A Physical Silence
Exploring the known of the black and whites
by Richard Beaune
Keystone Theatre will be bringing The Last Man on Earth to Fringe Festivals from Montreal to Edmonton this summer. Last Man will be the first chance many people get to see the unique work that Keystone has been perfecting in Toronto for the last few years.
It all started over lunch. I had just directed Dana Fradkin in a Chaplin routine as part of the Shakespeare in the Square production of The Comedy of Errors in Brampton. We were getting caught up over Thai food and lamenting how rare it is to find an opportunity like that to explore physical comedy to the degree you find in those classic silent films…so I thought, “Why not do that?” I had acquired a particular interest in silent film when I worked on Simon Bradbury’s brilliant play Chaplin at the Shaw Festival, working with Simon and Neil Munro, and I had a hunch that we could go even further. I made a few phone calls and got some colleagues together to make a proposal. I wanted to create a play in the style of a silent film. I imagined the cast performing in front of a moving projected backdrop, working in silence, with a live piano off to the side. Everything would be in black and white and shades of grey. I pictured it in great detail, and I could see that it could very easily be badly done, but with enough time and work it could be done very well.
I wanted to create the play collectively, beginning by developing a physical vocabulary for creating characters. We started by watching silent films and discussing what we saw, and by offering each other workshops in various disciplines that we had some expertise in. These included Laban, clown, commedia, stage combat, and many others. This informal creation work went on for months until, eventually, we had our own physical vocabulary that we could use to create characters.
Then we started flexing that new muscle, inventing characters, playing with them and then discarding them. Some would come back to haunt us, and others were too lovable to let go of. These characters were put into various improvisation scenarios and their stories began to take shape.
We also did some brainstorming to see what themes were most interesting to us in the silent films that were our inspiration. Themes such as journeys, wheels, and vagabonds all rose to the top and, since we were a Canadian company, I thought that the building of the trans-continental railway could be a good backdrop for the story we would eventually create.
Those sessions, and our ensuing research, brought us many new sources for character development. Gormless Joe, who is featured in Last Man, made his first appearance as an oboe player named “Fatty”, and a certain historical lady in red became Lady Scarlet, the brothel keeper. The personal stories behind these characters started to come together in their journeys through Winnipeg, and the character of Belle, a runaway bride, became central to our developing narrative. The story was starting to take shape and we realized that we were going to need a larger acting company to realize the full potential of what we were creating.
In order to meet more like minded physical theatre performers and to share what we had learned over a year of studio play, we hosted some workshops with the wider community. Through those, we met several other performers whom we invited to join our group. Adam Bradley, Dylan Juckes, Scott McCullouch, and Ted Neal joined the ensemble. Soon we were able to add the all-important music composition and performance of David Atkinson. Jordan Hall and Tommy Taylor joined the creative team as Dramaturg and Assistant Director respectively and our design team, including Kimberly Beaune (set), Lorie Brown (costume and props) and David Fox (lights), went to work. A mere four years after the initial meeting, we premiered our first show, The Belle of Winnipeg. Throughout that entire time, we only had to bring in one replacement (due to scheduling conflicts) and Ashley Botting became the final member of the ensemble.
Happily, that experiment seemed to work. We were nominated for three Dora Mavor Moore Awards for Ginette Mohr, Lorie Brown, and David Atkinson, who took home the hardware for his brilliant original sound design and composition. Our little indie show, which wasn’t really so little with a cast of nine plus a musician, had captured some hearts by capturing some of the spirit of those classic silent film comedies.
We explored some darker themes this time around, looking at the nature of evil and innocence.
“That was fun! Let’s do it again!” we thought. We wanted to bring our work to the rest of the country. If you’ve ever produced a tour (and we hadn’t), you’ll know that a show of that size is too big a risk for presenters who don’t know the company. So, in order to bring our work to a wider audience, we learned that we had to take what we had invented for Belle and adapt it to a smaller scale show. We were given an opportunity to do that when we were invited to take part in the Toronto Festival of Clowns last year.
We developed a smaller show (cast of four), keeping the heart of our style, including our Dora winning musician. Ginette Mohr directed this piece and led its development. We explored some darker themes this time around, looking at the nature of evil and innocence. What we have now is a compact version of our work that we can take on the road. With no spoken text, we can perform in any language – for this tour our “title cards” will be in both French and English.
Whether we’re influenced by clown elements, as we are in Last Man, or by historical content, as we were in Belle, what we’ve found is that our chosen idiom allows us to create work that impresses the hard core physical theatre aficionado and appeals to the lowest of low brow humorists at the same time. We’ve had older folks and children come to our shows and walk away delighted. The beauty of silent film, as people have seen with the Oscar winner The Artist, is that the performing without spoken words requires a commitment on the part of the actor that makes them more compelling and it requires a commitment on the part of the audience that makes the experience more engaging. It makes for a fuller experience.
We’ve had a great response to our shows in Toronto and Hamilton, and look forward to seeing many more happy faces as we produce our first national tour. Keystone Theatre is just beginning to bring this work to a public, which is hungry for high quality art that remains accessible to a wide audience. We think we’ve found a great formula and are keen to share it.
We’re looking forward to an exciting summer!
It will be at the Winnipeg Fringe July 19-28
It will be at the Calgary Fringe August 3-11
It will also be at the Edmonton Fringe August 16-26