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What I Learned From Reframed

Last week, a crazy idea that began 18 months ago came to fruition as we performed three new musicals, inspired by paintings in the permanent collection at the AGO, in the gallery where the works are hung.

Three teams of exceptional writers – Britta Johnson & Sara Farb, Julie Tepperman & Kevin Wong, and Erin Shields & Bryce Kulak – each chose a painting that inspired them in The Fudger Gallery last September, and set out to write a 20-minute musical. In December we did a reading of the first draft of the works with our phenomenal three actors (Kaylee Harwood, Tim Funnell and Eliza-Jane Scott), followed by a reading of the second draft in February. Following a brief rehearsal period, we presented staged presentations of these new musicals over 8 performances in the Art Gallery.

For me personally, the show was an utter thrill and a very exciting way to share the first original commissions from Acting Up Stage Company with our audience.

While the riches were plentiful, here is what most stands out for me as I reflect on this wonderful experience:

  1. We created casual encounters with musicals.
    The AGO was open to the public during 6 of the 8 performances that we did. While the ticketed audience members had seats in the gallery, it was possible for the public to watch the musicals from the two open archways on either side that led to adjacent gallery spaces. The most exciting moments for me were when gallery attendees stumbled upon the performance, watching from the sidelines. While only 500 people were lucky enough to get tickets to the event, several hundred additional people witnessed parts of the performance by accident as they discovered something unexpected, making the work feel very alive.
  1. We got people out of their comfort zone.
    A gallery, in many ways, is not an optimal substitute for a theatre. The acoustics are tricky, the seating isn’t raked and the audience is seated in full house light with only rudimentary stage lighting. And yet, the excitement of the audience to be outside of a dark theatre was palpable. People were more engaged from the first note and each audience really listened. Engagement was profoundly affected by breaking up the usual routine.
  1. The silos of disciplines broke down.
    Our audience was a mix of theatregoers (who perhaps don’t frequent the AGO very often) and gallery goers (who perhaps don’t go to the musical theatre very often). Ultimately, we had a room of art lovers, experiencing a collaboration between two disciplines. Breaking down the silos of the disciplines broadened our reach and impact.
  1. Something old met something new.
    The three new musicals were collaborations between three international visual artists who painted in the late 19th century and early 20th century, and six contemporary Canadian writers and composers. It was very moving to think about how the works of these great painters are continuing to inspire imagination and creativity.
  1. The audience truly “looked” at visual arts.
    Robert McQueen tells a great story about standing in line for hours to see a famous painting, only to watch the people in front of him give it a quick glance, take a selfie, and walk away. Reframed examined what happens when – in this impatient and busy society – we take the time to really look at works of art. The musicals inspired by these pieces demonstrated just how much richness can be found when you really examine and explore artistic intent, history and visual detail. After the performance, when the audience was invited to stay in the gallery, their examination of these magnificent works was remarkably deep.
  1. We built it, they came.
    Granted our capacity was low, but Reframed sold out much more quickly than we anticipated based on our patterns for our Spring production. The musicals were new and the experience “low-tech”, but the hunger for more outside-the-box experiences was palpable.
  1. Our Canadian writers are amazing (not that I needed Reframed to know that…).
    The audience was utterly entranced by Erin & Bryce’s romantic La Casati. They wept openly during Julie & Kevin’s The Preposterous Posthumous Predicament of Paulie Peel. They were dumbfounded by the power of Sara & Britta’s He Is Coming. There are several moments in each of these three pieces that rival (in my books) any of the great musicals in the cannon. And these 6 writers are only a small segment of the brave, talented, remarkable individuals creating new Canadian musicals. The future looks very bright indeed.

Thank to our partners at the Art Gallery of Ontario for collaborating on this project, and to Yonge Street Theatricals who produced it in association. So what’s next? Stay tuned! But needless to say, I’m particularly inspired by what transpired and excited to develop next steps and possibilities.