Secret Lives: Office worker by day, set designer by night

This is part of YFile’s Secret Lives series showcasing the interests and hobbies York staff pursue in their free time.

Bojana Stancic leads a double life. By day, she is the voice and face of the President’s Office. She greets visitors, answers the phone and takes deliveries from behind a high, blond-wood reception desk on the 10th floor of the York Research Tower. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows give her a panoramic bird’s-eye view of the York Commons and create the illusion of wide open space in an otherwise formally structured foyer defined by right angles and quiet ecru hues.

Left: Bojana Stancic

At night, she steps into a boundless imaginary universe creating sets for experimental theatre. Her most recent project, And so, the animal looked back…  freed her from even the strictures of a proscenium or thrust stage. She designed the set for the play, written by her creative collaborator Alex Wolfson, to be performed in an art gallery – specifically the Art Gallery of York University.  

And so, the animal looked back… is a conceptual exhibit bookended by two plays. It opened with performances Jan. 28 and 29 and closes with performances March 11 and 12. In between, you can visit the gallery, wander onto the set and props, and watch a video of the opening performance.  

“It is neither an art opening nor simply a play,” says Stancic. Nor is it a performance piece. It’s a hybrid, a cross-pollination of art and theatre, with actors, a set, costumes and a script. But it’s different, and for Stancic it’s stimulating. 

“Theatrical spaces have a specific context,” she says. They have lights, a stage and seats, and spectators come with expectations. “When you present in galleries, there’s a more open format. You have a blank slate. It’s all different and it allows you to create a vocabulary of your own. You can free spectators to experience a play differently.”  

Right: Bojana Stancic in the And so, the animal looked back… set at the AGYU

Stancic, 31, became hooked on theatre as an undergraduate studying semiotics and theatre at the University of Toronto. “Theatre was a way to enjoy every art form in one format.” She did lighting, built sets and stage managed productions, learning the ropes from professionals employed by the Canadian Opera Company and other troupes. At U of T, she began collaborating with Wolfson. Since 2001, they’ve conceived several experimental narratives and presented them to Toronto’s fringe theatre audiences. 

Wolfson’s plays often explore identity, self and the other. And so, the animal looked back… examines the division between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. The opening play focuses on the single human survivor of the apocalypse who repopulates the ruined world with automatons made in the image of man and other animals. The closing play centres upon a chimpanzee who suddenly begins to speak and write and whose transformation heralds a strange new world.  

In keeping with the theme of seeing and looking back, Stancic created a hall of reflections. She wrapped the ceiling and walls in mirror Mylar to create an endless kaleidoscope effect of the gaze. She built a small stage populated with black and white animal sculptures atop plinths – a bull, a hawk, a wolf and a chimera – and a sundial and fountain. Behind a quiet bench, there’s a wire model of a giant awakening hand. Steps on either side of the stage serve as entrance and exit for actors but also invite spectators to leave their chairs and enter this world.  

The Belgrade-born Stancic, who has worked at York for five years, has in her spare time art directed for film and television and most recently created the set for windows (left) at the 2009 SummerWorks Theatre Festival. Most of her evenings and weekends are devoted to set design and art projects. Every time she starts a new one “I still get really excited,” she says. 

“None of us is closed in by categories or roles,” says Stancic of the Toronto fringe theatre scene. “It’s really rewarding to have existed on the fringe where experimentation is encouraged.” And “the AGYU is at the forefront of that experimentation.”

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer