Stitch at Lennox Contemporary

Waiting in the lobby for the start of Anna Chatterton and Juliet Palmer's piece Stitch on Saturday night, I couldn't stop thinking "Holy Shit! I don't know anybody here!" Usually when I'm attending performance events in this city, 80% of the audience is composed of friends, acquaintances, former lovers, and past collaborators. However the sold out crowd assembled at the Lennox Contemporary gallery contained exactly three people whom I'd crossed paths with in the past.

I have a feeling this is in large part due to a kick-ass review the piece got in the Toronto Star. Though it was likely to the production's benefit in terms of ticket sales, I have to say I'm a bit surprised that the Star sent John Terauds (who normally covers classical music) to review the piece as opposed to a theatre or performance critic. In his less stellar review of the show in The Globe and Mail, theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck says that calling your company an interdisciplinary collective can be confusing for newspaper editors, as they don't know whether to send theatre, dance, music, or art critics to review your work. If this is actually true, then these editors need to catch up on the last thirty years of performance in Canada. Interdisciplinary work has been around for a while now, and if we're going to have any sort of effective critical discourse about it, we need writers who actually understand and have followed the development of this art form through it's history.

Besides giving me an opportunity to note the obvious lack of my artistic contemporaries, waiting for the show to start was a great opportunity to eavesdrop on the conversations of people in the lobby, who would normally get their culture at the Four Seasons Centre or Roy Thompson Hall. I often hear people berate "The Blue Rinse Set" who see work in less experimental venues as somehow unworthy of receiving or incapable of understanding our downtown- experimental-art snob creations, but I think these audiences are often underestimated. They may not always know immediately how to respond to a piece of work like this if they haven't seen anything like it before, but (especially with a set up like this, where the audience is constantly confronted by each other) it's fascinating to watch people as they process the experience of the performance.

Perhaps as a response to this audience, the creators of the project decided to employ the standard "House to Half, House Out, Blackout, Lights Up" cuing sequence that is almost always employed to signal the start in conventional theatre. After the lights come back up the three performers enter the space, and begin the show with a beautiful choral piece, accompanied by the sounds of cloth they are ripping as they sing.

Having worked in both stage management and Front of House, I'm convinced that this lighting sequence is employed, not because it somehow primes the audience to receive the artistic spectacle they are about to witness, but because it gets everybody to sit down and shut up at the start of the show, thereby making the jobs of SM/FOH's easier. I wouldn't normally make such an issue of the of lighting cues used to open a show, but in this case I felt a bit let down. I would have loved to have the piece begin more organically, with the performers simply entering at the appointed time, rather than using the technical elements to subdue us the audience, into being ready to receive the piece.

After the first number the performers move into the back space of the gallery and the audience (after a moment of confusion) follows them and sits in a single row of fifty chairs arranged in a circle. I have to give big props here to designers Sarah Armstrong and Kimberly Purtell (Set/Costumes and Lighting respectively) who have created such a gorgeous environment it could easily be viewed as an installation on its own without the performers. Armstrong dresses the three women in costumes from three different time periods and also uses sewing machines and chairs from the same time periods. I think the choice of having each woman seated at a different machine than the one corresponding to their time period (i.e. the woman in the most contemporary clothes is using the oldest, foot-powered machine) was likely intended to suggest that they are in similar positions then and now in their respective sweatshops of employment, however my experience was one of confusion about the choice, rather than giving me a greater understanding of the commonalities of their situations.

The three women sing and sew together, blending Palmer's beautifully crafted music with Chatterton's signature pun-heavy word play, as they give us glimpses of their individual threads. A few of the people I talked to who saw the piece complained about the lack of a cohesive story among the three, but this didn't bother me at all. Just being in the beautifully designed space letting the sound wash over me was enough. I do feel from a design perspective it was really a missed opportunity to have the women mime their work, rather than actually sewing real cloth. It would have been beautiful to watch reams of fabric pile up on the floor as the show progressed and if it’s ever performed again I hope they would consider adding this as an element.

Though I take issue with how they chose to open the piece, I have to give credit to the creative team including director Ruth Madoc-Jones for the ending. After their final song, the performers exit the space leaving us, the audience, to sit for what felt like several minutes before returning for the bow. Giving us this time, not just to digest what we’ve seen, but also to force us to actually look at each other as people who have just shared in an experience together was one of the best moments I’ve had in the theatre in a long time. Recognizing that even though I hardly knew anyone when I got there, that having shared this experience of performance together has forever connected us as human beings reminded me what theatre is really all about.

1 comment:

Ciara Adams said...

It was a pleasure to read your review of this piece. Myself and poet a.rawlings made attempts to see it and could not get in. I hope it will see another run in Toronto soon.

I particularly agree with your comments regarding the newspapers in 2008 not knowing who to send to such and event- that is simply unacceptable and we as artist should really start holding them more accountable.

I am glad to hear that you did not recognize other members of the audience. That is progress, and good for FREEFALL!

Ciara Adams