Breath[e] Taking

Steve Lucas adds colour and a few more seats to wordless show

BREATH[e] designed and directed by Steve Lucas. Presented by Theatre 2.0 in association with the Theatre Centre at the Theatre Centre (1087 Queen West). Opens tonight (Thursday, April 25) and runs to May 18, Tuesday-Thursday 7, 8, 9 and 10 pm, Friday-Saturday 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11 pm, Sunday 2, 3, 7, 8 and 9 pm. $12. 416-504-7529. Rating: NNNNN

Designer Steve Lucas likes to get down and dirty in his work. He shows up for our interview wearing a black T, the left shoulder covered with sawdust.Lucas has just biked over from Set Reset, where he’s constructing the set — you could almost call it the venue, since it’s going to fill the Theatre Centre — for Breath[e], which he describes as a play without words or actors, yet one that still tells a story.

He’s reviving Breath[e], based on a workshop production first mounted in 2000. That workshop quickly sold out when word of mouth spread about an extraordinary theatre experience in which audience members sat in a black box listening to the taped inhalations and exhalations of actor Jane Miller.

Lucas has created over 160 shows since 1987, and seeing his name on a program promises visual excitement. He’s designed big-theatre tours of 2 Pianos, 4 Hands and mid-sized regional shows like the moodily lit jazz show Time After Time.

But there’s always a visceral thrill in his alternative productions, from the huge lifeguard’s chair that dominated Never Swim Alone to the mesmerizing, spiderweb feel of Disco Goalie and lighting that transformed the Passe Muraille Backspace into a dreary English cityscape and later a sunny veldt for The Walls Of Africa.

“It’s tough sometimes to work in the trenches,” says Lucas, a fast talker who has no trouble speaking while putting a half-chicken lunch with all the trimmings into his mouth.

“They call it not-for-profit theatre for a reason, but I’ve been lucky to be so busy in those trenches.”

Breath[e] marks a big change for Lucas, who made an auspicious debut 15 years ago at the Poor Alex, creating atmospheric lighting for See Bob Run, the first Toronto production for the then-unknown Daniel MacIvor.

For the new version of Breath[e], he’s increasing the audience seating, up from 18 to 27 per show in a newly built box. Breath[e] clocks in — and he can be precise here, since the audio tape and the lighting cues are preset — at 31 minutes, 39 seconds.

“It’s a totally different kind of lighting design for me,” says the multi-award-nominated resident designer at Theatre Passe Muraille.

“I don’t have to light anything, but instead have concentrated on the quality of light itself. The only presence onstage is smoke, something that changes its shape randomly and that I colour with different lights.”

But if the smoke designs are haphazard, the colours aren’t.

They’re related to the seven chakras, points of energy in the human body, according to Tantric philosophy. Each chakra has its own particular colour, and the show maps a journey through the chain, with lights changing colour as each new chakra is reached.

When Miller, dramaturge John Delacourt and Lucas started working, they wondered how to structure a show with no one in it.

“With no linear story and no specific emotions, we needed some kind of blueprint for Jane to follow. We realized we could convey emotion with the sound of breathing.

“When we hit upon the chakra chain, we knew we had it. The seven steps trace an introduction, rising action, climax and denouement filled with potentially dramatic peaks and valleys.”

One of Lucas’s most remarkable feats was the conversion — for the 2001 production of another MacIvor show, Jump — of the Passe Muraille mainspace into a proscenium house, complete with picture-framed curtain.

Though the proscenium, which the theatre has used since then, continues the brick-and-steel-girder look of the older part of the theatre, the new materials are fake — Styrofoam and so on. Each time I’m at Passe Muraille, I touch them to remind myself that they’re faux.

And what about turning director?

“This is the kind of directing I feel comfortable with,” laughs Lucas. “No actors. Our inspiration is Samuel Beckett’s 1971 piece Breath, which involves a single breath and a garbage-strewn stage. It lasts about 35 seconds.”

Though there’s no performer to watch, Lucas thinks the show is still sexy and intimate.

“It’s like someone is breathing right in your ear. As an audience member, you can imagine that the breather is inside of you. At the same time, given the big, empty space you’re sitting in, you’re inside the breather, too, as in a big cocoon.”

And yes, admits Lucas, Breath[e] also works as a guided meditation that relaxes the viewers.

“But it has also inspired conversations about what theatre is and what it can do. At every workshop performance people walked out evaluating what they’d seen, talking about new possibilities for theatre.”

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