It says something about the form’s wild possibilities that the head of the grandaddy of all Vancouver physical theatre is still hesitant about defining the genre after 39 years of creating it.
“Physical theatre—it’s so evolving,” says Axis Theatre’s artistic director Wayne Specht, smiling as he sits with codirector Kathryn Bracht before a rehearsal for the company’s Rip! A Winkle in Time at the CBC studios downtown. “It is an attractive, descriptive couple of words. It does set the imagination on fire. To this day, I don’t really know what it means, other than to say it encourages us to explore the physicality of our world.”
It’s not that Specht hasn’t had a lot of opportunity lately to reflect on his movement- and gesture-driven form: after helping to produce 55 original works of theatre, the influential artistic director and performer has announced that Rip! will be his final big show before he retires next year. But it’s an apt way to sign off—and a vivid example of the diverse forms that physical theatre and Axis itself have been able to work in over the years. A clever, and totally unexpected, riff on the old legend of Rip Van Winkle, the production integrates everything from acting and text to acrobatics, dance, slapstick, silent film, music, and even puppeteering. Specht’s final show brings in a lot of the various threads he’s explored at Axis over his career.
It’s a long way from the company’s early work, after it was founded amid the burgeoning Vancouver arts scene of 1975. Specht, who studied at the National Theatre School and the École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, hooked up with some other young theatre grads here (including Wendy Gorling, Lin Bennett, and Elizabeth Murray-Byers) to start the Axis Mime Theatre. He jokes that it was the natural outcome of “like mimes” getting together. But Specht and his colleagues were soon pushing the form, collaborating with other companies in town like Carousel Theatre and Green Thumb Theatre, and eventually performing their first work using text, Dennis Foon’s Heracles, in 1978. The popularity of that piece, and the explosion of the art form, led to Axis organizing Mime Fest ’80. “There were so many pretenders, we said, ‘Let’s find out what it is,’ ” Specht explains.
From there, Axis launched the huge Beaux Gestes festival in 1986, when it also put on thousands of performances at Expo. “I got to bring in international actors, have a big symposium, and it had a big impact on our local community,” says Specht.
Meanwhile, Axis was pushing beyond mime into other forms of physical theatre. “The influences became broader because myself and others were going out—it was so key to find innovations in the world,” Specht says. Part of that widening reach was Specht’s devotion (both personal and financial) to collaboration; in its almost four-decade history, the company’s worked with everyone from Australia’s Legs on the Wall (Flying Blind) to the Arts Club (Don Quixote) and Pi Theatre (Disposing of the Dead).
Which brings us to Axis’s most famous project—and one of the biggest success stories on the local theatre scene. Out of the hothouse of movement-based performance forms that the company was working in grew a little show called The Number 14. It was a series of vignettes about bus-riding that worked in masks—equal parts commedia dell’arte and Monty Python. The Touchstone Theatre coproduction (created by Specht and Roy Surette) opened at the Firehall Arts Centre in 1992 for a modest two-week run.
“We said, ‘Gee, a lot of people still want to see this,’ ” recalls Specht, who immediately booked a gig opening in the new year at the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island. The rest is history: it enjoyed a two-decade run, travelling through Canada, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, with two visits to the New Victory Theater on Broadway, earning a 1998 New York Drama Desk nomination.
Axis presents scores of shows for young audiences at schools each year, but Rip! will actually be its first adult-oriented full-length play since The Number 14. “I made a choice years ago that I would never do a Number 15,” Specht says with a smile.
Rip! is exploring territory all its own. Playwright KC Brown came to Axis with the idea for the play, but the company has been helping develop it from the early stages, tapping the skills of a cast that ranges from puppeteer-actor Tara Travis to veteran thesp Simon Webb to clowning- and circus-trained Annette Devick, who’s worked for Cirque du Soleil.
“This is more of a play play in its structure, and yet it is not linear,” Specht says, comparing the work to The Number 14. “The theme of what if you fell asleep for 100 years and came back just really resonates so much with this play. There will be expectations from our audience: ‘Oh, they’ll show him operating a washing machine for the first time.’ No, no, no.” Specht explains Brown’s twist on the age-old story plays with time, flipping back and forth between what may or may not be the present and the gold-rush era, and it’s been a challenge for him to find ways for the audience to navigate its brain-teasing tricks.
Actor Stefano Giulianetti says the key is how Specht stages the opening of Rip!. He points out that just as The Number 14 opened with a “strange, wordless mask piece” that gave way to a more text-based vignette, Rip! opens with a stylized, speech-free piece about the ephemeral character of the moon. “Then two characters from the real world come in and you say, ‘Okay, it’s not a weirdo moon piece,’ ” he says with a laugh.
“Wayne, working over so many years, knows how to bring an audience onboard,” explains Giulianetti, who has appeared in several Axis shows, including more than 500 presentations of The Number 14. “He knows how to tell a story. Art is abstract, but when it’s made clear to you it becomes interesting and accessible.
“He knows that a stylized performance, if it’s done gently, the audience will let you get away with murder. You can change the style as long as you establish that anything is possible. That’s why it starts with the moon.”
Like the best physical theatre, Rip! is about surprises, and Giulianetti, like Specht, is reticent to give away some of its moments of magic. Suffice it to say, from our glimpse of rehearsal, there’s a fortuneteller who warns a man that his lifeline eerily disappears, a saloon-style barkeep, a life-size marionette dog, and talk of the ghosts of frozen men.
Before he heads onto the makeshift stage, Giulianetti, one of the many young actors in this town whom Specht’s helped to flourish, dares to come closest to defining physical theatre.
“Here, you don’t rehearse, like, ‘My line, your line’—words come kind of last,” he explains of the Axis process. “We did at one point go through a whole scene without words. Words will augment it, but the goal is to tell a story without words. Anybody should be able to watch this show or any Axis show with earplugs in or not knowing the language—and that’s the one thing that connects physical performance.”
Axis Theatre’s Rip! A Winkle in Time is at the Waterfront Theatre from Thursday (May 1) to May 17.