a rather odd story, using the late-20th-century divided Berlin as a metaphor for love and gender and a seeking for wholeness and re-unification. Caswell owns the role and the stage, from eyeshadow to stilettos, a fierce, tragic, brave genderqueer performer telling us her story and singing her songs. Marisa West plays Hedwig’s Croatian husband Yitzhak, surly and resentful at the start but reborn in beautiful drag for the finale. Hedwig and the Angry Inch has one more performance tomorrow night (Saturday Mar 16th). It’s not quite sold out, but it probably will be.