These are stories worth telling and being told as a gateway into the lives of people before us. Present-day artists tell the stories of the past in such a way that we can feel the past breathe.
By Ryan Sero
Published February 10, 2016
Have you ever gone back in time?
Don't answer so quickly. Don't get it into your head that you haven't, in fact, travelled back in time (or maybe even forwards; but let's stick to backwards for now). I haven't defined that yet, and I know you're thinking about wormholes opening up in space or maybe some kind of Victorian steampunk mad scientist stepping into an electrically-charged zeppelin and flying into the past, but that's not what I mean.
There's a really interesting passage near the beginning of The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. In this passage, the time traveller (he never gets a name) says this:
... if I am recalling an incident very vividly I go back to the instant of its occurrence... I jump back for a moment. Of course we have no means of staying back for any length of Time, any more than a savage or an animal has of staying six feet above the ground. But a civilized man... can go up against gravitation in a balloon, and why should he not hope that ultimately he may be able to stop or accelerate his drift along the Time-Dimension, or even turn about and travel the other way?
So, now you're thinking about time differently, and so now I should ask again: have you ever gone back in time? Or maybe I shouldn't ask that. Here's what I really want to ask:
Would you like to go back in time?
If time travel interests you, consider One Small Drop, a piece being created by Paula Grove and Kelly Wolf.
One Small Drop
"The stories we are telling are from 1900s, 1920s and the late 1940s," says Wolf. "I found a really great resource... it was a thesis written in the '70s entitled Young Working Class Women in Early 20th Century Hamilton - Their Work and Family Lives."
Wolf and Grove used this, and other, resources to start building a play about the women who worked at the Imperial Cotton Factory, the very place where One Small Drop will be performed. In fact, it will be performed in the women's washroom.
The story started on a very different road. "Originally I was interested in doing a piece about water... That is what lead me to choose the women's washroom as a venue for our piece. Somewhere there was water. Where we might have access to water."
Wolf explains that, once she and Grove started thinking about the project, the project changed, moving from being about the water to about the people who inhabited the women's room. "I think this is an excellent example of listening to what the space provides and working with that, rather than impose our will upon it."
Kelly told me a lot about the meticulous process involved in creating something like this - a piece of theatre that speaks from the past, but is anchored in the present. It's obvious that she has allowed the present, the space itself, to direct the work, but that doesn't mean she has ignored the historical roots of the piece.
"We started with idea that was initially inspired by the space. The voice of women is important to me. Because I am interested in research I gravitated very quickly to research." So I ask about the research and what that process is like. I'm told a lot, particularly about the alteration of history.
If we're getting a time-capsule show, how authentic is it or does it need to be? It's obvious that, to Kelly, authenticity and good storytelling are intrinsically linked, maybe even symbiotic, not at odds with one another.
"We haven't changed history - I would say we embellished it. I think that is what makes it a good story... I love to research and I can sometimes get bogged down in details - but I think those details are what add the layers. I would say they go hand in hand. I am very concerned about being honest to a story. If I am telling a story, people may believe that it is true so I don't want to have glaring inaccuracies. I fully expect to hear from someone who will tell me how it really was."
That's a brave step. It's quite a limb to be on, really, to take something that is refutable. Nobody could tell Oscar Wilde, for instance, that that's not really how one goes Bunburying, but a slip-up in the stories Kelly Wolf and Paula Grove are conjuring up could be disproven.
That's a good enough reason to remain true, but it is obvious that Kelly is just as interested in history for the sake of the art as for the sake of the authenticity.
What really strikes me over the course of the interview is that these elements of the work are not solitary components being manufactured and stuck together like some kind of do-it-yourself Ikea theatre (likely with a scene in Act III that just wasn't included in the box).
No, for Kelly Wolf, everything builds together, from the research and the space influencing the story to the story dictating the trappings and the voices, to the very devices and methods used to give those voices volume and contour.
