Actors Laurence Dauphinais and Marie-Ève Milot. Photo by Alina Noir
Every now and then we all need to face some baggage from our past — mistakes we’ve made, relationships we’ve damaged or dreams we’ve left to collect dust on the shelves of our busy lives. Left to our own devices, we may put this difficult self-reflective task off indefinitely, but what happens when we’re forced to reckon with ourselves with no turning back?
Geneviève L. Blais, founder of the Montreal theatre company Théâtre à corps perdus, asks this question with a unique performance being staged in a Mile-Ex storage locker from April 5–22. The immersive psychological thriller Unit B-1717, written by Governor General’s Award-winning playwright Erin Shields, is the latest in the theatre company’s 15-year history of specializing in site-specific productions that take a story out of the traditional theatre stage and place it in a novel environment: the real world.
In Unit B-1717, Shields’s young protagonist mysteriously finds herself at her storage locker, still dressed up after a night out to celebrate the completion of her thesis. Now at a turning point in her life, she’s compelled to sort out her past before she can move cleanly into her future.
Presenting the work in a real storage locker poses a number of technical and logistical challenges, but for Blais, the tradeoff is worth it to give audience members a more engaging and authentic experience.
“It’s a little bit like going on a trip,” she says about experiencing theatre in a non-traditional venue. “When you travel or are in a new city, all your codes and your perceptions of reality are a little altered, so you feel things in a more intense way and often see things that you don’t usually see.”
That heightened alertness that often comes with being in an unusual location allows for a more intense sensory experience, with small groups in close proximity with the performers (Laurence Dauphinais in English performances and Marie-Ève Milot alternating in French), specially designed lighting effects and the authentic sounds and smells of the city underscoring the narrative.
“The space itself becomes a character,” Blais notes. “All the equipment is completely different from what we use in theatres, so we have to invent. It’s very crafty and low tech, but we manage to bring in some poetry and visual images that transform the space in simple but impactful ways.”
Unit B-1717 represents some important milestones for Blais’s theatre company: it’s their first production to be staged in both French and English, and their first work to be developed with a specific space already in mind. Blais recounts how she and playwright Erin Shields collaborated to bring the idea to life:
“Erin Shields’s writing is very concrete and raw, but with heightened language in the form of a more literary approach — she plays with that in a very witty and smart way. This piece came out of our being in the space together, sharing anecdotes from our own lives and talking about what it means and how it all mixed. The site has to become symbolically strong and give an angle that makes it work. In the same way as in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, a space can also be a metaphor for what someone is going through, and the storage space really tells us about this labyrinth that this woman is stuck in. She’s putting things down in the basement, far down below.”
Unit B-1717 marks the second collaboration between Blais and Shields and is the first play in a three-part series called Nocturnales, which will be connected not by character, but by theme.
Blais explains, “Nocturnales is a cycle of three site-specific plays about women in the night, during turning points of their lives. They’re going places they didn’t think they were going to go. The plays are about the vertigo of that but also the excitement and thrill to start to be someone else through your decisions. Very often my work is about stuff that’s hard to put into words — taboos, secrets, things that are deeply hidden. Those are things that really talk to me, and we’re absolutely in that zone with Unit B-1717.” ■
Unit B-1717 runs from April 5–22 at Entrepôt Beaumont Mini-Storage (454 Beaumont) with three performances nightly from Thurs–Sun, various showtimes, alternating English and French performance, $30/$25 students. See acorpsperdus.com for details.