One of the unwritten social contracts that we inherently come to understand states that the elevator is almost exclusively a private, transient space. It's not the destination, it's the movement in-between: you step inside one to get somewhere you're actually going to, and any interactions with the strangers sharing that space are almost exclusively to be non-existent, or politely guarded at best.
So the idea of theatre being set in the confines of an elevator—in eight of them, actually, scattered across downtown, playing out in five-minute scripts—is a radical rewrite of that contract: suddenly, not only are we supposed to pay attention to each other in the confined space, we're specifically seeking out some unusual turn of events. The elevator becomes the destination.
The Theatre Yes-curated National Elevator Project (Part 1) spreads eight short works across the same number of elevators in the downtown core. This is the first of two performance cycles; the next, featuring another eight works, will debut in January as part of the Canoe Theatre Festival. Audiences meet at the Tix on the Square office in Churchill Square to receive a program with a map to all eight of the available shows. You can go in any order or amount you'd like; if seeing eight five-minute works in one night seems daunting, there's a pass that lets you spread them out over multiple evenings.
For such a radical take on site-specific theatre, one that's pulling in scripts from all across the country, the National Elevator Project had rather innocuous beginnings.
“I was literally sitting on my couch one day, and I had this idea,” Theatre Yes's artistic director, Heather Inglis, says with a laugh.
Of course, she's no stranger to site-specific theatre: Fringe-goers may recall the Inglis-directed Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat from the 2010 festival, which led audiences to secret locations spread around the Fringe grounds to witness theatrical vignettes play out where you'd least expect them. More recently was The List, which saw Inglis curtain off a tiny box of the massive Westbury theatre in white to bring us into an usual proximity with performance. That show featured Melissa Thingelstad, who's been brought on here as a co-curator—she'd been working on her own elevator-based project independently (hers will be part of the second cycle of performances in January), intrigued in her own way with the concept.
“Taking [theatre] into a site-specific environment, you're breaking a rule, in a way,” Thingelstad says, perched adjacent to Inglis in a downtown coffee shop. “Or you're changing the rules. And what fascinates me about that—and because I'm an actor, I'm obsessed with human behaviour and instinct—you change the rules of the playing environment, that changes the rules of the story you're telling, which is interesting, and I think lifts certain plays off the page in a really magical way.”
Inglis started reaching out to theatre companies to help her commission the works—”I had this notion that maybe I could get theatres to pay playwrights for me, to pay for the material,” she says—and found the idea more resonant than she could've possibly imagined. Now, there's representation from most regions of provincial Canada, and a dialogue between independent theatre artists across the country that wasn't there before.
Once the project started to coalesce, there were practicalities that had to be addressed. The logistics for gaining access to elevators took some preemptive footwork for Inglis.
“I tried to lobby some support for my company before I started conversations with anyone,” she recalls. “So I went to the Edmonton Arts Council, and I asked them if they could help us by brokering some conversations with members of the business community. I went to Workshop West—they had sponsored us before by insuring site-specific venues—and asked them if they'd provide insurance. They said yes, and so I went into the conversations knowing that I had those things in place, that I had some partners, some people who would speak for me who were bigger than we were.”
Inglis received some flat-out rejections, and some building managers that just never responded to her inquiries. But once one building came on board—in this case, Commerce Place was first to agree—the rest started to domino into place.
“When I went to the City of Edmonton—we have some buildings that are owned by the city—they said, 'Oh, Commerce Place was on board, well they've run it through their insurance and risk management, and they think it's OK.' So from there it became easier,” she grins. “Because 'If the City of Edmonton approved it … '”
They also offered a few guidelines to shape the artistic output, things they were discovering as scripts were workshopped and developed. “There's no template to pull from,” Thingelstad notes, with Inglis nodding agreement and adding, “It all has to be made up.”
What they came up with are their “Rules for Elevator Plays” which they've posted on the Theatre Yes blog. Some rules (“No emergency stops”) proved firmer than others (“Each play has three actors in it”). All the scripts are, in some way, about transformation, literally or otherwise: one of them turns an elevator into a nightclub, while another will bear witness to the declining relationship of two co-workers.
Audience proximity to the actors, of course, changes how that all gets explored. The fourth wall, more or less, can't exist; ignoring the audience's presence would insert a level of disbelief into such close quarters.
“One of the things we've talked a lot about is the notion of the fourth wall being part of the contract we have with each other, and we have in elevators,” Inglis says. “Somebody having a big conversation with their boyfriend, they're breaking up with over there—we know that the social contract is we're going to pretend that it's not happening. We're not going to intervene unless something terrible is happening, and even then we might not.”
Thingelstad notes that even the pace of storytelling is something they've had to consider in new ways, “And how you tell the story when your proximity has shifted so much. We've talked a lot about how, due to how close you are, you have to actually sometimes slow the story down, because there's so much information hitting you.”
“Because there's no model for it, I think there's this thing that happens in people's minds, that 'How could there be a play in an elevator?'” Inglis ruminates. “How is that possible in any way? That's not how plays work. Because in plays, people sit at one end in the theatre and watch people perform on the other side. But, no, we haven't done that.
“I think it's fascinating when we can see each other,” Thingelstad adds. “I think the electricity of seeing each other is another one of those rules that gets changed.”
Until Sat, Oct 27 (7:30 pm – 9:30 pm nightly)
National Elevator Project (Part one)
Various locations (meet at Tix on the Square), $17 – $25