Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Near & Now: Refreshed & Refringed

By now, you’ve probably read this site’s excellent summary of the Hamilton Fringe’s return to form after two years of pandemic anxiety and shut-downs. If not, you should. It’s an terrific overview of what went right and what could be done better at the popular theatre festival.

I’ve been involved in the Fringe since arriving in the city in 2010. And, this year, myself and my company were returning to the stage with a production of my new play Whale Fall. Leading up to this year’s (sort of) post-pandemic Festival, I had a lot of questions and anxieties about what to expect, both as a participating artist and an audience member.

A lot of my recent writing on this site has explored my struggle for inspiration, the challenge of creating an artform that depends on community to stay vibrant and my feeling disconnected from said community when none of us have been able to gather with any sort of certainty. So, even as my company prepared for the festival in rehearsal–a familiar activity for all of us–there was still a shadow of uncertainty lingering over the tried and true.

There were only four of us involved in our production of Whale Fall: myself, director Aaron Joel Craig and performers Stephanie Hope Lawlor and Raymond Louter. So, we felt relatively safe during rehearsals. But as we approached the opening, with nightly crowds expected and the question of who would (and wouldn’t) wear a mask, my excitement mixed anxiety. On top of that were my usual worries as playwright and producer of a brand new play. How would the show be received? Would audiences attend enough for us to break even? Might this play simply be performed and forgotten like so many other Fringe shows?

In a real sense, my well worn anxieties were now in conflict with the fact that I (along with so many others) had drastically changed as a result of the last few years. I was approaching the familiar from a deeply unfamiliar space and it had me rattled. But these feelings began to dissipate on the night that our company moved into our HCA venue and we completed the Fringe right-of-passage of our tech rehearsal.

Raymond Louter and Stephanie Hope Lawlor in a ‘relaxed’ rehearsal for Whale Fall. Photo courtesy of Stephen Near.

That night, Aaron had completed the requisite lighting and sound cues early. As a BYOV, we had a little more time in the venue so Stephanie and Ray asked for a ‘relaxed’ rehearsal; a chance to run the show without blocking as they wandered the large black box space. Aaron bathed the space in the dark, underwater lighting wash used for our pre-show, and then allowed our two performers to simply play.

It was the most intimate performance of the show I’d seen up to that point. Both Stephanie and Ray, freed from the confines of the rehearsal space, found things in the script I’d never seen in the months of development. It was the fundamental power of two actors exploring shared moments together–moments of joy, pain and hope–inside an actual theatre space. It had been missing for me for so long and, finally, I was witnessing it again. At that point, I knew this show and this Festival was going to be different. I couldn’t approach it as I had in previous years.

That feeling was confirmed with the arrival of the Festival Kick-off days later. Taking place in the Theatre Aquarius courtyard, this was a chance to reunite with other theatre creators and audiences. After two years of virtual meetings, this time to physically reconnect was actually thrilling. Some people talked up their shows, but many others simply reflected on their pandemic time and the feeling of returning in-person. 

As I attended several shows over the first weekend, I abandoned my usual practice of handing out postcards to audiences in show line-ups. I knew our production was strong and I was confident audiences would connect with it. And that was enough. Instead, I focused on connecting one-on-one with the other artists and audiences I saw before and after the shows. Some I’d know since my arrival in Hamilton. Others I met for the first time.

I became intensely curious about what others had made or had seen in the Fringe. Collectively, our entire theatre community has been through a trauma. So, reconnecting with others, as opposed to handing out yet another postcard, was a much better use of my time. These efforts were rewarded. I was regaled with impromptu folk songs by performer Corin Raymond. I geeked out with actor Matthew MacFadzean on our mutual love of Star Trek. I commiserated with improvisers Paddy MacDonald and Steph Haller over Fringe tour stress. And I begged playwright Michael Kras to tell me how he performed his latest card trick on Instagram (P.S. – he didn’t tell me).

The team behind Whale Fall (L-R): Stephanie Hope Lawlor, Raymond Louter, Aaron Joel Craig and Stephen Near. Photo courtesy of Stephen Near.

I also managed to see some exceedingly strong plays. From SAMCA to Bulfinch’s Mythology, A Work of Fiction to Bookmarks; it was as if the time and distance of the pandemic had sharpened the creative spark of so many artists to a fine edge. Every show had something bold to say. Seeing that kind of authenticity after a rough couple of years was inspiring.

In the end, Whale Fall won the Critics Pick Award for the Festival. We were in the midst of our final show at the time of the Awards, so none of us were aware of this accomplishment until we got to the Fringe tent. Indeed, our last show had perhaps been our best with a sold out crowd and many from the audience staying behind to tell us how the piece had impacted them. So, the good news of the award felt like a surprising epilogue to a Festival full of surprises.

I’ve often said that working on Whale Fall, a deeply personal show, with the team of Aaron, Stephanie and Ray, was the only way I could have returned to creating theatre in Hamilton. Certainly, it was the best way for me to return to an artform and an arts festival with which I have had a complicated and tenuous relationship during the pandemic.

As for the future? Well, it’s good to be back.

Stephen Near
Stephen Nearhttp://www.stephennear.com/
Stephen Near is a freelance writer and educator living in Hamilton. He is a graduate of York University (BFA), the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (B. Ed) and the MFA Creative Writing program at the University of Guelph. He works at Mohawk and Humber College and is a member of the Playwright’s Guild of Canada and an alumnus of both the Sage Hill Writing Experience and the Banff Centre. Stephen's plays have been produced at the Hamilton Fringe Festival and Theatre Aquarius and he is completing his first fiction novel.

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