Tuesday, January 26, 2010

PuSh 2010: The Edward Curtis Project

The Edward Curtis Project is a contemporary play that creates an unlikely dialogue between Edward Curtis and a Métis foreign correspondent named Angeline. Sparked by the trauma of witnessing a horrific event Angeline fears she is losing her grip on reality. She worries she is slipping from existence. A situation that is mirrored in the turn-of-the-century photography book by Edward Curtis called “The Vanishing Indian”.

Ok, so this is the one show in the PuSh Festival, where I know a couple of people involved so I jumped at the chance to have a Q & A session with both of them. Meet Brenda Leadlay, Co-Director, and Barbara Clayden, Costume Designer, of the Edward Curtis Project.

I first met Brenda Leadlay (also the Artistic Director of Presentation House Theatre) in the summer of 2006 when 20-Something produced its first show at the PHT. Brenda offered advice and support and has been doing so ever since. Before she landed at the PHT she was the Artistic Director of the Norman Rothstein where she founded the Chutzpah Festival and before that she was the Artistic Director of Tamahnous Theatre.

Brenda and Barb have known each other and collaborated together for many years but I first met Barb in the fall of 2006 (Hmmm...2006 was a good year) when I was part of Pi Theatre’s emerging artist production of Werewolves. Barb was my costume design mentor. She not only provided mentorship during that project but she was the one who introduced me to Donna Spencer (Artistic Producer at the Firehall Arts Centre) with whom I’ve worked with 5 times since then. So I can definitely say I would not be where I am today if I hadn’t met Barb. She went above and beyond and I can’t thank her enough. Barb is the winner of 5 Jessie Richardson Awards for her work as a designer with the latest being for Patrick Street’s production of Into the Woods in 2008.

Brenda, how did The Edward Curtis Project come to be?

I wanted to work on something with Marie, as we had worked together in 1995, so I asked her if she would be interested in a commission of her choosing. She selected the Edward Curtis Project.

What made you decide to produce it as part of the PuSh Festival rather just as a Presentation House production?

We knew it would be a good fit for PuSh and we wanted to be able to promote the show to other presenters in the hope of touring it to other cities in Canada and beyond. PuSh always attracts lots of presenters from Canada and abroad. Also – we knew we couldn’t compete with their advertising and that the show would get lost otherwise.

Barb, how did you become involved with The Edward Curtis Project?

I was asked by Brenda to design the costumes... and invited to do some of the original research in 2008... which meant going on this awesome road trip to LA with Rita, Marie and Brenda.

I wish I had been on that road trip! Since The Edward Curtis Project is based on a historical figure did you have to do a lot of research? How is the design process different when the character(s) you are designing for is based on a real life person? Is there more pressure to be historically accurate?

Yes... a lot of looking at pictures Curtis took, pictures of Curtis, his family and colleagues, and reading about EC's photographic trips.

As a designer, I get very inspired from doing research, either for historical projects or contemporary ones.

In the case of representing real people on stage, there is a choice to be made between trying to duplicate as fully as possible one particular image of them that exists and is known to the audience, or to represent the person(s) by giving a flavour of personality, occupation and era by the choice of clothing.

For "The Edward Curtis Project" I chose the latter - to represent rather than duplicate. The script is not a reenactment of actual events or facts... a lot of the play takes place in the imaginings of one of the characters, Angeline, so it seemed appropriate to hint at the kind of man Curtis was through his costume.

As a matter of fact, all the characters in Angeline's world are pared down to essentials in terms of their costume, with a muted colour palette, hopefully evocative of a developing photograph, or a sepia print from Curtis' era.

After having worked on this project where do stand on the controversy surrounding Edward Curtis and his photographs?

Barb: Certainly more educated on what Curtis actually did to get some of the photographs, more educated on the political and social happenings of the time and still conflicted between the beauty of his images and the methods used to get them.

Brenda: I think he did what the other photographers of his day were doing – taking romantic photos instead of presenting what was the reality – First Nation’s people living on reservations and starving. I think his vision was commendable and that his accomplishment was extremely significant. I think Edward Curtis makes us still ask the question as to why we still don’t tell the truth about the way Aboriginal people live in Canada today.

Finish the sentence.

Barb: Through the design of Edward Curtis I hope the audience… get a sense of a dream/unreal state of mind, a sense of the period in which Curtis lived and a certain timelessness where the past and present merge.

Brenda: I would be happy if the audience left the theatre… feeling like we are all responsible for what has been done to First Nation’s people and ask themselves what they can do to make life better for our First People.

Ok, now a little theatre biz talk. I’m so grateful and appreciative of the support, advice and mentorship I’ve received from you both. If you had one piece of advice for other young directors or designers what would it be?

Barb: To remember that theatre is a collaborative and collective art form, with many and varied artists working together to create a unified vision. And to never forget the magic of it all.

Brenda: To take the reins in to your own hands, as you have done Sabrina, and produce and direct your own work or the work of people you admire. I think it’s also important for you to find your own process so that your work is meaningful to yourself, your audience and those you work with. And it’s also important to keep asking yourself questions about why theatre is important and to educate yourself to the best of your ability about what has already been said and done.

The Edward Curtis Project plays at the Presentation House Theatre in North Vancouver until this Sunday, January 31st. Be sure to also check out the photography exhibit by Rita Leistner either before or after the performance.

(Photos: Tim Matheson. Courtesy of Ellie O'Day & Rebecca Coleman)

~Sabrina Evertt
Artistic Producer

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