“We’re talking about a period when the city’s being reimagined, reconstructed, reinvented,” says Douglas, sitting across a boardroom table from Haddock during a break in rehearsals at the Arts Club’s Granville Island headquarters. Those themes also helped inform the play’s inventive staging: The live actors are tiny components of a massive built environment over which they have limited control. “It’s a very constrained process in which technology meets flesh,” says Douglas. “But,” he promises, “when it comes together as it does, it’s a seamless flow.”
Douglas initially considered investigating the period through the more familiar medium of an art installation, and thought, as well, about exploring it through film. Eventually he landed on the idea of a live theatre experience that was heavily cinematic, where the story unfolds simultaneously as a play and a film.
“The core thing was: How do we place actors into this very, very ambitious and nuanced, historically accurate portrayal of the city mid-century?” says Douglas, whose iconic film-set-like photograph, Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971, installed at Vancouver’s SFU Woodward’s, explores another seminal moment in Vancouver’s history: the Gastown riot of 1971.
Douglas had known Haddock for years – Haddock recalls recommending Da Vinci crew members way back when the series was on the air (it ran seven seasons, beginning in 1998). They had talked for some time about collaborating on a project. What became Helen Lawrence seemed like the right opportunity, allowing Douglas to draw on Haddock’s uncanny ability to write good parts.
Haddock’s script is classic film noir, with a cast of mostly fictional characters mingling with actual historical events and settings. When the fictional Helen Lawrence (Lisa Ryder) arrives in Vancouver, she checks into the old Hotel Vancouver, which has become a war veterans’ hostel, and begins to make inquiries. Her quest leads her to the vice-steeped Hogan’s Alley, where the proprietors of illegal watering holes are plotting to save their way of life from the wrecking ball.
The story, developed by Haddock and Douglas, has two primary settings: the real-life former Hotel Vancouver, a 1916 Edwardian-style gem, which during the acute postwar housing shortage became a makeshift home to veterans; and Hogan’s Alley, a Downtown Eastside neighbourhood notorious for its drinking and gambling establishments. The hotel was demolished in 1949; Hogan’s Alley was razed in the early 1970s to make way for the Georgia Viaduct – a twinned bridge that serves as a commuter route in and out of downtown. (Douglas’s related 3-D app, Circa 1948, produced by the National Film Board, will bring these long-gone places to life on iPhones and iPads this spring, allowing users to take a virtual tour, wandering through the grand old hotel, or stepping inside a Hogan’s Alley saloon.)
To create his digital onstage universe, Douglas used floor plans for the old hotel and an east-side train station, which had also been demolished; as well as photographs of the hotel and most of the buildings in Hogan’s Alley. Creating the virtual sets was a laborious task. Douglas worked with 3-D artists and programmers on the painstaking process – everything must be created digitally; every blade of grass, every speck of dirt – of building the computer-generated 3-D models that would become the play’s locations, using the reference material.
The actors, beyond adhering to the superprecise blocking necessitated by the technology they must navigate, are also called upon to operate the four onstage cameras. And they’re required to carry out their craft in what is essentially an empty space, while being dwarfed by the massive representation of themselves on the huge scrim. How to approach this? Do they play to the cameras or to the back row? Taking a sledgehammer to convention can be quite a test.
As Douglas explains it, “Because the cameras are on heads which are encoded and can talk to a computer, as it pans, the background pans too. So everything can sort of move in synchronization. So you can follow characters across the stage, we can reframe them as they move around, so it feels like they’re actually in that environment.”