In a post-apocalyptic world, insects rule the earth.
On the crumbling steps of the Paris Opera, a curious collective of “bugzzz” discover pages from Puccini’s Tosca. Enthralled by the mystical symbols, but bewildered by the emotions, they attempt to reconstruct and understand the buried, forbidden human legacy. It’s a risky undertaking, as their enraged compatriots ask: Why honour the only species that not only destroyed itself, but almost managed to destroy the entire planet?
Bugzzz explores the mankind’s questionable legacy
This provocative scenario plays out in the latest multi-disciplinary creation of Faculty of Fine Arts professors and creative partners William Mackwood, of the Department of Dance, and Gwen Dobie, of the Department of Theatre, co-artistic directors of Out of the Box Productions. Following several weeks of rehearsal in the Accolade East Building on York’s Keele campus, their compelling new show, Bugzzz – A Cautionary Tale, opens May 31 for an 11-day run at Toronto’s Artscape Wychwood Barns.
Mackwood, the co-creator, writer and director of design for Bugzzz, had wanted to create a work about a world inhabited by insects ever since reading Karel and Josef Capek’s satirical fable, The Insect Play. His other creative impetus was the desire to tell a story depicting a possible, troubling outcome if our society continues on its current path of unbridled resource consumption and climate change.
“More than anything, we want to evoke a response from our audience, especially from young people who will have such a large part to play in changing how we use our planet,” said Mackwood. “The insect protagonists in Bugzzz have some strong views on ‘progress’ and the world of humankind.”
Combining drama, dance and opera, the play’s dual themes of sustainability and the transcendent power of art are reflected in its creative treatment and production values. Bugzzz has the look and feel of a live graphic novel, with a comic book esthetic. Instead of using resource-intensive physical sets, illustrations by graphic artist Jimmy Zhang are projected onto a comic book-shaped scrim behind the action. As the titular bugs play on the ruined staircase of the Paris Opera House, the building is transformed into its original grandeur in sequences where the insects reminisce about the world before humanity destroyed it.
The work’s futuristic look continues in the costumes designed by Dobie’s colleague, Professor Teresa Przybylski , and constructed in the Department of Theatre’s wardrobe workshop. Przybylski’s creations feature high-tech wireless LED lights and a complex projection system that uses the Kinect, a motion-sensing input device for the Xbox 360 video game console.
“Our bug costumes glow,” said Dobie, the stage director, dramaturge, choreographer and co-creator of the show. “They’re lit with battery-powered LED ropes and panels that change colour to reflect the character’s moods. Using the Kinect’s infrared technology, we can light a costume with precise video projections to mimic an insect’s iridescent wings.”
The development process for both lighting systems took more than a year. Interactive media artist Don Sinclair, a Faculty of Fine Arts professor in York’s digital media program, is the mastermind behind programming the Kinect. The LED components for the costumes, as well as the set, were developed in collaboration with a team of lighting technology specialists from industry partner, AC Lighting Inc., led by the firm’s managing director, J.F. Canuel.
Part of the challenge was making the lighting gear practical for the performers to wear. Przybylski worked closely with AC Lighting to make the LED systems comfortable and functional for the highly physical acting required from the cast.
Playing the bright, buggy characters are Neema Bickersteth, as the firefly/dragonfly Flit, and York theatre alumni Matthew Romantini (BFA Spec. Hons. ’05), as the stick bug/praying mantis Klik, and Chris Karczmar (MFA ‘09), as the dung beetle/stink bug Bott.
The development process for Bugzzz also featured a classic case of interdisciplinary, cross-Faculty knowledge mobilization. An article outlining Dobie’s and Mackwood’s syncretic concept and research methodology for the project sparked the interest of David Phipps, a scientist, balletomane and York’s director of research services & knowledge exchange. He put the play’s creative team in touch with several entomologists in the Department of Biology for consultations with bug experts Professors Andrew Donini, Amro Zayed and Laurence Packer, who helped inform the Fine Arts professors’ creative decisions in developing the movements, sound, look and behaviour of the play’s insect protagonists.
The collaboration between art and science doesn’t stop there. Zayed and Packer will be featured in Insect Talk, a public round-table discussion with the audience following the performance of Bugzzz on Friday, June 1. Mackwood, Sinclair and composer Thomas Sandberg will offer insights into the production’s music, sound, lighting and projection technology in Tech Talk, a second round-table taking place immediately after the matinee performance on Saturday, June 2.
The making of Bugzzz was also an opportunity for undergraduate Fine Arts students to engage hands-on in the creative research of their professors, honing their own professional production skills in the process. More than half a dozen theatre and digital media students have worked on the show, filling roles in stage management and publicity coordination, and assisting with costume design and construction as well as lighting and projections.
Bugzzz is Out of the Box Productions’ third Toronto show, following on Opera Erotique and Sound In Silence. Multidisciplinary performance fusion, synergies between art and science, themes of sustainability and the integration of green theatre technologies are a hallmark of the company, which has won critical acclaim for its “immense imagination and strong theatrical values” (Paula Citron, Classical96).
Bugzzz promises to deliver a similar experience. “This production will be one of the most original renditions of Tosca ever,” said Dobie.
The show runs May 31 through June 10 at Artscape Wychwood Barns, 601 Christie Street. Tickets can be purchased online in advance through the TheatreDirect box office, or by calling 416-537-4191 ext. 224.