Pristine Realities

Helen Lawrence, a new production from leading visual artist, Stan Douglas, combines live film and theatre, and transforms expectations of how audiences experience narrative.

Storytelling is one of the oldest arts and integral to the human experience, offering a means to transmit social information and to explore beyond our limited reality. As we grow increasingly sophisticated in our relationship with technology, it is only natural that we would use this to begin to expand our opportunities for exploring narrative. This is visible in new viewing platforms such as Netflix, which enable viewers to consume previously serialised stories at their own pace and films such as Avatar or Gravity, which encourage the audience to place themselves further into another world.

This idea of relinquishing our everyday context for another, something at the heart of story, is also explored through the gaming world and institutionally: the creation of the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset, signifies a move towards a fully immersive experience, and a growing interest in the use of augmentation at museums suggests a similar shift in the way we interact even with non-fictional narratives. It appears that the natural progression is towards blurring the lines further between real life and a constructed environment and developing a more immersive means of representing story.

Although it is easy to see the developments in the more digital modes of representation, it is also true of theatre. The strength of performance is the fact that the experience is real; the live drama is really on stage in front of an audience. However, in order to keep up with the progression towards full experiential immersion demonstrated by other storytelling media, recently theatre has grown increasingly interactive. This is something seen in productions such as Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man (2013) but it also extends beyond the realm of “theatre” and into an area that blurs artistic divisions. City-wide theatrical games delve audiences into the experience, and cinematic events such as Secret Cinema bring the narrative off the screen and into the live surroundings, utilising performance in addition to film.

By combining different means of representation and sharing stories in a variety of forms, the audience are able to appreciate imaginary environments across platforms and from numerous perspectives, contributing to total, holistic absorption of the story. The latest exploration in this field comes from Stan Douglas (b. 1960), a Vancouver-based artist. Having worked with film and narrative for over 30 years, Douglas has an interest in manipulating old forms and creating new media. His work explores the overlap between fact and fiction, and the understanding of reality. He contributes to the shifting theatrical and artistic landscape with his new production, Helen Lawrence.

Working in the theatre for the first time, Douglas plays with the idea that it is possible to offer multiple representations of storytelling or character simultaneously. In an innovative move, he has created a piece of live-action theatre that is filmed by the actors as it is being performed and broadcast onto a scrim between the actors and the audience so that the viewers observe both the present and the filmed reality at the same time. The two portrayals naturally offer different experiences: the live stage action is a theatrical presentation, with physicality being the primary device, while the onscreen version offers close-ups of the characters, complete with virtual sets.

It’s a difficult balance to achieve and despite the audience’s nuanced understanding of, and interaction with, different narrative devices, Douglas admits that it does take a bit of practice to properly access this new multi-media representation: “You’re always keeping two ideas at the same time, always holding two thoughts while you’re watching the play.” This is something that early critics in Vancouver struggled with: “It didn’t give them the gratification they wanted from theatre, the emotional connection with somebody on stage; that’s always being frustrated by the scrim and the technology, but once you get beyond that there’s much more to understand.”

Perhaps it’s better to consider Helen Lawrence as a live film amplified by dramatic representation, rather than a performance emphasised by a big screen. The difference lies in expectation. Theatre audiences desire human interaction and close intimacy, something which is slightly inhibited in this production because of the technical nature of the filming and presence of the scrim. However, filmgoers are perfectly comfortable and familiar with the distance rendered between them and the subject, and still have a personal reaction to the narrative and characters. This production offers both, but it’s a new format, so naturally there is an adjustment period.

The technology used was created specifically for this show. Douglas explains: “There is commercial software and hardware out there but it just wasn’t fast enough at getting the images out. There was a five-frame delay and that was not acceptable in live theatre where you’re comparing reality with video. So we found a way of making things happen almost simultaneously.” It’s very advanced, and these developments themselves are impressive, but the use of integrated video and live performance isn’t simply inspired by Douglas’ desire to examine “having two things that are contradictory or problematic somehow occupy the same space”; it also serves the story.

Helen Lawrence is a thrilling film noir tale about an orphan who travels to Vancouver to find the man who killed her husband, a crime she served time for in a sanatorium. For Douglas, film noir holds a certain fascination: he’s interested in the movement from the post-war period to the 1950s. “I realised that the behaviour of the characters probably has something to do with the trauma of having been through a war. It made me think about the period after World War II and how we got from the wartime state of exception, where certain things that are otherwise morally reprehensible are permitted or tolerated, to the 1950s, which was about the creation of a very strict form of normality after the devastation of war.” The piece plays to both the human experience of the post-war period and to what happened to the cities afterwards.

Set in Vancouver, the city acts as a microcosm for what was happening across North America. “Obviously in Europe the cities had to be reconstructed, but in North America there was a radical rethink of urban space”; after the war there was a spate of city renewal, the creation of housing projects and suburbs connected by highways to the downtown core. The play moves between two major Vancouver locations: an old west-side hotel which servicemen squatted on their return from the war and a multi-ethnic east-side ghetto where the moral laws of the city were suspended. Enclosed in a blue-screen, the stage becomes a canvas for the filmed, live images of the actors alongside computer-generated images that recreate the Vancouver skyline from 1948.

The use of the virtual sets and the scrim that separates the audience from the actors reflects Douglas’ thoughts about the behaviour of film noir characters. “It’s a huge visual metaphor: they always have some kind of protective façade that they present to the world to prevent them from undergoing emotional injury.”

However, because the audience can see the live, vulnerable humans behind the façade, it is constantly being wrenched down and rebuilt, adding yet another layer to this intriguing production. Helen Lawrence introduces another element to our ongoing discovery of new storytelling methods. “People are going to want to be able to have these experiences simultaneously, both the live and the cinematic. It will change the way people think about theatre.”

Helen Lawrence had its world premiere in Vancouver on 19 March before an international tour. The production will be presented as part of the Edinburgh International Festival from 24 to 26 August before returning to Canada. For information and tickets, visit or

Bryony Byrne