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British Columbia Theatre company Fight With A Stick debuts at PuSh with Steppenwolf

Last November, the first board meeting was held for what would become Fight With a Stick, a new theatre company that has grown out of the now defunct Leaky Heaven. At that meeting, Vancouver theatre veteran Alex Lazaridis Ferguson, now co-artistic director of Fight With a Stick, found himself announcing, "I hate theatre." He explains it this way on the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival blog:

"I hate the way so much conventional theatre makes the obvious more obvious, how it has been surpassed on almost every level by other art forms, including TV and movies, and how so many theatre institutions live in fear of offending their audiences (and generally underestimating them). I find theatre's claims to "liveness" bogus – the promise of a social encounter and a unique experience. Most theatre environments, from the lobby to the auditorium, severely limit the possibility of meaningful social encounter, and although there are live performers on stage and real live spectators in the auditorium the experience usually feels very dead, very stifled, very oppressive."

Fight With a Stick, formed by Mr. Ferguson and Steven Hill, launches with a new work at this year's PuSh.

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Steppenwolf is an out-there adaptation of Hermann Hesse's 1927 novel of the same name. It's co-directed by Mr. Ferguson, 51, who also performs in what he calls a designer-driven theatre piece.

The Globe and Mail spoke with him earlier during the festival.

What was it about the novel that you felt would be appropriate to launch this new company with this new vision?

Before we chose the book, we had this idea of the audience looking into a bank of mirrors. What we were interested in Steppenwolf is just this idea of this guy sort of contemplating himself, and he has this idea of two natures – one's a human side, one's an animal sort of side, and through the story he keeps wrestling with the two sides of himself, but ultimately the kind of a story about that dualistic version of yourself is fake. You have many selves is where it ends up.

How would you describe the production?

It's not a play with really clear-cut characters and a lot of dialogue. There's very little text in it. We've taken each part of the book and sort of treat it as a movement, almost like in a symphony. So it progresses the way the novel progresses, but not in a sense of having scenes from a play. You're looking into a mirror, but all the staging's happening behind you, so you're looking at it through a mirror and it's more like you're moving from one setting or environment to another environment to another and seeing all this stuff through a mirror.

I love that idea of a movement as opposed to an act or a scene.

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I teach a little bit in a couple of universities, so there's the part of me that loves the philosophical intellectual side of it. On the other hand, I really like a lot of the stuff that's been happening in contemporary theatre around just physical affect; the way you're affected on a physical/emotional level, it's not an intellectual thing. Students come into the class looking for meaning, asking what's the moral of the story, which is natural 'cause that's how a lot of stuff is made. I say to them, when you're on a roller coaster, you don't ask what it means. You just go for the ride. And that's the kind of theatre I try to create as well: maybe not as violent as a roller coaster, but same idea – going for the ride without necessarily looking for the moral of the story.

Where does the name Fight With a Stick come from?

People ask us that, and it's hard to answer. It took us a long time to come up with a new name. I can't really justify it completely. We were looking for names, and Steve said, what if the name of the company isn't a noun, but a verb? And I really don't know where it came from out of my head, I just said, what about Fight With a Stick? There is some logic to it in the sense that there's desire to bring the politics of the company forward. We've been thinking a lot about our place as a theatre company in East Vancouver, our relationship to the environment, the political landscape, the civic landscape, the First Nations people and the history, and really trying to bring that stuff to the forefront. So Fight With a Stick, in a sense, is a bit of a slightly aggressive name for that political intent.

This interview has been condensed and edited. Steppenwolf is at the Russian Hall Feb. 4-8.

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