Working Spark Theatre


A ‘Bolt from the Blue: Working Spark Goes the Shadbolt Centre

The last few weeks have been busy here at Working Spark.  We are in full pre-production for our forthcoming presentation of I am the Bastard Daughter of Engelbert Humperdinck, finding key pieces for the set, gathering lighting plots and floor plans, organizing schedules. As we prepare for our load-in to the theatre, happening in couple weeks, I can’t help but think, It is going to be awesome to get to work in the Shadbolt.

The SCA's Studio Theatre.

The ‘Bolt’s Studio Theatre.

We are lucky to be performing the show in Studio Theatre in the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts (or SCA, or affectionately “The ‘Bolt”), one of the best black box studio spaces in the Lower Mainland, as far as I’m concerned.  It has a large stage, ample wing and back-stage space, a fully-equipped lighting grid, and a flexible seating configuration.  This is luxury compared to some of the found and do-it-yourself spaces that exist in Vancouver!  The Studio has served as a space for everything from one-man sketch comedy to film screenings to dance.  It’s going to be a great space in which to perform our show.

This year marks the 20th Anniversary of the ‘Bolt, the unique arts centre that has become a central player in the thriving arts scene of Vancouver, Burnaby, and really the entire Lower Mainland.  Part of the reason the Studio Theatre (and all the facilities contained in the Shadbolt) are so easy to work in is because the building was specifically built to accommodate the needs of a variety of performing and visual arts.

Jack_Shadbolt_Winter_Birds_190_8215_360

Winter Birds by Jack Shadbolt.

Jack Shadbolt was a visual artist and teacher, and his wife Doris was a prominent curator and art director.  The couple moved to Burnaby in 1950, and helped to nurture the visual arts in the province and across the country.  Both were named to the Order of Canada, and the SCA is named after them.  The Shadbolt opened in 1995 in Burnaby in Deer Lake Park and is owned and operated by the City of Burnaby.  It boasts not only the Studio Theatre, but the 400-seat James Cowan Theatre, painting studios, extensive ceramic studios, exhibition space, dance studios, and the live outdoor venue in Deer Lake Park, which has hosted internationally known musicians, such as Taj Mahal, Feist, and Bjork.  The mandate of the center focusses on both education and professional exhibition and performance.

I am the Bastard Daughter of Engelbert Humperdinck is part of the Shadbolt’s Independents Series in the 2015-16 Theatre & Dance Season.  (Included in the Independents is Inside/Out, Patrick Keating’s one-man show about life in the Canadian Prison System.  See it if you can—very cool, compelling show.)  The season is programmed by Cory Philley, the SCA’s Theatre and Event Services Coordinator.  “I often have a theme for the season and start there to program,” Cory says.  “I try to offer the best in contemporary theatre, dance and music…the Shadbolt runs an artist-in-residency in program for dance and theatre so I am around new work all the time, and companies and artists approach me about projects.  I do offer a more mainstream series for theatre and music but look for opportunities to present new and innovative performance experiences.”  Cory’s eclectic, wide-ranging approach results in a performance season that literally has something for everyone:  from us over at the Independents, to a dance series that includes local favourite Tara Cheyenne, to jazz vocalist Carol Welsman, to touring shows from Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre.

So basically, we can’t wait to move in and put up the show, and are thrilled to bits to be part of this year’s season at The ‘Bolt.  We hope to make Humperdinck proud!


The Spell of Spectacle

“Is projection the savior of theatre?”

This question was posed to me during an interview with my friend and journalist Erika Thorkelson. It was March 2014, and we were discussing the production of my play Ghosts in Baghdad, which had premiered only days before in Vancouver. The production featured significant use of projection.

In theatre, projection isn’t really a novelty anymore. With technological advances in projectors and projecting software, projection is an accessible, versatile tool that can be used to great effect in any play. It can be used in many ways, from projection of still images suggesting a backdrop, to live-feed images, to abstract images, to blending projection/filmic images with live action. One need look no further than this year’s Helen Lawrence, produced by the Arts Club Theatre, for an example of projection used in this way, and where projection was also an integral part of the storytelling.

