Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hard Times Hit Parade

My cover story for this week's WEVancouver features the Dusty Flowerpot Cabaret's Hard Times Hit Parade.

Hard Times Hit Parade cast members Chris Ross, David MacMurray Smith, and Jack Garton (from left) create a Depression-era carnival atmosphere set inside a dance-athon.
Hard Times Hit Parade cast members Chris Ross, David MacMurray Smith, and Jack Garton (from left) create a Depression-era carnival atmosphere set inside a dance-athon.
Credit: Courtesy Amanda Bullick

COVER STORY: Bohemian Rhapsody

In a rehearsal studio overlooking Hastings Street in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, several people are watching performers move full-body puppets in exaggerated motions across the floor. In the back corner sits a man holding an accordion, waiting for his cue, while others manipulate a naked marionette whose dress won’t be ready for days yet.

“She’s more anatomically correct than I am,” one woman jokes.

Welcome to a Thursday night rehearsal with Dusty Flowerpot Cabaret (DFC), the East Vancouver performing arts collective. From its first show in 2007, The Valley of Ashes, to last year’s The Village, the volunteer-based DFC has achieved the near-impossible: transforming the scope of independent theatre through community engagement.

“The intention was to collaborate with various types of artists,” says Kat Single-Dain of DFC’s formation in 2006. “The idea of collaboration is really closely linked to community for us. The arts bringing people closer together was something we had experienced, and we wanted to bring other people together through our [own] productions.”

Since that first meeting five years ago, the collective has grown from 11 to over 35 members, attracted hundreds of volunteers, and has been commissioned to create shows for a variety of other local arts organizations like the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival and Tremors Festival at The Cultch. DFC has also been tapped to help produce the Public Dreams Society’s Parade of Lost Souls. The colletive had done all this in addition to three original, large-scale productions — multimedia spectacles that involve everything from live music to puppetry, clowning to dance, and visual arts to storytelling.

DFC’s newest event, Hard Times Hit Parade (opening Feb. 24), is, in some ways, the group’s most ambitious project to date. Not only will it enjoy a one-month residency at the Russian Hall, but the DFC is turning it into a feature film in hopes of screening it at arts festivals around the world.

The cast and crew number about 35, all collective members, and boasts double that number of volunteers, bringing the total to over 100 people involved from start-to-finish. It’s a staggering number, particularly since the majority of the collective have spent the better part of the last five months working on Hard Times. September to December of last year was devoted to work-shopping the script, and intensive rehearsals started in early January. As with previous productions, the collective has a profit-sharing system in place to provide some compensation once the final curtain drops and the costs have been covered.

Hard Times marks the first DFC production to begin with a small budget. The collective received its first Canada Council grant ($23,500) last year to help further its mission of community engagement. Though this helps alleviate some of the fiscal burden of mounting such an ambitious production, no one involved will be fully compensated — at least financially — for their work. Call it blissfully bohemian or stubbornly passionate. Luckily for DFC, you don’t become an artist for the money.

“Everyone that’s involved is so artistically committed to the project, we don’t need to be funded necessarily with money,” Single-Dain says. “We have a really good organization taking care of people. We make sure everyone is fed. And, it’s a fun thing to be a part of so we don’t always feel the need to be paid.”

Alastair Knowles, a Hard Times cast member, agrees. A University of British Columbia commerce graduate, Knowles originally got involved in theatre and dance as an antidote to his staid academic pursuits. Since then, he says, the DFC has become a huge part of his social life.

“Going to rehearsal is like hanging out with my friends,” Knowles says. “And, it offers opportunities to workshop in a lot of different skills that I don’t get on my own. Before Dusty Flowerpot, I hadn’t really done any choreographed dancing, or worked with puppets or shadow-play, and those are all staples in our rehearsals. Our schedule is like, Monday night, play with puppets. Sunday, shadow jam!”

That atmosphere of joining in, building skills, and mentoring is a relatively open-door process. Everyone is welcome. David MacMurray Smith, a longtime professional artist and Hard Times cast member, has experienced firsthand the challenges facing the theatre community. He believes the future of live theatre belongs to the DFC and the “serious amateur”: independent companies that love theatre and bring it to the masses without attempting to commodify it.

“At a root level, Dusty Flowerpot has done very well to bring people in and involve them,” MacMurray Smith says. “Their approach is a process that includes the whole involvement of community from its creative beginning to those who buy tickets.”

MacMurray Smith points out that though aspects of the DFC’s operation are unique to the collective, their challenges and inspirations are similar to other independent arts groups.

“Young professionals do want to be compensated a little bit more, but they’re also in this teeter-totter of the balance between recognizing that they want to do their art and realizing they have to create their own vehicle for doing that,” he says. “That’s the way it is for a lot of companies now, as evidenced by the Electric Company and Radux Theatre. They have to create their own work.”

That’s what Hard Times is all about. Set in the early 1930s at an epic dance competition, its themes tackle identity, community, and the power of art during times of struggle — a purposeful parallel of our society’s current challenges. And, perhaps on a subconscious level, it’s also the story of DFC: the desire to tell its tale on its own terms — wildly inventive, puppet-wielding, marionette-dancing terms, of course.

Hard Times Hit Parade runs Thursday-Sunday, Feb. 24-Mar. 18 at Russian Hall (600 Campbell), 8pm. Tickets $20 in advance from Highlife, Zulu and DustyFlowerPot.org. $25 at the door.

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