Film and theatre fuse in the Electric Company's Tear the Curtain!

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      For decades, South Granville’s Stanley Theatre was a place to watch movies. Since 1998, when it was reincarnated as a live theatre venue by the Arts Club Theatre Company, it’s been a place to watch plays. But from tonight (September 9) until October 10, audiences will be able to watch both forms simultaneously with Tear the Curtain!, an unprecedented hybrid of film and theatre from Vancouver’s Electric Company Theatre.

      Watch a preview for Tear the Curtain!.

      The two media forms are virtually at war in Tear the Curtain!, as rival mobs in late 1920s Vancouver fight over the future of the Stanley Theatre: one group wants to make it a movie house, while the other wants it to become a venue for live performance. Caught in the middle is Alex Braithewaite, a theatre critic whose chance encounters with a mysterious avant-garde theatre artist, long presumed dead, lead him on a dangerous quest to find a deeper authenticity in art.

      The play, commissioned as part of the Arts Club Theatre’s Silver Commissions in 2006, was originally programmed to open during the Cultural Olympiad this past February. The project was delayed when Azra Young, the 14-year-old daughter of Electric Company artistic directors Kim Collier and Jonathon Young, died along with her two cousins in a cabin fire last July, just weeks before filming was slated to begin. Amid an outpouring of support from the local theatre community, Young and Collier have dealt with their grief privately while resuming work on the production.

      Tear the Curtain! draws loosely on the Stanley’s history. “We did only very cursory research on it, because right from the very beginning we wanted to absorb the actual theatre into a fiction; we didn’t want it to be a history,” explains Young early one morning, sitting with Collier at the newly built Progress Lab rehearsal space in East Vancouver.

      It’s also wildly theatrical and cinematic: the action unfolds in a fluid interplay between live and filmed performance, with characters disappearing down a hallway onscreen and appearing onstage a moment later. “You really get a sense that you’re on a ride that you haven’t been on before with this piece,” Young says. “I think it takes a bit to come to terms with what you have to do as a viewer, how you have to juggle,” he continues, “and then when you do, it starts to be really compelling.”

      Young and his Electric Company cohorts have been mixing film and theatre in compelling ways since their very first Fringe show, 1996’s Brilliant!, which featured video projections. Their cinematic skills took a huge leap in 2005 when the company adapted its stage play, The Score, into a feature film. Prior to that project, film “was this mysterious other art form that we played within but didn’t know a lot about,” says Collier, who directed the adaptation and is directing both the movie and stage components of Tear the Curtain! “Doing The Score, which took a year,” she reflects, “we learned so much about the uses of camera, camera moving, the edit, what works and what doesn’t work.”

      “And we’re still, of course, beginners,” Young adds.

      The company’s more recent work has further emphasized the relationship between theatre and film. In Collier’s 2008 staging of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, the actors were locked in a bunker in the corner of a warehouse at the Centre for Digital Media while the audience watched live video projections of them on three giant screens. And anyone lucky enough to have caught the company’s show, At Home With Dick and Jane (staged at the first HIVE in 2006 and reworked for HIVE3 at the Centre for Digital Media again in 2010) in which a single audience member enjoys a movie camera’s perspective on a miniature domestic world, knows how sublimely the boundaries of film and performance can be blurred in the hands of these artists.

      But they’ve never fused the two media on this scale before. “We’re interested in the freedom that film offers, and its ability to show us our dreams,” Young explains. “Whereas theatre has the undeniable presence, therefore the risk of the accidental.” When theatre’s potential chaos meets film’s “ideal cinematic image”, Young says, “anything can happen.”

      And moving back and forth between film and live action poses a number of challenges. “For a director, so much is about rhythm,” Collier says. “And a bunch of your rhythm’s locked. It’s going to be interesting to see if the rhythms can actually find the right nuance.

      “There were some things we were ending up doing live which would have been better on film and vice versa,” she continues, “but there was also the balance of keeping both mediums alive. So people would say, ”˜How did you decide what would be what?’ And it was really not always about what would be the best medium; it was about the show as a whole.”

      The filmed portions of Tear the Curtain! were shot this past February, entirely inside the Stanley. “Even though we go on film, we never go on location,” Collier explains. “The stage set was built first and transforms its identity into all the other sets, so there’s a unity to the entire thing.”

      “Obviously the metaphor being that Alex is on a stage,” Young chips in. “That’s his crisis: he feels like he’s performing his life rather than living it, and tries to break out of that illusion that we all need to go on living.”

      That’s a dilemma common to heroes in film noir, a genre whose style Tear the Curtain! gleefully exploits. “We deliberately used Hollywood tropes and Hollywood language and character types, and said, ”˜We’re just going to imitate them baldly, and then also try to create something original,’ ” Young says. “We imitate a lot in this play, in this attempt. But I think that there’s always hope that through the fusing of forms, you can create a new one.”

      Like all of the Electric Company’s work, the piece seeks to push boundaries without forgetting to entertain the audience.

      “I love not knowing if it’s going to work or not,” Collier confesses. “I really hope it does. But I love the conversation.”