In Helen Lawrence (Arts Club Theatre 2014), the actors on stage were also often also pictured in the projected images.

In “Helen Lawrence” (Arts Club Theatre 2014), the actors stage were on stage at the same time as projected images. Co-Written + Co-directed by Stan Douglas and Chris Haddock; Gerard Plunkett, Nicholas Lea, actors pictured here; Kevin McAllister, Sets; Nancy Bryant, Costumes; Robert Sondergaard, Lighting; Brian Johnson, DOP; Peter Courtemanche, Video Programmer. Photo by David Cooper.


For Ghosts in Baghdad, however, projection was not integral to the storytelling. I wasn’t trying to subvert theatrical form: I wanted words and character to lead the way. The idea to use projection came up in an early production meeting between myself and Director John Murphy.

The play is set in Iraq, a country with which most Vancouver audiences are only superficially familiar. Many details in the script, in particular the ancient Iraqi artifacts used by the play’s characters, are likely beyond the common knowledge of an average local theatre goer (unlike, say, the Mona Lisa or the Statue of David). The idea to use projection, then, came from the hope that it could help audiences see these artifacts, not just imagine them. In addition, we hoped that the images would have another important effect:  “I want the audience to fall in love with the art, and for the art to become almost a fifth character in the play,” John explained.

The projection design (created by Corwin Ferguson) ended up including many images of Iraqi artifacts, and also expanded to include images from within the Iraq Museum itself (the play’s primary setting), as well as images of the streets of Baghdad. It helped create a sense of scale, a sense of place, and helped explain the passage of time. In one arresting transition between the first and second scene (in which twenty-five years pass), images and video of the American-led invasion of 2003 and the subsequent destruction of Iraq were shown:  these events did much to inform the rest of the play and the journey of the characters.

An example of Corwin Ferguson's Projection Design for "Ghosts in Baghdad," taken from the transition between Scenes 1 and 2. Beth Snelgrove, Set; Darren Boquist, Lighting. Photo by Tim Matheson.

An example of Corwin Ferguson’s Projection Design for “Ghosts in Baghdad,” taken from the transition between Scenes 1 and 2. Beth Snelgrove, Set; Darren Boquist, Lighting. Photo by Tim Matheson.

Another example from "Ghosts in Baghdad," in which you can see projection interacting with the live action of the play. Sarah May Redmond (Malika) and Gili Roskies (Noor); Amy McDougall, Costumes; C. Ferguson, Projection; B. Snelgrove, Sets; Darren Boquist, Lighting. Photo by Tim Matheson.

Another example from “Ghosts in Baghdad,” in which you can see projection interacting with the live action of the play. Sarah May Redmond (Malika) and Gili Roskies (Noor); Amy McDougall, Costumes; C. Ferguson, Projection; B. Snelgrove, Sets; D. Boquist, Lighting. Photo by Tim Matheson.


So back to Erika’s question. Is projection the savior of theatre? I argued it was not. I admit, I scoffed.  Projection can’t save theatre, I said—I mean, sure, it can draw audiences and add spectacle, but ultimately, I want a good story, well-directed and well-acted. Projection is rarely the deciding factor in this criteria. I have left many theatres very frustrated by the clear amount of effort and resources poured into a projection design, while the story itself made no sense—or was downright boring.

However, the question did get me thinking. Projection is a tool of theatrical spectacle. Corwin’s projection design added a huge dimension to the spectacle of my production: it created, together with the excellent work done by our set, costume, and lighting designers, a rich visual world for the piece.  So as much I can pooh-pooh projection as a “savior” for theatre, I cannot dismiss in any way the inestimable signficance of spectacle itself, and what spectacle, in all its forms and variations, can bring to any production.

