Outside the March is getting buzz and new audiences by moving their shows away from traditional theatre spaces.
It’s in their name, kind of: Toronto’s Outside the March theatre company is thinking outside the box. Or, more specifically, the box theatre.
In a town crowded with hundreds of small, independent companies all vying for the same esteemed (and expensive) venues to stage their work, Mitchell Cushman, who co-founded Outside the March with Simon Bloom, has recently gained significant recognition and accolades by seeking alternatives to those established theatres. These types of productions are known as “site-specific.”
At last year’s SummerWorks Festival, Cushman turned a little-known, weird, and challenging script—Mr. Marmalade by Noah Haidle—into a sleeper hit by taking the story of a young girl and her adulterous, womanizing, and abusive imaginary friend and staging it inside a local kindergarten classroom. The result was magical: audiences were led around the classroom by the show’s narrator (a soft-spoken kindergarten teacher), as characters entered and exited by wheeling sets of cubby holes to and fro. An audience and critical favourite (and not just because of the complimentary juice boxes), the play’s cast won the SummerWorks Award for Outstanding Ensemble; Cushman won the Emerging Artist Award as director. After another success this year with the site-specific The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (and the Repudiation and Redemption of Mike Daisey) starring David Ferry, Cushman is inviting Torontonians back into the classroom for a remount of Mr. Marmalade, opening tonight at Holy Family Catholic School in Parkdale.
“Recently, I’ve had the most fun while I’m doing [site-specific work],” Cushman told Torontoist as he was beginning rehearsals for the remount, which will feature much of the same cast as the original, but will add Toronto theatre personalities like Philip Riccio as Mr. Marmalade and Julie Tepperman as the Audience Guide. “I think what I’m interested in is presenting theatre that really immerses an audience in the play, without going into audience participation. We’re still telling a story, but it’s a different way of bringing people into the story.”
“I feel like I’m at my least creative in a proscenium environment.”
That’s understandable. Theatre is an artform with certain rules and expectations: audiences come in, take their seats, the lights dim, they watch the play, the actors bow, and the audience claps and leaves. To Cushman, if you take the audience out of the theatre, then the rules go as well. In his unconventional venues, he also encourages audience members to break with their own habits, like leaving their cell phones on during Steve Jobs, and walking around the kindergarten classroom in Mr. Marmalade. Sometimes it takes a little encouragement.
“The way we begin [Mr. Marmalade] is with a kind of pow wow between the Guide and the audience, giving them permission to move around the space. We realized that if we didn’t do that then audiences, in their fear of disrupting the show, would not experience the show,” Cushman said.
This time around, the Marmalade team has had a year to decide how to immerse the audience in the world of Lucy, Mr. Marmalade, his assistant Bradley, Lucy’s suicidal friend Larry, and others. They’re playing with a bigger location, a longer run, and an expanded script. Plus, they’re adding extras like an audience height chart, as well as other fourth-wall-breaking moments hidden throughout the play, like Easter eggs for the audience to discover on their own.
Outside the March isn’t alone in this. Many other Toronto theatre companies have recently used non-traditional spaces for their shows, like the Tennessee Project, which performed in neighbourhood bars and restaurants, or The Woolgatherer, which took over an empty storefront.
And the interest in non-traditional venues comes at an interesting time, when larger companies are having trouble maintaining their buildings as a result of sometimes-sluggish ticket sales. A dispute between Factory Theatre’s artistic director Ken Gass and the board of directors over renovations even led to his unceremonious firing.
But for Cushman, site-specific theatre is a way for a young, independent company to “turn a hindrance into a gift.” Getting away from the usual venues not only saves money, but also enhances the play’s themes, keeps the audience attentive, ups the sense of unpredictability and danger, taps into the actors’ imagination, and engages the viewers in a personal way.
“The trick of it is if you can find a way to use it that’s not a gimmick. Ideally, it should make something substantial and make it more substantial,” Cushman said.
Chalkboards, plastic kitchens, scribbled pieces of “art”—these are all things you’d expect to see in a kindergarten classroom. But substance? We’ll see at opening night tonight.