Veteran theatre artist Denise Clarke had just slogged through one of those performances that can make you question what you're doing with your life. It was her one-woman show, Sign Language; she was performing a matinee at the Belfry Theatre in Victoria and her usual prance into the audience was met not with the usual warmth, but hostility. "That was one of those I've-got-to-get- another-job matinees," Clarke recalls. "It was brutal."
To cheer herself up in the wake of the performance from hell, Clarke started fooling around with Photo Booth on her Mac and, using the software's simple digital effects, created a vignette featuring a Clarke-like actress who, dammit, was going to find another job. Then she created another, with her fantasy worst audience member responding. She sent the vignettes to her stage manager, also in need of some cheering up after that matinee, who recognized them immediately as something that would have wide appeal.
Clarke's little pick-me-up project ultimately became People You May Know, which has its world premiere next week at Calgary's High Performance Rodeo, an annual festival of eclectic theatre, music, dance and interdisciplinary offerings.
Clarke is associate artist at One Yellow Rabbit, a performing ensemble that produces the Rodeo and has been making innovative theatre in Calgary since it was founded in 1982 by Blake Brooker and Michael Green. (Green, who also founded the HPR, is currently on a leave of absence, and working as curator and creative producer of Calgary 2012, marking the city's year as a cultural capital.)
For a decade, OYR has premiered a new work at the HPR, and Clarke was kicking around ideas at a workshop with fellow Rabbit Andy Curtis and frequent collaborator David Rhymer, when she showed them her Photo Booth vignettes. "Andy Curtis just went into a rapture, being a brilliant improviser, and they began making their own characters and vignettes," she said Tuesday from Calgary, where she's based.
"And we came up with the thought that these are really cool sort of reverse avatars. You really are so free in that you go into them and they function like mask-work. You're instantly another character, in another narrative. They just are so effective for character creation."
At around the same time, Brooker, OYR's artistic director, returned from a sabbatical. Informed by research he'd been doing into the economic crisis – and those Photo Booth characters – he developed a narrative about a Ponzi scheme that goes badly awry, sucking in employees of an RV dealership.
Think of People You May Know as a sort of digital puppet show: The three cast members – Clark, Curtis and Rhymer – sit at separate desks, each with a laptop. They operate their computers live, projecting avatars representing their various characters (three each) onto large screens above them, as the story unfolds. "It's not unlike watching a marionette show," Clarke says. "At first you're watching the puppeteer, and then eventually your brain shifts down and you just watch the marionette and listen to the marionette's story."
The one-act play, running about an hour, is a comedy turned tragic, with characters to whom we can all relate – even if they're slightly visually off, in that fun-house kind of way. These are people who fall prey to a too-good-to-be-true scheme not because they're bad people, but because they're so desperate for the financial freedom that will allow them to do something crazy like, say, pay off the mortgage. They're people you may know.
Now mostly in their 50s – Clarke turns 56 later this month – the Rabbits continue to innovate and experiment with the art form, but pushing the envelope for its sake is never the objective. They want to engage audiences by telling good stories and trying new things. "I think in many ways it's one of the most beautiful aspects of the company," Clarke says. "We've stayed sort of punks who just love whatever idea floats into the room."
OTHER HIGHLIGHTS OF CALGARY'S HIGH PERFORMANCE RODEO
Ride the Cyclone Atomic Vaudeville's acclaimed musical chronicles the deaths – but mostly the lives – of members of a teenage chamber choir in a roller-coaster accident.
Metamorphosis An acclaimed production from Iceland of Franz Kafka's tale of an ordinary family turned upside down when their son wakes up one morning transformed into a giant insect.
This Is What Happens Next Daniel MacIvor writes and performs this autobiographical fairy-tale fantasy that takes the audience through a comedic look at addiction, divorce and much more.
Up Close Alberta Ballet's full company of 31 dancers performs three innovative programs in an intimate venue.
For festival dates and venues, visit hprodeo.ca.