Theatre director Jennifer Brewin hopes to get Torontonians out of their comfort zone and into the seasonal tradition of outdoor winter theatre.
Jennifer Brewin has a piece of advice for Torontonians: “Wear a hat.”
Brewin is the artistic director of Theatre Columbus and director of the company’s holiday show The Story, a rare piece of outdoor winter theatre which opens tomorrow night at the Evergreen Brick Works. This means that it’s not only her job to create a play that’s good, but one that’s good enough to convince Torontonians to buy a ticket, leave the comfort of their living rooms, travel to the location, and go for about an hour-long walk around the grounds as they follow the action of the play. This, of course, being a city that doesn’t have a great history of coping with winter, it’s a notable task. Nevertheless, she has hope.
“For all those Torontonians who grew up or have relatives from colder places, I hope to call upon their genetic ancestry and get outside,” she emphasizes the last two words. “They can do it.”
The desire to introduce an outdoor winter season show to Toronto comes from Brewin’s experience at the Caravan Farm Theatre in British Columbia, which produces outdoor theatre year-round. A particular favourite in their annual season is the winter show, where audiences travel from scene to scene in horse-drawn sleigh. It was there that The Story was first created, written by her colleague Martha Ross in 2009. Ross is also co-founder of Theatre Columbus with Leah Cherniak; since Brewin took over artistic director duties the two have been “very insistent that I put my brand of artistry on the company,” and that outdoor, seasonal experience was one of the first she thought of. Brewin wasn’t quite sure how to translate that experience to Toronto though, until she was inspired by a family walk on Christmas Day that had relatives aged five to eighty-five come along.
“I thought ‘You can do it. You can walk in the snow.’ Why not do it in Toronto?”
While audiences will physically experience the play in a different way, the script of The Story itself also takes a new angle on a familiar tale—the Nativity story. Beginning in the Brick Works Pavillions (a covered outside space), and travelling through ten locations including the kiln room, various spots in the park, and the children’s court, audiences will follow Mary (Haley McGee), Joseph (Richard Lee), Herod (Rylan Wilkie), the Shepherds and the Wise Men (Lisa Karen Cox and Sanjay Talwar) on their Christmas Eve journey as eight choirs provide musical accompaniment during the transitions. A few unexpected guests might drop in, too.
“It will be chaos. There will be dog-walkers joining us. There will be young lovers who wanted a nice night in the park and we’re going to interrupt that. And there will be all these spontaneous acts of nature,” Brewin says. “The central idea is us coming together and telling the story, as cheesy as that sounds. If it rains, we’ll come inside and do a radio play. We’ll work around it.”
Unpredictable weather is just one of the problems that comes from staging a play outside in the winter. Lighting designer Glenn Davidson has had to come up with an entirely new plan that doesn’t require power outlets or generators (which are too loud for the serene setting). Catherine Hahn has created pop-up sets for each location that can be assembled and disassembled as if they were never there, and costumes to fit the period as well as keep the actors from getting the chills. The actors themselves have to adapt to rehearsing and performing in less hospitable conditions, like jetting from scene to scene, going through costume changes in the dark, and staying articulate when their mouths freeze up. Another annoying aspect? “If your nose runs and you have a kissing scene. Nose-running kissing scenes are bad,” Brewin adds.
And it’s not just the technical and performative aspects of The Story have changed to suit its surroundings, but also the tone of the play as well. Brewin says that the Brick Works has added a darker mood to the script, in comparison to its previous production in B.C. “There’s a sense of trying to find joy or something beautiful or some kind of communion or sense of community, with the backdrop of empirical forces trying to take over,” she explains, that is brought out by the story behind the Brick Works—where a group of dedicated, passionate people turned a decaying urban setting into a place of creation, community, and beauty.
Brewin has tried her best to preserve this sense of calm in the space. She compares rehearsals at the Brick Works to “having your big, loud cousins come over and leave their socks everywhere,” but it’s precisely the joining of the two forces—the mundane and the extraordinary—that excites her about outdoor winter theatre.
“Everyone is so proud of themselves for doing it. The actors, the crew, and the audience all share a secret, a bond, a kind of ludicrousness, because it is ridiculous. And they all do it together and all succeed together. That’s what’s important about it,” she says.
CORRECTION: December 15, 2011, 3:15 P.M. This post originally said that The Story opens on December 15. The December 15 performance is a preview. The Story opens December 16.