Praxis Theatre is currently on hiatus! Please find co-founders Aislinn Rose and Michael Wheeler at The Theatre Centre and SpiderWebShow, respectively.

Category: Tear the Curtain

October 9, 2012, by

Tear The Curtain has undergone some minor rewrites. (Dawn Petten & Jonathan Young)

by Michael Wheeler

After one week of intense tech, Tear The Curtain! will open to a sold out Bluma Appel Theatre tonight.

Like lead character Alex Braithewaite, the show has been taken apart and put back together again to find the best way to Tear The Curtain! This new version of the show has a number of small differences that separate it from the 2010 Vancouver one at The Arts Club. Tiny re-writes and re-edits means it is tighter, cleaner and has a more straightforward narrative without sacrificing any of the layers of medium that also contribute to the story.

Laura Mennell as Mila Brook

Tech-wise, the show has gone from projecting two 4500 lumens projections on top of each other, to one massive 10000 lumens projector to fire video from. Beyond the benefit of one projector being less nerve-wracking from a technical standpoint, it also means the colour and richness of the projected image is more consistent throughout the surface area (and there are several) that it projects on.

It’s been an intense process with flys to be timed, new lighting cues to be built, new wireless mic levels to be set and managed, new timing for entrances and exits and as well as a cast member with food poisoning, a dress rehearsal for an audience of educators and a preview that was the first ever Sunday matinee at Canadian Stage that I can ever remember.

Goodbye Monday night shows that never got a decent house, hello busy Sunday afternoon theatre on Front St.

Jonathan Young as Alex Braithwaite

It’s worth bringing this up with The City of Toronto set to receive a report this fall about what to do with the 3 theatres it runs – including the Bluma Appel.  Let it be noted that access for not-for-profit groups to large venues, just like this one, is essential to allow shows like this to be created by non-millionaires.

Anyhow, this is a quick run people: 2 weeks! That’s it and it will be gone. Click here to figure out how and when to come see the film noir film/theatre hybrid Kim Collier and The Electric Company invented for the Cultural Olympiad in 2010 and has been taken apart and re-assembled for Toronto in 2012.

Click here to read more posts about Tear The Curtain!

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September 27, 2012, by

by Michael Wheeler

Two years ago, as part of a Canada Council-supported Director in Training residency at The Tarragon Theatre, I was shipped out to Vancouver to learn more about how the technical aspects of theatre-making were being approached out West. I was paired with The Electric Company, where I became assistant to director Kim Collier while we were shooting the film sections of an in-progress theatre/film hybrid. (During The Olympics!)

My film scene has been cut from the 2012 production!

I pretty much immediately fell in love with the company/production/script and so I was thrilled when they asked me to come back and continue as Assistant to The Director for the rehearsal process at Progress Lab leading up to opening night at The Arts Club’s Stanley Theatre in September 2010.

Anyhow, longtime readers know this already because, of course, I blogged the heck out of that whole experience.

Two years later the production is coming to Toronto as the opening production of The Canadian Stage season at The Bluma Appel Theatre and really, I am quite excited. This super-cool medium-bending production I was a part of that none of my friends and colleagues have seen is finally coming here.

Even better, I will be joining the production when it moves into the theatre to begin teching into the space.

I’m hoping that my experience as assistant director on Peggy Pickit Sees The Face of God in The Bluma Appel last year, combined with my knowledge of Tear The Curtain when we put it together originally will make me useful. The cast is rehearsing in Vancouver first, so I will be playing catch-up. If nothing else, I can still hopefully provide some interesting online updates.

January 11, 2011, by
1 comment

Jonathon Young and Dawn Petten in Tear The Curtain. Eventually different mediums required different acting styles.

Jonathon Young and Dawn Petten in Tear The Curtain. Eventually Kim determined filmed and live sequences required different acting styles.

by Michael Wheeler

Probably the most surprising and luckiest thing about my professional development residency as Director in Training at The Tarragon Theatre is how much of it I ended up assisting and or observing director Kim Collier.

