What do a porn star, a terrorist, and a car have in common? They’re all the main character (yes, character singular) in UFV’s winter mainstage for 2019, Attempts on her Life. In the script for this season’s production, there are no characters, no assigned lines, no definite settings — the only certainty is Anne, and the fact that nothing about her is certain.
In rehearsal, the actors take turns reading the same lines, only mostly following the path of the dashes down the side of the page, the vague suggestion of where a new speaker might join the conversation. The practice is held in D105, a classroom which has been painted black from floor to ceiling. Heavy black and white curtains hang on rails, parked against the back wall, and from the ceiling, a heavy steel grid hangs, laden with lights, girdled by their wires and cords. At the front of the room, where a small audience will eventually sit, there are tables for reading lines around, and a row of boxes overflowing with books, clothing, and lengths of rope.
“Let’s try it with a little more energy,” says director Alexander Ferguson, “like you’re bouncing ideas off each other. Like you’re writing a movie together.” Other members of the production hold up lengths of rope in pairs, forming rectangles; it’s not clear from my chair at the front of the room who is an actor and who is a stagehand or a lighting technician. Their arms tremble with the weight of their impromptu camera — or maybe it’s a screen. “Keep her in frame,” Ferguson reminds them. The actors comply, and seem to be coming up with the story of a grieving mother from a war-torn village in real time. Like archaeologists, they seem to be uncovering her story, and their excitement as they describe the carnage of a civil war paints the scene with a sick green tinge. The her in frame, like in the title, is Anne.
Attempts on her Life is a piece of experimental theatre, now over 20 years old, written by British playwright Martin Crimp. It represents a break from mandate for the theatre department, which has long maintained a tradition of doing one classic and one Canadian work in an academic year. This past fall saw the production of Rocks, a Canadian play from the 1930s, so it appears that Attempts on her Life has overthrown the former rather than the latter. Given the recent history of UFV Theatre, this is unsurprising.
“We just aren’t able to do anything by Shakespeare,” said Raven Turnichetz, this season’s propmaster and second-year theatre student. “That requires a much larger space.”
It requires the kind of space that UFV Theatre was forced to leave behind at UFV North, the department’s former Chilliwack home, in 2017. This was presumably because the university was preparing to sell the property, which it would do to the Chilliwack school district in 2018. Though the move was announced in 2011 as a way to increase enrollment in the College of Arts, the university failed to provide a new theatre in the meantime, and hasn’t released any concrete plans to do so in the near future. In this extended period of transition, UFV Theatre has undergone a change not only of location, but of culture and identity, which has led it to produce different types of theatre than it has before.
“Rocks is interesting because it is recognized as one of Canada’s first multimedia pieces even though it was written in the ‘30s,” said sessional professor Claire Carolan, last season’s mainstage director. She explains that unlike traditional plays which centre around structured narratives, concerned with plot and character, Rocks came from writer Herman Voaden’s exposure to “ideas about a new kind of theatre that was a total work of art instead of just one person’s vision or one person’s idea about what the show should be.” Carolan considers herself a scenographer, not a director, which means she has more experience working with what some people might see as peripheral to what goes on on stage — the design of the lighting, the sets, and other parts of a play that make up the audience’s complete sensory experience. On more traditional sets, a director might enter with a vision which their scenographers would try to make real. On the set of Rocks and other productions that eschew this creative hierarchy, there is more back-and-forth, because different aspects of the show are seen as more equally important.
This semester, Ferguson’s approach to directing takes this holistic, collaborative style to the next level. Ferguson came to UFV as a sessional instructor from the Vancouver-based performance company Fight with a Stick; a collective of artists that, as their website states, creates “hybrid performances for a hybrid audience” — that is, installations which combine acting, visual arts, video, music, and importantly, setting. In these performances, the end result is a product of collaboration without necessarily consensus about the meaning of each element. Similarly, he encourages actors and crew members to come forward with any ideas they have about the acting or staging of a scene; according to assistant director Luke Stevens, an 11th-year theatre student, the similarities between Rocks and Attempts on her Life haven’t been intentional, and the plays have been “completely separate entities.” So while these productions represent an unconventional, new direction for UFV Theatre, they’re clearly not anomalies. Rather, they signal a shift in the character of theatre at UFV.
