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An Interview with Kevin Kerr: TEAR THE CURTAIN in Toronto

Jonathan Young and Dawn Petten in Tear the Curtain. Photo by David Cooper.

If you’re interested in boundary-pushing multi-media theater, Toronto is the place to be this October. Why? Because Vancouver’s Electric Company has pitched up to open Canadian Stage’s 2012-2013 season with their multi-media extravaganza, Tear the Curtain.

I’m looking forward to seeing the production later this month, and was able to interview Artistic Director and co-creator Kevin Kerr in advance of their opening.

From the show’s press release:

“…the production follows Alex Braithwaite (played by [Jonathon] Young), a jaded theatre critic in a gritty film noir rendition of Vancouver in the 1930s, as the advent and popularity of the “Talkies” threatens the existence of theatre. When Alex falls for the screen siren Mila, he’s caught dangerously between two warring mob families: one controlling the city’s playhouses, the other, its cinemas. Alex tries to tear through the artifice and war between these art forms without selling his soul – or losing his mind. Devised as a detective story, the plot unravels on stage in a seamless blend of filmed and live performance, leaving the audience to decipher which medium they are seeing.”

Below, Kevin Kerr discusses the changes the show will undergo as it moves to Toronto, how social media has affected the marketing of productions like Tear the Curtain, the play as a site-specific piece, and more.

RLBrody.com: How is the show changing as it moves to Toronto?

Kerr: We love the opportunity to revisit, tune, and improve upon a work when we have a chance like this, so started by going back to the script and revised, tweak, found cuts, and in some cases entirely re-wrote scenes we weren’t satisfied with. There were then some adjustments to the film with some new edits and trimming. And that meant some changes in sound and the score. The new venue also required some adjustments in the set design to deal with different dimensions. And because the precision required in the relationship between the film projection and the set there was some strategizing around the technical aspects of the projection in the Bluma. The result, we feel is a tighter, stronger piece overall.

RLB:  How well do you feel the video trailers communicate the feelings, moods and experiences your audiences undergo during a performance of Tear the Curtain? Do you feel there’s a risk in trying to communicate the feeling of a live performance through the 2D medium of a computer monitor?

Kerr: I think the trailer communicates fairly well the tone and style of the piece. Of course the filmic component of the piece is particularly well represented and the trailer feels a lot like a contemporary feature film trailer and it showcases nicely the quality and success of the film-making and Brian Johnson’s beautiful cinematography and Kim’s brilliant direction.

But it’s really impossible to authentically capture the effect of the show in performance — video is never satisfying in the its representation of theatre, and in this case I feel it’s even harder to understand the exact nature of what you’ll see and its effect on you. But I think because the trailer draws exclusively from the film, but watching it you know it’s for a piece of theatre, I hope that it teases at least with a promise of something really exciting and perhaps prompts the viewer to question, “how exactly are they going to do this? What will it look like in performance?”

RLB: Can you talk a little about the social media outreach that’s gone into producing and then touring Tear the Curtain? How did the rise of social media (Twitter, Vimeo, etc) change the process of marketing the play from what it might have been if the production was taking place ten years ago?

Kerr: For starters, it allows a more active dialogue between audience and the company, with our audience being able to follow and share and inject their enthusiasm into our process. It makes promoting or marketing a show much more personal, even with something as simple as the act of commenting on our facebook wall, or twitter account, not to mention the capacity for audience members to engage each other in a dialogue around the work this way.

And visually oriented platforms like vimeo, youtube, flickr, etc. are ideal arenas to share this project (and our other works) as the play is so visually spectacular. The film component of the piece makes for great footage to share on video hosting sites (as seen with the trailer) and production stills are easy to share this way as well on our website and via facebook and twitter, etc. And we’ve worked hard collaborating with our partners at Actors Equity to rethink some of the old models and restrictions around use of imagery or video footage from a work, as the developments in social media have really provided a great way to promote not only the show, but the artists who are literally irreplaceable in the piece.