The decision to go to Vancouver to observe The Electric Company shoot a film for a multimedia piece they were working on as part of the Cultural Olympiad was a last minute add-on to a trip to Alberta to observe Tarragon Artistic Director Richard Rose as he transferred Courageous to The Citadel and directed Betrayal at Theatre Calgary. So it was an unexpected bonus when Kim and I hit it off, and the company invited me to return this summer, where I was her assistant on the World Premiere of Tear The Curtain at The Arts Club’s Stanley Theatre. In November, when The Electric Company’s Studies in Motion came to Canadian Stage (NOW Magazine’s #1 Show of 2010), I also had the chance to spend a week understanding how all the technology works in that show.

The combined effect of these experiences has been to explode my mind in terms of the possibilities that contemporary live performance offers, and I can’t think of a better set of experiences for someone who was searching to understand how complicated technical elements are integrated into large scale venues as a director. I had a moment during ‘video levels’ of Tear The Curtain where I found that I had abandoned my too-cool-for-school lounging seated posture to stand and make an “aaahhhh” kind of sound as the full scope of what Kim was about to accomplish literally came into focus. If you think I’m overdoing it here, I’m not the only one.

Beyond technical technique – I did learn a lot of less definable things as well. Working with Kim pre, during, and after winning the biggest prize in Canadian Theatre has been kind of amazing to bear witness to. Understanding the level of commitment and work ethic that gets you to that point in a career is another thing I will likely consider ad-infinitum. Seeing how the close knit group that comprised the core team behind The Electric Company’s productions worked is also something I want to keep in mind.

The biggest thing that has stuck with me about Kim though, is how dedicated she has been to her artistic community and fellow artists in Vancouver. Her accomplishments weren’t achieved by deciding how much of her time to spend on her art and how much to spend being a good community member. They are directly related factors and the improvement of one has led to successes for the other. Bottom line: If you want to do crazy shit – you have to work with your peers to make it possible. I asked Kim if she would talk to me over G Chat about this further and here’s what we talked about:

11:05 AM Kim computer praxisme: Hi Kim. Thanks for doing this

Kim: Very good, my pleasure.

11:06 AM
me: Are you in Montreal right now?

Kim: No I am in Toronto at One King West.

me: Oh cool, I was there yesterday with the camera for the Studies in Motion archival, it seems nice.
11:07 AM First thing I wanted to ask you about was Progress Lab. Can you describe what it is and how it came about?

Kim: Okay, let me do some writing.

me: Take your time. It’s a slow kind of interview-y thing.

11:14 AM
Kim: Progress Lab began as I was sitting on my front deck one morning thinking about the theatre and what I was curious to learn more about. I have always been fascinated with company management models and I had been thinking a lot about the divergent structures required for creation-based companies vs. companies that produce existing plays. There seemed to be no model to refer to, but rather the structures respond to the creation process.

Anyways, I was thinking about how I knew a lot about Electric Company and how we work creatively and as a company and thought it would be super stimulating to invite other creation companies together to discuss how they create and as well learn about their company models. We were fortunate to get a flying squad grant to help with this, so we struck a committee from the creation companies Neworld, Boca del Lupo, Radix and Electric Company and began planning a 5-day conference including guest speakers on the history of Vancouver Theatre, Creative Contracting, Blake Brooker to talk about One Yellow Rabbit, etc. Each company had a half day to talk about their work and creation processes and all the companies shared ideas around management, etc. Individual creation artists were invited too as well as the larger community to open sessions. We produced a written record of these meetings.

In the end, we found so much common ground and advocacy ideas that we realized we wanted to keep meeting on a regular basis. But with so many people is was hard to pick dates fairly. So we began this idea of meetings on the full moon- kind of a half party, half dialogue sessions at someone’s house. When you arrive you would write down hot topics for the night to talk about. Then we used a stopwatch and gave each topic say 10 minutes or half hour – that sort of thing. These informal sessions where spaced between party sessions say for 1/2 hour or hour. After that we would just drink and eat and talk.
11:18 AM

11:20 AM When the stopwatch finished we would talk about more hot topics. By the end of the night you have a great party going but also the conversation was focused. We have been doing these informal party / dialogue meetings for years now. The idea is inclusive…if you want to come…you ask but the focus is still Artistic Directors, Creators, and now Producers too.

