Eye-popping new Electric Company show tackles corruption in Canadian real estate — and our complicity in it
The innovative Vancouver company's Full Light of Day combines film and theatre, and unearths family secrets
For the past decade in Canada, real estate prices have skyrocketed, especially in metropolitan centres like Vancouver and Toronto. For some, it has lead to untold riches; for others, it has resulted in significant hardship.
Now a new play by The Electric Company, one of Vancouver's most innovative theatre companies, is setting a family drama in the heart of that feverish real estate world — and asking some challenging questions along the way. It's also using cutting-edge film technology to bring the audience right into the action.
The Electric Company's The Full Light of Day premieres this week in Vancouver, but the process began several years ago and halfway around the world in Karnataka, India, where award-winning Canadian writer Daniel Brooks set out to write a screenplay — a modern adaptation of Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu's 1953 masterpiece Tokyo Story.
"It's about a society in profound transition — Tokyo post-war," says Brooks on the phone from Toronto. "And those societal, historical, social forces have tremendous impact on everything — on the way people dress, on the way that generations interact, on the way that people approach work, and how they live their lives moment to moment. And even deeper than that is a sort of fundamental theme about impermanence, that everything passes into something else."
At the same time, Brooks had been reading about the so-called Mumbai Mafia, and how ethically questionable processes fuelled everything from building codes to Bollywood films.
"I was in India for a number of months and you experience a different form of 'barter,' shall we say," says Brooks wryly. "We would call it corruption, but it certainly made me reflect on the ways in which the corruption of what we consider ethically functioning social processes is evident in our own culture, but just in very different ways."
But rather than turn the script into a film, Brooks and Electric Company director Kim Collier opted to transform it into an experimental film/theatre hybrid that combines the immediate and visceral nature of live theatre with film's ability to zoom in close and reflect different perspectives.
The Full Light of Day centres around Mary, the aging matriarch of a wealthy Toronto family who has led a good life — but everything shifts when one of her adult children disappears, and sets into motion a series of life-altering events.
In the process, the play, which takes place in a world of high-flying finance and real estate, forces audiences to take a hard look at our cities, power structures and land ownership, and confront their own complicity in corrupt social systems, as well as the possibility of redemption.
As a society we are unbelievably complicit.- The Full Light of Day writer Daniel Brooks
It also takes an intimate look at a husband and wife who, despite their closeness, have been keeping secrets from each other — and serve as a metaphor for society's often conveniently shifting ethics.
"Life in cities has changed so remarkably because of the globalization of real estate in cities like Toronto and Vancouver," says Brooks, a past winner of the esteemed Siminovitch Prize for excellence and innovation in Canadian theatre. "And in that globalizing of real estate, we've imported the corruption of other countries — and sometimes the worst kind of money. And as a society we are unbelievably complicit.
"That's not to say that we don't have our own versions of that corruption, but we are so hungry for this tainted wealth and we are building our cities to try to attract that wealth," he continues. "My intuition is there will be a reckoning of sorts."
There will be plenty of eye-popping moments, too. The Electric Company is renowned for its use of shifting sets, film elements, sound and other media in its visually stunning works, and The Full Light of Day uses technology not only to up the drama, but to reveal the characters.
Both before and after the production and during the intermission, audiences can experience short films told from the point of view of each principle character — each of them shot in 360-degree GoPro video and experienced through virtual reality devices, or on smart phones or tablets — so they can explore different characters' perspectives.
On stage are an additional 14 cameras that will capture live footage and project it in real time so the audience can see close-ups of the action while watching the whole scene from afar.
Director Kim Collier says that for years The Electric Company has written their scripts as films, then reverse engineered them for the stage, which ups in the innovation and creativity. For The Full Light of Day, the design progress began while Brooks was writing the script; that way, the writing could inform the design and the design could inform the writing.
"Because it flows like a film script there are times when the characters are in a position that would be hard to access, like they're laying in bed, or the nuance of what's happening between them is more received by looking into their soul," says Collier, who emphasizes that she avoids using media unless it clearly serves the story.
"So in some key moments we bring the audience closer and get a good look right into the characters' eyes in a way that you couldn't to the same degree in the theatre."
Collier also worked for months with set designer Julie Fox to create stunning movable sets that are constantly shifting throughout the show, and moving seamlessly between locations that range from an apartment to a park to a café, just as a film would do.
"We worked for months together in my living room to build a material set that would move with the recording media and flow like a film, and land in 52 locations," says Collier. "It was a huge challenge, but if it works out it's going to be spectacular."
The play also stars a who's who of Canadian stage and screen talent, including Gabrielle Rose (The Sweet Hereafter, Maudie, Kingsway) as the aging matriarch and Shaw veteran Jim Mezon as the corrupt patriarch, Harold. Beloved Vancouver theatre actor Dean Paul Gibson plays the arrogant and anxiety-prone son David, while Jillian Fargey (Protection) plays his no-nonsense wife. Jonathon Young, star of the Olivier Award-winning Betroffenheit, which he created with choreographer Crystal Pite, plays the son Joey whose disappearance fuels the family's unraveling. Also featured are John Ng (Kim's Convenience), Jenny Young (Saving Hope) and others.
Collier says the play offers a sense of hope and possibility for the future — but the first step is for the audience to think about the choices they make and their complicity in systems that support and foster corruption, and to hopefully take that conversation into the wider world.
"We are going to have to think about these things. That's just the way it is. We're at a tipping point," says Collier.
"And The Full Light of Day doesn't provide answers. But it does show you a character who know tries to find the dignity within her life, and hopefully that will roll outward."
The Full Light of Day is at the Vancouver Playhouse until January 12. It's also at Luminato in Toronto June 7-13.