Jordan Tannahill tries to express the inexpressible in Declarations

DECLARATIONS written and directed by Jordan Tannahill, with Robert Abubo, Danielle Baskerville, Jennifer Dahl, Philip Nozuka and Liz Peterson. Presented.


DECLARATIONS written and directed by Jordan Tannahill, with Robert Abubo, Danielle Baskerville, Jennifer Dahl, Philip Nozuka and Liz Peterson. Presented by Canadian Stage at the Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley). In previews, opens Thursday (January 25) and runs to February 11. $39-$69. 416-368-3110, canadianstage.com.

Jordan Tannahill composed much of this new experimental work during an emotional flight from Vancouver to Ottawa. It was February 2016, and he was going home to see his mother, whod been diagnosed with stage four terminal cancer. With mortality on his mind, he opened his laptop and began typing a long list of simple declarative statements that captured potent memories, objects, events and ideas as they came to him.

Some examples: This is my right arm. This is the colour green. This is my bruise. This is you pressing it. This is the moonlight coming through the window. This is the smell of Windex. This is my mothers body in the shower. This is hot water falling.

The list first became an experimental film, but eventually evolved into a piece of movement-theatre, in which five chorus-like performers (Robert Abubo, Danielle Baskerville, Jennifer Dahl, Philip Nozuka and Liz Peterson) speak the declarations while improvising an evocative gesture to accompany each.

What emerges through the aggregate of words and actions is a deconstructed autobiography, but also a celebration of temporality, corporeality, embodiment and living in the moment, for the moment.

Its my life shot through the prism of each of these five performers and then refracted back in different ways, Tannahill says over the phone, citing the fragmented self from Sarah Kanes 4.48 Psychosis as one point of inspiration.

Tannahill, whose works have won a Governor Generals Award and multiple Dora Awards, sees Declarations as perhaps his riskiest venture to date its far more minimalist, elemental and less narrative-focused than Late Company or Concord Floral.

But this is crucial, he says, for conjuring the feeling and function of ceremony that hes after.

Theatre provides me with a secular space for ritual and communion, he explains.

From time immemorial, when weve been confronted with major life events, and the unknowable questions they present, weve gone to the temple to reckon with them. I felt compelled to make a ritual for theatre that expressed the complexity of what it was to stare down death.

Forgoing a conventional script, the five performers are governed by two scores, one containing the declarations they speak, and another laying out rules for their improvised gestures.

The text is set, but the gestures are spontaneously created every performance, so its a living show. Each time, the performers are rediscovering the gestures afresh.

Tannahill offers a glimpse of the inner mechanics of what he calls the gestural score.

The gestures should be a genuine attempt to communicate the essence of each declaration. Simple is best, no acting. Avoid dance-like movements. Avoid facial expressions… he reads.

To spur creativity, there is also a list of gestures to avoid.

No imitations of butterflies or birds. No finger symbols, i.e. gun, peace sign, middle finger. Avoid pointing at the thing you are referring to, its better to embody it.

Determined not to retread worn tropes and cliches of contemplating death, Tannahill, whose just-published novel Liminal was also inspired by his mothers illness, emphasizes fun, play, liveliness, vitality and lived experience, adding that not every attempt to embody the declarations will succeed, and thats okay.

Theres something very moving in our human attempt to express something that is inexpressible. How would I portray something like, This is cataclysm or This is post-modernism? he laughs.

Theres humour in failure, and immense satisfaction in succeeding.

stage@nowtoronto.com | @jordanbimm

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