11:24 AM The great thing is, good ideas are always born, advocacy ideas initiated, shared information on grants or ways to lobby, new ideas for shared programming like Hive. But most importantly these parties have built community and have often helped people go on when they are fatigued in their AD or Producing roles. They don’t feel so alone in their struggle and it helped to be in the company of others who share the same challenges but ultimately whom inspire you.

Andrew Wheeler as Eadweard Muybridge in Studies in Motion. As better projectors increased the visibility of performers bodies their physical vocabulary had to adjust.

Andrew Wheeler as Eadweard Muybridge in Studies in Motion. As better projectors increased the visibility of performers over the several years that this show toured Canada, actors had to increase the subtlety of their performances.

11:25 AM Me: So these meetings generated the idea for Progress Lab?

11:26 AM Kim: : Progress Lab are these meetings. Progress Lab is not a producing body, it is an gathering of theatre people in dialogue
although outsiders have come to view is at a body. It just so happens coming out of a great party night drinking scotch on my back deck we all agreed to make the first Hive together. The idea was hatched at a Progress Lab meeting. By this time Progress Lab was hosting the presence of 11 companies: Theatre Skam, Neworld, Electric Company, Leaky Heaven Circus, Rumble Productions, Boca Del Lupo, Only Animal, Western Theatre Conspiracy, Radix, Felix Culpa, and Theatre Replacement.

11:29 AM me:  One more thing about Progress Lab – it is also a building. How are the people and building related?

11:36 AM Kim:  : The building is four companies coming together around our collective desire to have a production space for making our theatre art. The four companies Electric Company, Neworld, Boca del Lupo and Rumble Theatre were/are sitting at a similar operating support base. There was a logic to partner with people you like, work you respect, but also with companies that in terms of their infrastructure and finances would be able to come to the table around this vision equally.

Me: Okay so, can you explain what Hive is and how it came about?

11:46 AM Kim: At the core we wanted Hive to bring us together as artists, to put us in the same space creating side-by-side and to be fueled by this relationship. As well we wanted it to be spontaneous and the created work to happen at the same time together. So we booked the space, would draw lots for what area in the space you would get, and then we would have two weeks to create an installation like work for a small audience.

We wanted to reach out into our larger community and create an event that would be undeniably fun and intriguing and provide an access point to the theatre for perhaps an audience that does not currently attend theatre. So the event houses 11 installation pieces around a central cafe and bar. Audience members can come and go between pieces, chat at the bar about what they have seen and then take another offering from the smorgasbord of theatre. After three hours, the artists pour out of the spaces and join the audience for another part of the evening -centered around the programming of a band or DJ. This means we are again in dialogue with each other and our audience.

11:48 AM me: The band/DJ element reminds me of the approach Summerworks and The Fringe have also taken to make the experience of theatre seem more appealing than just sitting in an uncomfortable chair for two hours in an itchy wool turtleneck.

Kim: Yes, well theatre can be anything can’t it –  provided there is a audience and a performance element.

11:51 AM me: Speaking of which – your production of No Exit came up unprompted in the comments of a recent post: We were talking about the necessity of a “live” audience in theatre and the production was cited as a “live” show where the performers had sections with no connection with the audience. First off – was that the case? Did the performers have no sense of the audience that was there when they were performing for cameras offstage or was it recorded? Also – how did that change the nature of the performance?

11:58 AM Kim: The performers performed live to 7 cameras, on stage but unseen because they were in a room. But they entered live and could be seen live in action whenever that door opened. Their performance on the 3 projection surfaces was in a way mediated by the live performer – the valet on stage. We connected I think in a “live” way to the performers in the room through him. Nevertheless, I consider the performance utterly live, because it is all live, just not seen in the usual way.

me: A lot of your work involves some intersection between live and projected performance. Do you find you have to direct actors differently because they have to create performances for different mediums?
Jonathon Young (foreground), Andy Thompson, Lucia Frangione, and Laara Sadiq in No Exit. Some actors perform live for an audience via offstage cameras.

