This backdrop from the musical Hello, Dolly! is one of the many backdrops in the Royal City Musical Theatre archive. Photo: Royal City Musical Theatre.
This backdrop from the musical Hello, Dolly! is one of the many backdrops in the Royal City Musical Theatre archive. Photo: Royal City Musical Theatre.

Believed to be one of only three in operation today across Canada, New Westminster’s Massey Theatre has the rare distinction of being one of our country’s only remaining “hemp houses”.  But while the term may very well conjure certain images for some, it has nothing to do with our country’s burgeoning cannabis industry.

Instead, it refers to the hemp ropes used as part of the theatre’s rigging system, run over pulleys and tied to sandbags. One of the oldest systems, it takes its name from the manila hemp rope used to fly, or hoist, the curtains, lights, and scenery above the stage.

First gaining popularity in the mid-19th century, hemp was largely known for being inexpensive, simple and flexible. As theatres renovated and modernized though, most of these types of rigs were replaced by either motorized or are manual systems using steel counterweights and more durable synthetic rope or steel cables.

Retaining its hemp system since it was built 70-years ago, Massey’s distinction as a “hemp house” will be put under the spotlight by Vancouver’s Fight With a Stick Performance in the upcoming show, A Vista.

Taking its name from the theatrical term meaning “to change a scene in front of an audience”, A Vista not only uses the theatre’s hemp rigging but will also feature some 45 painted backdrops created and used over the past 30 years by Massey’s long-term tenant, Royal City Musical Theatre (RCMT).

According to A Vista’s director Josh Hite, audiences will have an opportunity to watch how the rigging system is operated from both onstage and in the auditorium, a process which is usually hidden during a performance.

Beginning with an empty stage, A Vista will take audiences through the mechanics of unfolding the backdrops, attaching them to the 15 available “pipes” from which they hang, and setting any necessary counterweights.

"There's I think a lot of nuance in bringing together these materials in this way, disassociating them from their original context." - director Josh Hite on the 45 drops which form A Vista. Photo by Take Kayo
“There’s I think a lot of nuance in bringing together these materials in this way, disassociating them from their original context.” – director Josh Hite on the 45 drops which form A Vista. Photo by Take Kayo

“And then, for probably thirty to forty minutes in the middle of the show, we’re creating animations out from the drops,” explains Hite. “The core of the show is watching how that process happens but then, these drops in some ways take the place of what would ordinarily be in front of them, like the human figure.”

Shown over three performances, each night will feature a different type of backdrop. On the first night, the team will work with the full drops which take up the entire space of the proscenium, the second features the RCMT portals which are used to frame the stage, and the third will work with the legs, those pieces hung at the sides.

While each evening will utilize a different facet of the RCMT backdrops, Hite insists that while the effect will be different, each has its own unique qualities. He even goes as far to say A Vista‘s creative team have been unable to agree on whether a certain night will be more interesting for an audience over another.

“In our car ride to and from the theatre, all three nights were spoken of,” he says. “Everyone had a different opinion, and none of us think one of the nights is the best.”

And while the drops used each night will be listed in the program by name and the musical from which it comes, Hite says he and the team are interested in seeing how individual audience members will react as each of the drops, portals and legs are revealed.

“Like, when you’ve read the book and you go see the movie, and then someone who hasn’t read the book and goes and sees the movie,” he says. “What’s that experience like for the different parties?”

While A Vista may sound like a show only a theatre geek might enjoy, Hite says there is something in it for others as well, including those invested in art, performance, animation, pre-cinematic technology, labor, history, and the Massey Theatre.

“There’s a lot of nuance in bringing together these materials in this way,” he says. “Disassociating them from their original context and trying to see what comes from working together with us, the materials, and the apparatus.”

A Vista plays Massey Theatre (735 Eighth Ave, New Westminster) March 20-22. Visit fightwithastick.ca for tickets and information.