The incredible puppetry, costuming, and lighting that goes into making the spectacle of "The Lion King." Julie Taymor, Director, Costumes, Masks/Puppet Co-Design; Richard Hudson, Scenic Design; Donald Holder, Lighting Design; Michael Curry, Mask/Puppet Co-Design; Michael Ward, Hair and Make up Design. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The incredible puppetry, costuming, and lighting that goes into making the spectacle of “The Lion King.” Julie Taymor, Director, Costumes, Masks/Puppet Co-Design; Richard Hudson, Scenic Design; Donald Holder, Lighting Design; Michael Curry, Mask/Puppet Co-Design; Michael Ward, Hair and Make up Design. Photo by Joan Marcus.


Typically, the word spectacle implies a exhibition on a grand, epic scale that is meant to entice and dazzle an audience.  There are numerous examples of this kind of spectacle from any historical era. Think of Julie Taymor’s The Lion King for a contemporary example, or consider the displays of Medieval Mystery plays, which created enormous spectacles in their depiction of Biblical stories. One such production in 1501 in the city of Mons, Belgium set out to stage Noah’s flood, and stored enough water in barrels on surrounding rooftops to produce five minutes of steady rainfall.[i]

As remarkable as this scale of display can be, when discussing theatre in general, spectacle can simply refer to all visual elements of a play. Grandeur, or lack thereof, doesn’t matter: sets, costumes, lighting, special effects, props, and projection all visually engage the audience and serve to create the world and atmosphere of a play, whether it is something on the imaginative, fantastical scale of The Lion King, or something about everyday, modern life.

The considered spectacle of Manhattan Theatre Club's production of "The Rabbit Hole." Cynthia Nixon and John Slattery, actors pictured; John Lee Beatty, Sets; Jennifer von Mayrhauser, Costumes; Christopher Akerland, Lighting; Daniel Sullivan, Director. Photo by Sara Krulwich.

The considered spectacle of Manhattan Theatre Club’s 2006 production of “The Rabbit Hole.” Cynthia Nixon and John Slattery, actors pictured; John Lee Beatty, Sets; Jennifer von Mayrhauser, Costumes; Christopher Akerland, Lighting; Daniel Sullivan, Director. Photo by Sara Krulwich.


The Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire is a contemporary drama which takes place entirely inside a home whose inhabitants are mourning the death of their young son.  Special effects, period costumes, pyrotechnics, all the trappings of what one would usually consider spectacle, would be entirely out of place here.  And yet, this photo of the Broadway premier reveals a visual world that is both considered and abundant in meaning. The set indicates a domesticity of upper-middle class status, and its pale, neutral colour serves to draw attention to the actors, while also suggesting a certain desolation. The actors themselves are dressed in stark, contrasting colours, suggesting an emotional distance, but the green plant on the table gives a hint of life and hope. The lighting is without ornament or colour, primarily serving to light the actors without adding sentiment to the grief and suffering of the characters. None of this spectacle works on a bigger-than-you-can-imagine sort of scale, and yet it presents a visual world into which we become absorbed.

Aristotle lists spectacle as one of his six elements of Tragedy (the others being Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, and Song). However, almost as soon as he mentions it, he dismisses it:

“Spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own, but…the power of Tragedy…is felt even apart from representation and actors. Besides, the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet[ii].”

Aristotle, arguing that because the meaning of a story, or what he calls “the power of tragedy,” can be felt without any spectacle, it is therefore superfluous. He does have a point: the power of story can indeed be felt without visual effects. One need go no further than a good book for an example of how stories can impact us, whether we can actually see them or not. However, to lose spectacle would be to lose much of what we love about the theatre as its own artform (as opposed to, say, the novel). I’ve come to believe that spectacle is not just important, but is integral to theatre. It draws us into a world, helps us understand the story and the characters, it entertains. Sometimes, if the spectacle is working well, we might not even notice it as such, but a strong visual environment is a vital element in any production of any play.

Consider for a moment what could happen if the spectacle of a production wasn’t great. Or was simply bad. I saw such a production, one of Shakespeare’s Henry V. The actors were good and it’s a decent script, but it was the ill-conceived and poorly rendered spectacle that, I think, hurt the production overall.  Now, before I discuss the gory details, I think it’s important to note that Shakespeare’s works are particular in that the visual emphasis of his plays falls primarily upon the actor[iii], making the costume one of the most important visual elements of his plays.

