Zuppa powers | Arts & Culture | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Zuppa powers

Halifax’s most inventive theatre company has a new name and a new production, Poor Boy, set in a pop-music fantasy world. But nothing’s changed about Zuppa Theatre’s physically creative process and their ability to entertain.

On a frigid Saturday afternoon, the cast of Zuppa Theatre's Poor Boy is gathered in the Neptune Studio, where in four weeks they'll launch a show that's changing every day. The set is beginning to come together---long strings through a series of paper sheets, dangling record sleeves, actual vinyl and a suitcase here and there, all descending from the ceiling. Three bare bulbs and strands of white lights add practical light across the stage.

Jason MacIsaac and David Christensen sit in the centre of the theatre, midway, waiting for a full run-through of the show's songs, which they've written. Though they saw them performed last November at The Music Room, they haven't seen them in the context of this story, with full lyrics and specific instrumentation.

The five performers run through 13 songs using trumpet, piano, melodica, electric guitar, cello and a drum kit stripped down to the floor---tom, snare and cymbal. All of the actors switch off and on instruments except for Claire Gallant, the cellist. The piano---actually a keyboard inside a piano facade---has been built to move, with actors on top.

They run the songs at a controlled pace, stopping when chord changes are forgotten or the drums are too loud---"Kat, can you do it the pterodactyl way?" MacIsaac suggests to Kathryn McCormack, who is in her first Zuppa show, miming a pushing motion as opposed to a traditional drumming motion. They pull in a laptop so everyone can see new lyrics.

At one point, Stewart Legere and Susan Leblanc-Crawford nearly fall off the rolling piano, built specifically to hold people and instruments (and to move).

"That's the funnest thing I've ever done," says Leblanc-Crawford, once she's backon solid ground. "It felt like we were inan earthquake."

"'Pop-music fantasia' is my favourite description. Unlike in an opera, where dialogue is sung and then there are arias; unlike in a musical, sometimes music's playing under scenes and people are talking over it---it's not used exactly the same way," says Alex McLean, Poor Boy's director. "It's not like this at all, but it's kinda like when you watch Wizard of Oz and you play Pink Floyd underneath it---the music is running through it, and sometimes the music takes over, and then sometimes other stuff happens and the music is underneath. Whatever genre that is, it's like that."

Poor Boy is, like all Zuppa endeavours, a play. It contains, like all Zuppa endeavours, copious amounts of music. But there are new elements to this particular play: based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, it's about a fading pop star, and the actors provide the score. So the question of what to call it---a rock opera, a musical---comes up a lot.

"I would call it just 'a play,' to avoid the traps of all those labels. They all have negative connotations," says Christensen.

"It's a play with music. People may break into song, but there's not a lot of choreographed dancing," says MacIsaac.

"And very few jazz hands," adds Christensen.

The show, which the company has been developing in stages over 18 months, has culminated in a commission from Neptune Theatre for its 2009 studio series. It is about rock star Sherman Oakes (Legere), who hasn't been able to get over the death of his love Ella Savant (Leblanc-Crawford), at the expense of his career. He goes to the once-hip hotel where Ella met her end, now run in its dilapidated state by sisters Miranda (Leblanc-Crawford again) and Eunice (McCormack). His manager Desmond (Ben Stone) tries to pull him out of the downward spiral.

Another new thing for Zuppa is Poor Boy's setting, which appears to be in the past few decades---they're usually back at the turn of the 20th century, or in eras dictated by HG Wells (The Door in the Wall), Samuel Beckett (Endgame) or local history (last year's Penny Dreadful, a company benchmark). But even still, despite Legere's dyed-blonde hair and gray hipster jeans, they haven't committed to a year.

"We haven't really given it a date. There's going to be a look to the set that suggests things," says Leblanc-Crawford. "And we never, at any point, name a date or any particular references."

"It's set in a pop-music fantasy world," says McLean.

Close enough.

