On the Fence : Extra!


Sunday, December 11, 2005

The computer behind the curtain: Don't fear the new, theatre artist says
National Post
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
By J. Kelly Nestruck

Edward Albee once explained the difference between the theatre and film like this: "You can take a deaf person to a movie; you can't take a blind person. You can take a blind person to a play; you can't take a deaf person." ("Except for a critic," the playwright added.)

When you're talking about Marie Brassard's multimedia solo theatre, Albee's aphorism rings particularly true. In shows like Jimmy, The Darkness and Peepshow, the Quebecoise actress, director and writer uses processors and computers to twist and turn her voice into a hundred shapes and dozens of different characters. "It's an amazing tool for an actor," says Brassard over the phone from Berlin, where she is taking part in an electronic music festival. "It's amazing how it feels when you suddenly open your mouth and it's not your voice coming out any more but the voice of somebody else.

"It's a bit like being an etre mutant [mutant creature]. Those machines add some capabilities to the physical possibilities of what acting can be. It's very liberating."

Brassard, who collaborated with fellow theatrical innovator Robert Lepage until forming her own Infrarouge Theatre five years ago, doesn't really believe Albee's pronouncement, however. Mime, after all, is a form of theatre inaccessible to the blind. And, she notes, there's the late Derek Jarman's Blue -- a film that played its soundtrack over an unchanging blue screen.

Still, her own experience makes it seem like Albee was on to something. "When I performed [Jimmy] in Quebec City last year, there was a blind musician who came to see the play," says Brassard, who is bringing Jimmy back to Toronto's Buddies in Bad Times Theatre next week. "He very seldom goes to the theatre and said that he was very, very excited because soundwise there was a lot of material."

(You can definitely take a French-speaking person and an English-speaking person to Brassard's plays, by the way; she writes them originally in French but can perform them in either language depending on what city she's in.)

In Jimmy, a work originally created in 2001 that has toured to Dublin, Sydney, Paris, Munich and Brussels, Brassard uses an old Yamaha sound processor from the 1970s to vocalize the title character, an imaginary homosexual hairdresser who was created in the dream of a Second World War general, and several other otherworldly figures. After the general dies in his sleep..., Jimmy is suspended in time for 50 years until a Montreal actress dreams him back into existence.

In her newer shows, Brassard has begun morphing and teasing her voice with state-of-the-art sound processors attached to computers. "Those are processors that are used usually by [music] studios, when people are making records, to create some kind of effect or to correct certain intonations," she explains. Few musicians use them live like Brassard -- though Cher does. "That's why her voice always sounds like it has been processed."

In theatre, sound design is often limited to a background element, for colour or atmosphere. "It's amazing how we forget how important sound is, how evocative it is," says Brassard, who has begun to experiment with the possibilities of light projections with Peepshow, which premiered last spring. "We always think that theatre is a mix of images and text -- sound can be such a thick and important element."

Part of why others haven't followed in Brassard's footsteps is the worry that theatre that becomes too technical will alienate audiences. "I think that's a cliche that we have to destroy now," Brassard says. "It's like people were scared of the telephone 50 years ago ... Everyone has a computer; everyone is familiar with that."

As Brassard's moving shows show, woman and machine can help broaden our understanding of deeply human things like sex and sexuality. "There's always someone behind the computer," Brassard says. "We're not in the android era yet."
posted by J. Kelly 10:39 PM

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