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Theatre

Extremophiles combines innovative light and music elements to create a sense of solitude and desolation in the dystopian solo show

Caitlind r.c. Brown, seen at a Downstage workshop in October, was one of two artists enlisted to design Extremophiles, a dystopian solo show that incorporates many innovative elements.

Independent theatre artists require innovative thinking, when it comes to design.

Still, when playwright and actor Georgina Beaty and director Ellen Close enlisted a pair of art stars to design Extremophiles, Beaty's dystopian solo show, which opens Tuesday, Jan. 16, at Calgary's annual High Performance Rodeo, little did they know that there would be a theremin – an early 20th-century electronic musical instrument – involved in the equation.

Caitlind r.c. Brown and Wayne Garrett are the creators of Cloud, an interactive sculpture created using approximately 6,000 light bulbs.

When Brown and Garrett debuted Cloud at the 2012 Nuit Blanche in Calgary's downtown Olympic Plaza, it went viral, turning the light-bulb sculpture into a must-have for every light festival or public art exhibition from Singapore to Australia to Moscow.

Long story short: Cloud has been to 20 countries, seen by more a million people around the world. (Russia's Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, founded by Dasha Zhukova and Roman Abramovich, liked it so much, they flew Brown and Garrett to Moscow and commissioned them to build their own Cloud, using Russian light bulbs.)

Production designer Wayne Garrett, pictured, and partner Caitlind r.c. Brown used their public arts background to create one of the show’s set pieces, a large sun with a number of concentric rings of light bulbs.

Beaty, who originally presented Extremophiles in a workshop production at Summerworks in Toronto in 2016, connected to Brown and Garrett through director Ellen Close, who was familiar with the duo's artwork. (Her Downstage Theatre offices are in the Arts Commons, which practically overlooks Olympic Plaza).

"I think the reason they wanted us involved was because of how many times she [Beaty] mentions different stages of light," Brown says. "And so they thought of us, because that's obviously something we're interested in – but that's also been really the most fun part of adapting to [creating design from] a script, which was trying to personify the different states of light."

Brown and Garrett used their public-art backgrounds to create one of the show's set pieces, a large sun with a number of concentric rings of light bulbs that cast an eerie wash of light across the stage throughout

Georgina Beaty is pictured with the set piece created by Garrett and Brown.

Extremophiles, conjuring up a sense of the solitude and desolation of a north that is empty of people, vegetation, or much in the way of a habitable environment when Extremophiles takes place (Beaty has set it in 2020.)

The other major design element concerned the unseen third character that the woman has given birth to, and has resulted in the arrival of an anthropologist from the south arriving to study her.

The baby doesn't speak English, but there are scenes in which the other characters interact with it, which is when Garrett – who is also an indie musician – came up with a design solution that had nothing to do with light bulbs.

It was a theremin, an electronic musical instrument more associated with the early 20th century than the near-future – but one that could provide a soundscape that would be as compelling to the ear as Cloud was to the eye.

Left to right: Wayne Garrett, playwright and Extremophiles actor Georgina Beaty, and Caitlind r.c. Brown.

"It works really well," Garrett says. "Because the theremin is so expressive, we were actually able to develop a vocabulary for yes and no questions, where you could have a positive sound and a negative sound and sort of the intuitive inflections you would expect a human to use. Or even crying sounds."

Speaking of adding interesting elements, it's not easy pairing visual artists, who come from quite a different place, intellectually, with theatre artists, but Downstage, which has been around for a decade, has developed an identity as one of the more innovative Calgary theatre companies– and from all accounts, the experience of incorporating a pair of Calgary art stars into the High Performance Rodeo has been far more utopian than dystopian, for both the theatre people and the visual artists.

"It would have been [a] different [experience] if it hadn't been someone like Georgina," Brown says. "Ellen Close, too – the whole [creative] team. They absorb thoughts, and then they respond thoughtfully, and I think that sets a precedent of doing that reciprocally.

"So sound design wasn't what they asked us to do at all," she says, "but we were kind of interested in working with the theremin and working with sound, and they were like, well, why don't you do that too?"