Vancouver’s Pi Theatre embraces virtual performances in its 2021 Provocateurs Presentation Series in February. Alongside Macbeth Muet, an innovative interpretation of Shakespeare’s biggest tragedies from Montreal’s La Fille du Laitier is Frequencies from Halifax-based theatre company Heist.
Described as one part live techno concert and one part autobiographical confessional, when Halifax multi-disciplinary artist Aaron Collier first conceived his latest show Frequencies, it was all about his music.
“I started to look for frequencies or relationships in nature,” he says. “Big things like the relationship between the orbit times or solar system or small things like the speed that bees flap their wings.”
As he delved further into the project with collaborators Stewart Legere and Francesca Ekwuyasi, the focus shifted.
“It started as relationships between things, but then eventually became about the relationship and connection between myself, my family, and somebody that I have never met,” he continues.
Collier uses the analogy of the singer-songwriter to help further explain the shift.
“I wanted to create a show that would be an intimate, kind of techno performance for a small audience, in the way that you can go see a singer-songwriter, and learn about their music and them,” he explains.
“But you cannot do that with an electronic musician. You can see them on big festival stages, but you cannot really get close to them and learn about their music the way you can with a singer-songwriter.”
Looking to create that more personal connection between his music and audiences, he began thinking about how to “let people in” to what the music meant to him. He landed on the idea of taking audiences through a year in his life and that of his family.
It was not just any year, though, as he decided to begin the focus of Frequencies in 1981, the year he was born.
“And that was how it cracked open,” he says. “That was when I started to realize there were connections in my family that I have not really thought about or explored since I was a young kid.”
Collier also realized that as he began creating Frequencies at 38 years of age, it was also the same age as his mother when he was born.
“So I think maybe there was even something in that,” he says. “There was some sort of natural vibration between the relationship to my parents.”
But while the story’s journey would begin in 1981, Collier says it will take audiences to the present day, exploring both his relationship with his family and a recurring dream he has had for as long he can remember.
“I have always felt that something or somebody is trying to communicate with me in the dream but I cannot figure out what I am supposed to hear or what I am supposed to be getting from the dream,” he says. “It is a dream come true because I get to perform live music and talk about where it comes from with people.”
Collier, a visual designer who has previously incorporated video and digital projections with his music, decided to up the ante by introducing virtual reality for Frequencies.
The addition of VR came early in the development process, with Collier performing ringed by an intimate audience of twenty, with images projected inside the circle.
“I was very close to these people, and we began thinking about ways to scale,” he says. “What if you wanted to show the performance to a hundred people? Could you still achieve some level of intimacy?”
As Collier and this company began planning the show for a much larger 200-person venue, the pandemic hit. As the team shifted to virtual Zoom meetings, they began exploring technology to help tell the story.
“Through those discussions, we had this notion that using a virtual reality headset with a camera attached to the front would enable the audience to experience the show through my team partner’s eyes,” he explains. “So what the second actor in the VR helmet sees is what the audience sees.”
VR would also allow Collier to blend digital graphics, scenography and storytelling elements originally projected on the circle. “They now appear as magical objects in the space with us,” he says.
The most ambitious project his company Heist has undertaken, Collier is excited to be performing Frequencies as part of a virtual national tour, without leaving Halifax’s Bus Stop Theatre.
To help make the show accessible, Collier says that audiences do not require a VR headset or any special equipment to watch the show. “You tune in to just like any regular live stream,” he says.
For Pi Theatre’s artistic and producing director Richard Wolfe it is an opportunity to present some of the innovations in digital shows being created because of the pandemic.
“Smaller independent companies across Canada and around the world are doing much of the R&D into the dramaturgy and the technology of the live streaming experience,” says Wolfe. “Pi Theatre is very pleased to be able to bring you two of those shows in a live streaming/live in real-time experience this February as part of our Provocateurs Presentation Series.”
Pi Theatre’s Provocateurs Presentation Series runs February 18-21. Visit pitheatre.com for tickets and information.
A version of this article first appeared on Halifax Presents on 8 February 2021.