The High Performance Rodeo, Vertical City & Theatre Gargantua presents
Trace at Legion #1, January 12-14, various times
Everyone loves a good ghost story.
Ever analyze why?
That’s one of the factors at play in Trace, an award-winning interactive ghost story of sorts, that’s part of the 2017 High Performance Rodeo.
The site-specific production unfurls nightly at Legion #1 on Seventh Avenue downtown, right next to the C Train tracks, in a part of town some real estate analysts might also describe as haunted.
“The basic tropes of the piece,” says one of Trace‘s co-creators, Bruce Barton, “are drawn from ghost stories.
“It really is a ghost telling,” he adds. “So we’re drawing on the way that ghost stories move and the kinds of ingredients and elements that ghost stories use as the narrative tools as we put the piece together (at each performance).”
What makes Trace such an intimate piece of theatre is that the companies who created it – Barton’s Vertical City and Toronto’s Theatre Gargantua, (Michele Polak and Martin Julien, who also perform it) – incorporate aspects of their audience’s lives – or at least their recollections of their lives – into each of the stories that unfold throughout each presentation of Trace.
“In many ways, the show’s about memory,” Barton says. “It’s about the elusive qualities of memory, the way memory is full of gaps and holes, but also full of creation and desire and nostalgia – (in other words), not a memory for something that ever existed.
“It’s a memory,” he says, “for something we wish to have existed.”
“Our dramaturg on the production, Pil Hansen, is a specialist in the relationship between performance and cognition and recognition,” he says, continuing, “so she shared a number of ideas with us.
“(One was that) you never have the same memory twice,” he says. “Your memory is always evolving, you’re always constructing new memories of the things that you’re trying to remember – and so we’re really interested in that creative component of memory to recreate things – and also how incredibly significant it is that we lose memories always.
“Memory is always changing,” he says, “because we’re always changing and adding to it all the time.”
They also incorporate the venue. In Toronto, at the 2014 Summerworks Festival, where Trace was named an audience favourite, they performed in an art space that was a converted school classroom, complete with cloakroom and the original blackboards.
That first production produced some pretty creepy synchronicities.
“What we came (to that production) with,” Barton says, “was very much a story focusing on the relationship between parents and children – and in particular, decisions on the part of possible parents whether or not to have a child.
“So there was a strong undercurrent in the first production,” he adds, “around the potential to lose children and the potential to lose the future – and that’s something that very very much resonated out of the space we were working in.”
(Michele Polak and Martin Julien in Trace, at the 2017 High Performance Rodeo. Photo Bruce Barton).
Where it got weird was when the company created a storyline around a particular window, with a subplot of a child falling out of it and dying.
“We developed that storyline,” Polak says, “prior to learning about that actual boy who fell off that ledge from the window where we were performing.”
Cue the scary soundtrack – which is being performed – or interpreted – live, by Toronto’s Richard Windeyer who will call upon an archive of pre-recorded tracks to find the right one to set whatever scene the performers and audience hatch at each Calgary performance of Trace.
Barton even brought the artists to town a week early, so that they could research the venue, for hints of what direction it might force the story in.
“On (my) first day I was in (the) Legion,” Polak says, “I was able to speak to some members of the (Legion) executive, and in fact even the President.
“I often lead with heartfelt curiosity,” she says, “and people, therefore, want to share stories with me. And within three hours, lots of the actual ghosts of that space and the history of that space were very generously offered to us – and there are ghosts in that space (Legion #1).
“Of course,” she adds, “we were told very early on, that they are extremely generous, but we must be respectful of where we are.”
Julien, one of the show’s performers, puts it this way.
“I would say the title of the piece is a great modifier to any of the content of the piece,” he says. “It’s about traces of memory. Traces of love. Traces of story and narrative – traces – everything in the piece feels like a trace of something and it’s only as a whole, I think, from beginning to end, that it becomes something, I think, that is full. And present.”
Barton emphasizes that while the going can get weird for the performers, who interact with audience members to propel the story forward, it’s actually quite a gentle experience for the audience.
“The thing that makes it scary (for the actors),” Barton says, “is that one of our primary responsibilities is to keep the audience safe.
“We’re inviting them to participate in a way, on a level, that they’re rarely invited to in more traditional work where they sit in an audience – and we take that very, very seriously – so a big part of our job is – for lack of a better word – compassion training.
“What we try not to do,” he adds, “is scare our audience.
“It isn’t one of those kinds of participatory plays,” he says, “where you never know what’s going to be asked of you and you might find yourself running around in circles.
“This is a very gentle play,” he adds. “It’s participation where people are invited into it.”