On Stage: Helen Lawrence

With the help of TV veteran Chris Haddock, Stan Douglas brings post-war Vancouver to life in Helen Lawrence 

March 2, 2014

By Michael Harris

At the far end of Stan Douglas’s Cordova Street studio the city’s poisoned past is pinned in black-and-white photos. Here, a corrupt police chief who wants to hash out a deal with crime lords. Here, a veiled femme fatale, mistress to a man of power. These are real people — resurrected from the city archives — but also fodder for the globally celebrated artist who has three times represented Canada at the Venice Biennale and is the creator of the city’s best mural (the Gastown Riots masterpiece in the Woodward’s plaza).

As a re-creation of a moment in history, at least, his latest work, the full-scale theatrical project Helen Lawrence, does feel like a Douglas. “We all have this idea of nuclear families in the 1950s,” he says, “and we also have ideas about the impossible life people led during the war. But we’re very confused about that time in between.” The in between, circa 1948, is the focus of the play, which is rife with film noir characters and bleak intrigue. Douglas developed the story for several years, then brought in the creator of TV’s Da Vinci’s Inquest and Intelligence, Chris Haddock, to pen the script. It runs this month as part of the Arts Club’s 50th anniversary season.

The title character, played by Lisa Ryder, is an American who gets embroiled in a Vancouver overrun by organized crime and divided between (to the west) a more stable power set meeting at the old Hotel Vancouver, a since-demolished Edwardian gem that stood where Nordstroms rises today, and (to the east) Hogan’s Alley — a poor, mixed-race community where police tolerate brothels, gambling, and bootlegging. Ultimately, Hogan’s Alley, an “urban blight,” will be demolished.

“Post-war,” notes Douglas, “the whole world was rebuilding. It was this time of urban renewal when we had to decide how the future would be.” That promise of becoming, of being built up, is reflected in a clever bit of technology that took 18 months to perfect: in a kind of polyphony we experience two works of art at once. The first: actors performing on a bare stage. The second: an elaborate projected video. This projection is actually a bit of “live cinema” — four cameras track along the stage, filming the actors and feeding their performances onto the screen. They are thus dropped into complex digital sets: the broken-down shacks of Hogan’s Alley, the elegant rooms of the old Hotel Vancouver. In the same way that people at this time were building a “brighter” reality for themselves, we see the play itself being injected with the glamour and brilliance of a full filmic treatment. Two visual melodies, playing in counterpoint.

Helen Lawrence attempts to show us the city at a moment of extreme upheaval, when wiping away the undesirable was our surest survival strategy. “This play is really about the trauma of war,” says Douglas. “All those femmes fatales and tight-lipped tough guys, they were living in a post-traumatic condition.” It’s an ordeal Vancouver has only partially outgrown. When I walk out of Douglas’s studio into the dusk a lineup has already formed at the shelter across the street.

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