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Stan Douglas’s Play on Two Sets

An iPhone app animates this production on stage and on (a) screen

“I felt like we should’ve had two more weeks of rehearsal,” says Vancouver-based artist Stan Douglas when asked how he felt on the opening night of Helen Lawrence, his first foray into live theater. “The show was looking good, but for the entire run I made weekly tweaks to the blocking and media.” Following its world premiere in Vancouver this past March, the play—a noir tale of love, corruption, and murder—traveled to Edinburgh and Munich. A three-week run at Toronto’s Canadian Stage starts on October 12.

Set in post–World War II Vancouver, Helen Lawrence centers on three characters: Percy Walker, a small-time bookie (played by Nicholas Lea); Buddy Black, the owner of a booze and gambling joint (Allan Louis); and the title character, a mysterious femme fatale seeking revenge (Lisa Ryder, who channels such sultry 1940s actresses as Lauren Bacall and Veronica Lake). Critics are praising the performances, but it is Douglas’s use of multiple cutting-edge technologies that has gotten the most attention.

FROM LEFT Greg Ellwand, Crystal Balint, and Allan Louis in Helen Lawrence. DAVID COOPER

FROM LEFT Greg Ellwand, Crystal Balint, and Allan Louis in Helen Lawrence.

DAVID COOPER

Helen Lawrence is staged against a blue screen that displays the play’s various settings. These virtual locations, including the long-gone Hotel Vancouver, are all adapted from “Circa 1948,” an iPhone app released by Douglas earlier this year. Handheld cameras operated by the actors capture the onstage action, which is then projected in real time onto a translucent scrim covering the proscenium. Audiences can see the actors performing behind the scrim along with close-ups of their faces pictured directly on it.

Despite the complicated setup, Douglas says the biggest challenge was getting the actors to deliver performances suitable for both stage and screen. “They couldn’t be as big as in a normal play, and they couldn’t be as small as in a film,” he explains. “It had to be somewhere in between.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 40 under the title “Behind the Scrim.”

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