ARC Theatre premiered its latest production, Human Animals this week. This timely and provocative play about humankind’s precarious place within the natural world, by one of the UK’s most exciting young female dramatists Stef Smith will be performed in the newly launched East End Arts Space housed in the historic St. Matthew’s Clubhouse, Toronto.
Being a fan of ARC’s work, I wanted to know more about this production. ARC’s Artistic Director Christopher Stanton, and Set & Lighting Designer Nick Blais, took the time to answer my 5 Questions…
HM: Smith’s play is set in London, dealing with the environmental crisis, animal infestation, and how humans deal with actual/perceived threat. How does ARC’s production address these themes?
Christopher Stanton (CS): In the published version of the play, Stef makes a point of giving productions full reign to set the play in the city we’re in. We’ve taken full advantage of that. The city in our production is the Toronto of here and now – maybe a bit off kilter. And we’re in the East End Arts building in St. Matthew’s Clubhouse, which is on the precipice of Riverdale Park East. We’re surrounded by the natural world and all of the wildlife that calls this park home.
We’re treating the unexpected influx of wild animals as a sudden and unexpected symptom of the larger climate change crisis. We talk a lot in the room about how humans have a terrible history of presuming they can affect one part of a complex system – like the entire Earth – and somehow anticipate all possible outcomes. We talk about the fact that “wildlife management” is a myth. That we are part of nature, not outside of it. That all we might do to “manage” an “environmental problem” invariably feeds back into our own health and well-being. We’ve got an awful track record for rectifying the damage we do. There is a distinct possibility that humanity has evolved to be incredibly intelligent. Just intelligent enough to f*&^ up the whole planet – but not *quite* intelligent enough to undo the mess we’ve made. Like Smith herself says in the play, “No one said evolution was precise.”
However, the play also makes lots of room for learning, for listening – and ultimately for a deep sense of hope.
HM: I like how you mention Smith sets this up as a bit of a horror story. How have you and designer Nick [Blais] worked together to create this dystopian world?
CS: It’s been a lot of fun conceiving of the design of this one. We start in a room that feels airy and domestic, and as the play develops, we increase the sense of encroaching infestation, disease, and wreckage. By the end, we’re aiming to make it feel like the world outdoors has crept into the room with us – that the illusory distinction between civilized life and the natural world gets obliterated.
Other than that, I think I should keep the interview spoiler-free. Except maybe to say that the most frightening monsters are always the ones we are left to imagine…
HM: Once you knew the location would be St. Matthew’s Clubhouse, how did you begin to envision the overall design of the play?
Nick Blais (NB): We came in for a very quick site visit, Chris, Tammy (Tamara Vuckovic, ARC General Manager) and I, just to brainstorm a little. We talked more about the audience experience that day rather than concepts. How did we want the audience to feel/interact with the space and the performers? We knew we had to find a way to do this in the round. In true ARC fashion, we needed an intimate playground to define the space and create the world of the play within/outside of/all over.
Understanding the space is important for me. I came back to the Clubhouse later with my assistant Hans and we measured the whole place, created a 3D CAD model so I could build something inside of it. And did lots of drawing and math and experimentation to figure out how I could make everything I wanted to have fit. Once I get a few sketches I love, even rough ones, I start drafting while the concepts develop.
I want the audience to feel like they are walking into a comfortable home, with features that are cozy and welcoming. The set needs to represent recognizable conversational spaces, feel domestic and safe. The environment needs to change though – fuzzy feelings need to melt away as the play rolls on. The space has to become terrifying, the actors walled in, the audience trapped. The set needs to feel like just the wrong kind of thing to be surrounded by in a disaster.
HM: I quite liked your use of space and light for Pomona (a previous ARC production). Can you please expand on the importance of these elements in creating mood and tone for a production such as Human Animals?
NB: I’m glad you liked what we did with light in Pomona because I really feel like we’re using what we learned then to make Human Animals more intimate and immersive, but still dark and jarring like Pomona. I love to see light move and change: a set, an object, an actor’s face, or body. I find a slow, gentle movement (just as much as an abrupt violent shift, if not more so) frightening and unsettling. A bulb hung above a kitchen table is domestic. It violently swinging across the space is terrifying. You will definitely see some similar elements in Human Animals. ARC staples you might say, but used in a new way, in much closer proximity to the audience and to ultimately tell a very different story.
HM: In Human Animals, you have a great creative team. Can either or both of you discuss how this collaboration works from costuming, set, choreography to acting… for instance, do you all work together while planning; lots of back and forth?
CS: ARC functions as a company of Resident Artists, so there’s a real sense of family, a kind of creative shorthand, and a shared desire to create the best possible work together. We’re all very busy artists in our own rights, so when we come together I always think of it as being a bit like the theatrical version of Broken Social Scene or New Pornographers. (Or Voltron. Whatever you think is cooler. It’s that). As a group, we aim to make sure we’re all activated as full artists, with collaboration as a core value. Designers, performers, director(s), and stage management – many of us have a ton of experience with multiple disciplines. So it’s okay to stray outside your creative “lane” – in fact, it’s welcome. The shows always wind up being something much greater than the sum of the parts. It makes for a pretty raucous room at times, but it wouldn’t be an ARC show if it didn’t feel like it belonged to us all in the end. I think it’s what makes ARC a unique company in the city.
NB: The best thing about working with the same group of people as part of a resident artist-company like ARC is that you develop a shorthand with your colleagues in trading Ideas. I will speak to my relationship with Chris primarily: Chris knows that I’ll be combining lights and set from day one, that the two are absolutely equal parts. I know that Chris needs things to interact with, to change, flip over, rip apart, hold a candle (or a bulb) to. Understanding each other’s goals and tendencies, I think, allows us to support each other creatively. This is my 4th project with ARC and I like to think that Chris and I have a way of working that allows us to go away, work on things, come back together, work, go away, come back etc., each time bringing something new to the table and integrating what the other has brought in the meantime. It results in a dense final product I think. Where pieces have multiple uses, themes are touched on and revisited multiple times in the play, and there isn’t a wasted inch of space or second of time.
Human Animals continues on stage in Toronto at St. Matthew’s Clubhouse until March 16, 2019. Single tickets are Pay-What-You-Can-Afford, range from $5 to $50, and are available to purchase online.