Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sunday Feature: Benjamin Wert on This Prison (Fringe: Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton)

Making a set important in a Fringe show is a job
by Benjamin Wert

Theatre of the Beat will be performing 'This Prison Or: He Came Through the Floor' at the Toronto, Winnipeg and Edmonton Fringes. Theatre of the Beat is a traveling theatre troupe that has been performing together since 2011. They just finished a 33-venue tour of 'Forgiven/Forgotten', performing the play from Ontario to Alberta in theatres, churches, high schools, and prisons. 

What do most traveling fringe shows have in common? Most have no set, or something small... nothing fancy, just something you can pack in a suitcase and take on the road. Most have a small cast and crew, many are solo operations. You don't want to have to feed too many mouths on fringe bucks and travel can get cramped when you get too many in the van.

Last year, Theatre of the Beat performed Gadfly at the Montreal, Edmonton and Vancouver Fringe festivals. We had a compact set made out of a folding table and a bunch of milk crates, with a cast and crew of five.

This year, we've downsized cast and crew to three, but we've certainly gotten ambitious with the set. 

It looked cool. It looked really cool.

We're performing 'This Prison: Or He Came Through the Floor.' It's a re-working of a play we performed years ago as a fundraiser - when the idea of putting together a travelling theatre troupe was just a glimmer in our minds. The play didn't need to move, and we had access to lots of wood, so we created a giant set. 9 ft tall and 6 ft wide pieces of wood covered with blackboard paint and chalkboard tallies. 

The play takes place in a prison cell, but it's a surreal play. We weren't going for a realistic jail. The giant back boards created a real sense of ominousness and the chalk board tallies gave an impression of prison bars. 

It looked cool. It looked really cool.

We didn't really think about the giant set when we decided to take 'This Prison' on the road for Fringe. At first we thought 'Maybe we can take the giant pieces of wood in a trailer with us...' or 'Maybe we can get a similar effect using projections', or 'Maybe we don't need a set at all.' To make things more difficult, the set had to be able to be written on with chalk too.

While we were trying to figure this out, our troupe had a fundraiser where we performed bits and pieces from our repertoire, and members of the community talked about how the different plays had affected them and why they thought what we were doing was important. The man who responded to This Prison immediately started talking about the set, and how as soon as he walked in and saw all the chalkboard tallies and the high dark walls, he felt trapped, felt the atmosphere pressing in on him. We looked at each other and both realized in that moment, we couldn't give up on the set. We had to find a way to bring it to life in a new incarnation.

Fringe and complex are not two things that you want to put together.

And thus began a long series of failed experiments. It wouldn't work to cut the giant pieces of set down. It wouldn't work to create an elaborate folding wood panel set. It wouldn't work to create some sort of thing with magnets. There were all sorts of things that wouldn't work, and somewhere out there, there was some elusive combination of craft, stuff we had lying around and ingenuity that would snap into place and create our set.

Bankers boxes, a compact convention display unit, black cloth, black paint, white paint, some clamps and some pieces of plywood. And lest we forget, our old friend the folding table, this time in a starring role as 'bed'.

It's nerve wracking, because it's complex, and Fringe and complex are not two things that you want to put together. But it works. The set has the same atmosphere as our original set, and can be stored in a 4 ft by 2 ft space. We have to know what we're doing and work efficiently to get it up and down within our allotted 15 minutes time, but we're practicing, and we can do it.
The set is not the most important part of our play. But it is an important part, and we're exited to have a Fringe play with a functional and interesting set. It's not unprecedented, but it's unusual. It creates it's own blend of headaches and stress, but we think it's worth it, and we hope you do too.

This Prison; or He Came Through the Floor is at the Toronto Fringe
Also at Winnipeg and Edmonton Fringe

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