“At times it’s felt like trying to build a house with popsicle sticks and paperclips, but we’ve been ridiculously persistent and resourceful,” says Britt Small, co-director of Atomic Vaudeville’s upcoming theatrical event Ride the Cyclone.
Imagine six actors with complex choreography, a book of high-voltage songs, and bombastic writing fitting in a space smaller than your one-car garage.
Atomic Vaudeville is an independent theatre company from Victoria, BC that operates on a shoestring budget. For this show, they’ve been rehearsing in Small’s studio apartment of less than 700 square feet.
“Its definitely not stage size,” says Kholby Wardell, who plays Noel Gruber, a gay kid from Uranium, Saskatchewan.
Noel is the bitter pill, an antithesis to the gay kid from Glee. Think garters and stockings but none of the glitter that goes along with the makeup.
“He’s the only gay in the village. And, in a lot of ways, he’s actually resentful of the fact that people are so accepting of him,” Wardell says with a laugh.
“It wasn’t even that he was necessarily looking for acceptance or tolerance. For him it’s more that he actually wished that he could have suffered.
“He has this romantic idea of what it’s like to be human. [And that] suffering is what really makes a human being.”
Noel and his fellow choir-mates are thrown into the afterlife when the roller coaster they’re riding throws them from the tracks. From this musical purgatory, they are given the chance to communicate with the world of the living through song.
The motley crew consists of a carnival rat who bears witness to the choir’s plight, a fortune-telling puppet, a decapitated student who uses a doll’s head as a stand-in for her own, a carnie-deflowered lass of certain proportions, her controlling best friend, an exchange student and a piano-worshipping overachiever.
Vaudeville, the style of performances from which the theatre company borrows its name, is an umbrella term that includes minstrels, freak shows, or burlesque.
It’s often characterized by the use of black or inappropriate humour. Vaudeville acts were widespread before moving pictures became popular in the 1930s.
Many revivalists have seized the style and ethos for their own.
Atomic Vaudeville began in Victoria in 2004 and has developed a cult following of devoted theatre fanatics.
They are a loose collective of actors, writers, choreographers, directors, and set designers whose membership changes drastically depending on who is involved in any given production.
For example, they are currently mounting a Hallowe’en cabaret in Victoria called My Delicious Monsters and have a stable of other productions with different performers, directors and writers.
“Expect the unexpected,” says Wardell with mischief in his voice. “[Writer and co-director] Jacob Richmond has this way of keeping the audience off-kilter.”
With sets designed by Hank Pine (of the vaudeville-inspired Victoria rock duo Hank Pine and Lily Fawn) and James Insell (of the Atomic collective), the mood is one of slightly tarnished nostalgia.
“I spent some long, lonely winter nights [on the Jersey Shore] looking at all of these carnival signs that had the paint peeling off of them,” says Pine, who spent hours and hours with Insell making the new things on their set look old.
“We were trying to capture the idea of an abandoned carnival.”
Reception of the show has been positive, playing to sold-out audiences, whether during the current run in Vancouver or the Summerworks Festival in Toronto last year, to much praise.
For many actors critical acclaim of this magnitude and packed houses can create a stressful combination but the Do-It-Yourself ethic, along with the focus Small and Richmond bring, keeps them grounded.
“Jacob and Britt have this idea that if it isn’t costing you anything emotionally or physically as a performer it isn’t worth anything, says Wardell. “If it isn’t costing you something it isn’t really good enough.”
And they’ve had a lot of hard work under those school uniform belts. This is the fifth incarnation and sixth venue that Ride the Cyclone has been mounted in.
“We had to fit the performance into a 90-minute time slot,” says Small. “At one point, the play’s running time was over two hours and included an intermission.”
Two characters were cut and the choreography refined to establish clockwork perfection.
With this much tinkering, it’s safe to say that the machinations are in place for a good Hallowe’en romp. Though Ride The Cyclone has dark and twisted overtones, that’s not all there is to Atomic Vaudeville.
“One of the characters at the beginning of the show says that it is not a condemnation, but rather a celebration of life,” says Wardell.
“So it’s … maybe on the darker spectrum of things but there’s also a lot of joy and a lot of really beautiful moments too.”