Embargo, A Preview: Defiant Devised Drama from One Trunk Theatre

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By Michelle Palansky

I sat down with Claire Thérèse, Associate Artist of One Trunk Theatre to discuss her upcoming workshop presentation of Embargo. Before we go any further, let’s unpack.

One Trunk Theatre is a local company, headed by artistic director Andraea Sartison, which specializes in interdisciplinary collaborations with a wide range of artists from different mediums including graphic artists, dancers, videographers, musicians. Some of their best known pieces include I Dream of Diesel inspired by the music of Scott Nolan, and Hamlet as Told on the Streets based on Shel Silverstein’s version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

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Embargo is One Trunk Theatre’s spring presentation of a work-in-progress. After each performance, (May 3, May 5, May 6, and May 13 as part of the Carol Shields Festival) the actors will turn to the audience for feedback on their devised theatrical presentation.

So what is devised theatre when it’s at home? It is another word for collaborative theatre, a group of artists who come together, brainstorm ideas, and improvise scenes until they work their way towards a finished product.

Although a seemingly innocuous form of creation, and a very familiar playmaking tool for children’s drama classes, devised theatre can also be a highly charged, transgressive tool. For one, collaborative theatre eschews the hierarchical structure that is deeply embedded in theatrical tradition. Instead of playwright and director imposing one singular vision, the group must find a way to negotiate towards an agreed-upon collaboration. Far more time consuming, the process requires a sloughing off of ego, compassion for fellow collaborators, and a willingness to listen and try and fail and try again. Devised theatre is deliberately democratic. The process is political.

Because this form of theatre does not tick the boxes of traditional playmaking, arts funding is not always available for devised theatre, explains co-creator Claire Thérèse, although that is starting to change. What makes the form different is that a play like Embargo has multiple authors who devise the finished product in a collaborative environment. And this is a sticky wicket indeed. To produce this kind of theatre in Winnipeg one must be bold: willing to beg, borrow, and steal to get productions on their feet, and actively seek out alternative audiences.

Winnipeg theatre is a curious beast. In some ways we are amongst the fortunate. We have several long-running regional theatres, the second largest Fringe Festival in North America, and a handful of venues available for independent productions. In other ways, our theatrical options are oddly ossified, especially considering Winnipeg theatre is barely middle-aged. The problem lies, as in so many other arts sectors in this city and others, in an aging population. We are lucky to have an older audience that enthusiastically supports theatre in Winnipeg, but this audience typically has more mainstream tastes, as evidenced by the typical theatre season offerings and Fringe favourites: often crowd-pleasing but rarely groundbreaking. One Trunk Theatre, with presentations like Embargo, offers an alternative.

Last summer, Thérèse brought a kernel of an idea to her co-creators Arne MacPherson, Gwendolyn Collins, Andraea Sartison and Delf Gravert. Seeing how the piece has developed into an exploration of the power pendulum, it seems like a natural extension of her career. Thérèse works in social justice, coordinating a mentorship program in the North End to support youth in underprivileged areas to graduate from high school. Currently on sabbatical, she is working with Stony Mountain inmates in a Shakespeare in the Ruins outreach program.

Embargo is a story told almost exclusively through movement, power struggles are expressed through the physical push/pull interactions of characters as they negotiate their power plays within the confines of a boxing ring. Thérèse describes Embargo as “the story of how women live in society.” Two sisters who share a deep affection must learn to navigate a world corrupted by embedded inequities of power. Concerned with the oversimplification of women on the modern stage, Thérèse says that she hopes Embargo provides a richer, more complicated investigation of women characters.

Embargo is a punk attack on the process and production of theatre. Purposefully lo-fi, the production values have been kept simple and portable so that the show can be taken practically anywhere in order to reach an underserved, younger audience that might be more comfortable at a coffee house than the Concert Hall.

Thérèse says that although minimal in execution, the play is visually lush, musically vibrant, and passionately experimental. Circular in structure and melancholy in tone, audiences can expect to walk away with a feeling of “improvisational exhilaration.” And if improv is a particular phobia, not to fear, Thérèse says that the audience will be asked to act as “active witnesses” but can do so from the safety of their seats.

***

Embargo plays at the Gendis Studio, at Prairie Theatre Exchange, May 3, 5, and 6, 2017, at 8 pm, and at the Carol Shields Festival on May 13, 2017, 7:00 pm, at Prairie Theatre Exchange. Cost: $10 at the door, cash only.

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Stage and Craft

Michelle Palansky


Michelle Palansky, an alumna of the University of Manitoba's Black Hole Theatre, is a Winnipeg Fringe veteran with a decade of experience writing and performing with her theatre collective, the Conspiracy Network. A former Manitoba Theatre for Young People instructor, she is the marketing manager for Turnstone Press.