Ana (photo: Tristan Brand)
DESIGNERS ARE NOT JUST DESSERT
It would be ideal if more companies reallocated their funds to allow for a greater integration of design and narrative.
It’s November’s end and in Montreal that means there’s one last gasp from the theatre world before we all shut down for the holidays. It’s shaping up to be quite the gasp with offerings from Porte Parole, Sidemart Theatrical Grocery and Centaur’s annual Urban Tales. Then there’s Imago Theatre’s latest offering, the eclectic Ana, a bilingual co-production written by Clare Duffy and Pierre Yves Lemiuex. Most of these shows have more in common than the fact they’re opening during November’s final days: many are a manifestation of theatre’s collaborative nature, a terrific example of the truth that theatre is always created in a crowded room.
...this is what has always defined theatre: an artistic team working together in service of a single theatrical event.
Ana is the most striking example of this, a production that aims to set the bar of Montreal’s English theatre as high as it can possibly go. I caught the show on Wednesday night and walked away slightly dazed by the show’s ambitions: it’s rare that Montreal’s Anglo audiences encounter a show as challenging as this. A co-production with Scottish company Stellar Quines, Ana has a narrative that defies description and a mise en scène (by Serge Denoncourt) that fights to filter the voices of several designers – lighting, projection, sound, set, costumes – into a single unified vision.
In execution, the show still has some ways to go. But in conception this is what has always defined theatre: an artistic team working together in service of a single theatrical event. Elements of this are cropping up elsewhere in Montreal’s independent scene. Porte Parole (producing Sexy Beton, as discussed last week) often uses design as an essential element to the structure of their shows. And Sidemart, about to premiere a second Whiteman’s Whiskey Comedy Revue, so values the input of designers that they have one serving as their General Manager (the incomparable Sarah Yaffe).
Too often, the design team is kept out of the rehearsal room with their work serving as background...
Sadly, this is not how theatre is often produced. Too often, the design team is kept out of the rehearsal room with their work serving as background: something added to the narrative, rather than an essential part of the narrative itself. Our independent scene is rich in writers and directors, but many of them (myself included) have a history of allowing design to be the equivalent of dessert: something decadent, only added to the meal if there’s money and time. By necessity, many of us have built sets out of our furniture and clothed actors from our closets.
The professional world suffers as well – there, designers are traditionally paid by the design and can rarely afford to spend several weeks in a rehearsal room developing their ideas along with the cast. And not even the professionals can afford an extended technical rehearsal which would also allow for a greater cohesion of the various elements of design.
Still, it would be ideal if more companies reallocated their funds to allow for a greater integration of design and narrative. We do ourselves a disservice when we ignore the impact of a cohesive design. I will always recall an encounter with lighting designer Jody Burkholder, who told me that a certain production of mine would have been better if he had been able to see the actors. “Who did your lighting design?” he asked. “Me,” I replied sheepishly. He just shook his head; I’m pretty sure he’s never forgiven me for my crimes.
There will always be room for minimalist theatre, especially as it focuses our attention on the text. But it’s equally satisfying to see many people in Montreal’s independent scene taking the leap to making design an integral part of the theatrical meal.