At the beginning of November, Lauren Taylor and a team of students including Alaia Hamer, Edward Dawson, Stefan Zubovic and Sophie Tang began work on, what would be for many of them their largest and most ambitious production to date. It would end up comprising of 18 actors playing a total of 120 characters over the course of 59 scenes that would employ 185 lighting cues, 150 sound cues, 40 pieces of set furniture, 320 props and 526 costume pieces — the sum of which would be Caryl Churchill's play, Love and Information.
Taylor, an MFA directing student, meets us in the basement of the Frederic Wood Theatre on Saturday, January 7. It is 12 days till opening night and on the stage above us, electricians are installing the lights and projection systems. By this point, the set is almost done. Backstage, several tables are lined up side-to-side and heaped with all of the props that will be used throughout the roughly 90-minute runtime of the show.
Despite how close we are to opening night and how much there still is to do, Taylor appears to be remarkably calm and collected. We are meeting on her lunch break, during a tight window of time before she has to rush upstairs for rehearsals.
As we set up for the interview, she shows me the massive, three-ringed binder that she carries with her, which contains her copy of the script for Love and Information. Every scene has been cut and pasted onto large sheets of graph paper. Around every line, there are neatly written notes outlining every detail of how the text will transfer to the stage.
Love and Information is of a modern and somewhat abstract school of theatre. It is built in seven parts, each consisting of a handful of scenes which are self-contained and can range from 30 seconds to 10 minutes in length. In addition to these seven sections, at the end of the play there is a collection of 20 to 30 extra scenes, most of which can be included or excluded at the director's discretion. The only exceptions are a collection of scenes entitled “Depression” which Churchill insists are essential to the production.
This makes the play like a giant box of LEGO bricks which the director is at liberty to assemble in almost any way they choose. There are no stage directions, notes on lighting, sound, sets, costumes, characters or any other aspects of the play — only basic guidelines on the ordering of scenes. Churchill is basically throwing up her hands and saying, “I wrote it. You do the rest.”
This makes Love and Information either the dream project of a director or the bane of their existence. Churchill is providing the opportunity to present an artistic vision that is almost entirely the director’s, with no real preconceptions to adhere to or subvert. The downside is that everything must be considered and decided upon during production — sets, costumes, props; all of it must be designed from scratch.
“I think I really liked the fact that the playwright gives you so much room, as a director, for interpretation,” said Taylor. “But it is daunting because it means that … the onus is on you to make some really smart decisions … so that you can create meaning for people who are watching these little snippets of scenes.”
From the beginning of production, Taylor closely worked with her design team to build a foundation of understanding about what the play was about and how it was going to be presented.
“Basically me and Lauren … had long meetings, starting in September, that would go on for about 8 to 12 hours each day,” said Stefan Zubovic, who is the lighting and projection designer. “And we would just bounce back ideas about the play, where is it taking place, what does it mean and big conceptual ideas from there.”
Finding unifying ideas in Love and Information can be an intimidating task. Scenes vary widely in subject matter, from fading stars and old flames, to putting radioactive implants in the brains of rodents.
"I think my biggest fear was that … there was no longer narrative arc — that it was all these tiny, self-contained little stories,” said Taylor. “I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, is the audience going to leave us because there’s no kind of beginning, middle, end story?’ But I also love that about the play too.”
The task of sustaining the audience’s attention then falls squarely on how these scenes are presented. The design team has to construct an atmosphere for the actors to perform in which uses visual and audio techniques to ensure that the momentum of the play is maintained.
“I didn’t want to have too much of a sense of audience fatigue,” said Taylor. “We’ve been using sound and some visuals as a … part of the experience that the audience will have when they see the play.”
We spot the sound designer, Edward Dawson, in the back of the theatre, where he is surrounded by wires and gear. Before heading up to speak with him, we wander around the stage where one of the props people is working. There is a massive wall at upstage-left on which hundreds of theatre alumni have signed their names. I recognize a few. The sound of a distant train passing by echoes through the theatre, and I pause for moment and think, “Wait, there are no trains around here.”
This sound was Dawson at work preparing one of the 150 sound cues that he is in charge of arranging. Of that total, around 20 were composed or recorded by him, and the rest came through other means such as the internet. By his guess, the whole process will have taken him 200 to 300 hours to complete.
When we speak to Dawson, he is at a point in production called “levels,” where he programs all of the audio for the show. Later that night, he and Taylor will run through everything to figure out what works and what needs to be changed. At this point in the production, sound, lighting and projection have not been entirely implemented, meaning that in roughly a week, the 335 cues associated with these departments will have to be finalized.
“I really like the projections,” said Zubovic. “I think those have worked out the best, and I think those are going to have the biggest ‘wow’ moment … [and] as you go through the middle and towards the end of the show, it really ramps up and creates some really beautiful and impactful moments.”
