Somewhere between the Fringe, with its crazy smorgasbord of brief performances, and the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, with its carefully curated menu, lies the rEvolver Theatre Festival, whose stated mandate is to survey “the changing stage”. Ask Daniel Martin to explain that mission, however, and it seems his goals are more complex than that. As artistic director of the event’s producing organization, the Upintheair Theatre Society, he feels that he’s got a twofold responsibility: expanding Vancouver’s theatre scene while entertaining audiences.
“We’re trying to provide a network of opportunity and support for emerging artists at a time when it’s a real struggle to get a company up and going,” he says. “Venues are harder to get, funding is harder to get, audiences are harder to connect with. So the goal, really, is to provide opportunity. And then in terms of the audience, I think it is to connect audiences to what’s up and coming, what’s interesting, what’s next in the theatre.…We’re working with artists who are trying to push the boundaries of the genre or push the boundaries of their practice to do something new.”
Making Martin’s job easier is that theatre in Vancouver is in a state of flux, with baby-boomer actors and directors passing the torch along to a new crop of aspiring thesps.
“One of the things that I’ve noticed over the last few years is that younger artists are less invested in the notion of the avant-garde,” he notes, explaining that experimentation has lost a little of its allure. “The young kids are much more comfortable with popular culture, so we’re seeing a lot of really interesting work with musicals coming up. In my generation, musicals meant Andrew Lloyd Webber, they meant Oklahoma!. But the younger kids, they don’t care about those associations. They’re interested in music, and they’re much more comfortable with the idea that doing pop culture, doing work that is accessible, can still be art.”
A quick look at rEvolver’s 2014 lineup, which spans everything from solo singer-ukulelist Kris Elgstrand’s Positive Life-Affirming Entertainment! to the crowd-sourced philosophy of Architect Theatre and Studio 58’s How Should You Be?, illustrates his point. William Shakespeare gets a sci-fi nod in the form of Human Theatre Collective’s CAEZR: 33 Cuts, but otherwise there’s little conventional narrative on offer.
Hell, some of these shows don’t even have scripts.
That’s the certainly the case with Off Key: An Improvised Musical, in which the singers and musicians of Off Key Improv and Lost Light Productions take audience suggestions for a title and then craft an hourlong show out of thin air. Previous offerings like Snow Global Warming, Coffee Shopera, and Zork: The Musical indicate that this troupe doesn’t shy away from serious matters—or from outer space. Where it’ll go next week, however, is anyone’s guess, and that’s just how Off Key Improv sparkplug Jennifer Pielak likes it.
“We’ve been working on this for about two years,” she explains in a separate telephone interview. “We’ve learned song structures; we learn musical genres; we watch musicals; we look at what kind of patterns are in musicals. It’s like a basketball team: they learn all kinds of different ways to play, and then depending on how the game goes,certain things will fit in certain places. It’s just like deciding to play in the same key in a jazz show.”
Having trained with Second City and worked as part of Vancouver TheatreSports League’s rookie team, Pielak admits that Off Key owes a debt to earlier forms of improv comedy. Her aim, though, is to push things further.
“Some musical improv shows are quite structured,” she says. “Backstage, they’ll go: ‘Okay, you’re going to be the protagonist. You’re going to be the antagonist. We’re going to do a Hero’s Journey type show.’ And then they’ll improvise within that structure. That’s different from our show, where we’re trying to study all of those structures, and then depending on what we get from the audience, we’re going to use that inspiration and discover what the storyline is going to be. It’s a little bit riskier—but I think you can actually make anything work with anything, so long as you keep yourself open.”
The rEvolver Theatre Festival runs at the Cultch from Tuesday (May 13) to May 25.