Hamilton writer and theatre artist Stephen Near has spent much of the past eighteen months in a similar way to many other artists; questioning his artistic future and career.

Like many artists, Near wondered how artists and audiences could collectively come together to tell and share stories when physical interaction wasn’t possible. In the pandemic’s early days, he found comfort through a play-reading group with several friends, also Hamilton artists.

“I think Our Town was the first show we read,” he laughs, recounting the initial awkwardness of Zoom calls that everyone has come to know so well. It wasn’t until later in the fall when Near experienced Tarragon Theatre’s PlayME series that he knew what his own artistic evolution could be.

Near considers his approach to storytelling to be minimalistic, and has consistently strove to pare down theatrical elements in his work to focus on the story. After listening to the podcast approach of the PlayME series, he realized that his philosophy did not differ from this newfound presentation style being executed by theatres in North America; where plays were being presented as audio performances, without visual elements.

With the absence of in-person performances, it was only a matter of time before innovative artists developed new ways to keep theatre alive, which has included virtual and recorded productions. Radio plays first became popular in the 1920s, and more recently have found contemporary success through Spotify, Audible, Itunes and others.

Near was drawn not only to the flexibility of this approach; the ability to stop, pause and restart, but its intimacy; the ability to hear an individual’s voice through headphones, one-on-one, and the openness of sharing a story without being physically exposed the way one would be on a stage.

As a veteran of live theatrical experiences, Near was surprised at how easy the process of creating an audio-only production was.

“The technology is there,” he shared, “and it is so easy to use.” In addition to connecting with other artists for insights into the creative process, Near was able to Google most of the instructions he needed to create an audio-only production.

Since this realization, Near has created some of his most personal works; Whale Fall, which was presented as part of Hamilton Arts Week, and Creature, which is being presented as part of the Hamilton Fringe Festival through his theatre company, Same Boat Theatre.

“I wanted to explore the encounter experience,” Near notes of Creature, which was inspired by 1970s TV show In Search of. . ., which explored controversial and paranormal events, and the podcast Sasquatch Chronicles. In Creature, Near’s voice leads the audience through his personal obsession and experience with North America’s Bigfoot, with sound design by Luke Brown.

As theatres begin to open up, and capacities increase, Near is confident that Same Boat Theatre will continue to incorporate audio-only productions into their offerings. Doing so, he notes, allows them to not only be accessible, but contributes to his desire to present a “stripped down theatrical experience.”

“The pandemic has changed the ways we gather,” he noted, citing the increase of outdoor events and physical distancing. “And we have to change the ways we tell stories.”

Creature is available as part of the Hamilton Fringe Festival’s Digital Exclusives Series from July 15-25, 2021. Tickets are available from $5 -$20 via the Hamilton Fringe Festival Box Office.

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