In anticipation of the world premiere performances of Infinithéâtre‘s King of Canada on November 6th and 8th, director Zach Fraser and actor Brian Dooley spoke to Montreal Theatre Hub on theatremaking in 2020 – creating during a pandemic, adapting to the virtual realm, and finding the opportunities within the challenges.
It was slated to be the first live-in-person indoor theatre production presented by a Montreal English company since the industry’s reopening from COVID-19 lockdown in Quebec. An opening night that was originally set for October 20th has since been postponed 3 times due to wavering government directives: October 30th, November 3rd, and now, a just-announced virtual premiere on November 6th. An in-person version is still expected, but with no known date yet in view.
It’s not quite exactly the venued communion at KIN Experience that artists and audiences were hoping for this year, but Infinithéâtre’s King of Canada comes as a cherished rare offering during a 7-month theatre drought in Montreal.
“We wanted to find a way to do something this season,” begins Zach Fraser, director of the play (and incoming Artistic Director to successor Guy Sprung, who passes to Fraser the baton in this transitional period after 22 years at the Montreal company’s helm). The impetus? “Both the desire to channel our energies as artists and to provide an experience for theatregoers who are seeking that connection right now.”
It is brazen to attempt to produce any live entertainment at this time, but the gamble came as a calculated one in consideration of Infinithéâtre’s relatively compact size, degree of infrastructure, and history of working in unconventional contexts and venues. A full production presented itself as feasible, and in the company’s commitment towards the commissioning of new Canadian works, playwright Paul Van Dyck’s inherently intimate two-hander – which was already in the development pipeline prior to the coronavirus pandemic – fit the bill.
The selection was also germane given the play’s topical content. A meta-theatrical political satire on Canada’s longest-serving prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, “I believe this is a story of the times,” asserts Fraser. “It speaks to a moment where we are now looking back on Canadian history and the choices that have been made by individuals and by society at large. What past decisions can we be proud of? – I think this fits into that collective reflection.”
Zach Fraser, director of King of Canada and incoming Artistic Director of Infinithéâtre
In lifted optimism for the best case scenario, rehearsals began in the fall with the two-actor cast of Brian Dooley and Ellen David.
Aware of the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19, however, “There was never any pretend among our team that this was all definitely going to happen,” says Dooley, who portrays the titular King in the show. “That was very transparently presented to us right from the get-go, which was important.”
Adaptability became the order of the unprecedented experience, beginning with working within the restrictions of the province’s public health and safety protocols. “The biggest difficulty for us in that regard has been maintaining a sense of freedom to play, explore, and discover throughout the creation process,” explains Fraser. With rehearsals comprising a combination of Zoom and socially distanced in-person meetings, “the actors often have the urge to have physical contact, and so we are trying to find a language that works in that context. With the spatial relationship being different, it’s driven us to a more stylized performance.”
“It’s certainly frustrating at times,” reveals Dooley of the no-touch rule, “but there’s also an interesting challenge to navigating that.”
His director agrees. “If anything, I think we all feel more creative right now. There’s a rebellious spirit within artists in that if you feel confined, you’re going to push out to prove that it can be done. You want to empower yourself within the limitations.”
Actor Brian Dooley as Mackenzie King in Infinithéâtre’s King of Canada
Imminently, a new round of quickfire adjustments were brought on by the sudden second wave of COVID in Montreal in October – one that resulted in the decision to go digital in honour of the artists’ work and of the community’s invested interest in the project.
Speaking on the phone for this interview just before a rehearsal, the team’s focus in the final week before opening is restaging King of Canada for the online platform. “It’s not a film,” they emphasize of the virtual iteration. Viewers, however, can expect full production value from the screening.
“We’re trying to make a as honest a recording of a stage play as possible. The strength of it will still remain in the acting and the design elements. We’re choosing not to make the camera work the the master of the story; it’s everything that exists in theatre that should still be the driving forces here,” says the director.
“And yet, with these broadly drawn characters, we’re also not wanting to make it look grotesque in a televisual medium,” adds the actor, “and so we walk that tightrope of honouring the innate theatricality of the play while also adjusting the performance size and energy for the camera.”
The lens in the livestream will be treated and addressed as an audience member, and the camera will be placed in the position of where a seat would have been to preserve that direct perspective. The challenge of playing comedy to an empty room, however, is not lost on Dooley.
“Without an audience, theatre just doesn’t complete itself as an expression, as an experience,” he maintains.
Ellen David plays opposite Dooley in the two-hander (Photo Credit: @HeraBel)
Despite the mounting barriers to their work and play, November is not the end bow for King of Canada.
“We are still committed to doing a performance with an audience inside the theatre,” affirms Fraser. “Our hope is that the live stream version will encourage people to come see it again in person in the future, when it is safe and responsible to do so.”
In the meantime, they journey forward through the uncertainties with collective gratitude and humour.
“There are very few actors in this country who are actually able to do this right now – to step into a rehearsal hall and commune with like-minded folks. That is a very, very therapeutic thing. It’s a privileged situation we’re in,” acknowledges Brian.
If anything, it can perhaps be argued that the artists’ customary life of uncertainty and instability has essentially primed them for the – albeit this time more acute – emotional roller coaster of risk-taking.
“What Infinithéâtre has done is enormously courageous. It takes not only a great amount of organization, but a lot of guts to even attempt to do something under these circumstances. My hat goes off to them,” says Brian.
“I’m really proud of this whole team. Everyone has been exceptional in pulling out their most brave, flexible, and patient selves to strive towards an ephemeral goal that might not ever reach its end point. The perseverance and diligence has been inspiring to see. There have been tensions and frustrations in balancing these very real health concerns with creative work, but we’ve managed that by checking in with one another and just remembering to breathe sometimes.” reflects Zach. “We prefer to be in the emotional roller coaster than to not have the roller coaster at all.”
Infinithéâtre presents two FREE livestreamed performances on King of Canada on Friday, November 6 at 7:30pm and Sunday, November 8 at 2:00pm EST. For reservations, sign up HERE. A direct access link will be sent by email prior to the beginning of the show
For more information, visit www.infinitheatre.com
or contact the Box Office at (514) 987-1774 #104