No business like snow business

Members of the University of Regina Theatre Department stand in the snow in front of Le jardin de l’esprit (the mind’s garden) by Joe Fafard, a large bronze sandcast sculpture depicting Saskatchewan’s natural and cultural history. University of Regina Theatre Department

Devising an outdoor theatre experience

Early in the Fall 2020 semester, theatre professor Shannon Holmes and the students in her Devised Production course began the devising portion of their production, which is scheduled for performance on March 17 of this year. Holmes, a newer faculty member who started with the University of Regina’s Theatre Department this past July, said there was initial resistance from the University regarding performing their production in person due to Covid-19 regulations.

 “One of the things that was really pushing myself and other members of the faculty was that we were noticing that, for instance, some sports teams were allowed to practice,” she said. “We all thought ‘something’s not right here.’”

 Thankfully, theatre is flexible, so Holmes and her twelve students (or “ensemble”) are constructing an outdoor show to be performed in Wascana park, right across from the U of R’s campus.

When asked about the name of the piece, Holmes replied “Actually, we don’t have a definite title yet because it’s a collective creation. It’s devised work which means that the ensemble is creating the show. The working title is ‘Search Party,’ but we don’t have a definite title.”

For some context, the ensemble have been collaborating on the majority of the process, and came up with the idea for the show based on a prompt from Holmes.

“The prompt that I offered the students was from a news story several years back about a tourist, and this tourist was on a tour bus in Iceland,” she said. “This tourist got off the bus to go to the bathroom, freshen up and change, and when she got back to the bus she found everyone frantically looking and a search party began because someone on the bus was missing. They had sketched up a picture of the person missing, and this woman joined the search that went on for hours and police were called in, and it turned out this woman was the person they thought was missing! So, the prompt was this idea of joining your own search party.”

Holmes, excited at the chance to facilitate this novel format, explained that the audience will get an involved experience during this performance.

“Our audience will show up and they will encounter this group who have just finished a tour and they are getting on a bus to leave, and someone will announce ‘We can’t go anywhere, the tour guide’s missing!’ ”she said. “The premise of the show is that all the cast will set out to find the tour guide, and of course the audience will follow along. They’re not sitting outdoors watching in a very traditional way like a proscenium stage, they’re actually going to be following the action.”

Designing a devised theatre production opens up many opportunities, but at this point there are still lingering uncertainties in the show’s structure.

“That’s where the beauty and anxiety lie in a devised show – we don’t even know how it’s going to end yet,” she said.

Another aspect of that beauty is in the freedom to modify the experience by involving other departments.

“We also have two students from the music department who are composing music for the show, and we will have three musicians on site with us, moving through the space and playing music,” she said. “They’re also composing some songs for the ensemble to sing so that’s all really exciting.”

Tickets aren’t yet available but will be in the near future. To stay updated on the show’s progress and to buy tickets once they are available, Holmes advises that people “keep an eye on our Facebook page, the Department of Theatre’s Facebook page […] and as soon as that information is available it will be posted there.” Besides ticket information there are regular posts on the progress of the show, and a few recent shots of the area in Wascana where the show will be performed.

During the Fall 2020 semester of the Devised Production course, Holmes was living in Montreal and found conducting the program remotely to be a challenge.

 “With being new faculty, I had never met these students in person, I had never worked with them in person,” she said. “Part of this process of devising theatre requires a lot of trust between people because you’re asking people to get up on their feet, to explore physically, vocally, and to really get out there and do what might be considered really cuckoo-crazy things. Even though we were meeting twice a week on Zoom so you’d get to know each other, you don’t really know someone until you’ve shared space with them.”

While the students are now attending scheduled, distanced rehearsals, it was difficult for some to get in the right headspace while attending courses at home.

“Some students had a whole basement rec room to work in, and some were literally on their bed because that’s the only space that they had,” she said. “Maybe if they were lucky they had a private space, but for others their families were right outside the door while I’m asking them to do these exploratory things with their voices and their bodies […] This kind of work does not translate well to online learning. Honestly, everyone put their best foot forward, but it was so challenging.”

To end on a positive note, Holmes gratefully reported feeling accepted and supported by the Regina art community during her time here thus far.

“I’ve been in Regina now for two weeks and I’ve just been blown away by the generosity, especially in the artistic community and the theatre community with people reaching out to lend a hand,” she said. “Jennifer Brewin who’s the new artistic director of the Globe Theatre here in Regina offered – on her own time – to come in and talk with the students. She has a lot of experience working with outdoor theatre, and outdoor theatre in the winter.

“So people are just offering their time, really truly interested in what we’re doing and that’s wonderful. I just felt kind of welcomed by the community off the get go and I so appreciate that.”

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