Jonathon Young (foreground), Andy Thompson, Lucia Frangione, and Laara Sadiq in No Exit. Some actors perform live for an audience via offstage cameras.

12:03 PM Kim: Yes, i do think the performers find this challenging. In No Exit the performers in the room can’t really feel the audience but they can hear them. The performance is very minutely staged. Inside the room, what the performers have to do to stage themselves into the cameras and build blocking to be realized in the projections is radically different then how they would normally related to each other in their given situations.

12:10 PM But it is not just a question of mediums – it is also about content and what you are hoping to achieve with the piece and the style of the piece. In the case of Studies in Motion– in 2009 the projections lighting the actors was low, we had to bump our performance style in order to communicate effectively with the audience through the dimmer light. However, now in 2010 our projectors are stronger and therefore the acting style more flexible to subtle moments. In Tear The Curtain, we needed to be very sensitive to the intimacy of the camera for the film units and create believable characters in that context. We thought that our stage units would draw on a more film style of acting to create a stronger unity to the piece, but in the end, I felt that our stage techniques in performance were very important to maintain in the stage sections to not only balance the work against each other, but to communicate the story.

12:13 PM me: Cool. So – this use of video, projection and a mix of mediums seems to be a growing performance genre. How do you recommend emerging artists learn more about creating this sort of work? Is there any key equipment or philosophy to creation so that we all don’t reinvent the wheel?

12:21 PM Kim: Experimenting is important. To be in a rehearsal room and try things out, get a feel for how your mediums will work together. At Electric Company we started doing design dramaturgy. This dramaturgy lives beside the more traditional view of dramaturgy. As we build plays we need to analyze of course not just the words in development, but the piece as a whole; which is all the elements that come together. Knowing your gear is super important – understanding both the creative potential and the creative limitations of the gear. As well, knowing the media design process in relation to your larger process is so important. I attempt to marry the media right into the work as soon as possible in the rehearsal room.

Progress Lab (the building)

Progress Lab (the building)

12:22 PM me: So just to pull everything together here – Progress Lab (the building) must be really great in terms of facilitating that sort of creative process.

12:27 PM Kim: Essential. We came to understand at Electric Company that the most important next step we could take to support our work was to secure the creation/working space. Waiting till tech in the theatre to bring your elements together seemed too late for us in terms of making work that in very interdisciplinary; it leaves a large part of your process very vulnerable. We love the new space and are so excited to be able to now build work with that incredible support of a space in which we can rig, project, build our sets, etc

12:28 PM me: Amazing. Okay – well that took longer than I thought but I didn’t want to stop as it was all so interesting. Can you take a picture of yourself with your computer and send it in? Thanks for doing this Kim. You’re the best.

Kim: Bye!

September 15, 2010, by

Jonathon Young and Laura Mennell on film with Scott Bellis and Dawn Petten on stage

Jonathon Young and Laura Mennell on film with Scott Bellis and Dawn Petten on stage

by Michael Wheeler

I wonder if this is what embedded journalists feel like?

After two trips to Vancouver to participate in both the filmed and theatrical execution of this project, it is impossible to provide anything approaching an unsentimental analysis of it. I really like the show, the people who made it, and I sincerely hope it comes to Ontario someday so I can show it to people.

I’m sure it will inspire a number of conversations about performance and form: Is it a movie?  Is it a play? If it is a hybrid of both, what do you call it?  I think it is something else entirely however:

I think Tear The Curtain! is an ode.

The production begins with a film clip of theatre critic Alex Braithwaite being driven to review a performance by his secretary Mavis:


You know what your trouble is?

Dawn Petton as Mavis and Jonathon Young as Alex Braithwaite

Dawn Petten as Mavis and Jonathon Young as Alex Braithwaite


I’m a hack writer living in a hick town.




A hick border town where we’re raised on foreign ideas and foreign stories which we imitate, pretending they’re our own… I should have left when I was twenty and gone where the action is.


