In 2007 in Toronto the accomplished aerial artists Lori Le Mare and Diane McGrath teamed up with Bruce Barton (as director) and Pil Hansen (as dramaturg), as well as two physical theatre performers, Frank Cox O’Connell and Marc Tellez (then members of the award-winning One Reed Theatre Ensemble) and musician/composer Anne Stadlmair to work on The Vertical City Project. The project began with months of part-time collective exchanges between all participants in the effort to discover connections and intersections in our training and experience and to forge a shared “language” for further development. Through extended exercises involving demonstration, teaching, and collaboration, we progressed into the thematic and formal creation of our first production. In Spring 2008 we were invited to participate in Harbourfront’s HATCH Program of emerging performance projects. That experience concluded with two work-in-progress showings that generated enthusiastic responses from audiences and critics.
In July 2010 Le Mare, Barton, and Hansen reconvened with a new set of collaborators, including master puppeteers Ann and David Powell (Puppetmongers Theatre), soundscape artist Richard Windeyer (bluemouth, inc.), puppeteer/spatial engineer Marcus Jamin, scenic designer/visual artist Sherri Hay, and lighting designer Laird MacDonald. In September 2013, after an extensive three-year development period, Vertical City premiered YouTopia in Toronto to a strongly positive critical and popular reception. YouTopia, performed by Kiran Friesen and Adam Poalozza and featuring interactive media by Jim Ruxton, represents an ambitious experiment in interdisciplinary theatrical performance, incorporating physical theatre, installation art architecture, interactive media, a complex soundscape, spatial engineering … and pole dancing. In the wake of that production, a 12-hour durational version of YouTopia was commissioned by Nuit Blanche for its 2014 event in Toronto.
In 2013, Vertical City was invited to contribute an entry in Buddies in Bad Times Theatre’s 1-2-1 micro performance series as part of that year’s Rhubarb Festival. The performance, entitled All Good Things, proved unexpectedly influential on VC’s future direction and priorities. Written and directed by Bruce, dramaturged by Pil, and co-created with new VC collaborator and performer, Martin Julien, AGT is an intimate and intense solo audience member encounter, partly scripted and partly improvised. Intoxicated by the level of spontaneity and engagement it produced, VC proceeded to wholly embrace immersive and participatory performance dynamics in virtually all its subsequent creation. AGT has since toured to Vancouver (Boca del Lupo Micro Performance Serices), Halifax (Nocturne Festival) and Calgary (Canadian Association for Theatre Research).
Vertical City’s Trace extends the intimate, interactive dynamic of All Good Things into an encounter between two performers and an audience of 20-50. Sharing deep-seated, sensory-triggered memories, the performers collaborate with the audience to compose an always unique “ghost-telling.” Co-produced by Theatre Gargantua, Trace premiered at the 2014 SummerWorks Festival in Toronto, where it earned unanimously positive reviews and received the NOW Magazine “Audience Choice” Award. In January 2017 Calgary audiences will be able to experience Trace as part of this city’s international performance festival the High Performance Rodeo.
Vertical City’s last Toronto production of 2014 was a collaboration with Allen Kaeja and Kaeja d’Dance entitled The Rogue Show. Kaeja’s first solo performance after decades of celebrated choreography throughout the world, The Rogue Show was an intense and intensely intimate tour de force. Directed and co-choreographed by Bruce with his signature immersive and participatory approach to performance, it offered its enthusiastic audiences a physical, philosophical, and emotional workout.
In January of 2015, Vertical City relocated to big sky country in Calgary, Alberta, and the city has greeted us more warmly than we could have hoped for. Our first performance in our new home took place in October and was a co-production with the dynamic Ghost River Theatre. Taste was an immersive experience hosted by Calgary’s celebrated River Cafe, in which blind-folded audience members, either singly or in groups of 2 or 3, were served a six-course taster menu while engaging in an intimate exchange with a solo performer. Working from Bruce’s site-specific script, Taste provided its participants with an intense and intimate sensory experience. The production was offered as part of the 2015 Beakerhead smash-up of art, science and engineering.
Photo of Bruce Barton and Michael Caldwell by Ömer Kardeş Yükseker © 2015.