TRANSFORMING FAKE MOUNTAINS AND FLYING GOLFBALLS INTO LIVE MULTIDISCIPLINARY ART
In Calgary, oil-rich and ripe with the young and transient, it’s common to see art venues swell with life propelled by the initial excitement, then subsequently fizzle out as boredom trumps momentum.
Mark Lawes, the artistic director of Calgary’s Theatre Junction, was in one such dilemma when after a taxing 14 years developing his company of multidisciplinary artists, Theatre Junction lost its space at the Betty Mitchell Theatre in the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium.
“I started to question continuing on with the theatre,” Lawes said. “The problem with Calgary, is you’ll see visual arts centres around for a few years, then no one supports them and they disappear. Why should taxpayers pay for culture?”
As fate would have it, Lawes heard rumours that historic The Grand Theatre – which at the time, was being exploited by yellow and purple clad retirees looking to perfect their golf swing in what had become an indoor driving range – was scheduled to be demolished and concreted over into what would likely be an over-priced parkade.
“There was this cheesy, fake mountain scene, bad lighting and people hitting golf balls,” Lawes said with a grimace. “For a place that was once so culturally significant, it was weird to see. I got fired up about saving the building, and I knew the city wasn’t prepared to save it at the time.”
On top of a large donation made by Calgary philanthropist Jackie Flanagan, Lawes and his small team at Theatre Junction raised a total of $12 million to adopt The Grand. Intent on recreating the space while maintaining its architectural integrity, Lawes tore almost everything out except for the building’s original flooring, which Lawes described as “a map of the past.” The ceiling and walls, though extensively refurbished, showcase exposed stretches of ornate gold trim and blue-green plaster, which capture snapshots of The Grand’s rich history.
“In a way, we were fortunate that it was falling apart so we could remix it into a contemporary space,” Lawes explained. “While The Grand is very symbolically important because it reflects the past, it’s not a museum. It’s not about preserving its history – it has a history, but it also is a forward-looking and thinking space.”
Rewind 100 years. Calgary wasn’t yet swathed in steel trunks, polished stone and hard, grey vines characteristic of concrete jungles and urban sprawl wasn’t even a thing – it was a time when Calgary really was just a cow town. When Senator James Lougheed built The Grand in 1912, Canada’s clamor for live theatre quickly ignited the warm brick and sandstone building into the biggest theatre stage in the country.
Luminaries from across the world – including renowned French actress Sarah Bernhardt, Broadway star Fred Astaire and the comedic Marx Brothers – flocked to Calgary’s core to perform in front of packed houses, which boasted audiences of close to 2,000. Dubbed Canada’s “original culture house,” The Grand was also a speaking venue for the country’s most influential politicians and social activists such as Nellie McClung and former Prime Minister Robert Borden.
But with the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s, grandeur and live art itself was snuffed out, leaving The Grand no longer representative of its regal title. Shortly after, it was remodeled into a movie house, and 50 years later, an even lower stoop – the indoor driving range.
Since purchasing it in 2005, Lawes has breathed new life into The Grand’s dusty lungs while restoring the stage to its original purpose: a venue for live art performance. An actor-cum-visual artist, Lawes original vision was to interpret theatre, but after working with and observing the work of artists, choreographers and musicians from around the world, Lawes noticed how “homogenous original theatres in Canada were in their programs” (he’s not lying – when are people going to get over The Nutcracker?) and fervently pursued developing a new era of theatre through multidisciplinary live art.
“I started to notice our audiences getting older and older,” Lawes said with a laugh. “I wanted to create a space for a new public, and at the same time think about reinventing the idea of what the theatre means, and what a cultural space is. With multidisciplinary work, there’s no one truth or one way to do something.”
Lawes’ more recent shows incorporate media contemporary dance, literary art and intermittent video and sound clips to create “performance hybrids,” which break free from traditional narratives where the artists are expected to play specific characters. Inspired by communication philosopher Marshall McLuhan and his astute prediction of the imminent global village, as well as Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, Lawes’ shows assess how themes such as post-colonial identity, the impacts of private enterprise and the relationship between death and desire, manifest themselves in today’s society.
“We’re inspired by many different things, but most of it is around the idea of how this hyper-accelerated culture is changing how we see the world and how we relate to each other,” Lawes explained. “There’s always a screen between us, so we try to focus on the isolation involved in these mediated relationships.”
Theatre Junction is also one of the few Canadian theatre companies involved in national and international performances, recently hosting a company from Amsterdam and preparing for another from Italy. While Lawes has had success partnering with like-minded organizations such as PuSh International Performing Arts Festival in Vancouver, the Calgary Fluid Festival and the High Performance Rodeo, Lawes admitted it’s been a struggle appealing to more conservative audiences.
“It’s hard trying to find a place in Calgary where these different disciplines can cross,” Lawes said. “People aren’t used to this kind of work onstage. They might not like what they see and for me, that’s fine. I’m an artist, not a teacher. I’m not telling the audience what to think, I’m asking them to be actively involved in the interpretation.”
But for the many Calgarians who have already embraced this new wave of multidisciplinary live art, a sneak peek of Lawes’ next piece – yet to be named – can be seen this November (“Presenting work in progress is an important part of the process,” Lawes added). In May 2014, Lawes’ piece Somewhere Between Now and When the Sun Goes Supernova, which focuses on the increasingly relevant notion of “If I turn off the computer, I’m gone,” will hit the stage and hopefully go on to tour around Europe.
“I think with the new programs we’re doing we can uncover that missing underpinning to why the arts are important in a city like Calgary. There’s a lot more to life than supply and demand,” Lawes said. “But it takes time and patience to build up public awareness. All I can say is the art that we do is always provocative, and doesn’t tell you what to think, but gives you something to think about.”
By Anna Brooks