Sniffing around Russian Hall led to Theatre Replacement's PuSh Festival piece, Do you mind if I sit here?
When Theatre Replacement's James Long answers the phone to talk about the company's latest project, Do you mind if I sit here?, he's just taking a break from rehearsals for the PuSh Festival show. With the Omicron variant spreading wildly worldwide, he searches out a quiet corner in the Russian Hall in which he can remove his mask and safely explain that rehearsals are going smoothly.
"You know, it's a funny moment," he says, "'cause we're just waiting for somebody to say, 'Oh, I got a sore throat.' But for the moment everybody's healthy, everybody's happy, we're bangin' our way through this thing. We're about two-thirds through the first rehearsal draft, and it's feeling good. It's really solid."
As a co-artistic director, along with Maiko Yamamoto, of Theatre Replacement since 2003, Long is a highly respected figure on the Vancouver theatre scene. He and Yamamoto actually won the coveted Simonovitch Award for Directing in 2019. So it seems rather surprising that hear him say that he wasn't drawn to theatre at a young age, and that he's seen "maybe three musicals" in his entire life.
"It was never about the spectacle," he says, "it became about the act of performance and the technical study of performance that hooked me into theatre in university, and that slowly migrated into a love of making and directing work."
Long didn't get serious about the art form until he took a theatre class at SFU taught by Gina Stockdale, who is actually one of the performers—along with Kayvon Khoshkam, Pippa Mackie, and Conor Wylie—in Do you mind if I sit here? A former Carleton University journalism student, Long also earned a master's in Urban Studies from SFU a couple of years ago.
"I'd been making theatre for close to 20 years," he explains, "and had a bit of ants in my pants, so I decided to look at theatre through a different lens. There's just so much context involved in making theatre, increasingly, and you can't really make theatre in a bubble like you used to. I've always been much more interested in reflecting on what's happening directly in the world around me with my work, and that includes working with non-actors and using interview material.
"So the interweaving of theatre and direct studies of the urban environment made a lot of sense to me," he adds. "It makes a lot of sense for Theatre Replacement's work as well, and makes a lot of sense for this project, which is studying a building in the middle of Strathcona."
The core inspiration for Do you mind if I sit here? was found in a stash of 16mm films that director-cowriter Long and dramaturg-cowriter Marcus Youssef discovered several years back. They were inside the Russian Hall, "sniffing around" during a break from their Theatre Replacement play Winners and Losers, and found several film canisters in a nearby closet.
"We were really curious about them," he says, "so we got a projector and ran them through, and they are industrial films from the USSR, sent to Canada between the '50s and the '80s, to essentially try to call the diaspora home. To say, 'Hey, things are better, Stalin was rough [laughs], but come on back. It's working.' And so they sent them to places like the Russian Hall to get folks to say, 'Oh lookit, look at industry, look at the medical system, look at the space program. That is a place worth returning to.'
"And that aesthetic of the found material is used in the show—we have enormous projection screens, so we actually get to see some of this archival material. It also had a deeper conceptual resonance in that this building housed a community of people for close to 80 years, a Russian community, recent immigrants, their children—learning language, learning dances, singing in choirs.
"And that's changing now," he adds, "as the artists like myself move in and have the audacity to go sniff around in closets when they're bored. That act of gentrification is also critical to this place, this idea of displacement, and what you do with buildings when the power shifts, or the idea of ownership shifts. The piece deals with that question."
Although Do you mind if I sit here? is described as a "multimedia allegory" on the Push Festival website, Long isn't quite sure if that's the best term to describe it.
"You know, we've been using 'fable' a little bit. We use a bunch of different words, because we're not exactly sure of the exact definition. We don't really know what we're making yet. We'll know hopefully by closing what it is we made exactly. But there is a fictional element to it, and fiction isn't something I normally work inside of—I usually do more docu-type theatre, I guess.
"And so we're flirting with the idea of fiction as three planners come into this building 30 years in the future, and they discover there's an impediment, there's a problem, that they have to deal with before they can truly repurpose it for the community that now wants to use it."
And just what is that problem, that impediment, exactly? You might have to see the show to find out.
"I think I'm gonna keep it a secret," says Long. "I don't think it's in the writeups yet. It's a human problem. It's a very human problem that they have to deal with. A problem I think that we're dealing with all the time in the city, and we're dealing with all the time within the pandemic."
Before donning his protective mask and stepping back into the fray, Long is asked what he hopes people will take away from his latest work.
"I just hope people get to say, 'Gosh, that was nice to sit in a space with people and not feel alarmed or scared about it.' And who knows what's gonna be going on—or even if we do get to open. There could be new rules; people could get ill. There's just so many factors. But I think the more narrative-based answer would be: I hope people look at buildings differently. This piece is responding to this building, but when they drive by another building in town that looks derelict or abandoned or underused, to recognize there's history in those bones, in the floorboards. These buildings are critical."
Do you mind if I sit here? has its world premiere at the Russian Hall from January 26 to 29 as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.