By James Keller
From the seats of the Reeve theatre, Jessie Johnson and D.J. Kelly look at the result of nearly a year of work. A rooftop in the far corner, an elevator shaft across from that, an alley in the back, an apartment slightly off centre and a laundry room downstage all come together in various shades of black and brown. Together, these elements comprise the set for When All Else Fails, playing March 21-31 in the Reeve Theatre.
The play is the brainchild of what started out as the Millennium Project, a year long student-directed production which began in September. According to Kelly, the Millennium Project began under the guidance of the University of Calgary Drama Department and there was not an original concept, other than creating a show to run in March. From there, When All Else Fails materialized into the stage now before Kelly and Johnson’s eyes.
The set represents the theme which, according to Kelly and Johnson, focuses on isolation.
"Every character is disconnected at the beginning, isolated from their peers or isolated from the world," says Johnson.
The play follows 13 characters, ranging from a suicidal 17-year-old girl to a religious fanatic, as they face an "unexplainable" power outage. As the story progresses, this theme expands and characters are changed both by their situation and by interaction with others.
"After the blackout appears, the characters make a connection of some sort with somebody else or themselves," says Johnson. Kelly adds that this is an example of what happens when we lose access to technology.
Ironically, the show features a lot of technology, despite its disappearance in the play. One quarter of the production is on video, projected onto the back wall of the stage. Here, we see the characters’ memories and internal perceptions visualized as sometimes more surreal action occurs on stage.
"We borrowed an elevator from [Paramount Pictures] and we filmed all of the scenes in that elevator," recalls Kelly. "Then we built a semi-realistic copy of it on stage."
The play’s creative process is very unique compared to campus projects in previous years. Completely collaborative, every student involved in the project took part in writing the script. After When All Else Fails began to take shape, the participating students broke up into groups to deal with the project’s multimedia, design and music.
"When you break people up like that, communication has the potential of breaking down," Kelly explains. However, while presenting some challenges, the structure was also seen as a blessing by Johnson.
"I liked the idea that no person’s work is precious by itself, which is wonderful."