Where: The Belfry Theatre, 1291 Gladstone Ave.
When: Thursday, Feb. 9 through Sunday, March 5
Tickets: Pay What You Want pricing, from 250-385-6815 or tickets.belfry.bc.ca
The film world handles the end of the world better than other mediums, thanks to the limitless budgets and groundbreaking effects at its disposal. Nothing reinforces that idea like a CGI asteroid the size of the sun screaming towards Earth.
In the absence of such props, live theatre must approach unforeseen futures in a radically different manner. Reneltta Arluk, who is directing playwright Yvette Nolan’s gripping end-of-the-world examination, The Unplugging, for the Belfry Theatre this month, said storytelling is paramount. Conversations between characters are integral, in order to bring the audience on board.
“I did a climate change play a long time ago in Boston, and we would do talkbacks after the show with scientists and advocates,” she said. “I remember one presenter saying, ‘We think that technology will save us from climate change, but it won’t. It’s community that will.’ And I never forgot that.”
Arluk said the pandemic put an even greater emphasis on those ingredients. The Unplugging is a post-apocalyptic parable set during a time when technology has failed us (hence the title), though it’s scope is decidedly minor-key. No fist-pumping credos or flag-waving codas were employed.
The two women at the heart story (played in the Belfry’s production by Marsha Knight and Lois Anderson) have been ousted from their village for being too old to bear children, and their relationship carries The Unplugging until a stranger (played by actor Aaron Wells) arrives seeking help.
For this version, the setting has been shifted from the Yukon to Northern B.C. That didn’t change anything thematically, Arluk said. “Yvette has written a script that is really open to interpretation. There is no direct place that it is located, it is located somewhere remote. You can think of any sort of cabin cluster that exists across Canada and place it in those remote areas.”
Arluk was involved with two previous productions of The Unplugging, one of which she directed for Yukon’s Gwaandak Theatre. The Belfry production is using other holdovers from the Gwaandak Theatre run, including Wells and set and lighting designer Daniela Masellis. Arluk said she enjoyed revisiting the play, which resulted in minor but meaningful tweaks only she and a few other confidants will notice.
“I often talk about how classical musicians get to deepen their work with a classical piece over and over again, and with theatre we get one-offs for the most part. If you get to delve in again it’s such a gift.”
Arluk said she did some unplugging herself coming out of the pandemic. The first Indigenous woman to graduate from the acting program at the University of Alberta, she was director of Indigenous Arts at the Banff Centre prior to the pandemic, and felt she was “doing really dynamic programming” before the lockdown. Two years of uncertainty changed everything, she said.
“The pandemic hit institutions in a way that they could have never predicted. It gutted a lot of our hearts.”
Change has been a constant ever since — and will continue to be a big part of her life in the short-term. She directed The Breathing Hole for Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, in both English and Inuktut, in November and December, and has been back and forth between Banff and Victoria since Jan. 8.
She will relocate to Vancouver permanently with her partner and son in July, after years in Banff. In that regard, the new production of The Unplugging could not have been better timed, she said. “I stepped back and re-evaluated my value systems. All of us [in theatre] did. Major life transformations happened during the pandemic.”
Much like the characters who are central to The Unplugging, Arluk has gone back to basics when balancing her personal and professional lives. “We need to think more about family. Now, decisions are made not just for my own success but for what it is best for my entire family. Family is important, connections are important. We really need each other.”