Victoria Fringe 2016: ‘Birdwatching’ blends dreams and reality for surreal performance

Provided by First and Last Productions

Provided by First N Last Productions

There is nothing unusual about UVic students participating in the Victoria Fringe Theatre Festival.

Since its arrival in Victoria in 1986, the festival has often featured UVic talent: Just last year, fourth-year Theatre student Kat Taddei won the award for Favourite New Play for her production, Two.

So what is it that makes Birdwatching stand out from the crowd?

Birdwatching is Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds meets Calvin and Hobbes in a rave, [at which] Freud appears and asks you to talk about your mother problems,” says director and UVic alumna Kate Loomer.

A little unusual, perhaps.

Birdwatching is written by fifth-year Theatre major Jack Hayes and produced by First N Last Productions, a company run by both Hayes and Loomer. The play is a blend of dance and drama, with reality and dreams blending together for the audience as it does for the characters on stage.

Written from the perspective of Nolan, played by third-year Theatre major Emma Grabinsky, Birdwatching is all about change. Nolan is a young woman struggling to cope with several major upheavals in her life: both in her relationship, as she becomes engaged prior to the events of the play — and her location, as she moves from Vancouver to Toronto.

These changes manifest themselves in an inability to distinguish real life from dreams. Rachel Myers, a third-year Theatre major who plays Tannis, Nolan’s fiancée, says that the lack of a distinct line between realism and surrealism makes for exciting theatre.

“Something that I love [about the play] . . . is that the dream space, or the surrealism, melts so wonderfully into the realism,” Myers says. “It’s so fluid, the way that they are together. It makes for a good representation of how people’s minds work — they’re in reality but they can still be in their mind and they can still be experiencing things that no one is aware of.”

In keeping with the play’s central themes, the production and writing of Birdwatching has seen plenty of changes. When the Student Alternative Theatre Company (SATCo) put it on as the final play of their 2015 season, Nolan was named Edgar, and the play finished with a Hamlet-esque death for nearly everyone.

“Even when we did our auditions, and our callbacks for auditions, we had a totally different script than we have now,” Hayes explains. “I’ve rewritten it three times since then, and then we did a workshop process within the rehearsals to iron out the last kinks and even stick a new ending onto the thing.”

With Hayes in the room while the actors rehearse, everybody involved had the chance to make creative changes to Birdwatching — something that comes naturally to a UVic-based cast that has spent their whole university career collaborating with other talented writers, actors, and designers.

“When I think about how our sound guy is a rave DJ doing festival stuff, and he did the design program here,” Loomer says, “[and] the stuff our costume designer comes up with is spectacular . . .  [and] Shaun, our set designer, has built every single set that you’ve probably seen on the UVic stage recently.

“It’s an incredibly talented group of people that [are] either UVic students or have just graduated, and it’s just fantastic that I got to meet them and that we have that connection to the university.”

Hayes also acknowledges how helpful it is to have a team full of creative people ready to offer input.

“Things from the rehearsal bled into the script, both consciously and unconsciously, which is tricky because as a writer you want to have full agency of a project,” Hayes says. “[But] I honestly believe, having worked on this project, it’s given me a more healthy respect for the fact that I think theatre, as a whole, might learn to be less ‘Oh, this is the one person that did it.’ And that’s what the world is learning right now — that we’re better off learning from each other.”

It’s a grand statement, and it’s not the only one in a play that deals with themes of Freudian psychology, mental health, and trauma. It’s also ambitious, especially considering that this is Hayes and Loomer’s first ever go at producing a Fringe show. But with a young cast that’s eager to earn their spot at the festival, don’t be surprised if this play can walk the talk; doing so would be the furthest thing from unusual.

Birdwatching premieres Friday, Aug. 26, at The Roxy Theatre (Fringe Venue 7), with subsequent shows on the 27th, 29th, and Sept. 1, 3, and 4. For more info, check out intrepidtheatre.com.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Taddei was a fifth-year student. She’s in her fourth year. We’ve corrected the article and regret the error.

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