Several wooden platforms, a gravel pit and hanging street lamps fill the performing space of the University of Winnipeg’s theatre building. The set for The Possibilities - the theatre and film department’s current production - looks like a darker, meaner version of a schoolyard play structure.
But this isn’t a playground and it isn’t simply a set either.
It’s a laboratory where 11 actors-in-training will have their skills and hearts stretched by Howard Barker’s collection of conflict-related vignettes.
“It is very much a lab,” says director Chris Brauer. “On a night by night basis, the actors have a lot of freedom to open their hearts; to explore their emotional palettes and work with their partners.”
“When I chose this particular play, it’s not because it’s happy-go-lucky or even the usual, ‘You left me and I’m sad’ scenario. It demands an extreme emotional palette; one that’s experienced by a majority of the world’s people, but only a minority of our own (local) population.
“The goal ... is to learn and grow. We want them to own their performances and try shit out.”
Kristian Jordan and Amanda Kristjanson-Reshaur are two of the actors being stretched by Barker’s poetic meditation on barbarity. They’ve been rehearsing long hours with their cast mates, preparing for the show, which opened this past Tuesday, Feb. 7.
“Barker doesn’t just want to entertain,” says Kristjanson-Reshaur. “He wants to take us emotionally and intellectually as far as possible.”
“There’s a Barker quote that goes, ‘In life we always say this far and no further; my sanity demands it. In the theatre we must say this far and further; my sanity demands it,’” says Jordan.
The Possibilities certainly pushes the limits of content.
Each of the play’s 10 scenes is set in the context of a past, present or imagined future conflict: the Russian Revolution, the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide, among others.
The play is an emotional mountain the students try to tackle in their own way.
“I don’t think any of the actors have lived situations like they face in this play,” Kristjanson-Reshaur says. “We have to scale it down and personalize it.”
“After we auditioned, Chris asked us to tell him a story of a decision we faced in our life that - in the context of our life - was catastrophic,” Jordan says.
“A decision that changed the path we were on,” Kristanjanson-Reshaur adds.
“You have to put the play in the context of your life,” Jordan finishes.
Brauer acknowledges it’s a challenge for his young actors to tackle the weighty subject material.
“That is the great struggle. We’re working very hard not to look at it politically. Each vignette is really about choice. How does the given individual respond to a set of circumstances that promise to be transformative. Even - or perhaps especially - because it’s in the face of death. The cast will go as far as they go with it.
“What’s great about this group,” he adds, “is how far they go; how they let it rip.”
The Possibilities runs until Saturday, Feb. 11 at the Asper Centre for Theatre and Film on the University of Winnipeg campus. Tickets are free, but reservations are recommended. Call 204-786-9152 or visit www.theatre.uwinnipeg.ca.
Published in Volume 66, Number 19 of The Uniter (February 8, 2012)