You just don’t know what you want Alex. I’m sure we may be hicks compared with other places, but don’t deny yourself the privilege that gives you.


What privilege?


The freedom to create our own future.

Theatrically, Tear The Curtain goes on to embody this conversation by becoming a piece of theatre that lives within the constraints of this debate by doing something new and exciting, while acknowledging the cultural constraints of living in a city fifty clicks from the United States. Recognizing and integrating the generations of storytellers and shifts in technology that have come before them, the production sets out to be a performance that uses new forms and tools to re-imagine Vancouver within an archetypically American film noir aesthetic.

This is why I think Tear The Curtain an ode.  It is not just film noir gangsters, dames, and crazy film integration within a vacuum. It is an ode to the City of Vancouver. It is attached to a particular perspective about what it means to make art in this place, in this era, and everything that generations of artists have gone through to arrive at where they are today.

My part in the film is so small that there are no stills of me with my eyes open. If you listen very carefully, you can hear me chuckle however.

My part in one of the film clips is so incidental that there are no stills of me with my eyes open. (If you listen very carefully however, you can hear me chuckle at one of Alex Braithwaite's jokes.)

Like the rest of this process, tech at The Stanley Theatre was a whirlwind of activity. What distinguished this week-long period where actors and designers finally integrate their offerings from most, was the extra factors that had to be set in tandem with all the regular ones a director would consider. Each moment is precious in the time you have from when you move into the theatre to to opening night.

Because many of the filmed segments had audio scored directly for the image on the video, but the audio cues for the live action were being set as we established actor blocking, there was a lot to think about in terms of what audio was coming, at what level, and was it attached to the film or called live. Often when audio was activated was related to the fly system for the show, which incorporates three different curtains, a scrim, and a very large wall that are continually emerging from, or disappearing into, the air above the stage

Even the simplest video elements in a performance piece can devour precious tech time, but the scale and resolution of the images captured by the Red camera posed particular challenges for Video Wrangler Michael Sider:

My favourite thing about this scene is that the projected image actually exists legitimately within the given circumstances of the story.

My favourite thing about this scene is that the projected image actually exists legitimately within the given circumstances of the story.

To get the largest, richest image to fill the entire scrim, two identical projectors are broadcasting simultaneously, mounted parallel to one another. These images are also broadcast on different surfaces that are varying distances away from the projectors, so each surface has to have its own focus where the images from the two projectors overlaps correctly.

Separate from projector concerns, once we moved into the theatre, many video sequences needed to have small adjustments made on the fly.  A number of factors including small text changes, the timing of scored audio, and blocking adjustments, meant many scenes needed to be shortened or lengthened, or faded in slower or faster, than how we had been working with them back at Progress Lab.

Lighting Designer Alan Brodie faced his own particular challenges working with mixed mediums: The lighting hang used the maximum amount of dimmers available for lighting equipment in The Stanley Theatre.   The show requires this many lights because a number of the focuses occur though the light that is video, through or around a scrim, on or within a three-dimensional two-story set, in the house, or any combination of those factors.

Additionally he was charged with using all of this light to maintain a dark, cold, and smoky film noir aesthetic already captured by cinematographer Brian Johnson in the filmed sequences.  This had been planned at length in meetings with Director Kim Collier as the three of them established together the visual qualities of the world they would create before either the film or play had been made.

All of these elements are called by Stage Manager Jan Hodgson, who had been practising activating and integrating these elements verbally in the rehearsal hall. Tech involved incorporating new elements and timing as well as actually working with the real things. Most importantly, it was the time to gain an understanding of the rhythm of the show.

There is music to how all these components are related and need to be called. In many ways the art of this production relies on the way the stage manager understands the music the director is playing in all these cues, as much as it does performances on the stage. Although depends a lot on those too. As I put the finishing touches on this piece on a crisp Toronto morning – two days separated from The Electric Company, my thoughts turn to all of the performers in the show:

Today is opening night day!  I think the opportunity to be on a stage like doing this show, at this place and time, has a lot to do with why performers gravitate to the theatre, and this is ultimately why Tear The Curtain is a piece of theatre (in the form of an ode). You will never get that feeling on a film set; you have to be there alive in that room with the other people who have chosen to be there, to know what it is. Wish I could be there to share it with them.