This collaboration between departments is an integral part of the production. Especially when it comes to the projections, Zubovic’s work is built upon the careful planning laid out by himself, Taylor and Sophie Tang, who is the set designer.
Tang’s final design is literally the frame that holds the production together, while also being the canvas on which lighting operates. Its layered, black-painted walls dictate not only lighting, but also the movements of actors and how transitions are performed.
“We started with the idea of human study,” said Tang. “We started with a box and then it evolved into separate frames, just to open up the space, and at that point it looked like a rib cage. It feels like it’s protecting what’s inside, which is the human. Then we changed the proportion of things a little bit, so at the end it looks like the inside of an old camera. It has this zoom-in feeling. It’s almost like a snapshot of humanity and also … the set is very cubic, so it emphasizes the human organic form inside.”
From the start, Tang estimates that developing the set took about a month, with construction taking an additional two to three months.
In addition to the set itself, Tang is also in charge of the 40 pieces of set furniture that are used throughout the show. Most of these pieces are taken from daily life, but several, which are used in the last scene, have been custom-made.
This last scene is something of a mystery which we could not get any significant details on from the people we spoke with. The most that we are able to find are some of the clothes that will be worn while it is performed.
We find these down in the costume department, which is a large, surprisingly sunny room tucked away in a corner of the basement. The door to this room stays closed at all times to prevent Fiona from escaping. Fiona is the dog who prowls behind us as the costume designer, Alaia Hamer, gives us a tour.
This room, like most of the others, seems to function as both a workshop and archive for the last 100 years of UBC theatre. Along most of the walls are shelves and cupboards chalk-full of shoes, strange wigs and endless racks of costumes which include those from the mysterious final scene of the play. There is even room for a Kurt Vonnegut quote.
While we film and take pictures, Fiona glares at us from a nearby chair.
The props room is quite similar, with shelves of strange items which have been donated, dug up at thrift shops or custom-made. Jessica Warren is painting a fake pumpkin when we arrive. She shows us around the two rooms that make up her workshop. They aren’t small, but they are so densely packed that it’s difficult to distinguish props from normal furniture.
Warren’s favourite prop is a crossbow that she eyes affectionately as she shows it to us. It comprises of entirely repurposed components and took her roughly a semester to make.
Through all of these different departments — lighting, sound, set, costume and props — there is a powerful sense of unity under the artistic vision of director Lauren Taylor. That at this point, with only a small amount of time remaining before opening night, everyone appearing calm, confident and ready for the tasks required of them speaks volumes about their own professionalism as well as Taylor’s adept hand at managing such an immense project. There are none of the Birdman-esque nervous breakdowns or frantic, last-minute decisions that you might expect, but rather an impressive level of preparedness.
There is no star actor in this show. The 120 characters are relatively evenly dispersed amongst the 18 performers, each of whom will have around six costume changes throughout the show. Much like the design team, the actors faced a very similar challenge in how to effectively build their characters from what, in some cases, was only a line or two of dialogue.
Between trying on wigs and running up to a rehearsal with the rest of the cast, Sarah Jane stops by to talk about her performance.
“We did a lot of discussion around the table about what this play means and the way we play the characters … So the play, Love and Information, we've decided is about human essence and how human essence is both love and information because humans are just made up of genetic code. But the thing that sets us apart from a machine or a computer is love. Basically each of the characters are meant to be as human as possible, bringing little idiosyncrasies in and different physicalities, and then really just drawing from the text to inform how you make those decisions.”
When we later sit in on the warm up before rehearsal, we get to see some of this process in action. Taylor observes from her place in the centre of the audience as the cast moves about the whole theatre — some listening to music, some shouting wordless sounds, others engaged in emotional conversations with either fellow actors or the empty space in front of them.
There is a kind of insane hilarity to watching this unfold. It’s even unpleasant at times when the sound gets particularly deafening. But right before the rehearsal begins, the actors line up — nine of them facing the other nine — and in perfect silence, they walk towards and then through each other. Once they reach the other side, they turn and repeat the movement, ending up right where they started. They are now ready to begin performing.
The stage clears, a table and some chairs are brought out, and two actors begin running through their lines. They aren’t quite perfect yet, and Taylor interjects once or twice to get them to project their voices and turn their bodies to be more visible. They improve quickly and are not stopped again.
There is no doubt that what we will see on the opening night of January 19 is as close to Taylor’s artistic vision as can be realized, but there is also no pretence about how much of a group effort this was to achieve. Just as the play Love and Information is the sum of 59 isolated, yet connected scenes, so too is the production itself the sum of many talented people’s great individual efforts, all dedicated towards the same ambitious end.
Correction: Print issues of this article state that the opening night of the show is on February 19. The opening is actually taking place on January 19. Sorry for any confusion that this might have caused.