Back in Black

Look on the Black Hole Theatre Company’s (BHTC) Wikipedia page and you might be surprised to find out that they staged the world premiere of Departures and Arrivals in 1984, before it appeared at Prairie Theatre Exchange and went on to became a Canadian theatre mainstay. Now, exactly 25 years later, it returns to grace the main stage floorboards, this time not as an experimental new work, but as a distinguished alumnus.

Departures and Arrivals, which opens the BHTC’s 2009-2010 season on Nov. 17, was written by Carol Shields when she was still teaching English at the University of Manitoba, prior to being an internationally acclaimed author. For anyone who may not be familiar with her work, Shields later went on to win several literary prizes including a Giller and a Pulitzer, not to mention write many other plays, novels, non-fiction books and poetry which are now considered part of the modern Canadian literary canon. Her legacy lives on through her integral contributions to the arts locally and internationally, as well as the namesake of a Millenium library reading room.

Director Megan Andres had initially come across the script while she was looking for plays by female Canadian playwrights. Departures and Arrivals not only fit both criteria, but, moreover, also had connections to the BHTC and Winnipeg. Andres made the deliberate choice to break with convention by downplaying the slapstick elements and focusing on what she describes as the “heartbeat running through the play.” In an interview, she explained that her directing provides an ideal opportunity to utilize both the practical and creative sides of her brain, since the job requires her to coordinate both logistics and artistic direction.

And while Shields’ name perhaps looms largest on the marquee, the production will undoubtedly be the result of a unique group effort. Indeed, in sharp contrast to a novel, in which the writer ultimately determines the text’s presentation, the role of the playwright is far humbler. Beyond the playwright you also have a cast, director, backstage hands — a veritable entourage of people who have to put in a bottom line commitment for a show to come about. Think of the relationship between the script and the stage production as akin to that of a recipe and the dish served in a restaurant; you could have eaten lasagna your entire life without being able to anticipate this particular experience.

Departures and Arrivals consists of 22 vignettes, each of which takes place in public spaces where people are coming and going. The structure of the Black Hole Theatre itself has the benefit of having three-sided seating so that the audience is as deeply implicated in the context of each event as they would be if it were staged in a bus station or airport. In this way, the piece comes to say something interesting about the theatricality of daily interactions. Every audience member has undoubtedly had the experience of witnessing a dramatic interpersonal exchange for which they had no context; however, in the theatre, they can witness these re-enacted without the banalities.

In total, the script specifies seventy different characters, making it adaptable to varying cast sizes. The original Black Hole show used 27 actors; the first professional production at Prairie Theatre Exchange used six; this time around Andres chose to employ 11. The sheer number of parts means that each actor must to versatile enough to perform multiple roles without sacrificing any attention to each specific part. Anyone who has done theatre knows that this is no mean feat, but it also allows the actors an opportunity to really use their skills in a way which can be both challenging and rewarding.

Just in case all this talk of all the work that goes into theatre has left you feeling intimidated, it’s important to remember that all this happens so that you, the viewer, can enjoy it. Sure, theatre can be intellectual, complicated and beautifully nuanced — but it also happens to be fun. Like that meal you eat in the restaurant which involved hours of skill and labour to manifest on your plate, it happens so that you can experience for a few moments that heightened sense of reality and give yourself over to participation in a ritual.

In other words, dig in and we’ll see you at the show.

Departures and Arrivals runs Nov. 17-21 and 24–28 at the Black Hole Theatre, lower level of University College. Check or next week’s paper for our review.