Anew Whitehorse theatre group called Open Pit is offering a taste of something new, fresh and unorthodox: non-traditional, devised theatre.
It’s all the rage down south, and under the enthusiastic leadership of Sam Bergmann-Good and Jessica Hickman, it’s making its way north under the headline The Devised Yukon Project.
Open Pit’s first work as a theatre company represents a return to Whitehorse for actor-producer Sam Bergmann-Good, who has been studying at Toronto’s Humber College.
“I have been given so much by the artists here that I wanted to come back with something to give them. I want to show people a different way of making theatre,” he says.
“So last summer I started talking with [Nakai Theatre artistic director] David Skelton about starting a young company working in theatre, which evolved into starting a collective to create devised theatre.”
Bergmann-Good then approached professional dance artist Jessica Hickman about the possibility of helping to organize the project. Both artists soon recognized an opportunity to pursue not only the creation of a collective, but to start a group that would become an established theatre company.
They hired four other artists, Sarah Moore, Shaun McComb, Adele Gigantes and Genevieve Doyon to complete the company, and the Devised Yukon Project Collective was born.
The operating principle of Open Pit – logically – is to be as open as possible, says Bergmann-Good.
“We want the process to be as open as the product. Not a lot of people have been exposed to the concept of non-traditional theatre creation. Basically, the idea is to eliminate the secrecy of theatre. We want the public to have an idea of what’s happening and to feel invested as they see the step-by-step.”
Besides scheduled “open studio” sessions, the group also uses its regularly-updated website, openp.it, to open the process further.
“Each artist writes on the website,” explains Hickman.
“They write uncensored posts on the blog, to give people a real taste of what we’re all going through. We want the public to see that [our theatre] is just humans in a room, there’s no illusion.”
“The idea is that, by having a ‘backstage pass’, people will be that much more invested in seeing a production through,” Bergmann-Good adds.
“Devised theatre really has an emphasis on showing the process as well as the product, and explaining how we’re working. The idea is to engage people, so that they feel like they have a stake in what we’re doing and creating.”
Designed with three phases from creation to completion, the collective’s work is well underway.
“This summer was Phase One, which was a pure creation and exploration phase,” says Bergmann-Good, adding that the second and third phases will be revisionary and production phases, respectively.
So far, the first phase has resulted in a play called Nowhere Near,which revolves around six strangers thrown together after being stranded by a bus crash in the middle of nowhere.
“At this point, we don’t know where we’re going with it,” says Bergmann-Good. “We have all this material and for the next two weeks we’ll be finding what works.”
This weekend, the company will show Nowhere Near to the public through three presentations at the Yukon Arts Centre. The presentations will include question-and-answer sessions afterwards, and the public is encouraged to give as much feedback as possible.
“Phase one basically culminates in feedback-gathering for the next phases,” says Bergmann-Good. “Audience feedback is necessary in order to figure out what’s working.”
He goes on to elaborate on what the show will be like at this point in the process.
“Right now it’s not a finished, full product; it’s in a state of development,” he says. “However, it is a show, with lighting, et cetera. And while we will be looking for feedback, it’s not like an open studio session.”
As for the show itself, “It’s not a comedy, but it could be,” he says. “It’s not contemporary American drama. It has stylistic, choreographed movement, song and choral text, and sometimes with physical action replacing dialogue.”
“It’s not performance art or abstract at all,” adds Hickman. “We want something that makes sense and has a plot. We really want people to feel like they can comment. We want to hear what they say.”
Hickman and the company are all working through an arduous creation process involving day-long sessions all week.
“It’s exhausting in a really satisfying way,” she says, “We’re training every day, and it’s mentally exhausting too, generating material and dealing with the group emotions, fatigue and frustration.”
As Bergmann-Good also points out, both he and Hickman have the additional responsibility of producing as well as organizing and performing in the show.
“It’s very demanding,” he says. “But we’re very lucky to have this chunk of time and very few limitations on what we can do with it. We’re so grateful and appreciative of the arts community and Nakai, who have been like mentors to us.”
The producer-performers hope to see the collective perform the finished product of Nowhere Near within the next year, and to take it afterward to Vancouver and Toronto. The long-term goal is to get into international touring and festivals.
Whatever their plans for the future, they appreciate the benefits of starting in a small town.
“People here are very giving and very supportive. It’s such a small community that you have to embrace everything,” says Bergmann-Good.
Along with community support, the group has received funding from Canada Council for the Arts, Yukon Arts Fund, and the Department of Tourism and Culture.
“If we’d started in Toronto, we’d be swallowed up,” says Hickman.
“But it’s great here. As an artist, who wouldn’t want to be supported to create and do something you love?”
Nowhere Near will be playing at the Yukon Arts Centre Studio Theatre on Friday August 19 at 8 pm, and Saturday August 20 at both 2 pm and 8 pm.
To read the artist blogs, give feedback or get for more information about Open Pit and its upcoming projects, visit openp.it.
Willow Gamberg is a former What’s Up Yukon intern who writes about music and other arts-related topics.