I would always rather our show provoke the audience to read many different meanings in what was performed than have them leave the theatre with the feeling that we did it “by the book.”

Still from Ars Mechanica’s production of “Show and Tell Alexander Bell”

Ars Mechanica is an emerging theatre company that incorporates projections, illusion (magic!), and physical movement to create new works that challenge audiences that tend to want to be active observers rather than passive bystanders. Their second show is in development, and highlights will be featured at the Festival of Original Theatre (FOOT2013) happening this weekend at the University of Toronto.

The company’s exciting use of interdisciplinary elements makes for a unique audience experience, continuing the tradition of theatre and the living arts as a way of engaging the audience. I can’t wait to check out their future productions and collaborations; it is long overdue for us to have magic, technology, and theatre on stage at the same time. 

Tell us about yourself. What is your interest or involvement in the performing arts?

I started acting in the theatre when I was six years old, and I think that since then, I have had a huge respect for performers and a great love for transformation and theatricality in general. My background is in film directing, but I never left the theatre for more than a month. My passion for moving images is best expressed in my work involving their projection around live bodies onstage. Live performance and film experience have something special to offer when joined together; and I like to believe that Ars Mechanica makes that perfect match.

Tell us about Ars Mechanica. What principles or mandate was it founded on?

Ars Mechanica was founded as an experimental performance troupe directly after its members’ first collaboration: Show and Tell Alexander Bell (performed in its first stage of development during October 2011). We are dedicated to theatrical creation and experimentation with an emphasis on historical narratives mediated by new technologies. We envision a cyborg theatre—a performance ambience where technology becomes one with our bodies and is bound to them through its presence, pervasiveness, and propensity for power outage.

Each current core member of the company brings different experiences with them that channel into a shared passion to explore history through intermedial theatre. Expertise in film and theatre direction (Vojin Vasovic), musical theatre and devising (Natalie Mathieson), magic and stage illusions (Joe Culpepper), and producing and performing (Sasha Kovacs) led to an interdisciplinary group where strong individual artists contributed to a collective process. Though this is our core team, we are always collaborating with new people every chance we get. Bringing into the room new artistic voices that come from different artistic backgrounds keeps us on our toes and reflects a desire to make our work truly interdisciplinary!

Can you tell us more about your upcoming performance at FOOT (Festival of Original Theatre) and highlights of your upcoming show in August?

This Saturday, at the Festival of Original Theatre, Ars Mechanica will perform several scenes from three different shows that are in various stages of development. The goal is to show the audience how we develop theatre that explores the living body in relation to technology, digital mediation, and social interaction.

Still from Ars Mechanica’s production of “Show and Tell Alexander Bell”

The most “complete” scene will be a core extract from Show and Tell Alexander Bell (performed in Toronto, October 2011; and in Arezzo, Italy, July 2012). Show and Tell Alexander Bell has been supported by the Ontario Arts Council for its second phase of development, has won the Theatre Creators’ Reserve grant through Theatre Gargantua, and was received with international acclaim at the 2012 CrisisArt Festival in Italy. We will be producing this show again in the summer of 2013 (keep your eyes open for news of dates and venue).

The next scene, which is currently in its second stage, is from another show currently in development, Charlotte. In this piece we are using Charlotte Salomon’s opus Life? or Theatre?, a volume of gouache paintings created when she was in hiding in the early 1940s to investigate the problems and possibilities of creating art from horror.

The final scene, which is from our newest show Knots (conceived in October 2012), is in its earliest stage of development. Knots pushes us into new territory as we develop a translation of the absurdist family farce adapted from the book Knots by Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing and The Lilys by Serbian playwright Aleksandar Pentelić.

Still from Ars Mechanica’s production of “Show and Tell Alexander Bell”

What do you see as the main challenges for the performing arts in general, and theatre in particular?

I would say that the biggest challenges, at least in theatre, come from trying to play by the rules. If the game is what sets us off, then the lack of rules is what excites us the most. I would always rather our show provoke the audience to read many different meanings in what was performed than have them leave the theatre with the feeling that we did it “by the book.”

Our creations are often more abstract than what you usually see in theatre, but I think that is also what makes (or will make) us unique in the Toronto theatre scene. The spectator is called to play the game with us (that’s maybe why we often call our shows “journeys”), and every performance is finalized only in the spectator’s eyes. If that image comes out blurry or with missing pieces, we expect both parties to take the effort (or blame!), to make it up and make it meaningful and beautiful.

Could you share some examples of the kinds of challenges that you have experienced, and how they were overcome?

As a company we chose to devise our work in the tradition of the postdramatic theatre, defined by German theatre scholar Hans-Thies Lehmann, who stated that postdramatic theatre (unlike dramatic theatre) can develop out of any theatrical element, not only the text. That is how we develop our scenes from scratch: sometimes we start our creation process with an image in projection; other times we’ll use atmosphere as our starting point. We can also begin to create just with a small idea for movement, lighting, a word, a song, a magic effect, etc.

Still from Ars Mechanica’s production of “Show and Tell Alexander Bell”

The issue is that with this variety of choice and tools, it is a great challenge to find a process for our work. If we can start from anywhere and make any choice, where is the “right” place to start, and which ones are the “right” choices? It can be frustrating to revisit a scene from different angles over and over again.

I am guessing I haven’t answered what challenges we overcame, but rather what challenges we would like to have. I love how we challenge each other in the room. And if I had short-term memory loss, I would like so much to meet Natalie, Sash, and Joe again and again, every day, on the stage and the screen.

What advice would you give to emerging performing artists?

Explore; see shows; be direct and honest with your comments; hang out with tech people (we live in their age!); apply to everything that is worth your time; if you fail, ask how you can improve; make contacts; spread the word; risk; don’t have a lazy jaw; look more at the reactions on the stage; be childish with technology; don’t let it become your show; play, play, play … (PS: If you can find a blondie, ginger, and a magician for a company, you just hit the jackpot!)

Check our website for more information: www.arsmechanicatheatre.com, or follow them on Twitter @ArsMechanica. Below is another video featuring Telephoney, a Prank call installation by Emir Tops and Ars Mechanica.