It’s hardly news nowadays when an actor disrobes onstage, giving an audience a glimpse at what’s underneath a costume. It’s another thing entirely when the theatre itself strips down to its bare bones.
For Canadian Stage’s production of THIS, by Melissa James Gibson, a Canadian playwright gaining popularity in New York City, artistic director (and director of the play) Matthew Jocelyn and set designer Astrid Janson did just that to the historic Berkeley Street Theatre in Corktown.
A stone’s throw away from the Distillery District, the facility located at 26 Berkeley Street was built in 1887 as a gas-pumping complex for the Consumer’s Gas Corporation. But in 1971, Toronto Free Theatre saved the building from demolition by taking up residence there. Over the next decade, a series of renovations turned the main building into what is now the Downstairs Theatre, with a capacity of 240 seats. The surrounding spaces are now workshops, storage areas for props and costumes, meeting rooms, rehearsal space, and the Canadian Stage offices (Toronto Free Theatre was absorbed into Canadian Stage in 1988).
Today’s theatregoers most likely know about the Berkeley’s status as a heritage property, but they’ve never been able to look past the risers and black curtains that covered the Downstairs Theatre—until now.
According to Jocelyn, the decision to alter the theatre came early in the creative process. “When we first started talking about what we wanted to do with THIS,” he said, “I spent a lot of time sitting in the theatre with Astrid Janson, the designer, and we just looked and I thought ‘I don’t want to put on a play here, I don’t want to build a set and do another ordinary theatre show, that’s not what the text requires. I think there’s something else in here. So we just started visually stripping it down.”
While it took no time to uncover the bare bones of the Berkeley, set builders spent about 10 days working to unblock eight windows, move out the risers, and cover the original floors with five layers of varnish. Along the way, the THIS crew made discoveries, like a section of the floor that once covered a revolving stage and writing on the red brick walls left behind by a previous cast.
“What surprises me is really how it surprises everybody. That we have been deprived of the space in this way forever. So it’s really nice to discover its bare bones,” Jocelyn said.
THIS stars Laura Condlln as Jane, a 30-something with a young child mourning the death of her husband alongside friends Marrell (Yanna McIntosh), Tom (Jonathon Young), Alan (Alon Nashman), and Jean-Pierre (Christian Laurin), a Doctor Without Borders. The script put Melissa James Gibson on the map in New York City when the New York Times called it “the best new play to open Off Broadway” in 2009. The dialogue is in Gibson’s unique rhythmic style, which mirrors a person’s natural, imperfect speech patterns. This aspect of the play is part of what Jocelyn and Janson are hoping to capture with their design.
“We wanted to say this play participates in all of our lives, and in the world beyond,” Jocelyn said. “I love the example that there’s a moment of deep tragedy onstage, and a bus is passing by. The world moves on.”
On a broader level, stripping the Berkeley Theatre of its theatrical tools and tricks (there’s only one lighting cue throughout the entire play, and the audience is lit the same way as the actors onstage) comments on the very idea of the word “this.”
“[‘This’] describes a very subjective experience,” Jocelyn said. “It distinguishes me from you. My ‘this’ is your ‘that.’ So it somehow creates a boundary between people. And yet, it can be boundary-less, because I can say ‘this’ and mean this little mark on my hand, or ‘this’ can be this fucking world we live in. So it’s extremely extendable as a notion, and that’s the kind of physical experience I wanted to create for the audience—a shared ‘this’ for a moment,” he said.
THIS is only just opening, but it’s already a memorable production.