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Taking Repertory on Tour: Soulpepper Begins New York Residency

Top: Of Human Bondage. Bottom. Kim's Convenience. Photos: Cylla Van Tiedemann

In what is surely the most ambitious initiative of the new season, the Toronto-based theatre company Soulpepper has established a New York beachhead during the month of July. The company has commandeered all the spaces at the Pershing Square Signature Center on 42nd Street, presenting three mainstage productions in addition to ensemble-created pieces, solo shows, readings, and cabaret offerings. It amounts to a pretty comprehensive introduction to a company that, only two weeks ago, took home five Dora Mavor Moore Awards, out of more than two dozen nominations.

The scenic and lighting designer Lorenzo Savoini, a resident artist at Soulpepper, says, "We've taken over [Signature] for the month, offering 12 productions. The three main shows are Of Human Bondage [by Vern Thiessen, based on Somerset Maugham's novel], Kim's Convenience [by Ins Choi, which subsequently inspired a hit sitcom on Canadian television], and Spoon River [by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz, based on Edgar Lee Master's poetry cycle Spoon River Anthology]. We're also presenting shorter-run pieces that show off the breadth of what the company does." For example, he adds, "I've co-created, developed, and am appearing in Cage, which is a kind of installation/performance-art-meets-theatre intersection."

Cage, which is based in part on the ideas of the avant-garde composer John Cage, has a rather unusual provenance, Savoini notes. "We don't have a director. Diego Matamoros, one of our seasoned actors, approached me about it; we found a sound designer/composer [Richard Feren], and we created it. We started with the set design in the room, an 8' by 8' steel cage with Plexiglas, with the idea of exploring John Cage. The title is a play on words; Cage's methodology for composing involved chance. He used the I Ching, trying to take the composing out of writing, to let the piece find itself."

"Basically, he continues, "we had the set in place and we built the show around it. Usually, you're interpreting a piece of text, trying to support the play through design. This was designed as a writing tool."

Also, Savoini says, "Diego is also personally interested in studying apes in captivity, so all three of us went to the zoo, spending the day watching the apes." This, he adds, led to "the idea of a cage as a metaphor, and the physical, mental, and philosophical cages in our lives became a kind of theme." Another thematic thread involves the teachings of Zen Buddhism. The result "feels more like you're walking into an art installation in a gallery. It changes from night to night; we want to allow the audience to take the visual and sonic clues we offer and assemble their own narrative."

The creative process behind Cage is indicative of the company's artistic ethos, in which designers often work organically with the rest of the production team. In the case of Of Human Bondage, for which he did both scenery and lighting, Savoini says, "We started with a 16 x 16 glossy red floor that the lead actor could never leave." The narrative follows the progress of Philip Carey, a young physician (and artist manqué), particularly his obsession with Mildred, a cockney waitress who subjects him to all sorts of psychological abuse; with Philip at the center of his world, other characters come and go, bringing furniture and props with them.

"The first scene takes place in Philip's apartment," Savoini says. "I brought in all the furniture as potentially required by the script, laid it around, and turned to the actor [playing Philip] and said, "What would be in your apartment?" He said, 'A couch,' and we brought it in." Thus, each of the play's dozens of locations is signified by the minimum number of pieces needed to define it -- aided by crucial contributions from the lighting and sound designers. In rehearsals, Savoini says, the decision was taken to have the rest of the cast create the production's Foley-style sound effects, an example of exposed theatricality, or what he calls "seeing the face of the clock and the gears at work." Such techniques, the designer adds, stimulates the audience's collective imagination: "Simon McBurney, who, along with Robert Lepage, is a huge inspiration for me, says, 'Theatre happens in the mind of the audience, not just on stage'."

This organic approach, involving the entire company, was key to creating one of the production's more theatrical moments, he notes: "In the play, [Mildred] destroys all of Philip's paintings. In the rehearsal studio, I said to the director, 'We could make a bunch of paintings that rip and are put back together.' Instead, we broke up into groups and each team got 20 minutes to build an improv around it, using props in the room." The solution that arose from these, involving an actor posed behind a picture frame, was far more satisfying, he adds.

Not every production needs this working method, Savoini is quick to point out. For example, Kim's Convenience, a comedy about intergenerational conflict in a Korean-Canadian family, is set in the store of the title and features a naturalistic set design. "It needs a well-thought-out space that evokes the family's store, just like a Neil Simon play needs an equally well-thought-out Upper West Side apartment."

It is, of course, no small challenge to transfer so many productions at once, especially since some of them date back a few seasons. In the process of recreating them, it was necessary to adapt them to the new space. For example, in Of Human Bondage, Savoini notes, "There was a central elevator that brought Philip up to the middle of the red floor." But by and large, the main challenges involved transporting the productions and getting them up and ready to go.

Savoini says that he has been a part of Soulpepper for ten years. Before that, "I was working at [The Stratford Festival] a lot and freelancing through Canada. Then Soulpepper came up with the idea of the company and asked me to audition." According to the company, "The Academy is composed of actors, designers, directors, playwrights, and producers. The curriculum aims to develop theatre artists who will, upon graduation, be ready to create, contribute to, and work with Soulpepper and other professional performing arts companies. Soulpepper strives to play a significant role in the development of future generations of theatre artists through the Soulpepper Academy."

In that first year, 2006, Savoini says, "There were ten of us -- seven actors, a director, a designer, and a writer." After completing the two-year program, he returned to freelancing, becoming Young Family Director of Design (a position named after the Michael Young Family Foundation, one of the theatre's funders) and resident artists. "It was a big scary to let go of freelance work and the directors I work with," he says, "but a lot of them are now in residency with us. Soulpepper is where I want to be right now."

For tickets to Soulpepper productions, please go the URL listed below.

WWWsoulpepper.ca/new-york


(14 July 2017)

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