My First Impressions of Vancouver – by Guest Blogger Jessica Ruano

In the line-up for Sandra Oh’s Celebrity Speakers appearance at Magnetic North the other week, I bumped into Emma Lancaster, the Festival’s wonderful and hardworking publicist. “Hey Simon”, she says to me while indicating the young lady she was talking to, “you should meet Jessica, you’re both theatre bloggers.” As if on cue, we both whipped out our respective blog-business cards (you call it nerdy, I call it smart business), and with promises to comment on each others’ sites, in we went to hear Sandra hold court about her charmed actressy life. Since that first meeting I saw Jessica pounding away on her laptop in the front row of every Mag North session or forum that I attended. Truly dedicated to the cause is she.

The proprietor of The Ottawa Arts Newsletter, Jessica is also a publicist, arts journalist, photographer, drama coach, director, spoken word performer, and general arts enthusiast. She was kind enough to offer a visitor’s impression on our fair city.

My first impressions of Vancouver

[as told by some girl from Ottawa]

Well, it rains a lot. Oh wait…you wanted to hear about theatre? Fair enough. But I still stand by my opening. Lots of rain means Vancouver people would rather see theatre indoors instead of dealing with the weather outdoors. Or maybe they just embrace the wetness and buy umbrellas. Or maybe they just sit home on their couches instead. Okay, so maybe I don’t know much about the city’s theatre patrons, but I do know that Vancouver companies are producing some of the hippest work I’ve seen in awhile.

I was inspired to visit Vancouver when I heard the Magnetic North Theatre Festival would be taking over Granville Island from June 4-14th. I had attended the festival twice before in Ottawa (where I have lived and worked all my life), and absolutely loved the idea of a national festival celebrating the best of new Canadian theatre. I was also keen on professionally stalking the festival because – prior to two weeks ago – I had never before traveled west of Toronto and Stratford. This seemed like the ideal opportunity to become acquainted with the Vancouver theatre scene and get to know some of the artists involved.

This year’s Magnetic North included two full-length Vancouver productions: Kevin Loring’s Where the Blood Mixes, produced by the Playhouse Theatre Company and the Savage Society; and Studio 58’s student production of Townsville. Both productions brought their own unique west-coast edge to the festival, but the most exciting show I experienced during my week-and-a-half visit was a multi-dimensional, site-specific, collective creation, theatre extravaganza featuring 11 independent Vancouver companies. The show was HIVE2, and it was pretty darn awesome.

These theatre companies took over a warehouse on Great Northern Way Compass and were assigned spaces in which to create and perform a 5-15 minute piece of theatre influenced by the space. Site-specific theatre can have very fascinating results because often the script thrives creatively under spatial restrictions, and often it produces a more intrinsically connected final product. Since theatre spaces are so difficult to come across these days, it is becoming increasingly important for theatre artists to be more resourceful when it comes to producing their own work.

Three of the companies that took part in this project also offered an invaluable workshop about creating site-specific theatre in the most creative of outdoor spaces. Kendra Fanconi showed us around the Granville Island docks where she worked on a visually stimulating show from The Only Animal. The Electric Company’s Jonathan Young took us on a tour of the island where a Vancouver historical drama had been produced. Finally Jay Dodge of Boca del Lupo took us on a tram ride to Stanley Park, the site of a theatre extravaganza for family audiences where the company made use of the trails, the trees, and the atmosphere to inspire and form their work.

What I loved especially about HIVE2 and about this workshop was seeing how much these theatre companies respected one another. You could see they were proud of what had been achieved artistically by their fellow artists. That is partly because Vancouver has some major theatrical amalgamation going on. It seems that several of these companies have created shows together, or at the very least, have discussed their creative musings in a group. Last year The Only Animal and The Electric Company co-produced The One That Got Away, a show that took place in a swimming pool. With the two companies’ combined theatre experience and talent, the final product could not help but be truly spectacular. I also heard from a local critic about this subscription pass that you can pick up that includes many of the alternative theatres in Vancouver. An individual company may not have a full season like the Vancouver Playhouse, but since they have all joined together as a collective, there are now enough theatre productions to excite any potential subscriber. It also guarantees audiences a wide variety of shows from a number of diverse companies.

You can see that these companies are vehemently fighting for something new in theatre. They say; let us encourage new voices, new scripts, new ideas, new visuals, new technology, and new ways of surprising our blaze audiences. Let’s make our audiences smarter, keener, and more willing to interact, to make changes, to start thinking for themselves. The scenes I witnessed were not didactic or politically obvious, but rather offered an alternate perspective and left the audience with something to think about on the trip home. So many times I’ve seen theatre that left me feeling a little dry – but with these pieces I felt invigorated, hungry for more, keen on having discussions with friends afterwards. That’s precisely the kind of effect theatre should be having on its audiences. And I definitely think that Vancouver is on exactly the right track.

Jessica Ruano
Performance Arts Enthusiast
Ottawa, ON, Canada

Photo of closing night band by Jessica Ruano

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