For all of the things that are new about this show, Zuppa's creation process and core ethics have been the same from the beginning. (Yes, it used to be Zuppa Circus, but the company has just dropped the Circus so as not to impede its touring schedule. Apparently if you've got Circus in your name, you must be a circus act. Say hello, for the foreseeable future, to the Zuppa Theatre Company.)

Their rehearsals are rigourous and regimented, asking for focus and commitment in an environment that, for this show at least, requires performers to act and sing while playing instruments while doing extremely physical stage work, a Zuppa hallmark.

"The majority of our rehearsal day is spent with people on their feet, doing stuff. That's the rule---if you have an idea, the best way to communicate it is to do it," says McLean. "If you think, 'Oh, it'd be great to have a microphone on stage,' it's your job to bring a microphone to rehearsal so then we can try it. 'Make things as active as possible' isan ethic."

"You have to always be offering things. The best day is when generosity is big, and the offers are coming," says Leblanc-Crawford. "Then it's harder on days when people feel small and are unable to offer things as much. Those are the days we have to figure out how to get into what is there."

"The only thing you can do that's wrong is resist generosity in the space," says McLean.

On an early January morning, Legere leads the dead-silent room through a series of yoga poses. The entire cast, McLean and dramaturge Bruce Barton are all barefoot and dressed for a workout. After they stretch, McCormack runs the group through a series of games that involve sprinting, screaming, tagging, running from wall-to-wall, singing and improv.

"Every day begins with: We do something physical together, we sing together and we play games together," says McLean. "So that spirit of playfulness and getting up and doing things translates into the day."

After the morning's training, McLean runs the actors through a short scene, then gives them a five-minute break. Bananas and nature bars are consumed. At 12:30 sharp, he announces that the room will become a sort of "Santa's workshop" of tasks, and hands out assignments to the performers.

Legere must "create a vehicle," a scene, for McCormack and Leblanc-Crawford. "You're always up high," he tells the latter. "Up high, or a pie?" she wonders. "Up high." She climbs atop the piano, McCormack slides under it. Legere finds his own space to begin work on his other job, a new monologue.

Stone sits in a corner, back against the window, to write another new speech. Gallant finds a table across the room, having been instructed to "take the 'I am a corpse' text and put it into the structure of the song."

McLean floats around the room, checking progress, tweaking and suggesting, then leaving performers to work.

Most theatre companies, at week 13 in the creation process and less than a month out from curtain, would not be spending time producing new material. But, as evidenced by the consistent quality, ingenuity and thoughtfulness of their shows, Zuppa is not most theatre companies.

"We all know what we want to achieve and we're willing to sacrifice whole monologues or whole scenes, which is usually what happens, right---you rehearse this scene for 10 weeks and it's like, 'Wait a minute, we don't need that anymore!'" says Stone. "And then you get rid of it. Which is totally cool because you can sense what the ultimate goal is, and you'll do whatever you want to for the ultimate goal."

"It never feels to me like work that we do is wasted, it just feels like some things have to be there for a while, some things have to be there forever, some things are dead ends," says McLean. "I think the difference is that where a playwright might work on a play for a couple years, we're basically combining rehearsal with the playwright's process, the two things are happening simultaneously."

"We're workshopping things as we go," says Leblanc-Crawford. "All the time."

"It's like films," muses Stone. "Loads of edits, all the deleted scenes: they're all necessary for the process, but ultimately for the finished thing you don't need them."

Back in the Neptune Studio, thecompany spreads itself across the lip of the stage and in surrounding seats while the composers give notes, mostly encouraging but straightforward when necessary---"I don't think you should hit the cymbal with the mallet because it sounds like shit," Christensen tells Stone---and sometimes hilarious.

"The melodica was loosey-goosey," says MacIsaac. "I recognize that people are running around. Beyoncé can't even do it."

The discussion moves onto technical aspects---should the guitar be upgraded, the piano is muffled, you might think about a mute for the trumpet.

"My only advice would be," says MacIsaac, "keep listening to each other."

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Are you going to ride your bike through the winter?