Their work normally hangs on gallery walls – or flickers across TV screens. Not this year. Literally out of their elements, award-winning visual artist Stan Douglas (known for his photography, film and video) and Chris Haddock (the brains behind CBC’s Da Vinci’s Inquest and Intelligence, and a writer on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) are traversing not only genres but eras. Their joint creation: Helen Lawrence, a pioneering stage production, set in 1948 Vancouver, in which the audience is meant to feel like they’re both at the theatre and in a movie house.
By way of a cutting-edge trip to the past, Douglas and Haddock are charting a course from the footlights of Vancouver’s Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage to a new multimedia future. Five years in the making, their ambitious new work could be a game-changing one, opening up dramatic possibilities and setting a new bar for experimental theatre. If it disappoints – by, say, all that technology smothering, rather than enhancing, their story of long-ago Vancouver – it will be a significant letdown, given the giddy anticipation that has been building since Helen Lawrence was first announced in 2012.
The play’s intriguing plot centres on the quest of a striking femme fatale who arrives in Vancouver from California.
She sets out on a search, through one of the city’s seediest neighbourhoods, to find the man who murdered her husband.
But it’s the production’s use of technology that has theatre types on the edge of their seats, anxious to see how it plays out. This high-profile high-tech experiment, whose actual logistics will not be witnessed by audiences until performances begin next week, will involve both a play and a film unfolding simultaneously. The work’s actors will be filmed performing live against so-called blue screens that will make up a three-sided box set into the stage. In front of that box will stand a full-sized scrim stretching to the stage’s edges.
Cameras will be trained on the actors as they perform in front of the blue screens. This technique, common in filmmaking, allows for their images to be integrated into the intricate computer-generated 3-D backdrops, environments that are meticulous recreations of actual buildings that once stood in Vancouver.
The net effect: On the scrim itself, it will appear as if the actors are in a black-and-white film, actually moving around the ever-changing sets being projected onto the scrim. But when the audience refocuses its gaze to the actors on the naked stage, they will be reminded that there is no conventional set – and thus be rewarded with an in-your-face crash course in what technology can achieve. “Ambitious” doesn’t begin to describe the endeavour, which has forced the team to confront a relentless barrage of challenges.
“It’s a huge puzzle, really kind of brain-melting,” says Douglas, whose stellar international reputation helped open doors to bring his bold vision to the stage (and screen). The show is a mammoth co-production involving Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre Company, Canadian Stage in Toronto, the Banff Centre, Stan Douglas Inc., Montreal’s Festival TransAmériques, and the National Arts Centre. Beyond dates in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto, it will also travel to Edinburgh and Munich this year.
Surprisingly perhaps, it wasn’t the technological innovations that spawned Helen Lawrence, but rather Douglas’s interest in investigating postwar Vancouver – the transition time sandwiched between the gloomy years of the Second World War and the cookie-cutter boom-time optimism of the 1950s. The period’s troubles echo many contemporary concerns, particularly as Douglas conceived the work in 2009: a deep recession; a housing crisis; a banking system in shambles; and a nebulous foreign threat – the Cold War then, terrorism today.
Two central themes inform the play: malfeasance and impotence. In the late 1940s, Vancouver was dealing with an epidemic of police corruption. At the same time, it was ramping up to huge growth and transformation. Both realities left many citizens feeling small and powerless.