Monday, September 13, 2010

Tear the Curtain!

My cover story on Tear the Curtain! appears in this week's WE.

Laura Mennell stars in Tear the Curtain!, a collaboration between Electric Company Theatre and Arts Club Theatre Company.
Laura Mennell stars in Tear the Curtain!, a collaboration between Electric Company Theatre and Arts Club Theatre Company.
Credit: supplied

The Odd Coupling

The gangsters, the guns, the double-crossing dame — Tear the Curtain! has all the makings of an old-fashioned film noir. But don’t be fooled. Just like the classic movies from which this groundbreaking multimedia production takes its inspiration, not everything is what it seems.

A hybrid of cinema and stage, Tear marks the first collaboration between two unlikely bedfellows: indie theatre darling Electric Company Theatre and established stage giant Arts Club Theatre. The result: perhaps the most surreal mindfuck for Vancouver theatre audiences — ever.

“We wanted to shake up the experience of watching theatre — to make it dangerous, even,” says Jonathon Young, Tear star and co-creator, who’s also a co-founder of Electric Company Theatre. But he admits that shaking things up comes with consequences. “One of the great challenges has been to describe just what it is, which is never good to put in the paper,” he says, laughing. “Maybe don’t put that in. But we really wanted to try something new.”

After three “jamming” sessions on stage at the Stanley, Young and the rest of the creative team had something very new on their hands. Tear tells a reimagined history of the Stanley (where the movie-within-the-play was filmed, and where the play itself is staged). At its centre is Alex, played by Young, a theatre critic searching for something new and authentic who begins an ill-fated romance with actress Mila (Laura Mennell) and ends up caught between two warring mob families who use the theatre as a front for illegal activity. Mila has her own haunted past, as a member of a secret society devoted to opposing the all-consuming powers of mainstream media. And if that’s not enough, there are paranormal aspects at work, too.

While the material is definitely in keeping with Electric Company’s innovative evolution, it will likely be viewed by loyal Arts Club subscribers as a departure from the typical season kick-off. Though Young maintains that a collaboration between the two companies was “only a matter of time,” he admits he wasn’t fully expecting the creative leeway afforded to Electric Company. “I was surprised and delighted that Bill [Millerd, Arts Club’s artistic director] has gone on this ride with us. Some of the first drafts we did were really risky, and it’s really risky programming.”

In part, Young is alluding to the production’s fusing of mainstream elements and the avant garde, as well as the story’s not-so-subtle meta references, such as Alex’s quest for something new and authentic, and the questionable nature of what that really means, which mirrors Tear’s own development and the increasingly difficult challenges facing the arts community. “There’s a lot of self-reference, which can be a dangerous thing,” Young admits. “This piece feeds off itself, the new cannibalizing the old. It depends on convention and stereotype while it tries to do something new; it admits that it needs conventions in order to tear them apart.”

Tear also plays with the greater philosophical question: Is anything ever really new? “There’s a real theme running through this play about the cycles of commodification, how radical ideas that are shocking — part of the inspiration was the impact the avant garde would have on an audience in the ’20s, the riots at Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring, how those kinds of radical ideas can be absorbed by the mainstream and become commercialized and used to sell a product 50 years later,” says Young. “There’s always a quest for the new, to overturn what’s expected. And I suppose the question is, Is it becoming harder and harder to do that? And what’s the purpose of doing that? We’re here in a time in B.C. where there’s been an attack on the arts by the government, so we really have to, as artists, talk to our audience through our art.”

Those funding cuts may also make some future collaborations a necessity rather than a choice. For now, Young attributes collaborations like the one between Electric Company and the Arts Club to the fact that Vancouver boasts “a happening, thriving theatre scene. And, hopefully, this kind of cross pollination... between large-scale and indie theatre can continue. It strengthens the community and it stirs things up a bit. The only way to get through these times is to be innovative. Strength in numbers.”

Tear the Curtain runs Sept. 9-Oct. 10 at Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage (2750 Granville), 8pm (Wed-Sat), 7:30pm (Tues). Matinees: Wed, Sat-Sun, 2pm. Tickets $29-$63 from 604-687-1644.

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