It looks like a scene out of a science fiction musical.
In the black performance space of the Bus Stop Theatre, actor/musician Aaron Collier stands behind a bank of keyboards and fellow Heist member Sylvia Bell slowly moves around him wearing elaborate wired headgear that resembles an electronic welding mask.
“You’re here,” smiles Collier beatifically, leaning towards Bell, who's actually sporting a combination of a virtual reality viewer and video camera.
“I made a show for you.”
The show is called Frequencies, and it beams out over the internet from Feb 17 to 21 at www.liveheist.com with Collier providing music and autobiographical storytelling. His live performance will be layered with dreamlike digital imagery through the VR interface for a unique theatrical experience that was initially created to be an in-person multimedia event in the spring of 2020.
We all know what happened then, but Collier and his Heist collaborators were able to take its technological aspect even further into the digital realm for a performance piece that will now premiere nationwide via partnerships with Winnipeg’s Prairie Theatre Exchange, Vancouver’s Pi Theatre and Theatre Outre in Lethbridge.
Heist’s Aaron Collier, left and Sylvia Bell in a virtual reality helmet and camera, rehearse Frequencies at the Bus Stop Theatre in Halifax. - Tim Krochak
Transforming Frequencies for an online audience
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, just after tickets for the original production of Frequencies went on sale, Collier says “the world was transformed, in terms of what was possible for interacting with people” and we saw an increase in the value of technology and its role in connecting each other.
“How could we tell this story, and how would it even tie in with the themes?” asks Collier rhetorically. “Looking through that lens, pun intended, we landed on this idea that if we had another scene partner, another actor in the show who wore a VR headset with a special camera attached, it would allow us to place the audience as a scene partner.
“So the audience would have the point of view of the person I am with for the duration of the show.”
It’s a bold, yet logical step forward from the kind of multimedia work Collier and Heist have done before with productions like The Princess Show. Yet he calls its creation “an organic process” as he wove together new electronic music with stories from a year in the life of his family — 1981, the year he was born in P.E.I. — and imagery from a recurring childhood dream of a huge sun-like object descending to earth.
Exploring family history, strengthening bonds
Delving into his family history, and exploring a time before he had clear memories, proved to be an important experience for Collier, with greater closeness generated through his curiosity and conversations.
“I do mention them by name, so it was important to me that they have the opportunity to read the script,” he says. “It’s not a slanderous show, I had a great upbringing and a lovely childhood and a lovely life, really.
“I started to talk to my parents about things I’d never really talked to them about before, which has been maybe the most valuable part of working on the show.”
The show was further shaped by Collier’s co-writers, Zuppa Theatre Co. member Stewart Legere and Giller Prize-nominated author and filmmaker Francesca Ekwuyasi, with direction by Ann-Marie Kerr, who brought the narrative into sharpened focus and provided fresh voices “from a fresh perspective, writing things for me to say that I didn’t actually know were true.”
Relating to themes of connection, grief and hope
With the end result, what its creator calls “a waking dream techno confessional,” Collier hopes his audience will relate to Frequencies’ themes of family connections and how they can keep us grounded in the vast emptiness of an ever-expanding universe.
“Whether it’s close or it’s distanced, whether you grow apart or together, that’s a major theme of this show,” he says. “Also, grief is a part of this show.
“A little nugget of it is that we’re looking at beloved grief. So one side of the coin is a celebration of the whole circle of life and death, and the other side of that is that grief is a real part of living, and everybody can relate to it on some level. Especially from within your family, or things that are close to you.”
Frequencies also represents a new doorway to future possibilities for Heist, and as conditions change and the pandemic subsides, the company hopes to combine this production, or new ones like it, with live, in-person audiences as well as virtual ones.
“What Heist has learned, from March until now, in terms of building our own software and creating these digital performances, is that we hope to just continue with what we’ve learned and keep moving forward with it,” says Collier.
“To the point where we can have audiences, we’d love to have audiences back in this room with us to witness it being made.”