A single potent image

James Fagan Tait and Dawn Petten form a single potent image


September 9, 2010, by

The rehearsal studio atrid Progress Lab  has three story ceilings and comes with its own g

The rehearsal studio at Progress Lab 1422 has three story ceilings and comes with its own grid, kitchen, conference room and private bathrooms

by Michael Wheeler

I am a little flummoxed about how to communicate what has transpired in Tear The Curtain! rehearsals over the past few weeks. It has been hectic, inspiring, and I can’t wait for audiences to see this thing once all the pieces have been put together. Like lead character and theatre critic Alex Braithwaite, all my thoughts are in fragments and there may not be a clear connection between them:

  • This is the most technically demanding show I have ever worked on: It has multiple flies including a wall of the two-story set that flies in and out, as many lighting instruments as The Stanley Theatre can handle, an original score written by a composer who usually writes for feature films (separate from the regular audio cues), and cinema quality video that appears on multiple surfaces.
  • Boca Del Lupo, Electric Company Theatre, Neworld Theatre and Rumble Productions all have offices here and divide up access to the rehearsal space

    Boca Del Lupo, Electric Company Theatre, Neworld Theatre and Rumble Productions all have offices here and divide up access to the rehearsal space

    I can’t imagine this type of work being built in a regular rehearsal hall. Because The Electric Company is one of the creators and co-tenants of Progress Lab 1422 in East Vancouver, they have the ability to work with many of these technical elements well before “tech” in their own rehearsal hall. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it is a circumstance very few indie companies ever find themselves in when building a show.*

  • Good news for me: There’s been enough for me to do on this show that I have been given an official title that will appear in the credits and everything: “Assistant to the Director”, not to be confused with “Assistant Director” which in this instance would likely refer to a specific person who worked on the film shoot last winter, which I wrote about here.
  • The best laid plans: Although the idea was to have a  “locked” script by this point in the rehearsal process, the first major challenge I was thrown into was a significant restructuring of the first act based on what we learned from the first full run through with live acting and video together. I find this a little reassuring: no matter how much sense a script makes on paper, the nature of theatre means it will be something different from literature when it is actualized. There’s no getting around having a clear and unsentimental head in these moments.
  • Directing a performance that essentially works with two distinct mediums is twice as much work for the director. Doing a 10 – 6 rehearsal day with actors means you have most pre-dinner hours figuring out the live part of the show, and then you have until you fall asleep to figure out the other 60%.
  • There are some excellent, affordable, and healthy options for lunch on Commercial Dr.
  • Kevin Kerr and Jonathon Young restructure the first act in a late night dramaturgy session

    Kevin Kerr and Jonathon Young restructure the first act in a late night dramaturgy session

    Ever since our Fringe production of The Master and Margarita in 2006 I have been keen to re-workshop and essentially re-create our original adaptation. Working on Tear The Curtain has given me great clarity on how Praxis should go about this. Magical realist stories on the stage could be the big winners of these new developments in technology.

  • No ego – no problems:  Kim Collier, Kevin Kerr, and Jonathon Young have been working together for more than a decade.  Everyone knows everyone’s role on the project, everyone gives notes where appropriate, everyone trusts that the other person is very good at their job. When something is this complicated there can be no drama with your drama.

*Now that Tear The Curtain has loaded out, another Progress Lab founder and tenant Boca Del Lupo will spend three months building their new show PHOTOG: an imaginary look at the uncompromising life of Thomas Smith that will be presented as part of World Stage at Harbourfront Centre. Note to self: Infrastructure increases capabilities/possibilities/opportunities.

Next week: Teching the impossible at the Stanley Theatre


August 23, 2010, by

This is a trailer for a play! (sort of)

by Michael Wheeler

During the film shoot last February the stage of The Stanley Theatre was used to get a almost a hundred extras into period hair and make up. This September the show premieres on the same stage.