RLB: From what I’ve read, there’s an interesting relationship about duality between the space and the content of Tear The Curtain in Vancouver. GayVancouver.net talks about how “Vancouver’s Stanley Theatre was transformed into its dual historical personality, as both a venue for film and theatre.” Can you talk about the piece as a site-specific production?

Kerr: The play began with a commission from the Arts Club Theatre, which has a few venues including the Stanley. When we were imagining what we might pitch as a project, we started talking about the Stanley as favourite venue of ours and as we chatted about its interesting dual identity in the city as a once grand old cinema from the golden age of movies, and now this beautifully restored live theatre, with all of that vintage charm, the spark ignited. It felt like a perfect opportunity to take our ongoing exploration of a tension between mediated and immediate performance to a new level with a pitch to create a true film/theatre hybrid where both mediums shared equally the weight of telling the story.

So the Stanley became a sort of character in its own right as we started with the space in our early explorations of possible content. And research into its history and certain specific details (like that it was supposedly originally envisaged as a vaudeville theatre, but quickly rethought as a movie theatre before construction began; or that its first movie was Lillian Gish’s first “talkie” called “One Romantic Night” adapted from a stage play called The Swan; etc.) began to give us clues or touchstones as we started to develop the story.

So the dual identity of the building was a departure point to the dual identity of the form of the piece (film/theatre), which itself reflects the content: a character who is faced with a crisis of a fractured sense of self and caught between the forces of the avant garde and the mainstream — each one dangerously seductive in their own way.

RLB: When someone talks about “pushing the boundaries of conventional theatre”, what do you think those boundaries are? In what ways is pushing those boundaries a conscious choice, and in what ways is it something that happens because of the subject matter? (Particularly in relation to immersive theater experiences, such as Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More.)

Kerr: I suppose conventional theatre (as we understand it in Canada) assumes such things as the primacy of the text (or the spoken word or the playwright); the separation of the audience from the aesthetic of the production; the narrative neutrality of the venue; the adherence to a unified genre, form, or style; the notion of a packaged “season of plays”; the actor as some sort of shape shifter, channeler, or avatar that becomes the character; the design as embellishment or illustration; the director as interpreter (over creator) among other conventions.

 

None of these conventions is inherently wrong, and we’ve exemplified them all at various times in our works. But I think we’ve also deliberately challenged them all regularly. Often it is primarily because the piece demands a break from convention, but it also conscious choice — a recognition that theatre is a living changing organism that suffers when stuck looking back; that many of those conventions can exclude the audience, or maybe worse pacify, and they can also oppress the creative process and limit the artistic conversation which wants to keep up with an accelerating world. Most importantly, we want theatre to be something that celebrates and manifests our connection between each other, that excites and provokes our active imagination, that recognizes our the beauty of our living and temporary physical forms, and that acknowledges us all as the constant inventors of the world we live in, moment to moment.

 

Thank you to Kevin Kerr for an interview that sheds a lot of light on the process and product associated with Tear the Curtain’s Toronto production. The show runs from October 7-20th, opening the 2012-2013 season at Canadian Stage; the production will take place at the Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts (27 Front St. E). Tickets range from $24 to $99 and are available by phone at 416.368.3110, online at www.canadianstage.com, or in person at the box office.

Look forward to my review of Tear the Curtain, coming later this month. Subscribe to the blog to make sure you don’t miss it, and check out the show’s video trailer on Vimeo.

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“Getting” the Internet: The CDC and the Zombie Apocalypse

When people think of social media jobs, they might consider pop-culture commentary and corporate representation – but what about social media in public service? Last week, the Center of Disease Control’s (CDC) Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response used a darkly fictional twist – and a keen understanding of social media’s strengths – to tap into the hive mind’s love of all things undead, sparking a global viral sensation of Zombie Apocalypse humor (and educating the public) in the process.

Many companies use social media without really “getting it,” so seeing a government agency set such an excellent example, particularly in a way that acknowledges the foibles of internet culture, is really exciting. Curious to know more, I reached out to the CDC, and the lead for the Emergency Web and Social Media Team, Catherine Jamal was generous enough to answer some questions regarding the process of seeing Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse go viral.

So sit back, and prepare to be infected…with knowledge.

