Backstage with Dark Matter Theatre Group

Dark Matter Theatre Group
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The Kismet Theatre is a homey venue. The entrance hidden in the dark of Victoria St., is next door to the larger Harbour City Theatre. The front doors of the Kismet swallow the eager theatre-goers, but their journeys to their seats are short-lived. The entrance unfolds into the main auditorium, which is connected to a close, seating arrangement, a simple one-person-per-use bathroom, the sound design equipment table, and lastly, the main stage. The auditorium seats a mere 40, with the last row on an incline for people to see the stage. Like the venue, the stage is small, with two curtained-off areas to the left and right. A variety of stage props are hung on either side of the stage, and four rotating block-pillars adorn the background. 

“Look at this poor guy. He’s all beat-up,” Kayleen (played by Brianna Wiens) says as she holds an owl statue.

“Spent his whole life up there on that roof. Looking down,” Doug (played by Jonathan Hamilton) replies. 

The two lifelong friends, and main characters of Gruesome Playground Injuries, are 33. Kayleen has been admitted to a health institution and Doug has come to visit her, much to her surprise; she thought he was dead. The last encounter they had was five years prior; Doug was unconscious due to an injury and Kayleen visited him, in an attempt to heal him with a power that Doug is convinced she has. In this scene, however, Kayleen lies about visiting him, despite Doug’s insistence on remembering her presence. 

Kayleen, acting on a recurring problem throughout her life, has hurt herself. She has also established her current health earlier in the scene, titled A Blue Raspberry Dip: “They’ve got me on about 25 medications or something. Like a swirl of ice cream in me. You know how they dip the ice cream and it gets a hardened shell… I’m a blue raspberry dip.” 

The owl Kayleen holds, although she denies remembering it, is a momento from her and Doug’s past. The duo thought the owl statue was an angel, and it stood atop their old school, St. Margaret Mary’s, where they met. Doug recovered this portal to the past during a work-related incident that left his leg mangled, which explains his entrance to the scene sporting a defined limp and walking cane. 

“Do you want to touch my scar?” Kayleen asks, breaking a moment of silence. 

Doug doesn’t answer, but Kayleen stands and moves towards him. She raises her shirt for Doug to touch her stomach. 

“God, Leenie,” he exclaims.

“That’s my scar, Dougie. It’s like a roller coaster across my stomach. You’re not the only retardo on the planet,” Kayleen says.

The foul humour allows for some relief of tension. However, the audience response is mixed—some people are still holding their breath, drawn too deep into the play to react. Doug, on his knees, keeps his hand on Kayleen’s stomach.

“You didn’t even like him. You said he was a stupid-looking angel,” Kayleen says.

“You do remember,” Doug says.

“Yes, goddamnit, I remember my goddamn angel.”

Although spirits are on the rise, the dynamic tone of the narrative has become familiar to the audience this far into the show. Another brief moment of silence signifies a change of mood, one that is almost tangible in the intimate auditorium. Doug rises from his knees and takes Kayleen’s face in his hands, one arm still inside her shirt. 

“I wish I could do to you what you do to me,” Doug says. “I wish you’d let me,” beat passes. “Hey. Look at me. I’d been up on that roof before.”

“I know,” Kayleen responds. 

“The day we met. You cleaned the grit out of my hands,” Doug alludes to the opening scene. 

“I know,” Kayleen repeats. 

“You think we can get out of here? You think we could just pry ourselves out of everything? Go somewhere else?” Doug asks. 

“Somewhere else.”

“Yeah. Anywhere,” Doug agrees.

“I can’t,” Kayleen says. 

“Not even right this minute. Sometime soon, I could come and get you and…”

“I can’t. I can’t,” Kayleen interrupts Doug as she moves away from him. She takes a seat again, holding the owl. 

