Sneaking up on Downstage

By Ryan Pike

Theatre has been around for quite some time. Given the sheer number of performances taking place, it’s difficult for theatre-goers to find anything new. Luckily for them, the Downstage Performance Society has crafted a performance, Arm’s Length Embrace, that’s sure to be vastly different than what most Calgarians have experienced. Downstage’s Artistic Producer Simon Mallett had an idea that eventually blossomed into a full-fledged show.

“I saw a show in Toronto a few years ago,” says Mallett. “You went in and walked around the space and didn’t even sit down. You looked through peep holes and things of that nature. It was a really interesting experience because all these characters had their own environments and that sort of thing. You could see people doing things when they weren’t aware of being watched.”

Mallett was drawn to the voyeuristic element of the concept, which involves a series of set pieces spread throughout the Studio at Vertigo Mystery Centre. He sought to find a way to combine it with Downstage’s longstanding mandate of bringing social and political issues to the forefront.

“I wanted to try to create something like that,” Mallett shares. “But along some sort of socially engaged thread. I [also] felt it was important to offer a degree of narrative that trickles through it as well so it didn’t become a series of separate installations. That was the concept I came to the team with, the production concept along with the fact that I wanted it to explore the way we communicate with each other and seek community in our contemporary environment.”

The Downstage team spent nearly two and a half months transforming the idea into a full-fledged production. The first presentation of the company’s fourth season, Arm’s Length Embrace continues the Dog From the Machine series of original works the company began performing when it formed in the fall of 2004. Mallett is pleased with the rapid growth the company

has seen since its formation.

“We’ve been around for three years now,” says Mallett. “We’ve grown tremendously as a company in a really short period of time, because certainly a show of this scope is beyond the means of most small production companies. Certainly, we never imagined being where we are now and doing this kind of a show back when we were doing the absolute bare-bones original creations we did and that’s only in a few years time. It’s been a really quick evolution.”

The provocative nature of Arm’s Length Embrace also provided a series of challenges for the Downstage team. In particular, crafting a series of unique set pieces tailored to a variety of characters. Mallett says the design team was more than up to the challenge.

“What was great about the process is that the design team has been part of the creative team,” says Mallett. “Quite often, in a theatrical production, the designers will meet with the director outside of the rehearsal hall and they’ll come in and watch just to see what’s going on, but they don’t really have much communication with the rest of the production team. With our production, the actors have all contributed to the design in some way because we’ve developed the character and talked about their environment, where they live and that sort of thing. The design team has been on board from there and taken the ideas that come out of rehearsal and applied them to the design. It’s been a very organic process, which I think is a very neat way to work because it allows the total collaboration of a team of artists who all have really different experiences.”

Theatre-goers trekking out to see Arm’s Length Embrace are likely to experience a show unlike any they have experienced in Calgary. The unique design of the show, multiple locations and characters to experience, allows the audience members to “choose their own adventure,” as it were. There will be some seating provided, but Mallett believes the fun of the show will be in the exploration.

“You don’t want it to be an uncomfortable experience, but the point is not to sit down and be a passive observer of the show,” says Mallett. “It’s to make your own experience. You may find there’s a particular character that you want to watch throughout the entire show, a particular location you want to stay in and just watch whoever comes through that location or you may find you want to move around and see little bits and pieces of everyone’s different story. That’s a choice that’s entirely up to the audience, which is why it’s such a unique thing, because every single audience member’s experience of the show will be different.”

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