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Gothic drama Witchcraft assumes contemporary magic

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Theatre production benefits from matralab and Hexagram resources

By Julie Gedeon

The underlying premise of Witchcraft - a gothic drama being staged by Concordia's Department of Theatre - is as relevant today as when Joanna Baillie wrote it in the 1820s about the last witch trials in Scotland in the early 1730s.

"People are as likely to become excitable now as when the women in Baillie's play faced persecution for supposedly being witches in 18th-century Scotland," explains Louis Patrick Leroux, an associate professor in the Departments of English and Études françaises who co-directs the production with PhD candidate Cristina Iovita. "The play speaks to us because it raises questions about society getting caught up in its demons and generating fear -- even hysteria."

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Theatre students recreate an early 18th century Scottish bar scene in Witchcraft. | Video stills by Nika Khanjani, directed by Louis Patrick Leroux and Cristina Iovita.

Leroux introduces the contemporary elements of video, film and recorded sound. "The play lends itself to stagecraft with its stormy moments and numerous characters moving in and out of scenes, but we avoided repeating what happens on stage in favour of adding to the audience's understanding." 

A video, for example, serves as a prologue to explain what happened three years earlier. A film provides a deeper comprehension of Jessie, a central figure who hardly appears on stage in the original script.

"The challenge was to use video and film in ways that didn't make people feel as if they were viewing elements that had nothing to do with the actual play," Leroux says. "We've textured flashbacks in black and white and used collage effects." 

Leroux was able to experiment as matralab's artist-in-residence. Sandeep Bhagwati, the Canada Research Chair in Inter-X Art Practice and Theory, created matralab as part of the Hexagram Institute for Research/Creation in Media Arts based at Concordia. matralab is designed to encourage mixing various disciplines, cultures, media and interactive art to gain insight into emerging forms of aesthetic expression.

Costumes, sets and other production elements were created by theatre students, while film elements were developed at Hexagram and matralab.

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Leroux and Iovita's version of Witchcraft includes videos that provide additional insight into the characters.

"matralab and Hexagram's space, resources and expertise have restored my belief that anything's possible," says Leroux.. "Concordia offers extraordinary possibilities in research/creation that enable us to repeatedly attempt different things with people as committed to the process as the final product. And the Department of Theatre, by programming us in their regular season, has allowed us to open up our work to new audiences and integrate their wonderful acting and design students into the project."  

Iovita, one of Leroux's doctoral students, brings vast experience to the project as an award-winning director and playwright. Primarily responsible for directing the 23 actors from Concordia's theatre department, she's reintegrated some of the codified gestures used in Baillie's era to express scorn, dejection, tranquility and other states of being in ways that modern audiences will find believable.

"The production that will come alive at the D.B. Clarke Theatre is not an exercise, but the result of one," she emphasizes. "We hope everyone enjoys it."

An important precursor to Arthur Miller's The Crucible, Baillie's play was never staged during her life. Leroux thinks Baillie, who embraced stagecraft and scientific experiments, would have liked this rendering.

"We've engaged with this play to bring it to life for modern audiences rather than merely treating it an as important historical piece," he says.

Witchcraft is the first Department of Theatre production to be staged in the fully renovated D.B. Clarke Theatre. Upgrades to the venue include new seats, curtain and carpeting, beautifully refurbished teak interior, upgraded fly system, and a reconfigured lobby.

When: Wednesday, November 30, 2011, 8 p.m.
Thursday, December 1, 8 p.m.
Friday, December 2, 8 p.m.
Saturday, December 3, 2 and 8 p.m.
Sunday, December 4, 2 p.m.
Where: D.B. Clarke Theatre, Henry F. Hall Building (1455 De Maisonneuve Blvd. W.), Sir George Williams Campus

Tickets, $10 regular admission, $5 for students and seniors, are available in person only at the D.B. Clarke Theatre, the Oscar Peterson Concert Hall and at the door. No reservations.

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