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Says Douglas (left), at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage with Helen Lawrence co-creator Haddock: ‘It’s a huge puzzle, really kind of brain-melting.’ (Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak)
Says Douglas (left), at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage with Helen Lawrence co-creator Haddock: ‘It’s a huge puzzle, really kind of brain-melting.’ (Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak)

It’s a 3-D movie. It’s a film-noir play. It’s a great big, fingers-crossed experiment Add to ...

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.

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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.

“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.”

Still, the collaborators insist the whiz-bang technology does not steal the show. “It’s in your face, but it’s not intrusive. The technology doesn’t say, ‘Hey I’m technology; be impressed by me.’ It’s only in service to the story.”

While the archival floor plans and photographs were integral in designing the show, a huge resource in writing the script were transcripts from the 1955-56 Tupper Inquiry. It investigated corruption on the Vancouver police force – in particular on the part of its chief, Walter Mulligan, who promised a tough-on-crime approach, but was ultimately revealed to be collecting protection money from the very joints his force was supposed to be cracking down on. In the midst of the inquiry, Mulligan resigned – and then fled to the U.S. The city portrayed in the detailed testimony of the inquiry helped Haddock bring 1948 Vancouver to life.

There’s been another challenge in mounting the ambitious production: Until last summer, Kim Collier, one of the leading figures in Canadian theatre, was co-directing alongside Douglas, and deeply involved in developing the production. But last summer, the Siminovitch Prize-winning stage veteran left the project. “I had concerns about how the script was coming together in relation to the conceptualization of the piece and the form it would take,” she told The Globe and Mail this week. “I suggested a process that would make me more comfortable moving forward, and at that point the project decided to move forward without me.”

Without Collier’s theatre expertise – a founding member of the renowned Electric Company Theatre, she has extensive experience with multimedia work, including Studies in Motion and Tear the Curtain! – and her steady hand in direction, Douglas has leaned on Sarah Garton Stanley, associate artistic director of English Theatre at the National Arts Centre, who is serving as the associate director for Helen Lawrence.

Despite all the challenges – digital and otherwise – the visual artist and the TV veteran behind this unconventional theatre production projected utter calm a couple of weeks ahead of its world premiere – at least on their exterior scrims. “The overwhelming kind of language is that of film,” says Haddock, leaning back in his chair. “But it’s got the terror-inducing anxiety of live performance.”

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