On a Saturday in early October, I attended the Long Take Collective’s From the Seat of a Canoe. That afternoon I floated along the Seine River with my paddling companions while actors, dancers and tiny art installations passed serenely by.
A few weeks later, I meet the show’s creator, Leigh Anne Parry, for a quiet drink at The Handsome Daughter. She’s fresh off wrapping yet another interactive performance piece, a blindfolded gourmet dinner with limited seatings. And she’s preparing to leave the city for a few months stay in a cabin with friends on the southern tip of Lake Winnipeg. They’re hauling a load of music equipment up with them. “I’m not a musician, but we’re going to play music together every day. I think it’s good for you,” she tells me in soft, measured tones.
Over the course of our hour together, we chat about living in Winnipeg, interconnections between art and science, and of course, From the Seat of a Canoe.
FULL: So this was the second year for From the Seat of a Canoe. How did you go about facilitating the project?
Leigh Anne Parry: I came up with the idea and went into research for two years. I played the director, creator and collaborator. Last year, my role was more curatorial. I took every artist that I wanted to be a part of it out to the river with me. We would look at the space, and talk about ideas. They would generate their own ideas too, and we’d work off of that. From there, I shaped the entire piece.
This year I played a bit more of a directorial role, as well as producer, writer, and stage manager. I had a crew of seven people collaborating on the entire piece together instead of individual installations, so that’s the difference between the two years.
FULL: I’m curious about the inspiration for the piece.
LP: The first time I ever went canoeing on the Seine River, I was struck by how all-encompassing the trees were. Everything was only a few feet away, and there was concrete everywhere. I felt like this space, metaphorically, was a bit of a crack in the cityscape. I saw a juxtaposition of wilderness and domestic life, and how humans relate currently to a sense of wildness.
If you go camping and there’s no one around, I find that there’s just something that happens to your brain that brings up more instinctual senses. Your imagination is bigger because of what you’re looking at; your audible ability is bigger, because maybe you’re not used to the space and the way trees echo. It creates something that, living in the city, we’re not used to.
I was interested in the Seine River because it had a little bit of that right in the middle of the city. I played a lot with the juxtaposition of city space with wildness. Living in cities, it’s become a rare thing to see the stars. Our relationship to wildness is different, and our consciousness in a space is very affected by technology
The concept for this year’s show was that of a futuristic theme park. I imagined it in a time when there’s no wilderness left. We don’t know what trees look like anymore, we don’t know what fresh air smells like. I was questioning if at that point we would see wildness as a bit of a commodity. Because in this imaginary future, as soon as we lose the connection to things that are outside of us, we also begin to lose imagination. In my thought process, there’s a connection between imagination and being in the wild. Without wilderness, we lose imagination and a sense of time. So perhaps in that future we commodify those things to be an experience.
FULL: In a way, it has already become a commodity. Platforms like Instagram gravitate toward wilderness and the concept of exploration.
LP: And you never have to leave your house to experience the Grand Canyon. This has some kind of effect on our brain, and I’m curious as to what that is. I’m imagining we realise this in the future and begin to look for ways to solve that problem, perhaps through a virtual reality. Because if we’ve lost it, how do we recreate this wild experience?
FULL: How did the neutral colours and old fashioned quality of the costumes fit into the piece for you?
LP: I was interested in the question of unifying the entire experience. I took the palette of what was already there to create a kind of fluid world. Thinking of it as a virtual world, the costumes were little sparkles in the exterior. As opposed to trying to stand out themselves, they’re trying to blend into the background. The costumes were also repeated because I wanted this mystery to exist where you weren’t sure if you saw something or not.
FULL: The level of detail in the show was impressive, with the handmade mushrooms and the tiny glass prisms lining the Seine. That’s very subtle yet time consuming work.
LP: I had seven collaborators – costume, sound tech, production, sound design, myself and then two people who worked on set installation. My process with all of them is to share what I’m thinking, take a look at the script, and then discuss the ideas that come out of it. The designer came up with this, and we had the money to pay people to set it up. But it was all very much an experiment, because it needed to be installed that morning and taken down that night.
FULL: I thought it was such an interesting way of playing with what’s real, what isn’t real. It took awhile for me and the people in my canoe to realise that the mushrooms were handmade and not naturally occurring in the environment.
LP: Exactly, that’s what I was looking for; that is parallel to my question about the difference between wilderness and not wilderness.
FULL: What made you decide to ground the experience of an art show in a canoe?
LP: Canoeing a lot. I’m also interested in theatre in a way that’s very focused on a single audience member’s experience in all of its senses. I hate theatre, and so I’m always asking why, because somehow I’m drawn to it at the same time.
This piece is also inspired by film, particularly Russian Ark. When I see theatre and film, I see film has more of an ability to use a lot of different techniques to create an emotional reception to the medium itself, not just the story, but in the technique that’s happening. For theatre, it becomes quite a bit more difficult, because you don’t have as many things at your disposal, especially in a seat. Your audience’s experience is a flat screen. They just sit and take that experience in. I’m interested in tying theatre to film techniques like the long take: a one cut, panning camera shot. Canoeing for me is this experience of panning - the slowness, the calmness - and I wanted to create a theatrical experience that gave the audience that perspective.
I’m very interested in how our spaces affect our psyche, and it is a lovely thing to bring people into a space that allows them an experience that maybe they’ve never had. I recognize in this piece that the base motivation is just to get people in a canoe, and then it builds on top of that in terms of what is possible in the setting. I think we get too used to our spaces sometimes, too comfortable in very undetailed spaces where there’s not a lot of information happening, and I think that deadens a lot of our senses.
In the spot where Van Gogh painted The Starry Night, there’s now a streetlight that shines down and you can’t see past the light. I think we don’t necessarily pay attention to how cities lead us to lose information about the natural world. We very easily accept how spaces are constructed. I’m interested in seeing if I can bring people into a situation that allows them to imagine something for themselves. I give them the agency to create a story, or to be confused.