Generating Zombies: Social Media at the CDC

Using collaboration between teams, the CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness & Response created the Zombie campaign to revolve around emergency preparedness and the agency’s response to emergencies.

Members of the team had used social media for emergency preparedness in multiple situations, and unsurprisingly – given how this project came together – Jamal says there is “a lot” of social media experience at the CDC. When it comes to their online activities, the organization – like many businesses – uses a strategy that links information via website, social media, and more. In terms of their specific use of Twitter, the H1N1 outbreak was the catalyst behind the CDC’s emergency twitter feed and a Facebook Page.

“This idea [for the Zombie meme] came up during a brain-storming session between CDC communication experts in the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response,” said Jamal. “We were exploring how we might reach more people with our preparedness messages since personal preparedness is such a critical component of developing resilient communities.”

What companies can take note of from the CDC’s approach here is that they observed how a real world disaster – the Japan Earthquake – unfolded in the popular consciousness via a discussion their representatives took part in via the twitter account,@CDCemergency. The team noticed that “several people tweeted about zombie preparedness,” perhaps planting a seed for the later idea.

When that later idea was used – when the campaign was launched on 5/16/11 – Zombies were used as a metaphor for serious disasters: hurricanes, disease outbreaks, earthquakes and floods, to name just a few examples. This allowed @CDCemergency to introduce a topic that “people don’t typically talk about until it’s too late.” (Put another way, don’t wait to try and buy 10 gallons of water till the day after the apocalypse.)

But it’s not just peoples’ immediate safety that the CDC is interested in protecting. In a larger sense, “The campaign was also to have a broader conversation about the role of public health in keeping people safe from health threats every day.”

 Going Viral: Spreading the Zombie Apocalypse Infection

If you’ve ever posted a photo of your cat on Twitter, you know the path to viral isn’t always an easy – or obvious one. For every Rebecca Black, there are millions of…well, the rest of us. I was interested in knowing what the CDC had used to launch interest in their campaign, since my awareness of it came well after Zombie Apocalypse began to trend on Twitter. This thing spread like the Rage virus; how did it get out there so fast? Jamal outlined its evolution:

Beginning with a post on Dr. Ali S. Khan’s public health matters blog, the campaign initially “utilized several additional existing social media channels including Twitter, Facebook, widgets, and badges. The blog post had an accompanying web page discussing the related social media.”

As noted above, I learned of the meme via twitter – but shortly after, mainstream news outlets picked up the story, and it went global IRL as well as online. So not only does the CDC Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response and now have a successful viral campaign on their hands, but the team’s public health message is being spread effectively at breakneck speed around a globe fraught with earthquakes, monsoons, floods, disease outbreaks and more.

The team “hoped that by using zombies as our focus and marketing the message via social media, we could gain the attention of a younger audience that is difficult to reach with traditional preparedness messages.” At a glance, it would appear they were successful – they were as surprised as anyone else to see CDC hit Twitter as a Trending Topic the day of the release.

To give an idea of how significant the jump in the CDC website’s hit was, Jamal provided the following context: while a typical blog post on the CDC site receives between 900-3000 total page views, the reach of Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse came out to over 2 million views – in less than a week. This makes it the #1 page on the CDC’s website.

That’s at least over a six hundred percent increase, based on the higher end of the figure. The average might reveal a far higher leap. Clearly, and whatever fears one might have about the public’s need to be entertained in order to be educated, this is an effective way to transmit information. “All zombie movies have a hero of some sort,” goes the CDC’s message, “and we encourage people to be ready to be that hero!”

The Serious Side of Social Media Outreach

Given the success of the Zombie Apocalypse meme, it’s not surprising that  the CDC is interested in continuing to use social media for their outreach, offering the following advice: “A good way to get ready for the next apocalypse – no matter what it is – is for people to take some personal responsibility for themselves and their community.”

So what say you, dear readers? Has Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse got you stockpiling twinkies for the End Times?

Visit the CDC Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse Guide for information that can help you and your family prepare for a variety of disasters. Check out some of my Zombie-Related reviews for more braaaains…

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