“Will you look at me?” Doug continues, “Kayleen, look at me for one second.” But she doesn’t. Kayleen holds the owl and stares at it. After a moment, Doug realizes she won’t look at him. “Are you going to let me drift away here? Because I don’t want to, Leens. I’m worn out. I don’t have so much left in me anymore, you know?” Doug continues. “I’m saying, don’t let me. Don’t let me drift away again. I might not make it back.” The slightest pin-drop would startle the audience as the scene comes to a close.

From October 17-20 and 24-26, 2019, the Dark Matter Theatre Group opened up at the Kismet Theatre for their debut production, Gruesome Playground Injuries, written by Rajiv Joseph.

Dark Matter is a Nanaimo based group—and no, they’re not sponsored by Hoyne Brewing Company—that was originally formed by Brianna Wiens in 2015. Wiens was raised on the Island in an environment that promoted theatre. She later studied at Capilano University for acting, stage, and screen, later finished her degree in performing arts. She had a theatre company fresh out of college, so she had experience producing, directing, acting, and creating her own work.

“Dark Matter was born from getting a spot in Vancouver Fringe Festival,” Wiens said: “I had a previous company, but this was something new, so I wanted to call it something different.” 

In 2017, Wiens moved back to the Island, where she was cast in a show with Western Edge Theatre. There, Wiens met Jonathan Hamilton, who was also cast in the show.

Hamilton has lived the majority of his life in Nanaimo. By day, he is the owner of the Romper Room Indoor Rock Climbing Centre, by night he is actor extraordinaire, but his timeless title is father of two. Hamilton attributes much of his inspiration for his art to his children. He entered the world of acting about six years ago, and since then, he has been involved in a handful of shows on the Island. 

“I’m the wildcard of the pair,” Hamilton said before complimenting Wiens’ hair. 

The dynamic duo took on a bulk of the responsibility for their official debut production. Promoting, producing, and taking on the lead roles of the play were just a few of their contributions to the production, although they weren’t entirely alone in their endeavours. Sam Wharram, a second-year VIU Theatre student, managed the stage and props; Carl Keys, UVic graduate with a BFA in Theatre, covered sound design; Their director was Tamara McCarthy, who had also directed the show for Western Edge where Wiens and Hamilton first met. 

“It’s like a little bit of a reunion tour,” Hamilton said. 

 

The 90-minute play consisted of two actors, Wiens and Hamilton, and offered no intermission. Generally considered a depraved comedy, Gruesome Playground Injuries follows the encounters of Kayleen and Doug through 30 years of their relationship, while touching on themes of mental health, addiction, sexual abuse, bullying, trauma, and recovery. The story is not told in the traditional linear fashion. Each scene is dictated by age, and the play jumps through time in a pattern of 15 years forward, then 10 years back. That said, the opening scene sees the duo at age eight, and the following scenes at age 23, then 13, then 28, then 18, then 33, then 23 for a second time, then it concludes at 38.

Moreover, the play offers a unique transition sequence in between each scene; each of the actors traverse the stage as they meticulously change into the costume for the next scene, apply injuries, and set up the stage props for the next installment.

Brianna Wiens and Jonathan Hamilton

“The transitions are written into the script,” Wiens said. “All injuries, every transition that happens, all the changing happens on stage, for the audience to witness. So, from the very start, we knew that was going to be a piece of it, and then [McCarthy] sorted out how we do that. And of course, there’s those boxes that we turned, which was our own piece of it that we worked into that choreography.”

Although Wiens said that each scene is integral to the production, she said that when she got a chance to speak to the audience following the performance, the transitions were often specifically mentioned.

“That was really impactful for people… It’s not something that is seen very often, so I imagine a lot of people are left with those images quite a bit,” Wiens said. 

Additionally, the transitions offer another element to the story. The audience is given a hint at what is to come in the next scene, based on the transformations and applications of injuries to the characters. Moreover, the sound design, composed by Keys, accompanying the transitions matches the feeling of the content as well as the timeline of the story. 

