Alan Brodie is going back to school—in more ways than one. The veteran Vancouver lighting designer is wearing a different hat for the upcoming Pi Theatre production of Between the Sheets: that of assistant director. It’s a warm-up for Brodie’s upcoming role as a graduate student at the University of Victoria, where he’ll begin working toward his MFA in directing this fall.
“I’ve been at it for 25 years, so I started to think of myself lately as a midcareer artist, and I felt like if I’m going to do this for another 25, I need an injection of some new inspiration and some new energy,” Brodie explains, on a break from rehearsal at the Dharma Lab just off the north end of Commercial Drive. Since he started, Brodie has lit an average of 10 shows a year in dance, opera, and theatre, including long-running productions like Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling’s The Overcoat. His impressive résumé boasts eight Jessie Richardson awards for design. “I’ve spent a lot of hours and a lot of years in the rehearsal hall with some excellent, excellent directors, so I feel like I’ve been exposed to some really good influences,” he notes.
His return to school is “partly about wanting to broaden the scope of my practice as a designer,” Brodie says. “I feel like, by studying directing, I’m going to become a better designer, me becoming a director notwithstanding.”
And Between the Sheets, a taut two-hander by Toronto playwright Jordi Mand that might be described as the parent-teacher interview from hell, wouldn’t give Brodie much to do as a lighting designer anyway: he and director Richard Wolfe are staging the play in a real classroom at Strathcona’s Admiral Seymour Elementary School.
Wolfe saw a workshop production of the script at Nightwood Theatre’s Groundswell Festival in Toronto two years ago, and was impressed by the way novice playwright Mand manages to sidestep melodrama in presenting an unexpectedly layered confrontation between a mother and her young son’s teacher. “Although there’s a deep undercurrent of conflict, I didn’t feel that one [character] was good and one was bad,” Wolfe explains. “And I also felt that this could make a very interesting site-specific production, because it’s set in a classroom—so why build a classroom on-stage when you could go to a classroom?
“As an audience experience, it creates a kind of visceral connection with the space,” Wolfe continues, noting that the vast majority of us have memories of time spent in conventional classrooms. “Driving up to the school will be interesting for people. Even thinking about going to it, driving up to it, going in the parking lot, opening the door, seeing what kind of school it is, having those smells come at you, the hallways filled with art—there’s a real, ghostly, wonderful presence of children in schools.”
Wolfe says that using the space imposes a minimalism that suits his directorial aesthetic. He and Brodie are effusive about the “old, classic look” of Admiral Seymour: the school is over a hundred years old, and its high ceilings and huge windows add to the venue’s ambiance. “Although we’re not creating the design, there is a lot of design in the room,” notes Wolfe. “If we were doing this in the theatre, it wouldn’t look like what we’re going to have.”
With his own design duties minimized, Brodie is relishing his first assistant-directing gig. “It’s proving that I was totally right that learning about directing would reframe my life as a designer,” he observes, just two weeks into the rehearsal period. “Already I can see that it’s having that effect. It’s kind of staggering.”
Between the Sheets runs at Admiral Seymour Elementary School from Friday (March 14) to March 26.