Peter Anderson plays watchmaker Archibald Twill in the Electric Company Theatre/Studio 58 co-production of FLEE. Photo by Emily Cooper.
Peter Anderson plays watchmaker Archibald Twill in the Electric Company Theatre/Studio 58 co-production of FLEE. Photo by Emily Cooper.

Don’t let its title fool you, the upcoming production of FLEE really does have everything to do with Pulex irritans, the tiny human blood suckers that have all but been eliminated in the industrialised world.

“The original title was Absolute Fleadom,” says co-creator and Studio 58 associate director David Hudgins. “FLEE encapsulates that idea that any relationship is about compromise, and the more that you are a part of it, the more you want to run away.”

In FLEE, that relationship is between Archibald Twill, a destitute watchmaker down on his luck, and Caprice, the singing flea that he discovers.  Of course, it is no coincidence that Archibald just happens to be a watchmaker as the first records of flea performances were by those craftsmen who would demonstrate their metalworking skills by attaching miniature carts and other items to the tiny bugs.

“Most people don’t realize that flea circuses actually did exist,” says Hudgins. “It was originally a way for them to show how well they could do their skills, but over time someone flipped it and the flea became the thing of interest, giving birth to the flea circus.”

Thriving well into the 20th century, flea circuses began to die out as hygiene practices evolved, and the human flea all but vanished.

“Pulex irritans were big and robust enough to these tricks, but that kind of flea no longer exists in the civilized world and the circuses started to disappear,” he explains. “They became a forgotten chapter of entertainment.”

Generally speaking an adult flea only lives for two or three months, this FLEE however has survived much longer on its way to the stage.

“I think it has had the longest birth of any show, of all time,” laughs Hudgins of the five-years it has taken for the show to finally land on the Fox Cabaret stage this month.

FLEE was originally conceived by David Hudgins, both a founder of Electric Company Theatre and associate director at Studio 58
FLEE was originally conceived by David Hudgins, both a founder of Electric Company Theatre and associate director at Studio 58

Originally conceived in 2010 during a conversation with Vancouver musician Peggy Lee, Hudgins immediately suggested a show about a flea circus. “Overnight Peggy wrote these fifteen songs and I took her music and started to write around them,” he says.

A series of development workshops over the next five years has finally resulted in what is now a co-production between Studio 58, the professional theatre training program at Langara College, and Vancouver’s Electric Theatre Company.

“Things really started to come together when Jonathon [Young] and Peter [Anderson] came on board as co-writers of the piece,” says Hudgins.

And even while the idea of a show about a flea circus might sound a bit off-the-wall to some, it all seemed like a natural fit for the school’s 50th anniversary, given the founders of the Electric Company Theatre – Hudgins, Kim Collier, Kevin Kerr and Jonathon Young – are all graduates and are known for their sometimes audacious work.

Founded in 1996 by the quartet of Studio 58 alumni, the Electric Company Theatre has also established a reputation for its site-specific work, and FLEE is no different, as they find themselves performing inside Vancouver’s converted porn house.

“It does happen, but it is rare,” says Hudgins of venturing outside Langara’s Studio 58 black box. “It is a wonderful experience for the students who have the added bonus of working with Jonathon as director, and four professional actors.”

As for the choice of the Fox Cabaret as the venue, Hudgins says that it seemed to fit nicely with a show about fleas: “It is dark and edgy, with an authentic feel that is a bit naughty and dirty.”

FLEE plays the Fox Cabaret (2321 Main St, Vancouver) November 26 – December 6. Tickets are available online at Tickets Tonight. Visit http://electriccompanytheatre.com or http://studio58.ca for more information.