During the film shoot last winter the stage of The Stanley Theatre was used to get a almost a hundred extras into period hair and make up. This fall the show premieres on the same stage.

Last winter I wrote about my trip to British Columbia to learn more about the work director Kim Collier and The Electric Company are doing combining live and recorded performance as part of my investigation into the relationship between direction and design as Director in Training at The Tarragon Theatre. On my first trip to Vancouver in February 2010 during The Cultural Olympiad, I spent two weeks on the set of the film shoot for the production Tear The Curtain!

As of today I’m back for round two of this project, attending rehearsals and learning as much as I can in the lead-up to opening night of this hybrid film and theatre piece production that will have its world premiere presented by The Arts Club Theatre Company at The Stanley Theatre on September 15. Stay tuned for more about this project as opening night approaches!


March 31, 2010, by

TTC #3

Laura Mennell plays the mysterious Mila Brook in The Electric Company's Tear The Curtain. Photo by Brian Johnson.

by Michael Wheeler

One of the unconventional things about this residency is that unlike a traditional curriculum that would begin with basic fundamentals and conclude with something grand and complicated, I am taking the best opportunities I can get when they are available. This approach led me to begin my training program by participating in the first half of a 3-week film shoot for The Electric Company’s newest production – Tear The Curtain, commissioned by The Arts Club Theatre Company to open at The Stanley Theatre in Vancouver in early September 2010.

This meant my cross-Canada study of the relationship between direction and design in theatre began with a crash course in how to direct a film. It took me a couple of days on set, and a couple of reads of the integrated script (which overall is formatted as a film not theatre script), to fully appreciate the magnitude and ambition of what I had gotten myself into.

The story operates on two levels: Plot-wise it is a film-noir styled story set in a semi-fictional Vancouver full of gangsters, tycoons, a secret cell of revolutionaries and double-crossing vixens. Fundamentally it is a narrative that will entertain.  Thematically, it attempts something very complex and intricate by centring the plot around an embittered theatre critic in an era where film is becoming the dominant medium. The lead character is both fighting this shift, in part to keep his livelihood, and searching for the reason he was so enamoured with theatre to begin with.

Jonathon Young plays critic Alex Braithewaite

Jonathon Young plays critic Alex Braithewaite. Photo by Brian Johnson.

This is not just an intellectual existential problem for the lead character to be considered by an audience. The show is a combination of both mediums. The Stanley Theatre – where the show will premiere – was once a movie theatre that has been transformed into a theatre theatre. All of the filmed sequences have been shot with in the Stanley Theatre and many of the shots are from the audience’s POV of the stage – or acknowledge in some way when that they were shot in the same room where the audience will experience the performance. Experientially – the line between film and theatre as mediums will be blurred as the same actors from the filmed portions will also tell the story through live scenes.

Still with me?  Also, all of this was happening in the heart of Vancouver in the middle of the Olympics. Not too many of the huge crew of people that were working three weeks of consecutive 12hr days seemed all that aware of snowboard cross, curling or the luge – even though the Olympic village was around the corner.  We had important things to do! (Not entirely true: Managing Producer Nathan Medd scored last minute tickets with his family to the Opening Ceremonies and came back with some impressive photos on his iPhone.)

My role was to observe – and occasionally be a sounding board for – director Kim Collier as she tore through an ambitious and demanding shooting schedule. Although I have been on film sets before, I have never considered each day and shot, from a director’s perspective, as such the learning curve was both steep and fascinating. One of my first realizations was that a production that used a large number of professionally filmed segments like this had only recently been made possible, or at least economically feasible, by new technology.  The film sections are not actually shot on film; a RED One high-res camera was used. This is considerably cheaper than shooting on film and allows all of the information to be stored digitally and viewed immediately.

This technology is not flawless.  RED One cameras are a little too good – they can show too much detail and not have the pleasant hues that come from shooting on film. To combat this effect – and to contribute to a film noir-ish feel throughout, there was a single person whose only job was to keep a thin mist of haze circulating whenever camera was rolling. Keeping this haze perpetual and consistent was a major battle throughout each day, but was key to both the atmosphere and continuity of the material being filmed.

