Connect the Plots' stage garden gets growing

Using pitchforks and masks as tools, <em>Connect the Plots</em> is a unique blend of artistic endeavour and environmental labour.

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      It’s a theatre lobby like none you’ve ever seen. Tucked away in the southeast corner of the Strathcona Community Gardens, the square of land has corn, sunflowers, nasturtiums, and marigolds around its perimeter, with benches for audience members along the edges of raised planter boxes for basil, strawberries, and Swiss chard. When the show Connect the Plots opens this weekend, this outdoor “room” will also feature live music on a piano, masked characters, and refreshments culled directly from the surrounding gardens: fresh herb lemonade, zucchini bread, and crab-apple jelly—not your average theatre-concession fare.

      The outdoor venue vividly illustrates the unique mix of ecogardening and performing arts in Plots, a project mounted by Theatre on Earth, the Environmental Youth Alliance, and the Cultch’s Ignite! program. A team of devoted young artists and environmental enthusiasts has been working for more than three months to turn the 16-by-32-foot garden into a living lobby. During their weekend workshops, they’ve also been growing a show that will lead audiences around the gardens for theatrical vignettes inspired directly by the place. In other words, the Plots project blends elbow grease and art.

      When the young troupe first arrived in May, the “lobby” was knee-high in weeds, Theatre on Earth’s Tallulah Winkelman recalls. “It was this group of teenagers under the hot sun, working really hard, with pitchforks and shovels,” she says, taking a break from digging soil at the site. “We sifted all the compost and had to haul it in here.”

      Workshops have been equal parts labour and creativity. “Usually, it starts out with two or three hours of gardening and then we get into the more theatrical work,” explains high-school student William Canero, speaking to the Straight after its visit to the garden, over the phone. “But the garden work really leads into the scene work: there’s a sense of family with the group you’re working with. You get close when you’re weeding for three hours together! I remember using a pickaxe to get some of it out of there.

      “And then the setting is just really inspiring,” adds Canero, a Coquitlam 16-year-old who makes the trek into the city each week for the project. “We get all these ideas while we’re working that are based on our environment.”

      Back at the garden, it’s easy to see what he’s talking about. A warm summer breeze is rus­tling nearby trees, where a squirrel is hopping from branch to branch, the sound of traffic along nearby Prior Street reduced to a whisper beneath the birdsong in the long-time urban oasis. Outside the growing lobby, a few other gardeners work at their own squares of land, tending to kale, beans, and other produce in the midday sun. Further down a narrow path, the orchard of heritage apple trees sits paradisiacally—another spot the artistic team will bring alive in a site-specific theatre vignette.

      “Part of the idea of the show was to have a way to bring community together—the gardeners who have been taking care of this incredible space and the youth that are interested in moving into this space. So we wanted to actually grow our own food as part of that,” explains Winkelman.

      The setting is idyllic, but it could also be threatened by a proposed new Malkin Avenue Connector, a multilane diversion that will cut through the area if the City of Vancouver removes the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts. Though organizers stress Connect the Plots is not a political piece, the news weighs on the creative team and they want the show to celebrate the space and reveal its hidden treasures to the wider public.

      “We have a lot of politically engaged youth that want to make theatre about things going on in the community,” the Cultch’s youth-program manager Robert Leveroos explains at the garden. “It’s never been our mission to preach or ruffle feathers; our main goal was to activate the space.”

      Working in that outdoor space is a challenge for performers more used to spending their time inside darkened theatres, but so are the artistic tools they’ll be using for the show. Beyond the almost grotesquely exaggerated masks, brought in from the personal collection of Theatre on Earth’s Tom Jones, the group will also be wielding puppets (a form Jones has studied in Bali).

      Comments Canero: “I’ve never had the opportunity to work with puppets or masks. We spent a lot of time finding out how these masks work, and how to get into the character of them.”

      “As soon as you put them in a space like this, in these masks, they come alive in a different way,” Leveroos adds.

      For visitors to the garden, the end result is that Plots will be an outdoor theatrical journey into some new artistic territory, with the vignettes themed around ideas of sanctuary. The experience will have a lasting effect on the youths involved in the project, too. The arts-loving Canero, for one, has started a garden at home. And clearly, he couldn’t have picked a better summer, weatherwise, to get involved in the gardening-theatre project. It’s been so abnormally sunny, in fact, that troupe members have had to take turns heading down to the plot to water the plants. “At the beginning, I bought rubber boots, thinking it would rain,” Canero says with a laugh, “but I never ended up using them.”

      Connect the Plots is at the Strathcona Community Gardens from Friday to Sunday (August 16 to 18) at 7 p.m.