1982 Michael Hollingsworth was known for hip black comedies (one of
closed by the Toronto police) and video-rock stagings of
Orweall’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World; he may have seemed
the playwright least likely to spend the next thirty years writing
about Canadian history. But that year, Canada presented a pageant in
which a British queen and a Québécois prime minister marked the
repatriation of the Constitution. Michael was drawn to the drama, and
suddenly became aware that he barely understood its significance.
Born to Welsh and Irish parents, he had arrived in Canada at the age
of five and, like most
Canadians of the TV generation, knew more
committed himself to writing a comprehensive cycle of plays to be
With unerring taste for the sublime and the tormented, Michael reduced hundreds of historic figures to forty-eight essential characters, and papered the walls of his apartment with a totally unproduceable four-hundred-page draft. Working with fearless actors in lively workshops, he rediscovered the old tricks of theatrical “doubling” – early exits, delayed entrances, monologues to hold the stage while costumes are changed – and then devised charts of characters and scenes to track the actors’ paths. The stories of Donnacona and Cartier, Champlain and Anadabijou, Brebeuf and Atironta, Frontenac, Garangula, Les Filles du Roi and dozens more were condensed until they could be staged with a cast of nine on the slim resources of VideoCabaret and Theatre Passe Muraille. Since the première of New France in 1985, Michael has launched a thousand fools upon the stage in twenty-five productions of an expanding repertoire of History Plays.
To mount these grand productions on modest budgets depends on the priceless collaboration of many great souls. From the beginning, Michael worked with visionary designers over multiple productions, and each added immeasurably to the ongoing creation of the style. Chris Clifford’s video-landscapes for Michael’s earlier work revealed the power of closely framed gestures, quick highlighted appearances and a limitless cast of characters. In writing the History Plays, Michael reclaimed this dramatic vocabulary for the empty stage with rapid cross-plotting, in pithy scenes, defined by the stage direction: “The lights fade out, in another playing area the lights fade in.” Lighting and set designs by Jim Plaxton (1985–99) and Andy Moro (since 2000) match the playwright’s formal idea, using shards of light to frame the actors, and brief blackouts to edit their appearances and vanishings. To fill these flickering scenes with unforgettable images, Astrid Janson designs hyperbolic costumes that transform the actors’ bodies with bellies, bottoms, breasts or biceps, and instantly establish period and place without further scenery. The props and puppets by Brad Harley and Shadowland, and the wigs by Alice Norton, complete a handmade spectacle of great beauty and wit.
The History Plays are ultimately brought to life by seven or eight actors, playing dozens of continuing characters in tiny shards of light with Dervish-level choreography. The challenge has always attracted marvellous actors, forming a slowly changing ensemble whose veterans pass on to newcomers the arts of finding one’s light and not losing one’s moustache. Between productions, Michael develops new drafts with the company who take the stage with cold pages in hand, channel astonishing characters, track seven character arcs and provoke bellyfuls of laughter. In rehearsal, lighting and sound designs are integrated from day one; the actors intensify their characterizations and trim all but the most eloquent moves or gestures, trusting the precise frames of light to magnify a raised eyebrow. In stylized make-up they play any age, sex or ethnicity; they exit as one character and re-enter thirty seconds later as another; backstage, the intricate dance of costume changes and prop-handling never pauses. Playing with the actors, through thousands of cues are the invisible performers: the late composer and musician Brent Snyder, and the managers of lighting, sound and stage.
Michael and his collaborators have created a vast human comedy -- a nose-tweaking, beard-pulling, rib-tickling, gut-wrenching satire of Canada's heroes and hosers, winners and losers -- that does answer the question "Why is this country the way it is?" with regular eerie resonance. But finally, it is the audience who make epic theatre possible, who enlarge cardboard swords into armies, who allow a few actors and bits of cardboard to conjure a world. In Michael's generous theatrical vision, many characters contend for the spotlights of history, many players harmonize their artistry, and the most trusted collaborator in the dramatic journey is the audience, for it is on the stage of their imagination that the company plays.
Deanne Taylor is Artistic Co-Director of VideoCabaret and Associate Director of The War of 1812.