November’s Precarious: Peterborough ArtsWORK Festival has been a fascinating moment for the arts in Peterborough. Through plays, art shows, workshops, and talks (and, full disclosure, an event Electric City Magazine took part in, The Biography Project), it has been an in-depth exploration of the challenges of artists and anyone else living in a precarious economy, pursuing their passion while still trying to make a living and keep a roof over their head.
That word, ‘ArtsWORK,’ is an interesting one. It’s ‘artwork,’ the final product, the beautiful thing that’s hung on the wall for the public to see. But it’s also ‘art-work,’ the sometimes beautiful, but sometimes painful, and generally exhausting effort that comes before. The artwork may only last for a moment, but the art-work took weeks of production, months of thought before that, and a lifetime of experiences that brought the artist to this specific point.
Invisible, the new play by Eryn Lidster, which runs November 26 to 28 at the Theatre on King, is a play about the art-work behind the artwork. It follows the slow, difficult work of putting on a play, piece by piece, from casting through rehearsal to performance. There are no great revelations, no moments of high tension, just a celebration of the mundane (and often hilarious) moments of production: vocal warmups, lighting cues, memorizing lines, making awkward small talk with people who you barely know but with whom you’ve been thrust into this crazy endeavour.
And it’s produced with similar simplicity and directness. The Theatre on King stands in for itself (or a theatre very much like itself) on a mostly empty stage (as it would be during production). Dialogue, which was partially created collectively with the actors, is naturalistic and understated. Costumes consist of the type of old t-shirts and ripped workout pants people wear to rehearsal. (One subtle but hilariously effective running gag involves one character always showing up in a never-ending procession of shirts from old plays she’s done.)
And yet, as the naturalistic action progresses at the fore of the stage, behind them, something altogether more unusual is happening. Local visual artist Ann Jaeger, dressed in equally casual painter’s overalls, is set up, a tray of brushes and watercolour paints, a massive canvas hung along the back wall.
She is the observer and documenter, painting moments and details onto her canvas, creating a beautiful montage work exploring the process of the play. Every moment comes alive, in literal and figurative form—the director warming up her actors by telling them to move like sharks turns into jagged shark teeth; a moment of confusion on stage turns into a thick, oozy abstract scrawl. (Jaeger creates a new canvas each night, each time different, and the plan is to auction her work off at the end of each performance.)
The challenges of art-work are woven into the fabric of Invisible. Things keep getting in the way: limited space and time in the theatre, limited budgets, limited schedules. A cold travels through the production, with first one person sick, then another, then another. The actors try to work out blocking over the whining sound of a drill as the stage manager tries to get the set ready. One of the funniest (and most painfully true) scenes in the play involves the herculean task of four people trying to find some time they can all get together to rehearsal, in between part-time jobs, side gigs, school, hobbies, families, and all the billion other commitments that get in the way of making art.
But somehow, through all of this art-work comes the artwork. The play climaxes with Invisible, the play-within-the-play. It is, quite honestly, not that great. Like so much community theatre, it’s a little bit creaky, a little bit overacted, a little bit pretentious and on-the-nose. It’s the kind of play that comes and goes, that audiences go to or (more often) decide they can skip, that they maybe don’t get or don’t care enough about to get.
But this time, we do care. Despite all its imperfections, or maybe because of them, to us, the viewers of the larger Invisible, it is beautiful. We see the drive and the passion behind it. We see the problems solved, the paths not taken. We see the relationships it helped to grow, and the sacrifices that went into making it real. We see the art-work and the artwork. And it is all crystalized in the canvas hung behind the play, now fully realized as the crazy, unlikely, strange jumble that went into this artwork, and that goes into all work.
Invisible runs November 26 to 28 at the Theatre on King (more info).
Photos by Andy Carroll.