How one company’s brand of site-specific theatre is innovating performance art in Calgary

A lightshow atop the Marriott Hotel viewed through the glass floor of the Calgary Tower, a battle between gladiators in the boiler room of the Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts, and a 100-year-old house taken over by robots. These are a few examples of how Swallow-a-Bicycle Theatre is working to change traditional perceptions of Calgary’s performance arts.

 If all the world’s a stage, co-artistic director Mark Hopkins has, quite literally, taken the idea to new heights working in the realm of site-specific performance. Taking productions out of the traditional theatrical setting to 

Geneviéve Paré and Wil Knoll work with Swallow-a-Bicycle Theatre to take theatre to unconventional settings.

Photo by Justin Wilsonunexpected, non-theatrical environments all around the city. Swallow-a-Bicycle provides an alternative view of what theatre can offer our community.

“We’re always trying to give Calgarians a chance to have an adventure in their own city,” Hopkins says. “If you’re walking through a plus 15 on your way home from work and you see an acrobat hanging from the support pillars, your experience has changed all of a sudden.

“I think it adds a little bit of magic, and a little bit of adventure to the everyday experience.”

Working within Calgary’s theatre community, Hopkins and co-artistic director Charles Netto have traded the usual ushers and assigned seating for the unconventional – and sometimes unpredictable – landscapes, structures, and situations the city has to offer.

“Every show is like starting new,” Netto says. “There’s a certain amount of given things when you do a play inside a theatre, but with us, each time you’re kind of starting from scratch.”

November schedule

 “We’re always trying to give Calgarians a chance to have an adventure in their own city. If you’re walking through a plus-15 on your way home from work and you see an acrobat hanging from the support pillars, your experience has changed all of a sudden. I think it adds a little bit of magic, and a little bit of adventure to the everyday experience.”

– Mark Hopkins

Swallow-a-Bicycle is producing two new ideas throughout the month of November.

Eaves Drop: The Coffee Shop Show, which runs Nov. 12-17, takes place at Caffe Crema in the southwest’s Bridlewood community. Described by Netto as an “immersive theatre experience,” the production will have show-goers gather in a neighborhood coffee shop provided with a pair of wireless headphones. As the show begins, actors who have been hidden as customers will begin to work within a soundscape heard only by those in attendance for the show. Forgotten memories, a racing heartbeat, and the sounds of rustling leaves are some of the sounds planned to fill the headphones. Those there to simply enjoy their coffee can do so, perhaps totally unaware of the story unfolding around them.

In addition, Swallow-a-Workshop #8: A Fable Creation Experiment, run by Calgary-based performer Elaine Weryshko, is scheduled for Nov. 19 to Dec. 1 with the location to be announced closer to the start date. The workshop will see a variety of artists develop performances based on Aesop’s Fables, ending with a Dec. 1 cabaret for participants to showcase their work. It is open to a wide variety of performance disciplines, as Weryshko, general manager of Swallow-a-Bicycle Theatre’s co-artistic directors Hopkins and Netto, have taken performance arts from the conventional theatre setting to unconventional locations within our city.

Photo by Justin WilsonCalgary’s Springboard Performance, suggests that the blending of artistic expression can create the most intriguing pieces.

Challenges to alternative theatre

Hopkins and Netto say that moving away from the conventional stage setting has not been without its challenges, but that working with the unforeseen is part of delivering a richer experience to the audience.

One such challenge arose when a scene in the parking lot of an abandoned gas station yielded a run-in with police officers. The officers were unaware an altercation was part of a show. Hopkins says that while the police were convinced one actor was an unruly homeless man, the audience believed the police to be part of the act, with some members commenting on their authenticity.

Meanwhile, this past January, with permission from the Epcor Centre, two acrobatic performers on roller-skates made their way between a plus 15 connecting to City Hall.

“As you might expect, it wasn’t a situation the security guards at City Hall have ever dealt with before,” Hopkins says.

After being confronted by the guards and bylaw officers, Hopkins and Netto had to produce a letter of liability to the city.

“You learn really early when doing site-specific theatre the saying ‘It’s OK, we’re doing a play,’” Netto adds.

Collaborations 

Through their exploration of unconventional theatre, Swallow-a-Bicycle has collaborated with a variety of fellow Calgary artists. By doing so, they are able to compliment the differing styles of performance in which they work.

Weryshko, a long time collaborator with Swallow-a-Bicycle, says: “We like seeing people pull off amazing things in front of us because we appreciate it. When you see something in an old abandoned train station under the Calgary Tower, or a really cool dance being done up and down an old staircase, it’s like you’ve never really seen this grand cool area around you, and it’s not just the dance anymore.”

Most recently, Weryshko performed at Swallow-a-Bicycle’s 2011 Freak Show, as part of the 25th annual High Performance Rodeo. The event had quirky tour guides taking audiences to unusual areas of the Epcor Centre, where they were surrounded by eccentric dancers in a freight elevator, and witnessed the aforementioned boiler-room battle.

She was also the mind behind the lightshow on the rooftop of the Marriott Hotel, where she pushed her own artistry, but also pushed the audience to embrace the thrill of something different.

“There are so many people with a fear of heights. We thought, ‘What if we made them look through the floor?’ And that’s where the idea kind of started.”Calgary based performer Elaine Weryshko, will run the upcoming Swallow-a-Workshop #8: A Fable Creation Experiment, running from Nov. 19 to Dec. 1.

Photo by Justin Wilson

Wanting their theatre to dwell in the unconventional, Hopkins and Netto drew inspiration from several existing theatre companies including Calgary’s own One Yellow Rabbit, and Ghost River Theatre.

The two have also taken inspiration from Electric Theatre Company in Vancouver.

The name “Swallow-a-Bicycle,” is rooted in an Arthur Miller quote: “A playwright lives in an occupied territory. He’s the enemy. And if you can’t live like that, you don’t stay. It’s tough. He’s got to be able to take a whack, and he’s got to swallow bicycles and digest them.”

Supporting the performance community

When they’re not generating the next idea, Swallow-a-Bicycle is supporting the performance community by bringing varying disciplines together. Recently, Hopkins hosted We Should Know Each Other #100. The event began in Hopkins’ living room in 2008 when he would bring artists together to share performances, ideas and perspectives to strengthen the theatre community.

Since then, the event has grown large enough to fill the King Edward School with visual arts exhibitions, theatre performances, workshops, and a variety of other ways Calgary artists are expressing their creativity.

Allison Zwozdesky, co-creator of The Giving Stories Performance Group, says that through their numerous workshops, Swallow-a-Bicycle is always offering opportunities for creative minds to develop.

“What they offer is an opportunity for a multitude of different artists who are interdisciplinary, or who are into different types of performance art, to come together to improve their performance, which, makes theatre more enjoyable for everyone. It makes our community a lot richer, both inside the theatre world and out.”

jwilson@cjournal.ca