When it comes to performance, does it matter whether an actor is male or female? Who should be cast in which roles?
It’s an ongoing discussion in the world of professional theatre, and it’s one that’s not likely to stop any time soon. For New Westminster-based Patrick Street Productions, it’s an issue they’re taking to heart – and to the stage.
The theatre company is staging Herringbone, a one-person cabaret musical by Canadian playwright Tom Cone. The twist? The show will be brought to life by a female performer and a male performer, Luisa Jojic and Peter Jorgensen, in alternating performances.
“It’s going to be a really exciting, surprising ride that we take the audience on every night,” said Jorgensen, who’s also the co-artistic producer of Patrick Street Productions.
The show, which is onstage at the Anvil Centre from Sept. 24 to Oct. 6, calls for the solo performer to play a dozen roles of varying genders and ages. As far as Jorgensen knows, this staging will be the first time Herringbone has been performed by a woman.
He’s hoping some members of the audience will be inspired to go twice and see how the show changes with a woman in the role versus a man.
“It’s part of the conversation we want people to have: does gender or sex matter in how it impacts you?” he said. “The show does go to some dark, weird places in Act 2. I’m interested to see if it falls on people differently.”
The story, for those who’ve yet to encounter the darkly comic Off-Broadway hit, is set in 1929. It follows eight-year-old George as he’s taken under the wing of a veteran vaudeville performer, becomes possessed by the spirit of his mentor’s vengeful partner and suddenly develops a remarkable talent for dancing.
Unlike many other solo shows, this one’s a full, two-act musical, brought to life by the single performer and a three-piece band.
That makes it a big job for musical director Sean Bayntun – “a monster on the piano,” as Jorgensen calls him – who has learned the score in two completely separate keys to accommodate the different vocal ranges of the two performers.
Not to mention the demands on Jorgensen and Jojic in terms of acting, singing and dancing.
“Everything I’ve ever learned is in this show,” Jorgensen joked.
Jorgensen’s played some big roles before – Harold Hill in The Music Man, Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady – but they don’t come close to this one for the sheer demands on the performer.
There’s the memorization of two acts’ worth of lines, songs and choreography. There’s the act of creating believable characters – with different physicality, different voices, different accents – and switching rapidly between those characters. Just navigating the “mental geography” of the space and remembering how tall one character is intended to be, or who that character is meant to be looking at at any given moment, is a challenge unto itself.
“It’s like the old anecdote of patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. It’s like trying to do that, but with 10 different limbs,” Jorgensen said with a laugh.
Jorgensen and Jojic are both working with director Kayla Dunbar, and the blocking for both performances remains essentially the same since they’re working with one lighting design for all the shows. But the two performers aren’t watching each other’s rehearsals.
“It’s so easy to absorb another artist’s choices,” Jorgensen said, noting it’s the same reason he’s put away the cast soundtrack. “You never want to imitate; you want to create.”
Adding to the experience for the audience will be the fact that the Anvil Centre Theatre is being set up cabaret-style; the main theatre seating is being pushed back, and a dozen or so tables will be set up surrounding a small stage. There will even be a bar right in the theatre.
Jorgensen hopes people will choose the cabaret seating.
“It’ll bring a whole other level of enjoyment and excitement to that production,” he said, pointing out you don’t often get a chance to experience theatre just a couple of feet away from the actors.
(Don’t worry, though; if you’re not keen on the idea of being that close to the spotlight, you can still choose regular theatre seating.)
Jorgensen is looking forward to feedback from the audience after this one – especially from those who see the play twice to experience both actors’ takes on the show.
He really wants to find out whether this experiment in casting, and the switch in sexes, makes a difference to people’s experience of the story.
“Part of me kind of hopes that it doesn’t, and part of me hopes that it does,” he said. “I honestly don’t know.”
What: Herringbone, a one-person musical by Canadian playwright Tom Cone, with music by Skip Kennon and lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh.
Who: Presented by Patrick Street Productions, starring Luisa Jojic and Peter Jorgensen in alternating performances.
Where: Anvil Centre Theatre, 777 Columbia St.
When: Previews Sept. 24 and 25, opening nights Sept. 26 and 27, running until Oct. 6. (No shows Sept. 30 and Oct. 1.)
Tickets: Preview $24, tables $27, sides $32, centre $36 (plus service charges). Students/seniors: Preview $24, tables $24, sides $27, centre $32 (plus service charges). Buy through www.ticketstonight.ca.