Two bold theatre companies find unique ways to bring stories to life

One uses high-tech; the other no electricity


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VideoCabaret’s production of ‘Trudeau and the FLQ’ opens May 12 at the Young Centre

“The medium is the message.” Marshall McLuhan’s maxim, applied to theatre, means that how a show is staged is as important as what is said.

Two Toronto-based companies, VideoCabaret and Outside the March, both use unorthodox technical methods to create their worlds. Their current projects couldn’t be more different.

VideoCabaret is examining the Canadian political landscape of the ’60s and ’70s, while Outside the March is forecasting a post-apocalyptic future where Simpsons episodes have become high myth.

But they’re both relying on the same premise: that audience members will use their imagination to fully participate in their shows.

VideoCabaret, started by founding playwrights Deanne Taylor and Michael Hollingsworth, has been using live video feeds and projection techniques since the mid-1970s. They were almost certainly the first theatre company to do so.

“We started in an art gallery with a bunch of musicians, actors and a video wizard named Chris Clifford,” says Taylor. 

“We’d work from the beginning with technicians as well as performers, all in the same room, for a long time. We learned to love the technical aspect of creating a play and include it at the beginning of the staging process.” 

Most companies rehearse for weeks before introducing the technical aspects a few days before the show opens, but not here.

“We’ve been working with cameras and projectors since the beginning,” video designer Adam Barrett explains. “Last year [with Trudeau and the FLQ, which returns to the Young Centre for the Performing Arts May 12], we had to test seven types of grey paint on the scrim [a see-through curtain] to get the right shade for projection. This year [for Trudeau and Levesque, which opened at the Young Centre April 24] we had the methodology, a shorthand.”

When it’s suggested that previous VideoCabaret shows are similar to radio plays, because one image (in a tightly confined lighting spot) at a time appears on a mostly black stage, Taylor is pleased.

“The stage we play on is your imagination. [The props and projections] are all funky and handcrafted, but with high-tech lighting and video cues.”

In Outside the March’s new musical, Mr. Burns: a Post-Electric Play, opening May 9 at a former cinema on Gerrard Street East, the world’s gone dark after a nuclear apocalypse. The company, which has previously staged hit shows in a kindergarten classroom and throughout a house, has committed to using no technology at all in the production — at least, none powered by electricity.

“We really want to create the experience of what a post-electric world would feel like,” says co-director Simon Bloom.

In order to light the space, they’ll have to use the same methods as their nuclear winter survivors.

“Repurposing car batteries is something we’re playing with. Also, an old miner’s tricks for powerless light. And some glow-in-the-dark phosphorescents. The third act will feel like a giant rave.”

Bloom lists cultural properties such as The Walking Dead and The Last of Us as inspirations for their staging. The show moves further into the future with each act, to a point where no living person has ever seen a Simpsons episode, but the television series becomes an oral mythology that helps explain the past.

“The power plant that’s so central in the Simpsons, that starts to bleed into the story of their apocalypse and nuclear meltdown.”

VideoCabaret uses high-tech methods to tell stories of our past; Outside the March will use no-tech methods to tell stories of our possible future. But both companies intend to utilize their staging techniques judiciously.

“The actor, the light, the costume, the words,” lists Taylor. “The audience does the rest.”

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