Hands-on and Hyperlinked

When asked about his latest work, Headspace, playwright and U of M theatre alumni Mike Bell described it as a “play that feels like a surfing session — you get fragments of scenes, [ . . . ] pop-ups of different characters, and you get shifting tones — comic scenes — like when you are on the Internet.” While the play is named for a fictional social networking site, the structure is based on the concept of hyperlinks where “something in each scene leads to the next.”
Essentially this is a show inspired by technology’s influence on human connections that’s written by a self-professed technophobe and makes minimal use of machines — most sound effects are done by actors. Headspace would be ground-breaking on subject matter alone, but the really innovative part of the production is that it’s the culmination of a three-year pilot project for a new integrative method of teaching theatre developed by the Black Hole Theatre Company (BHTC).

The BHTC is the production arm of the University of Manitoba’s Theatre department and relies solely on student involvement. In a single season, the company runs three main stage plays in which students gain credit for performing tasks in all production capacities. To Headspace director Chris Johnson, “this program is deliberately set up to discourage being a diva” because it requires students to develop a well-rounded understanding of all aspects of theatre. He elaborates, “You’re better at acting if you know some of the other things that go into it — you’re certainly a better director if you know how to talk to a lighting designer.”

Johnson and colleague William Kerr took this hands-on approach to a new level when they first commissioned alumni Mike Bell to create a play specifically for the BHTC. The project began with a “parallel process” in which Bell, Kerr and Johnson taught courses on playwriting, dramaturgy and advanced directing, respectively, as they themselves performed these roles in creating the piece. At the same time, students from each course were partnered up to create and produce seventeen original plays in numerous venues. Kerr describes it as “a very ambitious and exciting time — a lot of work, but very rewarding.”

Over the period, Bell also served as the university’s first playwright-in-residence. Creating a script for the BHTC required him to work with criteria specific to university theatre programs and students. For instance, professional theatre companies prefer stage pieces requiring a small cast. By contrast, large casts are ideal for student productions, because they allow more people to get experience. As such, Headspace has parts written for 80(!) characters, to be performed by 30 actors in a plethora of storylines.

Johnson echoed this student-centric approach, emphasizing that “the parts are more manageable for university students: you can’t take five courses and play Macbeth, whereas you can play one of the leads in Headspace and still have a life.” He sees another benefit for students in witnessing a play’s development because it allows them to see scripts as processes vs. blueprints. For him, “you don’t really get a sense of how a play is put together by looking at a play by Tennessee Williams, because you weren’t at the rehearsals.”

The world premiere of Headspace is more than just the last mainstage show in the Black Hole’s 2009-10 season. It’s also the culmination of a theatrical experiment where instructors have chosen to treat working with students as a creative parameter instead of a limitation. After the show’s run, Bell, Kerr and Johnson will be making a presentation at a conference of the Canadian Association for Theatre Research about the project they’ve developed. This will allow other university theatre programs the option to import the model, the play or both. With this production the BHTC is actually at the forefront of a new style of education, whether or not other companies choose to follow suit.

For those who see the show, Kerr encourages them to “come in and see what happens because it’s not going to be like what you’ve done before.” Beyond anything else, this is one production that is entirely original.

Headspace runs March 9-13 and 16-20 at the Black Hole Theatre.