Stevens emphasized the importance to UFV’s production of Attempts on her Life of object ontology — simply put, it is the idea that objects are incapable of lying, but that humans distort them when we interact with them. For example, a pen can look sad when it has been left alone on a desk in an empty classroom, or it can look angry when it clatters to the floor after being thrown. Neither of these emotions are inherent to the object, and because the emotions aren’t objective, they stand to be interpreted by every person in different ways. Watching as the cast and crew seem to interrogate their relationships to the objects they’re using on stage, it’s hard not to think about their relationship to D105. They use a mannequin like a woman, but it’s not a woman. They use rope like a frame, but it’s not a frame. They use D105 like a theatre, but it’s not a theatre. How would it be different, I wonder, to watch Attempts on her Life if it were?
Ultimately, says Ferguson, Attempts on her Life is a search for identity — the players, he explains, are trying to locate Anne, who is actually absent as an active character in the show. She might be represented, but only in the way that others see her — through a lens, like the one made of rope. If they can understand who she is, he reasons, they can understand themselves through comparison. As they experiment with the props and the space at their disposal, in the black hole of D105, they’re trying to figure who she was, who she is, who she’s going to be, where they can find her, and where they can follow her.
And isn’t that poetic?
UFV theatre is conflicted; some, justifiably, mourn the loss of UFV North. Others are embracing the new styles of theatre necessitated by the limitations of the Abbotsford campus. Others — and presumably most — have mixed feelings, but Carolan says these feelings are turning to determination and excitement, describing the department as “a ball of potential.”
According to Theatre Student Association president and third-year theatre student Ian Wilson, these last and next few years shouldn’t, and likely won’t, be looked back upon as an embarrassing in-between phase, like when you move into a new apartment without unpacking all your boxes. Wilson is pursuing a Bachelor of Science, but his hunger for the theatre was stoked when he took Acting Skills for Work and Life (THEA 111) with Raina Von Waldenburg. It seems that for many students, it only takes one class to begin a love affair with the theatre department. Wilson, among many others, sees this as positive, and one of UFV’s unique strengths.
“I had the opportunity to see an auditions day to get into some programs at Simon Fraser and places like that, and I didn’t see anyone like me,” he explained. “Having people with no experience or different experiences with theatre coming in really allows us to find those diamonds in the rough.”
Carolan believes that the resilience of the department is, in some ways, “a double-edged sword,” because “If you cope too long by thinking outside the box, then the powers that be will say you don’t need the box.” But UFV still needs a theatre space. Outside of D105 and the adjacent green room, very little space is reserved for the department.
“Rooms that we use for theatre classes are quite often booked in between, like, physics classes, so we have to make sure that all of our acting space goes back to being [conventional] learning space again, and that eats up class time,” veteran student Luke Stevens said.
Previous to the move from Chilliwack, UFV enjoyed a deserved reputation as the home of one of the best theatre programs in Western Canada. On the UFV North campus, UFV put on large-scale productions and was able to host full weeks of constant performance, inviting other universities to attend and put on shows. In a room which can only hold about 30 people according to fire safety guidelines, this is no longer possible.
Furthermore, it’s not unreasonable to pose the question of whether or not UFV Theatre is adequately preparing students who intend to pursue careers in theatre; would a current student be out of their league in a sound booth larger than a repurposed overhead projector cart? How easy is it for a stage manager to go from working on a team of 10 or 12 to a team of 25 or more? While the fact that students continue to be drawn to the vibrancy of the program makes it clear that the instruction students receive is top notch, the material circumstances students learn under shouldn’t be overlooked, especially in a program to which application is so integral.
Because of the loss of the UFV North campus theatre space, UFV Theatre has changed, and Attempts on her Life is a poetic complement to the current state of uncertain flux the department has found itself in. The program has perhaps lost its previous status as a leader of university theatre in Western Canada, but it has also branched out into new areas of theatre, adapting to the limitations of the Abbotsford campus. The contemporary, somewhat radical approaches used in Rocks and Attempts on her Life may be only the beginning of a new, deeply innovative identity for the department, which will be able to include students from every area of of study. However, this identity should come to fruition in a proper theatre space, where students have access to the kind of facilities they can expect to encounter when they go out in the world, and where they can act as leaders to other programs.
“The title of the play is a bit of a pun,” said Ferguson, smiling. “They’re not trying to kill her, they’re trying to construct her, figure her out.” It would be untrue to say that the move from Chilliwack has been an attempt on the theatre department’s life. It is still strong, still growing. But recent productions have been such attempts, in the sense that Ferguson describes: attempts at making meaning, at bolstering the department, and at figuring out what it can become.
Image: Joel Robertson-Taylor/The Cascade