"I was personally inspired by the site-specific project as an opportunity to use my own voice in a way that I don't typically express. As a way to expand my own practise of making theatre. Our piece doesn't give preference to the text in the way that some traditional theatre does. The soundscape is an integral part of the piece. As is movement and song."
She leaves me by telling me she's building a time machine. She doesn't say it literally, of course (she can't see into the future, can she?), but she says, "I hope that once you see this piece that you are able to walk around the Cotton Factory and imagine the many layered lives that had once existed there." That sounds like time-travel to me.
Now we come to my conversation with Peter Riddihough, who is part of the Sector N Collective - the group that is putting on The Memory Project. The memories here are Hamilton's.
The Memory Project
Riddihough tells me that the collective set out to build a piece completely from the environment they found themselves in - dedicating to the site-specific nature of the festival, and taking their inspiration from the stories in the Hammer.
"As recent arrivals to Hamilton one of the things we appreciate about the city is its rich history and distinct story. We felt we didn't need to go any farther than our new home for inspiration."
Like our other blog subjects today, Riddihough started with study.
"Research. I would say the goal of research for any project is to give yourself a firm understanding upon which to build, an understanding of who came here before, what were the circumstances, what were the issues, who were the people. If you have that grounding, the resulting work will stay true to the facts as we understand them or the spirit of a place."
What does research mean to Riddihough? It's not a cursory glance. In fact, it sounds quite exhausting.
"The phrase 'documentary approach' is literally true about our piece, it's how we started but it is not necessarily where we ended up... We began by doing research into Hamilton's manufacturing history generally and the history of the building specifically. We spoke to former industrial workers and even began to film them as documentary elements. We talked to organizations like Workers Arts & Heritage."
Once armed with this bastion of knowledge, the collective set out to mould a story, to bring out a theatre piece. It's not enough to just present information to an audience. We have lectures, TED Talks, and biography and history sections in libraries for that. No, this collective had to create a theatre piece using this research - the history - as bedrock: foundation. From that foundation, they created their show.
"The desire to create a compelling theatrical piece was very definitely the other shaping force in our piece. Central to our work is the question of how, when and where can live performance and movement interact with sound and music, and projection and staging. We definitely designed the piece around opportunities we saw to explore those questions. In the end we dropped any actual documentary footage from the piece and settled on using outtakes from WHAC's amazing archive audio recordings. Somehow the audio seemed to honour the stories we had begun to uncover as opposed to our footage which felt like appropriation."
The Memory Project isn't unfiltered memories or dry history, it's something to be caught in the middle of - a storm's eye view of the stories of Hamilton. Riddihough describes it for me: "It is a hybrid of many things, an exploration, a sensory experience, an interpretation. It's fun and unexpected but grounded, we hope, by a deep respect for history & place." It sounds exhilarating, capable of moving people.
It can't be easy to take stories from the past - from people you do not know and will not know - and trying to bring them forward into the present so that the rest of us can have a touch-distance vision of the world behind us.
These are stories worth telling and being told as a gateway into the lives of people before us. They are present-day artists telling the stories of the past in such a way that we can feel the past breathe.
Is that not theatre? To give to an audience somebody else's point of view, their mind and soul? Maybe it's not just theatre, though.
Maybe it's a time machine.
The Frost Bites Festival is the Hamilton Fringe winter festival of performances being held from Thursday, February 11 through Sunday, February 14 at the Imperial Cotton Centre, 270 Sherman Avenue North.
Frost Bites is Hamilton's first site-specific, winter theatre festival. The event features a diverse array of hot local artists (film makers, dancers, playwrights, choreographers, and more) presenting performance 'bites' throughout the building and grounds, promising to heat up The Cotton Factory during the coldest month of the year!
Seven artistic companies will perform multiple shows each day for a total of more than 30 performances each evening. The shortest show is three minutes long and the longest is 21 minutes. You can see all the shows being performed.
A Single Ticket is $20 and grants entry into as many shows as you can manage in a single day. You can learn more and buy tickets online.
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