Kim Collier (foreground right) directs while a Red One camera is operated by a RoboCop-like suit wearing operator.

Kim Collier (foreground right) directs while a Red One camera is operated by a RoboCop-like suit wearing cameraman. Photo by Tim Matheson.

A second element that jumped out at me as a theatre director learning to direct film was how little time there is for experimentation or mistakes. In theatre I think our creative process often leads us to take time feeling our way into things, trying different approaches, and sometimes using good ol’ trial and error. This is not even remotely a possibility on a film shoot – not only do you have to know exactly what shot you want ahead of time, but exactly what you want from each of your actors and your DP for each individual shot well ahead of time. Certainly you can make adjustments on the fly and always keep your eyes open for discoveries and opportunities – but time is money and a professional film crew is a lot of people’s time.

The biggest day of the shoot was my last one, when a huge number of extras were used to create the crowd shots both of the audience filling the theatre and of a party in that occurs in the lobby of the theatre. On that day over seventy volunteer actors (myself included) showed up at 8am on a Saturday to be dressed in high fashion of the 1930s and strike a number of sophisticated poses and while feigning conversation throughout the day. Most ingenious use of the RED One Camera occurred at the end of this day when the seventy actors were shuffled to completely fill small sections of the 600ish seats the theatre with the camera “locked down”. Later in the editing room these multiple iterations of ourselves will become citizens of the same time and space filling the entire audience in a single shot.

I am already looking forward to returning to Vancouver to join the theatre portion of rehearsals for Tear The Curtain leading up to an early September opening night. The whole company has been awfully nice to a guy from Toronto whom they’d never met before, and it was awesome to be included in this ambitious process. I’m looking forwards to learning the process by which The Electric Company and Director Kim Collier integrate the filmed and live materials both in the rehearsal hall and in tech at The Stanley Theatre. Next post – Michael Healey’s Courageous arrives at The Citadel Theatre in Edmonton.

February 18, 2010, by


By Michael Wheeler

Throughout 2010 I will be engaged in a Director in Training program at The Tarragon Theatre funded by The Canada Council for the Arts. The premise of this program is that although I have significant experience directing theatre in festivals or site specific locations, I am still lacking in some key skill sets – namely how to tech a show and work with designers in a full professional production that has multiple days of tech and several previews.

Basically the program should teach me how to direct a show with a real budget in a big theatre. I have been an assistant director or script coordinator on a number of large budget shows, but the focus has always been on the process in the rehearsal room. At this point the other half of a director’s job is what I really need to bone up on, and I am thrilled (and a little incredulous frankly) that I have been presented with this opportunity.

As anyone who has ever done a fringe show knows – design elements are difficult to prioritize in indie theatre: Often festival productions have one “special” – a light designated just for the use of a particular show. Sets must be kept simple in order to be loaded on and off stage in under 15 minutes. Sound design must be kept basic in order to be programmed along with all your lighting cues in under three hours.

Site-specific work offers more freedom but comes with new obstacles: Power supply for lighting instruments is always an issue as is the ability to hang them without a grid.  Sets must often be built inside the venue to fit though human-sized doorways. A lot of time gets burnt on how and where people will sit. Insurance, washrooms, fire exits come up time and again too. Design elements always seem to move to the end of the list.

To bring me up to speed on how the established theatre world has been working with design while I have been making-it-up-as-I-go for the past seven years, I will be investigating and learning about the design and technical elements at theatres across the country and at The Tarragon Theatre.  Sometimes my travels take me along with Tarragon Theatre Artistic Director Richard Rose, and sometimes I’ve been lucky enough to be included by other companies.

The goal of the program is to give me the knowledge and understanding to direct a play at any theatre regardless of scale or budget. As editor of a website about indie theatre I would be remiss if I didn’t write about all of this, so starting next week start looking for posts on the topic, starting with Tear The Curtain a project The Electric Company has been commissioned by The Arts Club to premiere at The Stanley Theatre in Vancouver – aka the most technically ambitious production I’m aware of a Canadian indie company ever attempting – so it will be a great place to start!