Four years ago Ghost River Theatre embarked on a series of interactive, site-specific performances revolving around the senses.
Happily for both Ghost River and audiences, they were able to team up with Beakerhead – one of Calgary’s most anticipated annual festivals which incorporates art, science and engineering — to bring their productions to a larger audience and experiment outside of the traditional theatre realm.
According to Louise Casemore, co-creator of Ghost River’s latest such performance, Scent Bar, staging their production as part of Beakerhead was an obvious fit.
“Beakerhead is this fantastic mix of where art, science and engineering sort of collide, (so) it really hit that sweet spot of well-researched, highly technological, really different kind of stuff in terms of incorporating technology into live performance,” she says. “So that’s where it began and we have been fortunate enough that that relationship has continued.”
And it will continue, with Beakerhead having signed on to finish the series, which means two more instalments.
It’s a partnership that Casemore is honoured to be part of, not only to be able to have Ghost River’s work supported as a theatre, but for what Beakerhead, itself, represents to the community.
“Beakerhead is such a great platform for us,” says Casemore, “and we really love the vibe of what they are doing — it’s a playground for scientists, a playground for artists, a playground for Calgary to get together and have a really different kind of festival that’s unlike anything else I have ever heard of across the country.”
Preparations for the show, as you can well imagine, started for Casemore and co-creator Eric Rose, long ago with a lot of research being put into not only different scents and how to invoke someone’s imagination with them, but also how to release and control them.
Casemore explains it’s been an experimentation process: “We have been (working with) experts for the better part of the year, ranging from talking to ER doctors to the head of neurology at Mount Royal (University) to sommeliers to florists, basically anyone that would have a perspective that would lend itself to the experience … that comes with dealing with smell.
“Unlike any of the other senses, when you release a smell into an environment it’s not just a matter of how do you create it and how do you make it smell the way you want, it’s how do you actually disseminate it and how do you take it back?”
Scent Bar ultimately is theatre, with performers guiding you through your blindfolded scent adventure, and allowing you to create your own imagery, memories, and experiences with help through their storytelling. Writing for such a complex theme, smell, and for an interactive performance based on that had its challenges, says Casemore.
“It’s an interesting thing to write shows for people who are blindfolded because they register information so much differently – you have to write with a certain degree of consideration and delicacy for how overwhelmed the brain can be at that point. Even something as simple as the way sentences are structured is very carefully put together so that people that are pretty discombobulated can follow along and not feel overwhelmed.”
Participants of Scent Bar are prepped for the experience, being contacted via email a day prior to the show with an intake form in order to set them up for an enjoyable evening.
According to Casemeore, the purpose is to put people at ease, and “(letting them know) that there’s nothing that’s used that’s toxic or harmful, everything is organic in nature in as much as there is nothing intended to shock or horrify. It is truly meant to inspire and stimulate the imagination, and to make you think a bit. We are very proud of our bold and brave audiences, they are really incredible to come in and take a leap and trust us so we take a lot of care to make sure that we have accounted for all of these things, not the least being allergies, contact sensitivities and fragrance sensitivities … we have a plan for everything.”
Planning for everything also includes having Beth Dart, a logistics specialist in site-specific work such as this on the team, and who is being brought down from Edmonton by Casemore for her expertise.
Once in the performance space, people are invited to grab a cocktail, relax, and then choose their own adventure – Experience Menus will be hanging from the ceiling, offering each participant three scent adventures to follow. After being led through their journeys by the performer guides, everyone is encouraged to hang out, socialize and share their experiences with each other.
“Part of what I like about the experience,” says Casemore, “(is) leaning into the idea of a pop-up cocktail bar – there’s a social aspect to that that’s really fun, which is part of what we wanted to accomplish and not just having it be internal: You go on this joyride in your brain, but you actually get to experience things right alongside all of these other people. The imaginative potential of these things is just outstanding and that, for me as a writer, is what I like best — how can I not dictate a story to someone, but put someone in a position to where they cast it in their minds?”
Casemore believes the shows are for those Calgarians who are curious, imaginative and bold, adding that Scent Bar participants are likely to be “interested in something a little bit different that’s going to give them an opportunity to make their own experience with it.”
Which is, indeed, a description that could also be applied to both Ghost River Theatre and Beakerhead itself.
Performances of Scent Bar run Wednesday to Sunday nightly at 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday the 17th and “Special Late Night Rendezvous” Friday night featuring DJ and celebrating Ghost River Theatre’s upcoming season with everyone – free of charge. Scent Bar will be taking place at the old Vintage Chophouse location on 8th Ave. and 5th St. S.W. For more information and tickets go to ghostrivertheatre.com.
Kari Watson is a writer and former Listings Editor of FFWD Weekly, and has continued to bring event listings to Calgary through theYYSCENE and her event listings page, The Culture Cycle. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.