Two and a half years ago, when Heather Inglis, artistic director of Edmonton-based Theatre Yes, and actor Murray Cullen sat down to dream up a theatrical installation called Anxiety, they had no idea their new work would open just a few weeks after a shocking American election.
But perhaps it makes sense that a cultural climate that breeds fear also incubates the art through which we can examine it.
Anxiety is designed to immerse its audience, allowing them to confront the many faces of anxiety face-to-face, as only live theatre can do. The project is a collaboration of writer Cat Walsh, sound artist Gary James Joynes (aka Clinker), and—count them—six small-scale theatre companies from across Canada: Northern Light Theatre (Edmonton), Theatre Skam (Victoria), Outside the March (Toronto), LoHiFi Production (Halifax), Curtain Razors (Regina), and Théâtre à corps perdus (Montreal). Each company contributes a ten-minute piece, in which the audience should “expect water-based haze, low-light and challenging content. Expect the unexpected.”
Inglis, who is both directing and producing, is well-known for The National Elevator Project (Theatre Yes), a series of plays written for and staged in working elevators. It was first performed in downtown Edmonton during the 2013-2014 theatre season.
“The NEP created exciting real-time, real-space connections between artists and audiences from across the country,” she says “[It presented] valuable opportunities for audiences to look outward to find links between themselves and other Canadians.”
To get the collaborative process started for Anxiety, Theatre Yes sent each of the six participating companies an object, chosen for its ability to conjure up a particular set of common anxieties, to act as a creative prompt. The members of Northern Light Theatre opened a parcel of human and animal teeth, wrapped in a lace doily. Outside The March received an annotated photo album from the 1890s.
“One big feature of the collaborative process is a thing we’ve dubbed ‘Artifact Dramaturgy,’” Cullen says. “For some people it’s their grandmothers wedding ring; for others it’s their first car or a ticket stub from that one concert they went to. … The point is that certain objects act as very powerful emotional touchstones for people.”
Anxiety‘s opening will be the collaborators’ first opportunity to work together in person, and each of the six companies has taken its prompt and produced a “very different take” on the theme of anxiety, says Joynes.
He has been working since September on soundscapes that he hopes will amplify the particular emotional arc of each ten-minute segment, while at the same time providing a coherent sonic through-line for the work as a whole.
“My approach for each script is very different,” he says, “ranging from elaborate modular synthesizer programming to mining sources like YouTube and appropriating and mangling music and sounds I find from there.”
A few of the companies have asked him to incorporate music from a specific historical period, but ultimately, it is Joynes’ interpretation of the mood and intended impact of each segment that has to guide his composition.
Though the level of coordination necessary to pull off such a production could easily become a source of anxiety in itself, Inglis, Cullen, and Joynes are eager to rise to the challenge.
One of the themes explored in Anxiety is its namesake’s ability to spur people on toward loftier goals.
“I think that audiences will leave this work in a state that finds them altered, raw,” Joynes says. “Most importantly, I hope that the power of this work might help to push people to be more open, compassionate, aware and curious of all the different states of mind and heart we are all living and feeling in.”