Rehearsal is underway at a wide table. My eyes are drawn to a pair overhead projectors at its centre. Crouched over the projectors’ glow, their hands a blur, Shadow Puppeteers Mina James and Montserrat Videla work at a frenetic yet deeply focused pace.
At one end of the table, Performer Jessica Carmichael, speaking into a microphone, her voice live-altered by Sound Designer Sam Ferguson, portrays a slew of supporting characters. At the other end of the table—across a sea scattered markers, transparency sheets, and tape—sits Writer/Director Cole Lewis, performing lines of dialogue as her main character. She stops frequently to discuss the visuals being projected onto a large sheet in the background.
“The perspective is all off.”
“You’re coming in too slow. It’s creepy!”
I can sense a keen awareness of attitude and timing as it relates to specific movements. With mere seconds to spare, a projector lens is flipped closed, another open. As one sequence progresses, hurried preparations are under way for the next set-up.
Before them, monitoring all, is Stage Manager Giuseppe Condello. Producer Claire Burns leans over to confide how vitally important it was to find a stage manager with a solid technical grounding. Watching, in awe and some anxiety, I can see why.
I’m here, witnessing this, after Burns expressed to me, via email, that 1991 is “the most unique theatrical piece I’ve ever produced.” Coming from the Artistic Producer of Storefront Theatre and producer of such the critically acclaimed work as Krapp’s Last Tape (Theatre Passe Muraille), this is noteworthy.
The company will be premiering 1991 at The Theatre Centre (May 22-June 1, 2019) as part of Why Not Theatre’s Riser Project before moving on to St. Catherine’s for the In the Soil Festival (June 7-9, 2019). Presented as a live film, this multi-media piece tells the coming-of-age story of Nicole, a 12-year-old drifter. To distance herself from a serial killer, she flees across the border to the Deep South, hoping to reconnect with her father—a boozy, fist-swinging Vietnam veteran.
1991 is written and directed by Lewis (Artistic Director of Guilty by Association), working closely with Co-Projection Designer Patrick Blenkarn. Starting with storyboards, careful pre-planning has gone into the innovative visuals. Location photographs provide background plates for an assortment of intricate shadow puppet figures that enact scenes in the foreground.
During the rehearsal process, these dynamic figures are adapted to the needs of the performers. As their characters evolve, they suggest alterations and thereby tailor the capabilities of each figure to the unique performance. For Lewis, actor impulses are an essential part of the development.
While precision is important, mistakes are inevitable and accepted. Part of the concept of the piece is to illustrate, in a visceral way, the difficulties that occur in the telling of a story. With sensitive subject matter like consent and sexual assault, Lewis feels the mode of presentation should convey a sense of struggle.
Technical glitches will not so much undermine the presentation as support the thematic concerns of the story—echoing the fragmented memory that can occur in victims of sexual assault. It is important that the audience see the vulnerability of the performers and their support of each other.
The story incorporates some auto-biographical material. Lewis’ own father is a Vietnam veteran and she has gritty experience of the Deep South of the early 90s. The piece was original developed as a pitch for American television. She was initially approached to create a murder mystery/road trip story. Drawing on her adolescence in Burlington/St.Catherines, when Paul Bernardo was front page news, she began developing a narrative that centred on sexual violence.
At the same time, as a teacher, she was frequently using classroom overhead projectors and so began experimenting—creating live movies with her students to explore the possibilities of old-school, analogue technology.
Combining these two ideas into a single concept, she brought it to the Feminist Fuck it Festival (2018) as a 20-minute piece, then called “Summer of ’91.” With only two days to rehearse, Lewis felt that it was something of a disaster to put together and was pleasantly surprised by the positive response. Audiences were particularly attentive to the relationship between performers and the intricate mechanical tasks required of them. The content of Lewis’ script also resonated strongly with people.
The issue of poverty become a key focus during the massive re-writes that ensued and class is now a major theme of story. Specifically, Lewis strives to present an impoverished child character with a sense of agency and, more broadly, explore the strength of community fostered by collective hardship.
Lewis assures me that the piece isn’t entirely downbeat. Inspired by fun road trip movies, the first half of the story is relatively light-hearted. At its core, this is a heart-warming father/daughter re-union story.
Following at least one performance, there will be a long table discussion on the issues of consent and sexual violence. Time won’t allow for an official discussion at all shows, but a safe environment and opportunity to connect to the creators will follow each performance, as well as support resources available for those who may need it.
Runs from May 22 to June 1, 2019
At The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West)
Visit the show page for info and tickets
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