It’s the first time out of Whitehorse for the production conceived by Brian Fidler, artistic director of Ramshackle Theatre. “It’s always taken place on our property fifteen minutes outside of Whitehorse,” he says. “We have two and a half acres and we invite the community. I pick seven artists and we just go.” Over the past seven years, it has become a much anticipated annual event, so much so that it attracted the attention of the National Arts Centre who invited them to join Canada Scene after sending some scouts to see the show last year.
What makes Theatre in the Bush special, besides being staged outdoors, is the variety of featured artists involved and the emphasis on interactive theatre. Though it’s billed as Theatre in the Bush, it really is about involving all the disciplines and engaging all the senses. To that end, Theatre in the Bush at Canada Scene featured theatre, storytelling, music, dance, culinary arts, visual art, sound art, and projections, often interwoven. “You’re not allowed to stand by. Our philosophy with this show is we’ve got people out of the black box of the theatre so we’re not going to put them back in,” says Brian.
When staged in the Yukon, artists draw a site from a hat and have a week to prepare their scene. For Canada Scene they had just two days but they rose to the occasion. Fidler explains that “the only theme is location and environment. Whatever the piece is it’s affected by the environment.” One example is a piece by the two local artists, John Doucet and Lisa L’Heureux, who built a mysterious set at the edge of a meadow featuring cardboard boxes anchoring mysterious blue orbs. Asked about her piece Lisa says “we were inspired by the land because this is a nesting ground so we started from that with the eggs and then it’s theatre outside of the box so we decided to bring in the boxes.”
Upon arriving at the Estate, we were handed an emblem – a leaf, a stone or a pinecone – dividing us into the groups we would travel with for the evening, each lead by an National Capital Commission (NCC) guide. It was like the Harry Potter sorting hat. Gathering around the representative bonfire made from sewing pattern paper because of an NCC ban on open fires, old-timey musical duo Brigitte Dejardins and Ryan McNally set the scene with their folksy charm, singing and playing fiddle, banjo, guitar and some impressive washboard percussion. At twilight, each group started along its own circuit of the seven sites each hosting its own standalone experience.
Mobius Collective used an ingenious combination of light projections, poetry projections and a soundscape of ethereal harmonica to explore “the ephemeral nature of matter and the core of love that holds it together” in their piece “Stardust Museum”. At the other end of the evening, Indigenous soap maker Joella Hogan of the Yukon Soap Company taught us about wild ingredients she forages in the North and how to say the words for them in Tutchone, her people’s native language.
One of the most engaging stops was a sound installation featuring lengths of piano wire strung on trees and then amplified making each tree a percussion instrument tuned to a different note. Each time a group created their own collective song. Maybe it was the trees but there were a more than a few eerie Twin Peaks moments.
Chef Michele Genest presented “Forage”, a tasting experience featuring a meeting of Yukon ingredients with food from the Ottawa region. Here too the experience was interactive. Each person was invited to choose sweet or savoury and then build a four-layer hors d’ouevre. Candied spruce tips met local sour cherries soaked in gin and birch syrup panna cotta. Local halloumi and pickled scapes met wild mushrooms, venison and smoked salmon. “It was really exciting for me to think about bringing the food we have in the North here but also finding stuff on the streets and in the markets in this incredibly bountiful part of Ontario,” says Genest. “We do have an agricultural sector and we’re trying really hard to grow food and serve it to each other but really what I think we’re best at is wild food. We have a very strong foraging culture starting of course, with the First Nations who have been living off the land for thousands of years but settlers and newcomers to the Yukon love it as well. So we have a custom of going into the woods and picking berries when they come into season learning about edible greens and about wild mushrooms.”
It was inspiring to see the artists embrace the space even with the challenges of mosquitoes, darkness and variable terrain. As Northerners they had no problem showing us that you don’t have to compromise adventure in the name of comfort. In a way, these elements were a key to the experience. After all, when the darkness envelopes you, everything is more vivid as your other senses wake up to make the difference.
After a kaleidoscopic evening of playing piano percussion trees, tasting the North, and making wishes in the forest, the night wrapped up listening to old songs and making a toast “to new adventures.” Altogether enchanting I hope this will inspire local projects bringing participatory art to unexpected places, especially the wild ones.
Theatre in the Bush took place July 20-22 as part of Canada Scene.