During the Elizabethan era, costumes were seen up close and primarily in daylight: there was no room for fakery. The costumes had to be good. It was also an era in which the culture was particularly attuned to visual symbolism. Elizabeth I’s ornamented manner of dress was not pure vanity, but rather a visual means of displaying and reinforcing her power:

“Every detail of her elaborate dress was laden with symbolic meaning testifying to her authority…and each item was charged with signficance.”[iv]

Shakespeare’s audiences would have understood to this kind of visual symbolism, and a good costume could go a long way in impressing them. Today, Shakespeare’s plays can be set in almost any era conceivable, and yet the costumes themselves remain a primary visual element for storytelling, character, and entertainment.

An example of how costumes can create spectacle can be seen here:

"Othello," produced by Bard on the Beach 2009. Neil Maffin, Naomi Wright, Michael Blake, and Bob Frazer, principle actors pictured; Kevin McAllister, Sets; Mara Gottler, Costumes; Gerald King, Lighting; Dean Paul Gibson, Director. Photo by David Blue.

“Othello,” produced by Bard on the Beach 2009. Neil Maffin, Naomi Wright, Michael Blake, and Bob Frazer, principle actors pictured; Kevin McAllister, Sets; Mara Gottler, Costumes; Gerald King, Lighting; Dean Paul Gibson, Director. Photo by David Blue.


The costumes above immediately communicate that we are viewing something from a time different than our own, which exoticizes what we see. The red ceremonial silks and the elevated location of the three judges announces both their status and importance; the men that stand on either side of the dais are all clothed in rich cloths of dark brown and black, denoting a high status and also the nature of the state itself: they are armed and dressed for war. In the center stands Desdemona, the only woman, in a flowing beige gown. She is a soft figure that stands in stark contrast to the warlike, imperious men around her. All the characters stand on a dark set with shapes reminiscent of classical architecture, but none of its usual ornament, suggesting a stark, perhaps threatening, world. It is a textured spectacle that communicates much about the story, and impresses: the costumes themselves are compelling, unusual, and beautiful, and draw absolute attention to the actors, especially in this moment in which ambient light illuminates them (and the effects of the lighting design are largely nullified).

Back to the ill-fated production of Henry V. While the set was an attractive, simple thrust stage, its grey tones suggesting Medieval castle walls, no beauty or unity that is visible in the above photograph of Othello was to be found in the costumes of this production. Rather, the play was set in an undefined contemporary era: the female characters wore dresses of pastel green (in chiffon) and bright yellow (in a heavy, quilted material) that had not been fitted well to the actresses. The male characters were dressed in a mixture of mid to late twentieth century clothing, pieces of which included pin-striped suits, Converse sneakers (on some, not all of the actors), khaki military jackets reminiscent of the Vietnam war era, and baseball hats. The actor playing Henry was clothed in a black military uniform trimmed with silver and red. It had the unfortunate effect of making him look a like a Nazi SS officer.

The worst, however, were the costumes for the battle scenes. The climax of H5 is the Battle of Agincourt, when the British defeat the French despite being vastly outnumbered. During this scene, actors playing unnamed parts entered and exited the stage, running and yelling, acting out their fight choreography with relish. However, the costumes here were suddenly from a different era: the battle uniforms were a sort of Les Miserables-esque mix of trousers, vests, and head scarves. The actors playing the French army wore blue scarves here and there but not always; the English army had no such unifying factor, making it difficult to tell who was fighting whom. On top of that, it was visually jarring when considered in context with the rest of the production: you thought the world of the play was one thing, but then these costumes conflicted with that. Watching the battle scenes, then, was kind of like watching mud mixing.

The spectacle of this production was completely hampered by these costumes. They did little to express anything of character, they actively confused the story rather than help tell it, they didn’t work together in a unified way, and they were just plain ugly. The actors did their darndest, but the costumes hindered almost everything they were trying to do. Rather than entice the audience, this spectacle repelled the audience, who voted with their feet and did not attend in the numbers hoped for.