“We gave [Keys] what we were looking for; ‘not music necessarily, but we want these elements, and we go back and forth through time,’ so he did an incredible job of encompassing that. The scenes were in couplets… and each couplet, the first transition, the music was going forward, and then the next, it was playing reverse… and I think that just added so much to the transitions in the show, and in itself,” Wiens said. 

There were several ups and downs throughout their 90-minute, no intermission, no leaving the stage, seven-night performance run. From no cookies in the cookie box in a scene that the cookies were significant in, to inappropriately timed, (yet welcomed), audience laughter, to a sell-out closing night, Hamilton and Wiens experienced a lot, to say the least. 

“[Hamilton] and I just kept saying ‘wow, we’re really proud of ourselves,’ for wanting to do this thing—and when you put all this time and effort and money into it, you don’t know if anyone’s going to come,” Wiens said. 

Dark Matter’s slogan is “the Unlikely in the Everyday.” Wiens describes the everyday as contemporary; the world, as we understand it, that we encounter daily. The unlikely is a bit more abstract; it can be content that works in different time planes, or something like spirits; ideas that exist in our universe, but aren’t what we commonly encounter everyday.

“I think theatre is the perfect place to be able to play with all of those ideas, because you get to just make-believe and storytell for a few hours. So, why not use all these spectacles and questions to explore all that?” Wiens said.

There is no doubt that Gruesome Playground Injuries evokes the unlikely in the everyday. The content is very relevant in a contemporary standpoint, and the deviation from standard storytelling establishes the unlikely. Additionally, mental health is an important issue to both Hamilton and Wiens, and they acknowledge that simply attending the theatre production can be difficult. 

Wiens noted that the general demographic of attendees are people that are in their 50s, or older. She further relayed that there is an aristocratic stigmatization of theatre-goers. Moreover, she said that it’s typically easier for the average individual to stay home and stream stories through various other mediums and platforms. Ultimately, the greatest factors keeping younger audiences away from theatre is the price, and feeling unwelcome. 

Not all injuries can be avoided.

Amongst Dark Matter’s ambitions is their goal to create accessible theatre that speaks to today’s audiences and, potentially, an audience that has yet to discover theatre. They’ve taken several steps to achieve their goal. For starters, they offered tickets on a sliding scale of price. The audience had the option to pay anywhere between $18-$22 for admission. On October 17, the audience could pay whatever they wanted for admission. Moreover, they performed in a developing theatre and they try to use content written by women and other underrepresented voices. Lastly, they dealt with unconditional matters that are relevant to most people, if not everyone. 

“I think we were successful, and I think we had a lot of audience members who wouldn’t necessarily go to theatre, or didn’t really know what to expect and were kind of blown away with the story and just what we were able to do,” Wiens said. “Which was that 90 minutes on stage with this beautiful sound design, and this and that and this unassuming space.”

Hamilton noted that making people uncomfortable was important. He said that people become desensitized; they’ll leave an on-screen show unaffected, and naturally, their abilities to connect, sympathize, and empathize, dissipate. Moreover, bringing in newcomers to the art allows for the opportunity to diversify the cast. 

Dark Matter has no intentions to remain a two-person operation. Although they have no agenda set for the future, they’d like to have a show a year for the foreseeable future. They have plans to do something for 2020, but no ideas as to what that will be at this time. Following the months of preparation for the production, and its success, Hamilton had to suture some gruesome playground injuries of his own, so a break for the couple is well-warranted. 

“We want to do shows by women, and underrepresented people, and if they can also be Canadian, and also be Islanders, that would be incredible, so I’m toying around with how that would work and what that would look like,” Wiens said. “Whatever the next show will be, would be directed by me, I would not be acting in it. We do want to meet other actors. We’re not creating a closed company where it’s like we always are the actors or anything like that. I think we want to float around jobs, and I certainly want to know who’s in Nanaimo and who wants to be doing stuff like this.”