END OF THE LINE written, directed and choreographed by Patti Powell, with Darryl Tracy, Christopher Sawchyn, Heidi Strauss, Katherine Duncanson and Rebecca Hope Terry. Presented by the Algoma Group at the Theatre Centre (1087 Queen West). Previews February 16-17, opens February 18 and runs to February 22, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2 pm. $16, previews $12. 416- 538-0988. Rating: NNNNN
Think women and switchboards and your mind probably flashes back to images from Hollywood films. You know the ones, where two rows of working, gossiping women wearing pre-Madonna headsets connect wires while saying, "Hold the line, please." That's one of the motifs behind End Of The Line, Patti Powell's new dance/theatre piece about three lonely female switchboard operators in a small Canadian paper mill town in the 1930s.
Powell uses text, movement and filmic techniques to explore ideas like how Hollywood has affected women's notions of romantic love.
"If you look at the popular films from that era, women were trapped in these fantasies," recalls Powell, who grew up in a paper mill town in Newfoundland and whose own mother for a time worked on the switchboard.
In her research, Powell carefully studied a few influential films, like the Jean Harlow flick Wife Vs. Secretary and Anna Karenina with Greta Garbo.
"Women wanted to dress like the stars, wanted to be like these stars. But the reality was that life was shit, particularly in small towns. The men drank. Couples didn't have much in common.
"Valentino was not going to walk down the streets of Grand Falls and sweep them off their feet."
The talkative, exuberant Powell says there's a lot about telecommunications in the show. There's a written set piece about voices travelling underwater through cables to Europe. And she argues that phones actually reinforce our alienation. She alludes to Dorothy Parker's famous story The Telephone Call and the Poulenc opera La Voix Humaine, both iconic pieces about women waiting for their men to call.
"If I'd had the budget, I would have taken the piece into the future and everyone would have ended up on cellphones," she laughs. "But I would have needed 20 more pages and an entirely new set. I'm assuming people will make those links themselves."
The question of budgets is worth noting, especially since Powell's used to dealing with massive resources. Before returning to Canada a couple of years ago, she spent 15 years in Europe, working on the most extravagant art form around, opera. (She choreographed last season's Canadian Opera Company production of Peter Grimes.)
"I've gone from working in these huge, elaborate opera houses, with 15 people to do whatever I wanted, to searching the city for 1930s telephones and then asking stores to donate them for free publicity in the program," she laughs.
It's more than a financial adjustment to switch from big opera houses to the tiny, intimate Theatre Centre space where End Of The Line opens Wednesday (February 18).
"I've gone from the wide-screen long shot to an absolute close-up," she says, evoking the film metaphor again.
"The Theatre Centre is as close as you can get without feeling the performers' spit.
"But, hey, if you look at old movies, those close-ups were to die for."