Lost and The Last Dog of War on two Calgary stages

Even though Canadian performer writer and director Daniel MacIvor calls comparisons “odious” the fact that Calgary’s two largest stages — Alberta Theatre Projects (ATP) and Theatre Calgary — are presenting one-woman shows simultaneously invites comparative treatment. ATP’s The Last Dog of War (which MacIvor directs) and Theatre Calgary’s Lost both open on Friday October 22.

Rather than seeing these shows as competing entities however MacIvor and Theatre Calgary’s artistic director Dennis Garnhum who also directs Lost are supportive of this unplanned seasonal similarity.

“I was completely surprised and charmed” Garnhum says of discovering that both companies would be offering one-woman shows simultaneously adding that it’s significant to see women take centre stage in both productions.

MacIvor says: “You couldn’t get more different in terms of the way of approaching a one-person show. What a great opportunity for audiences to be able to experience two different kinds of processes and different kinds of shows.”

Canadian playwright and actress Linda Griffiths created and performs in The Last Dog of War . It’s about the journey she takes with her father to England to attend the final reunion of his Second World War RAF bomber squadron. She plays herself in the show something which MacIvor says gives the show a more loaded raw quality than if she were to adopt an external character.

“I think I’ve always known I would do something about the Second World War and my father’s involvement” says Griffiths. “He saw a lot of action. He was in the Battle of Berlin so he really had the experience right from the black-and-white movies and when he would talk about the war it would always sound very exciting.”

Besides exploring her relationship with her father Griffiths examines the conundrum in which she finds herself: loving war through her father’s stories yet also considering herself a pacifist.

Griffiths began developing The Last Dog of War about four years ago working with an audience from the get-go something she says lends the project a sense of immediacy.

By contrast Lost began life as a memoir by Calgarian Cathy Ostlere. Garnhum discovered Ostlere’s book by accident and after reading it felt compelled to adapt it for the stage a task he shared with Ostlere.

Garnhum says he envisioned the story as a one-woman show from the beginning despite the size of the theatre he has to fill. “I choose plays that are big in spirit not in cast size” he says.

Lost is the story of Ostlere’s global journey to discover the truth behind the disappearance of her brother David at sea. “For me the story is about a woman taking on all these characters and towns and countries throughout her journey. By the end of the play she is bigger for what she has gone through” says Garnhum.

In the adaptation’s initial stages nearly two years ago Garnhum called in Jan Alexandra Smith to depict Ostlere onstage. Unlike Griffiths Smith is one step removed from the story. Both she and Garnhum describe this element of separation as “freeing.”

“Jan gets to yell out loud in a way that Cathy never did” says Garnhum.

Smith agrees. “Cathy let me off the hook. She said ‘Jan can’t impersonate me. This is a piece of theatre and Jan needs to fill the space.’ ” It’s really Ostlere’s words that go a long way to communicating the “inner workings” of the character she’s depicting onstage she adds.

Smith says some of Ostlere’s adventuresome spirit has rubbed off. When she travelled to India this summer to study yoga the character emboldened her. “I thought ‘Her DNA is in the air I can do this’” she says.

Directing a one-woman piece has its implications for both Garnhum and MacIvor.

“I thought it would be easier than directing a show with a larger cast but I find a one-woman show is exhausting” says Garnhum. “That responsibility of being the person who coaches her has been an intense but fulfilling experience.”

MacIvor says his role in shaping Griffiths’s story involves identifying the play’s broader themes and providing a critical outside eye to help tighten the script.

Just as important is the support and encouragement he provides. “Having been someone who has done solo shows to think that someone else cares as much as you do makes a big difference” he says.

And lest anyone think positioning the characters onstage is not important with only one actor think again. “It’s even more so in a one-person show because you don’t have stuff to hide behind or other actors to look at” says MacIvor.

To assist with the visual aspect of Lost Garnhum has woven a multimedia component into the show. “It’s an excellent opportunity to throw flavours on top of Jan… abstracted maps images of Ireland Scotland Winnipeg. We want to show a style of theatre we haven’t done much of that’s very modern. The video is another character” says Garnhum.

While Smith admits being the one performer in a one-performer show is “daunting” — and there’s no understudy to rely upon — she says she approaches the challenge by keeping in good health. “You have to get your mind voice and breath in shape. I have to eat really well not consume alcohol do yoga and get good sleep” she says.

And the secret to memorizing all those lines that make up the 90-minute show? Repetition repetition repetition.