news, updates, and conversations from Volcano Theatre

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Infinity's Assistant Director, Michela Sisti, talks about the challenges of staging the past & future on the same stage

How can you make the past and future exist at the same time on stage?  (And not confuse the life out of people!)

This is one of the most exciting staging challenges presented by Hannah Moscovitch’s Infinity, a play that both interweaves and overlaps moments from the 1990s and 2017 in order to tell its story of love and loss in the lives of a family unit.

One way is to populate the stage of Infinity with objects that outlast the lives of the characters in the play and remain in the Green family household across a period of years.

The Director, Ross Manson, has chosen to work with the visual motif of cardboard boxes, which evokes ideas of storage and baggage. These boxes are personal time capsules that become both objects of mystery as well as burdens to the characters in the play.  Elliot uses boxes to store his bottomless stockpile of physics calculations.   Years later, these same boxes are being sorted and sifted through by his daughter, Sarah Jean who is burdened with the task of packing up her parents’ empty house. Ross has staged a subtle moment in which the Sarah Jean of 2017 drops a file into a box and Elliot scoops it up the instant after it makes contact with the floor of the box. Neither character sees the other. Elliot and Sarah Jean are ghosts to each other, trapped in different times. 

Elliot, played by Paul Braunstein, checking his physics notes

The company discovered in rehearsal that one way to avoid visual confusion during these moments of superimposed timelines is to juxtapose the energies of the characters that inhabit past and future.  So during the ‘Insomnia’ sequence Sarah Jean drifts through the kitchen like a sleepwalker and picks up her father’s old notes with the vagueness of a person lost in thought. In contrast, Elliot moves at a fast, urgent tempo as he storms from one box of files to another.  Normally, if there are two people inhabiting the same space the energy of one person in a space will influence the energy of the other. But in this staging, there is no cause and effect: it is clear these characters are occupying different worlds.

What’s exciting is that once the convention of past and future sharing one space is set up a director is then able to play with that convention.  In Ross’s staging, it slowly becomes apparent that the Carmen & Elliot scenes are, in fact, memories of the adult Sarah Jean of 2017. Ross accomplishes this in his staging by using the gaze of Sarah Jean.

During the transition from Acts 1 to Act 2, something strange happens on stage: the adult Sarah Jean suddenly turns around and watches her mother helping Elliot undress and get into his hospital bed in 1999.  Ross places Sarah Jean downstage centre, so when she turns around to look at her parents, we see her back: SJ has become an audience member like us, and a critical observer to the action in front of her. In order to strengthen the impression that this is a memory being observed, choreographer Kate Alton has SJ maintaining a clearly defined distance from Carmen and Elliot as she treads around the perimeter of the scene, her tempo once again different than the tempo of 1999.

The dance in Infinity, choreographed by Kate Alton

Something else the Volcano team has discovered in rehearsals is that the closer Sarah Jean gets to the crux of her “fucked-up-ness” about love, the deeper she travels into the memories of her parents, and the stranger the theatrical laws governing past and future become.   One convention this production relies heavily on is the ability of Vivien Endicott-Douglas (who plays SJ) to switch her body language from that of an eight-year old to that of a woman in her twenties as story toggles between past and future.   However, late in Act 2, as Carmen confides to young Sarah Jean that her biggest regret is not leaving Elliot, Sarah Jean retains the body language of her adult self. This creates the implication that the world-view Carmen implanted in her eight-year-old daughter is now deeply lodged in the adult Sarah Jean and is governing her life.

By pitting moments from these two different eras next to each other, Hannah Moscovitch endows us, the audience, with the role of critical observers. We are given the power to make comparisons between what we see playing out in front of us and witness how ideas are passed down from one generation to another

With this distance from our normal human experience of time – which we are so entirely submersed in – we are able to see that something that seems like a fixed law of the universe to one character, is in fact changeable, open to questions, and part of a much much larger story...

Infinity runs until Jan 29th at Tarragon Theatre. Tickets available here!

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