Exploring the Microcosmos: Megan Stewart’s The Builders
8pm September 10-12, SFU Woodwards at Goldcorp Centre for the Arts
Dillon Ramsey words
Paula Viitanen photos
Anyone who has had the privilege of experiencing Megan Stewart’s theatre & projects will no doubt remember the mesmeric environments that define each performance: wondrous and whimsical, her sets seem to enclose the audience in dreamworlds made of mixed and repurposed materials, whose visual and spatial transformations effect an aesthetic that somehow manages to be both novel and rustic. But in her most recent production, premiering this week at SFU Woodward’s, the set is much more than a space where the performance takes place; rather, the plot and structure of The Builders is premised on what Stewart and her team have built together over the past months – and in many ways, the set is as much a player in this theatre piece as any of the actors.
This is because the inspiration for The Builders comes from the phenomenon of “art environments” – a practice in folk or outsider art where an area is entirely transformed through a process of collecting, collaging, and constructing an otherworldly landscape, often from found objects. Stewart has been interested in and inspired by folk art environments for as long as she herself has been an artist. To this end, The Builders has been evolving in her mind for years; and after extensively examining eclectic sites such as Maud Lewis’s house and Andy’s Dummy Farm in Eastern Canada, as well as Mary Nohl’s house, the Forevertron, and Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park in Wisconsin, it is ready to be shared with an audience. “I was amazed at the resourcefulness of these people who built such incredible structures and spaces – usually just with found materials – and by their unceasing drive. Once they started this transformation of their space, it was all that they did, and they would work their entire lives to transform the spaces that they occupied.”
This creative, impetuous, and perhaps preposterous compulsion is at the centre of Stewart’s performance. She proposes that devised theatre – one of her specialties, since several of her past directing projects developed through collaborative processes with her ensembles – can be compared with the construction of art environments. “I’m really interested in transformation as it exists within art environments and also within devised theatre; there’s a very similar transformation at work within both processes,” explains Stewart. “Similar things happen with theatre, in terms of how you can take objects or spaces and use them in unfamiliar ways, or put them into new contexts, and all of a sudden it opens up new possibilities of what they can be or what they mean. And I think both processes are very rooted in a desire to play and to transform.” Though not a builder of art environments herself, Stewart acknowledges how as a theatre maker, her artistic needs are effectually similar. “One of the things that was really attractive for me was this idea of an ongoing process – an effort to create and transform that lasts your whole life,” says Stewart. “I feel a connection to this constant desire to be making things and to be transforming spaces. The other thing about the art environment that I’m interested in is the processes we go through our whole lives to feel at home within a space. I think that no matter what our living situation is, there are things that we do – processes and daily rituals we go through – to make a space feel more like ours.”
Since the springtime, Stewart has worked with her ensemble to explore the ways in which art environments are created and transformed as critical sites of self-expression. “We did a lot of work with claiming and marking spaces, and how you do that, and what you do once you have marked your space – how you transform the inside and make it magical to you, or make it meaningful to you, and what that looks like.” And though she envisioned and directed The Builders – working with a set designer, a musician, and a lighting designer to bring the whole work together – Stewart encouraged her ensemble to develop their own art environments autonomously in the space during the last two months. Much like the builders of folk art environments throughout the world, Stewart’s collaborators became adept at seeking, reclaiming, or serendipitously chancing upon the materials they required, and continuously expanded each of their four unconventional dreamscapes. The finished product is a multidisciplinary performance artwork where the normal notions of “stage” and “set” are abolished in favour of a spellbinding fusion of visual art installation and theatre.
Each of the eponymous builders works with a different material – which might loosely be described as metal, plants, plastic, and reflective surfaces – and through them, the builders reconsider not only the value of everyday objects, but they redefine, and redesign, their spaces and themselves. The result is a theatre set that is remarkable to behold: immense, immersive, and spectacularly imaginative, the set of The Builders has been installed in a large visual arts studio in the basement of SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts; and as the performance progresses, the audience is welcome to wander the room at will, provided that they respect the boundaries the builders have positioned around their territories.
And as the lights brighten and dim as though incalculable increments of time are surging indeterminately by, and ambient musical harmonies and discords imbue a resonant and meditative mystique, and the fragrance of the ageing ivy fills the room, the spectators traversing the world of The Builders – with its junkyard dreamcatchers and its funhouse mirror of recycled disks – will be impelled to rethink their own relationships to the objects they own and the spaces they inhabit.