Three of the biggest names in Canadian art, television and theatre are uniting to create a "cinematic stage production" that will bring the lost landmarks of postwar Vancouver back to life – live on stage and through cutting-edge CGI technology, Toronto's Canadian Stage revealed Tuesday.
Helen Lawrence, a film-noir-style thriller currently in development for a March, 2014, premiere, is the brainchild of Stan Douglas, the celebrated West Coast installation artist and photographer, who has made a specialty of resurrecting locations and events from the past in his work. Douglas has assembled what he calls a "dream team" of collaborators: Chris Haddock, creator of television's Da Vinci's Inquest and Intelligence, has written the show's 90-page script, while Canadian Stage associate artist Kim Collier is on board as co-director for the project set to debut in Toronto at the Bluma Appel Theatre before embarking on a British and European tour.
Set in a postwar Vancouver dealing with an epidemic of police corruption, Helen Lawrence tells the story of an American woman who comes to town in search of the killer of her husband – but the Terminal City is the star of the show. "It's through [the main character's] eyes we see this strange, unusual city … ruled by quaint morality rules, but still a place where people would regularly go to bootleggers, go gambling and visit prostitutes," says Douglas, speaking of the years-in-development project exclusively to The Globe and Mail.
This area of narrative seems a natural fit for Haddock, who has peered into the dark corners of Vancouver in his CBC Television series and who has just finished a season-long stint writing for HBO's Prohibition-era drama, Boardwalk Empire.
"Nineteen forty-eight is really the period where control is coming back [to Vancouver]," says Haddock, who was a street performer and puppeteer early in life, but has never before written for the theatre. "It's a little bit like the Wild West being tamed and the outlaws being, to some degree, rounded up."
While the story promises some narrative chills, co-directors Douglas and Collier expect the production concept to be equally thrilling, resurrecting through new technology two long-gone but not forgotten parts of Vancouver – one in the West side and one in the East side.
The first is the old Hotel Vancouver, an Italian Renaissance-style building originally built by the CPR that was squatted in by homeless Second World War veterans and then used as a military hostel after the war. It was demolished in 1949.
The other is Hogan's Alley, an ethnically diverse area that was home to many Italian, Chinese, Japanese and especially black families after the war. Much of this historic neighbourhood was destroyed around 1970 when the city constructed the Georgia Viaduct.
A five-person team of 3-D artists and programmers is busy "constructing" the sets right now in Vancouver – and this spring they will be available for audiences members to explore for themselves in advance through an iPhone and iPad app being put out by the National Film Board of Canada.
On stage, Helen Lawrence's cast will perform the play written by Haddock with Douglas in front of green screens, while a live feed of their images is simultaneously transported into the virtual sets projected in the theatre.
Originally conceived as an installation, Douglas – whose films, photographs and installations often re-examine past locations or events – decided to bring it to the theatre as it became more ambitious – and brought Collier on board due to her experience creating film/theatre hybrids such as the Electric Company's Tear the Curtain! Collier describes the artistic process – which is still being explored and will be workshopped at the Banff Centre in January – as watching a movie shoot and the movie at the same time.
"Canadian Stage is of the capacity of an organization that could handle a project like this," she says, adding that Douglas's international fame in the art world is helping secure theatrical co-producers across Europe – on a par with projects by international superstars like Robert Lepage.
Helen Lawrence, which the creators hope will find a home in Vancouver in 2014 as well, is looking to tour to about seven European cities. It currently has one international partner signed up: the Munich Kammerspiel, a German theatre which will also supply two of the production's 16 performers. Auditions are currently being held for the bulk of the cast, which will be Canadian.
And while Helen Lawrence sounds avant-garde, Haddock says it also will have much for those devoted to the storytelling of his television work. "People who are noir fans or film fans – it's got a lot of intrigue to it," he says.
Canadian Stage season highlights
Canadian Stage's artistic director Matthew Jocelyn unveiled his theatre's next season early this year – more of his now trademark mix of recent New York and London hits, celebrated choreographies from home and abroad, and off-beat originals. The highlights of 2013-2014:
Venus in Fur: David Ives's play about an actress auditioning for an S&M play seemed like strange Broadway fare – at least until 50 Shades of Grey came along. Stratford Festival's Jennifer Tarver returns to Canadian Stage to direct this electrically sexy Tony-nominated two-hander.
London Road: Shaw Festival artistic director Jackie Maxwell will make the trip down the QEW to helm the Canadian premiere of Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork's "documentary musical" based on the discovery of the bodies of five woman in the English town of Ipswich in 2006. A controversial critical hit from the National Theatre of Great Britain.
Needles and Opium: Robert Lepage returns to Toronto once more with a reworked version of an old solo show that delves into the lives of playwright Jean Cocteau, jazz musician Miles Davis and the relationship of creativity to drugs.
Dance: Jocelyn favourite Crystal Pite returns with her Shakespeare-inspired The Tempest Replica in May, while 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony choreographer Akram Khan visits from overseas with DESH in October.
Students take the stage: Canadian Stage's partnership with York's MFA in directing yields its first productions. Participants Ker Wells and Ted Witzel will direct The Taming of the Shrew and Macbeth in High Park in the summer, then the English-language premieres of two plays by Sarah Berthiaume (The Flood Thereafter and Yukonstyle) indoors in the fall.
For the full 2013-2014 season, visit canadianstage.com.