January 26 marked the second and last night of Jasper Theater Productions’ Theatre Tour. With a variety of performing arts acts presented in a multi-venue format, the show has made its mark as one of the most uniquely creative endeavours to come out of the Jasper arts scene in recent times.
Creating a show based around the various arts-friendly spaces in town had long been an appealing idea to JTP founders, Joost Tijssen and Pieter Van Loon. As it turned out, Jasper in January was an opportune time to put the idea to work.
“We wanted to give local artists a podium, and bring the community together while enjoying the arts,” said Van Loon.
The first threads of potential for the show came sometime around last September. Local artist John Strugnell had a history of art, poetry, and performance in Jasper. Tijssen and Van Loon realized the potential that Strugnell’s ideas held for a theatrical collaboration.
Strugnell’s recent artistic ventures had taken the shape of a three-piece creative group, featuring local talents Scott Crabbe and Wade Rimstad—the three had initially met at a performing arts gig last spring, and quickly bonded over shared interests in poetry and music. When Strugnell brought the Theatre Tour venture to the table, the idea clicked.
“As soon as I understood what it was they were trying to do, that was it, I was sold,” said Crabbe.
Building momentum, JTP sought out other local performers, including the acrobatic talent which makes up Cirque Aurora. With years of combined circus know-how, ranging from Sasha Galitzki’s extensive history of teaching and performing aerial silks to Laura-Ann Chong’s years of gymnastic practice with Cirque du Soleil, the pair were an obvious pick for the show. The two became a performance duo soon after their respective arrivals in Jasper, but the theatre tour presented a unique opportunity. Between their venue (local clothing boutique, Ransom) and the design of the tour, it was a font for creativity, Galitzki said.
“It was an opportunity to step outside of the box and do something a little different,” she said.
As the search for artists continued, Tijssen and Van Loon began looking inward—or, more specifically, to their past projects. From their theatre classes, they recruited Josh Norgard and Thayne Harden—two students with a particular aptitude for improv. The pair had developed a strong confidence within the group, and were contacted about putting on an act at the Downstream Bar.
“We just had really good performance chemistry. There was a good sense of play, so it was really easy for us to joke around and bounce off each other,” said Harden.
As the show dates approached, Crabbe, Strugnell and Rimstad—performing at Coco’s Café as Friday Night Funeral—completed writing their 15 minute set in two turbulent sessions. Poetic and musical breaks were largely pulled from their past work, whereas the dialogue was written exclusively for the show. They also took a more abstract approach to their writing, acknowledging that ambiguity worked to the advantage of the script.
“I mean, that’s kind of what poetry should be: figuring it out for yourself,” said Crabbe.
Cirque Aurora had to get to know their venue at Ransom, taking into consideration the stairs, clothing racks, and other unique physical dynamics of the space.
“I really needed to use the space of the store and understand where my movement pattern could be,” Chong said about the rehearsal sessions.
Their set followed the theme of overcoming one’s inner demons, with an act-by-act format highlighting personal growth. Fittingly, the material for the performance was newly-choreographed for the show, and presented uncharted territory for the performers, as it was their first time doing a two-person, aerial silk act together.
For the improv group, rehearsing may seem counterintuitive, but it’s a necessary part of the process, according to Tijssen. The group used specific games and performance structures during each show, and developing a familiarity with them, allowing more freedom to improvise. The 15 minute time limit meant they had to be even more quick on their feet than they were used to, making the practice hours highly valuable.
“Everything that doesn’t have to do with the improv itself—for instance, the introductions of the actors at the beginning of the show— needs to be as slick and perfect as possible, because those things you can rehearse,” said Tijssen.
As the acts developed, the tour seemed to be on track for opening night. However, a last-minute injury sidelined what had initially been planned as a theatrical comedy act, held at Sunhouse Café. That left an open, and somewhat daunting, space in the show. Tijssen and Van Loon reached back into their connections within the Jasper arts scene and found local performers Michael Rhodes and Connor Cunningham available on short notice.
Working with previously-developed material, Rhodes and Cunningham built a parody act based on the 1997 film, Titanic. With the show’s opening night approaching, the artists used the looming deadline—and the increasing amount of attention the tour was garnering—to motivate their rehearsing. Both nights completely sold out; 180 tickets were snapped up within a few days.
“We never ever thought we would sell out,” said Van Loon.”
And then it was showtime. Upon arrival, the audience was split into four groups, each rotating between the four acts and venues. Even for the long-time theatre pros, coordinating the show’s logistics was intimidating.
“The first evening is just like ‘hopefully we get through this and everything works out,’ and the second night you can look at it a little more and see what you want to change and improve.” said Van Loon.
For the artists, the multi-show format allowed them to hone their crafts and develop confidence in their environments. For the Titanic act, this meant creating more room for ad-libbing and interacting with the audience, while for the Friday Night Funeral group, this meant writing a reprise, which they implemented on the second night.
With the Theatre Tour now in the rearview, the show stands as an example of the creative capacities in Jasper— both in terms of artist and audience. The performers and planners encourage Jasperites to keep their eyes peeled for future events and Theater Tours, and to continue supporting local talent.
“It shows that there is the demand for theatre performances in Jasper,” said Chong.
Jack Mastrianni // email@example.com