An drawing of a Medieval Mystery play, including multiple stages, a water feature, and a Hell Mouth.

An drawing of the staging of a Medieval Mystery play, which included multiple stages, a water feature, and a Hell Mouth.


A theatrical experience is an emphemeral one. Each production, and each performance of each production is unique, and when a play closes, no number of photographs or video recordings can truly replicate the experience of watching it live. This, in many ways, is a key underlying attraction to theatre, akin to live music or dance: you just can’t replace being there. We as an audience can see the actors live, we live through their struggles, and a sort of communal experience is created as they do their work and feed off the audience’s reactions. Film has long overtaken theatre as a populist artform, and can create a type and scale of spectacle just not possible in theatre, but it does not have that special element of a live interaction. The number of people who flock to theatre festivals like Bard on the Beach, or who see The Lion King, the highest grossing Broadway production of all time, implies that theatre doesn’t need saving.  It needs to create a unique experience. And it needs to be good.

Spectacle plays many key parts in creating such an experience. It can draw us in, help tell the story, entertain, and astonish. Projection is an important tool that directors can now easiy include in their design scheme to help create these effects. To me, the best, most exciting use of projection is when it works cohesively with all other elements of design, and also supports or even adds another layer of impact to the story.

"Re:Union," an original play be Sean Devine, produced by Horseshoes and Handgrenades Theatre in Vancouver, 2011. It included a striking use of projection, which included still images and multiple images of the same live feed. Pictured here is Andrew Wheeler, who played Robert McNamara. Jason H. Thompson. Projection; John Webber, Set and Lights; Flo Barrett, Costumes; John Langs, Director. Photo by Ron Reed.

“Re:Union,” a play be Sean Devine, produced by Horseshoes and Handgrenades Theatre in Vancouver, 2011. It featured a striking use of projection, which included multiple projections of the same live feed. Pictured here is Andrew Wheeler, who played Robert McNamara. Jason H. Thompson. Projection; John Webber, Set and Lights; Flo Barrett, Costumes; John Langs, Director. Photo by Ron Reed.


There are many elements of spectacle I have not discussed here. Theatrics are utterly reliant upon lighting, for example, and yet so often people don’t even notice it. Music and sound design, although not visual, could also be considered to be part of spectacle, as they again serve to create a world and an atmosphere, and bring huge entertainment value.

And who are we as theatre artists if don’t wish to entertain? No matter the subject matter or theme of a play, we never, ever want our audiences to become disengaged, or worse: bored. We should want to entice and dazzle them, so that when the lights come up at the end of a performance, they blink their eyes and wonder how it is that they’ve been sitting in the same seat the whole time, and yet were just transported to another world.

by Michelle Deines

Works Cited

[i] Brockett, Oscar G. The History of the Theatre. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1995.
[ii] Aristotle. The Poetics of Aristotle. Translated by S. H. Butcher. London: MacMillan & Co., 1895.
[iii] Brockett, Oscar GIbid.
[iv] Delamoir, Jeannette. “Elizabeth’s Costumes: The Power of Spectacle, or Spectacles of Power?” Metro Magazine 2004: pages 46-54.


Critics and Audiences Love Ghosts in Baghdad

The reviews are in, and critics and audiences alike love Ghosts in Baghdad:

“An ambitious new drama by Vancouver playwright Michelle Deines who has created a ghost story where all four characters are haunted by myths, memories, and and real life monsters including Saddam’s regime and the chaos created by their American liberators. She’s also asking big questions in her small theatre and it’s exciting to see her asking those big questions in a fleshed out full length play.”
– Mark Leiren-Young @ The Vancouver Sun

“Deines weaves an intricate tale of intrigue and suspense, and blends in with a heart-breaking sense of humanity and desperation.  Director John Murphy does a stellar job of directing his A-list cast, who all shine in their own right.” – The Vancouverist

“Sarah May Redmond is incandescent:  she full inhabits her part and provides Ghosts in Baghdad with its vivid centre.” – Alex Varity @ The Georgia Straight

“Alec Willows shines.”  – Larry Ghini @ Vancouverscape

“This is a fine production.  Compelling material. ” – Jo Ledingham

Show runs till Sunday, April 6 (last show is a matinee at 2pm).  Click here to purchase tickets.

