Unmasked was created via a combination of traditional playwriting and what’s known in theatre circles as “devising.” In traditional playwriting, a playwright works alone to pen scenes and create characters. In devising work, a group of artists comes together and creates “in the room,” working more “on their feet” than as writers sitting down to put pen to paper. To achieve the blending of styles, creator Megan Zong and dramaturging director Gordon Portman created a unique format for the script. This format gave space to the dialogue and stage directions but also to music, set, lights, costumes, and props in columns running down the pages. Thus, the visual and auditory parts of the storytelling were given equal emphasis throughout the process and the relationships between these elements could be seen clearly.
The traditional process of staging a play is something of a one-way street from page to stage. In devising work, the various elements inform one another: the text changes in response to the movement, the movement in response to the music, and so on. For example, the possibilities of UV light (blacklight) were of interest from early explorations. Learning what could be done with this unique form of illumination and the paints and materials that glow under it became a recurring source of exploration and inspiration all along. Thus, sections of the text and staging elements were crafted with UV illumination in mind, relying on it to tell parts of the story. Likewise, musician and composer respectfulchild began work with the project early. This is respectfulchild’s first time creating music for theatre. They have created underscoring and soundscapes to highlight Megan’s story, but also offering insights and suggestions for how best to shape the story for the audience based on their own experiences as an artist in other disciplines. They credit movement, text, and feedback from collaborators for helping to shape the compositions in ways they wouldn’t have explored if they had been working alone.
“Theatre uses a different language than I do when I create. As we’re going through rehearsals I’m entering another community, another space, another culture.”respectfulchild
Early design visioning, including UV experimentation, evolved in collaboration with Saskatoon-based theatre artist Taegan O’Bertos, whose design-dramaturgy inspired many aspects of the project. Visual design elements as realized for this production built off Taegan’s work, and took many new creative directions as envisioned and enacted by Brooklyn Bitner with Sightline Designs, an innovative local design collective that focuses on collaborative art-making and team-based creation. Lighting designer Charlie Peters has been with the project from the beginning. Hir collaborations with both designers were a defining element in shaping the full visual world of the play. Because they have been part of the play’s development all along, design and technical elements are in many ways not “add ons” to Unmasked as a script, but rather integral parts of how the story is meant to be told.
Early UV exploration photos by Taegan O’Bertos.
The acting company participated actively in the creation by experimenting with Megan’s words, offering responses, and bringing them to life in various ways, informed by their own artistic skills and impulses, while also offering their own thoughts, words, and movement ideas to shape the performance. In this way of working, authority is less concentrated and roles are less hierarchically organized.
“Huge in my own practice as an Indigenous artist is really finding ways that I can bring my own decolonizing intention and see where other are aligned toward that in the room. Devising feels very open and mutable in that way.”Miki Wolf, performer
Though the creation of Unmasked was extremely collaborative, it was Megan and her experiences that led the process all along. To aid in the creation, Megan used a variety of techniques from crafting masks to free writing and movement-based storytelling. Each of these provided building blocks for the piece as a whole. Supported by Gordon, Megan wove the various creations—poems, movement sequences, monologues, and images—into Unmasked as audiences will encounter it.
-Article by Production Dramaturg Charlie Peters