RED MACHINE: PART ONE written by Brendan Gall, Michael Rubenfeld and Erin Shields, directed by Chris Hanratty, Geoffrey Pounsett and Christopher Stanton, with James Cade, Paula Jean Prudat and Tova Smith. Presented by the Room at the Lower Ossington Theatre (100 Ossington). Continues tonight (Thursday, July 2) through July 12, nightly (except Monday) at 7 pm. $10. 416-966-1062, fringetoronto.com, thisistheroom.com.
The one-writer, one-director play is so... yesterday.
Consider Red Machine, which boasts seven writers and three directors, each of whom has a thriving career of his/her own. Not only that, but the work's being performed in two parts, the first at this year's Fringe, the second a month later at SummerWorks.
Sure, it's a logistical nightmare to coordinate, but it's great fun for an audience hungry to see something different. Imagine an indie theatre version of Broken Social Scene and you begin to get the picture. Or rather pictures.
"I like that the ‘us and them' mentality is disintegrating," says Brendan Gall, one of the three playwrights involved in the Fringe half of the show.
"There's no sense of covering up your work so your neighbour can't copy you," jokes Gall, best known as an actor in East Of Berlin (not to mention those gum commercials where he gets splashed with water) and as the writer of Alias Godot plus one of the sections of The Gladstone Variations, another high-concept show that did the Fringe.
In a Bloor West café a few days before the show's premiere, Gall and writers Erin Shields and Michael Rubenfeld aren't covering up much.
"Yeah, sure, maybe we are inspired by BSS," says Rubenfeld, a busy actor and artistic director of SummerWorks, whose play The Book Of Judith just finished a run.
"The model of play development that began in the 1970s at the Factory/Tarragon/Theatre Passe Muraille is kind of stalled," he says. "Now there's a push to define what the next thing is. It's interdisciplinary, it's changing the way we make plays, think of audiences and think about collaboration."
Shields says the great thing about collaborating is that it takes a lot of the pressure off just one person.
"I'm not responsible for the whole thing," says the frequent performer/writer with Belltower Theatre (Goblin Market) whose brilliant 2008 SummerWorks play, If We Were Birds, is getting remounted at the Tarragon next season.
She also points out that most of the artists involved are roughly at the same level of achievement - "somewhere between ‘emerging' and ‘emerged.'"
Gall is co-artistic director, along with Christopher Stanton and Geoffrey Pounsett, of the Room, the company that's developed the work.
Stanton came up with the idea for the show, which loosely follows a writer named Hugo in a motel room. To kick-start their pieces, Stanton gave the writers different sections of the brain to inspire them. (The brain - think laterally, people! - is the Red Machine.)
Gall got the hippocampus; Shields got the primary motor cortex and cerebellum; Rubenfeld says he can't remember what part he got but that it deals with faith.
None of them knew what the others were working on until a reading of the first drafts.
"It was amazing to see the commonalities," says Rubenfeld, whose section is partly inspired by Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Latter-day Saints. "There's a lot of water imagery in them all. Religion crops up. Magic and mysticism."
Since that initial reading, Gall says they've tried to get the separate pieces to talk to each other - metaphorically, that is.
"Almost like the brain works after people have strokes," he says, "when one part of the brain that was responsible for language, say, fails and another part of the brain learns how to deal with it in some way."
Sounds pretty, er, cerebral.
Not so, laugh all three. Apart from a photographic display about brains that works as a prologue, there won't be much talk about grey matter in the show.
"But there are going to be dreamlike qualities to it," says Shields. "The music and lighting will ensure that things aren't as they seem."
"Oh yeah, and there's a picture of a brain on the poster," says Rubenfeld.
To research his section, Rubenfeld spent an evening with a couple of Mormons, an experience that he says blew him away.
"I didn't know Mormons had modern-day prophets. I was very jealous, because I wanted to be one - I wanted to know what the experience of being a prophet was like. Then I started reading about people being visited by apparitions and how that related to epilepsy. And I got to wondering if Smith was a prophet or just an epileptic."
His section of the play seems to stop, start, then stop and restart, with breaks suggested by subtle light cues.
"Well, my section is about faith," he says, "and that's what my relationship to faith is like - stopping and starting. Sometimes there's light and I can see the light, but other times it's full of meaninglessness."
Shields, meanwhile, has written a bravura solo for a woman wrapped up in a bandage who emerges from a bathtub and gradually reveals scripture on her naked body.
"I was fascinated by the idea of things functioning abnormally," she says. "I wanted to explore the different ways the body can be disjointed from what the brain is telling it to do. I now realize I've written the most difficult thing for an actor to do: speak text, with your body doing different things than you're talking about."
She says choreographer and former Toronto Dance Theatre performer Kristy Kennedy is helping out with solving those problems.
Gall says people shouldn't mix up this piece with The Gladstone Variations.
"This is multi-playwright, multidirector, but it's being performed in a theatre with theatre lights, and it's not environmental," he says. But both works have changed his idea of what theatre can do.
"I used to think theatre was good at spareness and simplicity," he says. "This is so not that. I'm thrilled by the scale of it, the chaos involved in this giant playground."
As for Red Machine becoming a money-making machine - forget it. If you consider every artist involved in the whole production, that'd be like cutting a pie into 18 pieces.
"And I'd defy you to split an actual pie 18 ways," he says. "It's just not possible."
Additional audio clips:
Gall on forming the Room and the Room's mandate:
Shields, Gall and Rubenfeld on being writers as well as actors and directors: