When Helen Lawrence receives its world premiere at the Arts Club’s Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage, glamour will rub against grit.
On the glamorous side, this is one of the most anticipated openings in Canadian cultural history. The buzz starts with excitement about the core players. To create Helen Lawrence, international art star Stan Douglas—an Emily Carr graduate who produced the mural Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 for the atrium of the Woodward’s complex downtown, and who has shown his work at the Tate and the Venice Biennale—has joined forces with top-flight TV writer and producer, as well as long-time friend, Chris Haddock (Da Vinci’s Inquest, Intelligence, Boardwalk Empire).
Coproduced by the Arts Club, Canadian Stage, Festival TransAmér-iques, the Banff Centre, and Canada’s National Arts Centre, Helen Lawrence will follow up its Vancouver run with engagements in Montreal, Toronto, Edinburgh, and Munich.
But Helen Lawrence isn’t an elitist or rarefied artistic exercise: it takes a tough look at what it took to survive in Vancouver in 1948. In Haddock’s script, the title character travels from a psychiatric asylum in Los Angeles to Vancouver in search of her ex-lover, who may have framed her for her husband’s murder. Helen arrives in the soon-to-be-demolished original Hotel Vancouver, which is being used as a hostel by World War II veterans. From the very Caucasian vantage point of Vancouver’s West Side, she crosses paths with a bookie and other opportunists who have complicated dealings with folks in the multiethnic Hogan’s Alley. As he decides which “nigger” he’s going to back in a web of business and vice, Muldoon, the white chief of police, pits brothers Buddy and Henry against one another.
As the Straight chats with Douglas and Haddock in an office attached to the Arts Club’s Granville Island rehearsal space, Douglas says that he’s fascinated by the uncertainty embedded in the setting, by “these two places where people were living under the spectre of losing their homes. The City wants to raze Hogan’s Alley, and the hostel’s being torn down.” Vancouver, like the rest of the world, is reimagining itself. “The kernel of the idea is this transitional moment between the wartime’s state of exception—the black markets, doing nasty things to get by, killing people, seeing people die—and the normalization of the ’50s: 2.5 children and suburban, middle-class morality. That was never true, but that was the ideology. So how do you get from one to the other?”
Notions of aspiration are embodied in the form that Helen Lawrence will take. Haddock explains that the set will be a three-sided blue box, a shooting stage where scenes will be filmed live. Those live images will be projected onto a scrim, a taut, porous surface that will fill the proscenium. The audience will be able to see the actors behind the scrim, but they will simultaneously view black-and-white movie versions of those actors.
“It wasn’t until I sat in the balcony of the Stanley Theatre and saw the images that I realized what we were doing,” Haddock says. “Quite mind-blowing. It’s the size of Lawrence of Arabia. It’s like 70-mil, and it’s fantastic. You’re also hit by how great character actors look on this thing, and we got nothin’ but character actors. Normally, from the back row, you can’t see the glint.”
Musing on how the viewing experience reflects the thematic content, Douglas says: “There’s a tension between who the people are—what the meat on the stage is about—and their self-image, which we see on the screen. So it’s much like this period, when people were trying to project a new future for themselves.”
The audience’s perception of space will be enhanced. “Typically, we’ve blocked the cameras from points of view that are not the audience’s point of view,” Douglas explains. “We’re seeing around things, we’re seeing behind things. So you’re looking at things on-stage from your perspective and from another perspective simultaneously. It’s like cubism done properly, you know?”
And thanks to cutting-edge hardware and software, which Peter Courtemanche developed specifically for Helen Lawrence, audience immersion in virtual reality may reach new depths. Haddock explains that Douglas has plundered the archives to find historical photographs, which are then turned into three-dimensional buildings. “It’s much like the 3-D modelling they use in big feature films where they have these crazy flying shots,” Douglas adds. “Basically, you make a geometry in software, and on top of that geometry, you lay a photograph of the thing you’re trying to represent. You turn an actual object into a malleable object within the software, so that you can light it and move around it.”
The real innovation, though, comes in Courtemanche’s new tracking software which, according to Douglas, “allows the camera and the background to move in synchronization”. As a result, your eyes can follow a live actor as she walks down a virtual street.
For all the dazzle, the streets of Helen Lawrence are as tough as they are for many today. In the struggle for survival, the threat of betrayal by lovers, friends, and family members remains constant. Still, as Haddock points out, Helen Lawrence may sometimes be dark, but in its imagery—and in the characters’ resilient, film-noir-inflected wit—it’s also entertaining. Expressing her distrust of one of the hostel’s hustlers, Helen says: “There’s something about him I don’t like.” Joe, the young lesbian desk clerk, replies: “It’s probably the long bit between his eyebrows and his socks.”