Artistic Fraud strikes a national spark

Heidi Wicks
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Debuts electrifying play based on Michael Crummey story in Toronto

Locally born company Artistic Fraud has become known for producing wildly imaginative works of theatre featuring an inventive combination of lights and music woven with usually symbolic and thematic, but very human, storylines.

For the first time, they're debuting their newest piece, "AfterImage" at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre from April 16-26.

"Afterimage" cast member Melanie Caines shows the electrical sparks incorporated into the new production. - Photo by Justin Hall.

Locally born company Artistic Fraud has become known for producing wildly imaginative works of theatre featuring an inventive combination of lights and music woven with usually symbolic and thematic, but very human, storylines.

For the first time, they're debuting their newest piece, "AfterImage" at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre from April 16-26.

Company co-founder Robert Chafe said the decision to debut away from home is the result of a couple of issues.

"This is really meant to be shown at the (LSPU) Hall," he said.

The Hall is under repairs until further notice. Artistic Fraud hopes to make its Newfoundland debut in the summer of 2010.

"And the Harbourfront Centre has a commissioning program that we applied for about three years ago, and we were one of four or five companies in the country to get funding, and so part of the deal with that funding was that it debuted in Toronto," he explained.

The benefits of debuting the work in a large city is that a wider audience can continue to experience the kinds of experimental, yet still relatively mainstream theatre local companies are producing.

"Our dream for Artistic Fraud was always to be able to create work here in Newfoundland and be based here with artists here, and then to ship it out and away," Chafe said.

The cast and crew of this production are entirely from Newfoundland.

"There's also something to be said about having a full two-week run somewhere else before bringing it to our home audiences," he continued.

"It gives us the chance to work out kinks and tweak and fix minor problems if they exist for next year. And the national audience is important to us, because like 'Fear of Flight' (the company's last show), it's an awful lot of work to run it for two weeks in St. John's and then have it go away. It's extremely important for it to get more audiences for the life of the work to go on."

The process of creation

Chafe adapted the play from a short story (of the same name) by Michael Crummey, about a power linesman in Buchans who is accidentally electrocuted. As a result he is severely burned and disfigured. In his recuperation he meets and eventually marries a woman who does the laundry at the hospital (and also happens to be the town fortune teller).

"Within the town they become feared as a family of freaks, except for one of their children, who is relatively 'normal,'" Chafe explained.

"Michael takes the notion of belonging and normality and inclusivity and turns it on its head. This boy is in the middle of a family of unique, bizarre people, and because of his normality, doesn't quite fit. So he explores what connection really means."

"AfterImage" is from Crummey's second book, "Flesh and Blood."

"Jill (Keiley, Artistic Fraud's co-founder) had met Michael years ago and came back immediately wanting to turn some of his work into theatre," Chafe said.

"She had read this story and was immediately taken by it. She mentioned it to Michael, and he actually didn't get why it appealed to her in that way, and I have to confess I didn't at first, either. But like all good work, there's a real depth explored in his five short pages, and it has a tremendous amount to say about belonging and human connectivity. Like passing a spark, Jill had the idea of actually playing with electricity in the stage execution and it kind of flew from there."

A visual light parade

The actual production features electricity as a heavy metaphor, creating a visual lights spectacle. The set floor is made of sheet copper, the walls and floors are all lined with copper wire. The floor is negatively charged, and the wall is charged positively, meaning that making a connection between the two creates sparks.

"All the actors' costumes are threaded with wire and they have wire coming out of their shoes and from their sleeves onto their fingers," Chafe said, chuckling that there've been no Macbeth-style accidents on set thus far.

"Trust me, we've been working on this idea for a long time, and the idea is about the illusion of danger and the illusion of there being a lot of voltage going through this. But we've consulted with two electricians working on this - safety is of the utmost concern."

Because the set is so small and because the actors never leave the stage, it creates a very voyeuristic feel, Chafe said.

There is also a heavy musical element - like all Fraud productions. The company operates all their shows on a timed grid system - meaning every aspect of the show's choreography and blocking is based in time with and matches the show's score.

Jonathan Monroe wrote the original score for "AfterImage," and also designed a new instrument for the show. Shaped like a square guitar with strings, it's played like a harp.

"He calls it a Jono-harp," Chafe laughed.

"So these things actually live in and are built into the set. So when the chorus aren't seen, they're behind the set plucking this instrument, creating this really ethereal, mystical accompaniment to what's happening in the story."

Chafe references a theatre company called One Yellow Rabbit, which heavily inspired himself and Keiley during Artistic Fraud's early years.

"They just had a very frank ability to deny impossibility," he said.

"At best, if our shows are good, we not only want to employ Newfoundland artists, but add to an already stellar national reputation that people like Andy Jones have established, in referencing this province as an establishing place for new theatre."

Despite the impressive technical aspects of the show, Chafe insisted the goal was to remain true to Crummey's story, which is really about a boy and his family, and what defines a community.

The bells and whistles are just a way to amplify an already strong story, and an extra reason to head to Toronto's Harbourfront Centre (if you're in town, and to tell your friends there if you're not).

For more information on Artistic Fraud or "AfterImage," visit www.artisticfraud.com

Stay tuned next year for the Newfoundland premiere of "AfterImage."

Organizations: Harbourfront Centre

Geographic location: Toronto, Newfoundland, St. John's Buchans

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  • George
    July 02, 2010 - 13:18

    What a perfectly appropriate name !!

  • George
    July 01, 2010 - 19:59

    What a perfectly appropriate name !!