Khalil (Alec Willows) teaches Noor (Gili Roskies) about the myth of Ninurta and the Anzu bird.

Khalil (Alec Willows) teaches Noor (Gili Roskies) about the myth of Ninurta and the Anzu bird.

 

Khalil (Alec Willows) inside the Iraq Museum.

Khalil (Alec Willows) inside the Iraq Museum.

 


Ten Questions for John Murphy

The Ten Times Fundraising Campaign is still on!  Thank you to all who have donated so far.  We’ve raised an incredible $600!  Don’t know what the heck I’m talking about?  Click here to watch our Campaign video and donate now!  We still need your help to reach our goal of $2000.  Campaign runs till February 21, 2014.

Director John Murphy, being his usual quiet self.

Director John Murphy, being his usual quiet self.

The funds raised in will help support our forthcoming production of the new play, Ghosts in Baghdad, which will be directed by none other than Vancouver theatre treasure John Murphy.  John has been very busy as a director lately, having recently helmed The Odd Couple at the Arts Club, and last summer’s raucous, jazz-infused version of Measure for Measure at Bard on the Beach. As an actor, John has also performed in a wide range of genres, from sketch comedy, to one-man shows (in particular, his self-penned hit The Heretic), to Shakespeare.

In honour of the Ten Times Campaign, we asked John ten questions.  Here are his responses:

1.  Who are you? 

I have no idea.  It changes day to day.  If I had to sum it up in two words, I’d say entertainment mogul.


2.  Tell us something about yourself that most people probably don’t know.

I once ate half a bottle of ketchup and a dispenser of parmesan cheese on a dare for $11.

3. What was the piece you performed in your audition for theatre school?

Romeo’s “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks,” speech, and Wesley’s speech from Curse of the Starving Class by Sam Shepherd.

4.  How did it go?

Really well.  They asked me to join right away.

5.  What’s the most insane thing that’s ever happened to you while you were on stage?

There’s a couple things.  We were doing Collected Works of Billy the Kid at UBC.  Neil Gallagher, who was playing Billy, had just finished his “I’ve been fucked by Christ” speech, when someone in the audience stood up and started screaming at us: “The producers should be taken out and shot!”  He screamed and screamed and then stormed out of the theatre.  We just kept going.  We were singing a song while he was screaming and we didn’t stop.

The second thing that comes to mind was the time I had to improvize Shakespeare.  I was playing Hotspur in Henry IV Part 1 at UBC, and the guy who was playing the messenger in the scene missed his cue because was playing cards in the green room!  He eventually came on late, running and panting and with terror in his eyes.

6.  If you could replace an actor and take over their role in a film, what film and what role would it be?

I’d be Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Obviously. Come on.  One of the greatest movies ever made.

7.  What’s the first piece that you ever directed?

Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll by Eric Begosian at the Cavern Theatre, starring Lee Tockar.

8. What’s the worst moment you’ve ever had as a director?

I once made the mistake of losing my temper at an actor.  A director should never allow their stress to be passed on to the acting company.  Acting is already stressful enough, and you want to feel that your director is on your side.  Now if I feel like I might be getting angry at an actor, I usually realize it’s something I can solve in a different way, or perhaps it was my fault to begin with, in that I could have directed the scene better.

9.  What’s the best moment or experience you’ve had as a director?

The best experience I’ve had as a director was directing Measure for Measure last summer at Bard, because it was my biggest vision to date.  It was a high-concept show, and it was a big risk, in terms of its scope.  To see it fly and succeed was a wonderful experience.

10.  If you could be something other than an actor or director, what would you be?

A rock star.  Doesn’t every actor really want to be a rock star?  Let’s be honest.

To help support John and the company of Ghosts in Baghdad, click here to donate.
It only takes $10!