In a clearing surrounded by sky-skimming Douglas fir trees, a grand horse-drawn collaboration is taking shape. Six Vancouver theatre companies have left the city behind for a North Okanagan farm, where they have been weaving together Everyone: a contemporary take on a medieval morality play. Each company has created a single scene for the play; each scene set in a caravan, pulled onto the open-air stage by horses. The seventh scene is the work of Caravan Farm Theatre's long-time (and outgoing) artistic director Estelle Shook, the host on the farm and the architect of this past-meets-present/urban-meets-rural theatrical event.
"I knew that I was nearing the end of my tenure here; wanting new territories to explore and thought we need to infuse the place with some fresh energy," Shook said during a break from rehearsals. "We need to connect in a kind of good all-or-nothing way to the rest of the theatre community in the province. And we just need an infusion of fresh blood. So let's just do something risky and wild and adventurous."
Shook was also intrigued by the 2006 Hive project in Vancouver, where a number of innovative theatre companies presented site-specific works in a shared space, for rotating audiences. "I was feeling a little bit like oh, we're so far away; we can never play with you guys. And I started fantasizing, 'well, if we could do a Hive show, what would it be?'"
Shook envisioned each scene dealing with a specific human instinct: sustenance, self-protection, self-assertion, mating, nurturing and herding. She then invited the six theatre companies to the farm, threw the instincts into a hat and each company drew.
"At first we thought 'herding' what the hell is this?," says Courtenay Dobbie, artistic director of Theatre Melee, one of the companies involved in the production. "What we started to realize was that the herding instinct is the desire to be part of a group." She and her colleagues created a scene dealing with peer pressure.
The work emerged over three years of intense days-long sessions - mostly at the farm - where all the writing took place. "One of the rules was 'no creating or writing outside of these workshops,' " says Shook. "It was supposed to be fast and dirty. So that no one felt like they had homework."
As the project started to take shape, the collaboration began to stretch beyond the boundaries of each company's assigned scene, with the ideas of each director/writer beginning to inform the others.
"It's landed in a clearer narrative than I expected it to," says Theatre Replacement's artistic director James Long.
"And in the end, sometimes you forget whose idea it was," adds Stephen Drover, artistic director of Pound of Flesh Theatre Company.
The result is a clever modern morality play, with themes that don't much differ from the historical works it's meant to emulate (most notably the 15th-century Everyman), but with contemporary references ranging from Lady Gaga to Google Street View; from pole dancing to Pepto-Bismol.
Everyone explores the challenges faced by a hapless Everyfamily - more The Simpsons than Shakespeare. There's the workaholic, birthday-forgetting, recital-missing father (Paul Braunstein) who pays closer attention to his office mates than to his children; the over-taxed car-pooling mother (Deborah Williams) who neglects her own dad, dying (or maybe not) from Alzheimer's in a nursing home; the teenaged girl (Evelyn Chew) discovering the joys and perils of sex ; the son on the cusp of puberty (Kyle Cameron) about to succumb to peer pressure by trading his long-time companion (a caterpillar) for some cool, hand-held technology.
Shook was tasked with blending it all together. For continuity and comic relief, she created the characters of Virtue (Dobbie) and Vice (Martin Julien) - who act as wisecracking and philosophical guides to the Everyfamily.
The project was rehearsed in parts: Each director got two days with his or her scene before Shook strung it all together less than a week before previews began.
It's an ambitious endeavour, no question: During the last full week of rehearsal, there were about 70 people working at the farm (not to mention the nine horses who appear in the show). With a budget of $200,000 - a bit more than a typical Caravan production - the show had to be delayed for a year due to funding challenges. Putting it off paid off: Caravan received a $50,000 grant from the Imperial Tobacco Canada Foundation last year, allowing it to hold an additional workshop, which wound up being key in terms of the script and company gelling.
Now, in the open-air, with the view of the mountains from the purpose-built bleachers and the calls of pheasants, crows and pileated woodpeckers punctuating the dialogue and live music, the actors play out scenes of heartbreak and hilarity.
Directing the first full technical rehearsal, Shook, nursing her 9-month-old daughter, projected patience, authority and calm - even when the assistant stage manager had to be sent to hospital with a leg injury after a crank spun out of control. "This is a patchwork quilt," she explained to the actors and musicians before they launched into the musical prologue. "And we're stitching it together."
Everyone opened Thursday and runs until Aug. 22 ( caravanfarmtheatre.com).