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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Helen Lawrence—Dreaming in Art

Hrothgar Mathews and Lisa Ryder in Helen Lawrence. Photo: David Cooper
By Rob Weinert-Kendt

From its contrived sets to its stark lighting, from its stylized costumes to its still more stylized dialogue, vintage film noir has a vivid unreality that’s positively dreamlike, though it’s hard now to untangle whether our films resemble our dreams or vice versa. After all, what did human dreams look like before movies? Like paintings or plays? Or is this the wrong way to peer through the lens—should we instead rightly think of our time’s visual arts as renderings of our dream lives?

Canadian artist Stan Douglas has worked these borders for most of his career, staging and Photoshopping photographs that look authentically antique (his “Midcentury Studio” series) and making films meant to be experienced as live installations: Journey into Fear, a seafaring drama based on Eric Ambler’s novel that ran in a 15-minute loop, though with bits of dialogue randomly iterated so that the entire film played out over 157 hours; or Circa 1948, a “storyscape” which appeared at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, in which viewers could walk through a seductive, computer-generated virtual landscape of post-WWII Vancouver. (It’s also available as an app.)

The bifurcated worlds of Circa 1948—the posh hallways of Hotel Vancouver and the seedy backstreets of Hogan’s Alley—come to life onstage in Helen Lawrence, a film/theater hybrid in which actors are filmed live on a blue chroma key stage while their images, married with computer-generated backdrops, are projected on a scrim in front of them. The result is something like a film shoot as a piece of theater, with cameras roving the stage and actors using functional props, combined with a projected film that looks uncannily like its vintage forebears.

Though he said he wouldn’t count himself a film noir aficionado, Douglas said, “I’ve always been impressed by the inventiveness of filmmakers who worked in the genre. Many of the films were low-budget B movies, and the look of them was often borne out of necessity: We’re shooting outside at night, we have an hour and can only afford two lights. What are we going to do?”

Lisa Ryder. Photo: David Cooper

Helen Lawrence, created with Canadian Stage, was fortunate to draw from more resources. And while filmmakers, then and now, typically use just one camera, cutting together coverage from all angles into a seamless whole, Helen Lawrence is “edited” live, and thus has four cameras roving the stage. In rehearsal, these were nicknamed “A Cam, B Cam, C Cam, and Orson,” Douglas said. The first three stand at chest height, rolling back and forth and side to side on dolly tracks; the fourth is named for auteur Orson Welles because, from its vantage point “a few inches off the ground,” Douglas explained, it can be used to create striking shots that have the effect of “looking up into a scene, the way Orson Welles composed many shots in Touch of Evil or The Trial.”

For all its high-tech innovations, though, Helen Lawrence is intended as more than a formal exercise. With a script by screenwriter Chris Haddock which addresses some of the racial and sexual tensions of the postwar Americas, Douglas’ creation comes from an epiphany he had about the context that birthed film noir.

“The genre flourished during WWII and in the postwar period,” Douglas said. What he realized is that “the behavior of the tight-lipped tough guys and strong-willed femme fatales has something to do with the trauma of war, enduring hardships at home and experiencing or inflicting violence abroad. Under these circumstances people will often develop personas as defensive mechanisms to protect them from further trauma.”

The gap between this protective role-playing and flesh-and-blood human interactions is the liminal space conjured and occupied by Douglas’ work. “This separation is much like what happens constantly in Helen Lawrence,” he said. “At the same time that characters are appearing in spectacular images on screen, we always see their fragile human bodies onstage.”

At one key point, as if to emphasize this disparity, the projected film drops out altogether and we see an actor in desperation knock on a real door. Much as film noir’s distinctive look arose from necessity, this stage-only moment arose from a technical challenge (“The actors can touch props but they can’t touch the virtual sets,” Douglas explained). But also like noir’s high-contrast cinematography, it is an aesthetic choice now invested with meaning. As Douglas put it: “Whenever a character’s sense of reality is being disrupted by an event, the projection gives way to the stage.”

Helen Lawrence comes to the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House October 14—17, and tickets are still available.

Rob Weinert-Kendt is editor-in-chief of American Theatre magazine.
Reprinted from Sep 2015 BAMbill.

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