Two theatre profs test new plays at SummerWorks

Two York theatre professors, Robert Fothergill and Erika Batdorf, are testing the waters at the SummerWorks Theatre Festival. Both will be showcasing their new plays at the annual festival, which this year runs from Aug. 2 – 12 in Toronto.

The largest juried theatre festival in Canada, SummerWorks features 47 plays, performances and workshops of plays-in-development by local and national theatre professionals as well as those just breaking into the field.

“SummerWorks offers a very good opportunity to give a play a trial run, to see if it works,” says Fothergill, who teaches dramatic literature and theatre history in York’s Department of Theatre, Faculty of Fine Arts. The festival’s organizational infrastructure makes it easy and inexpensive to get a show in front of an audience, he says, making it an attractive venue for playwrights.

Right: Robert Fothergill

Having staged two other plays at the festival in the past (Dershowitz Project in 2003 and Borderline in 2004), Fothergill aimed to finish Disciples in time for this year’s SummerWorks.

Disciples dramatizes the first encounter between the apostles Peter and Paul in about the year 36 CE (current era) and is set in the home of Peter in Jerusalem,” he says. “It’s an intense 50-minute conversation, a crucial debate over the meaning and future direction of the new messianic religion.”

Left: Poster from the SummerWorks production of Disciples

Fothergill says he was inspired to write the play after reading Charles Freeman’s The Closing of the Western Mind, which has a chapter on the crucial influence of Paul on the development of Christianity.

Along with Fothergill, everyone connected to the production of Disciples is affiliated with York. The director of Disciples is Mark Wilson, a professor of acting and directing in York’s Theatre Department; the designer is Andrea Mittler (BFA ’02); and the roles of Peter and Paul are played by Michael Armstrong (MFA ’07) and David Matheson (MFA ’05). Stage manager Jessie Shearer (BFA ’06) and lighting designer Siobhan Sleath (BFA ’03) are also York theatre grads.

While dialogue is at the heart of Fothergill’s SummerWorks offering, it is virtually absent from Bird’s Eye View, the production of his theatre-department colleague Erika Batdorf. “Bird’s Eye View is very much a visual world," says Batdorf, who created the work with puppeteer Faye Dupras.

Directed by Batdorf, Bird’s Eye View is a multimedia puppet show that is inspired by, but not based on, Oscar Wilde’s writing, including the essay he wrote in prison, De Profundis. Also, the main character in Bird’s Eye View, a prisoner played by Dupras, recreates elements of Wilde’s children’s story, The Happy Prince.

Right: Erika Batdorf

The other characters are four visually stunning puppets designed and manipulated by Dupras. Throughout the show, video monitors showing footage filmed by cameras pointed at the stage add another dimension by indicating to the audience that there are secrets that the onstage characters are unable to detect. Live music composed and performed by Adam Frederick adds to the mood.

“It’s very much about the ability of the spirit to survive in the context of imprisonment,” says Batdorf. “In a sense, it’s not traditional theatre at all; it’s more like watching a moving painting over time.”

Left: Bird’s Eye View features puppets by Faye Dupras

The production marks the first time that Batdorf, a theatre-movement expert and playwright, is working so comprehensively with puppets. The opportunity to do so came about when Dupras approached Batdorf and asked her to collaborate on the project.

It is also the first time Batdorf is staging one of her productions at SummerWorks.

She concurs with Fothergill that the festival offers an excellent opportunity to test an experimental work. “We’re workshopping this piece,” she says. “It’s the first version of it and we’re expecting to premiere it sometime next year.”

For show times, check the SummerWorks Theatre Web site.

Story by Olena Wawryshyn, York communications officer.