Tucked in the corner of a dark, curtained maze behind Catalyst Theatre’s mainstage lies Bretta Gerecke’s workshop. On this late November day, the company’s resident designer is pasting tiny, coloured shards of lighting gel to a drawing of the rose window – a feature image in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Gerecke says she’ll have to work on the mock-up while we talk about Hunchback, the anticipated new musical that she and Catalyst’s artistic director, Jonathan Christenson, conceived.
Hanging overhead in the rafters is a huge, funnel-shaped twisted wire and white foam wrap. It was supposed to be a skirt for one of the characters, Gerecke says. But it’s not going to work – not as a skirt, at least.
“Now it’s going to be something else,” she says, looking up at the bizarre conglomerate of craft material. Like the rose window, it’s a work in progress. But Gerecke’s not worried about it. Behind her pensive look, the esthetic world for Hunchback evolves constantly.
For the past 15 years, Christenson and Gerecke have produced what they call “small-scale spectacle” musicals under the Catalyst banner. Their shows, which Christenson writes to appear like a monster’s dreams, come alive through Gerecke’s distinctive, otherworldly designs.
Though most companies mount only a handful of shows each season, the Catalyst players focus on one work for, well, as long as it takes. (They did try six new shows in their first season and it nearly killed them, Christenson laughs.) He and Gerecke, even now, talk about adjustments being made to Nevermore: The Imaginary Life & Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, which first debuted in fall 2008 in Fort McMurray. A year later, the show took London and New York audiences on an intensely tragic, macabre ride through the life of the famed American writer.
“When it closed at the New Victory, Nevermore was the most tweeted-about show to date,” notes Mary Rose Lloyd, director of programming at the New Victory Theater in Manhattan, which presents innovative family theatre for New York’s young audiences. “Catalyst really struck a chord. What we’re looking for at New Victory is work that’s intelligent and compelling and surprising, and it ticked all of those boxes. I was just transfixed,” she says. “Personally, I can’t wait to see Hunchback. I will be the first in line.”
Gerecke walks into Christenson’s office, her glue stick and miniature rose window in hand. Behind the artistic director’s desk sits a black, square board supporting 12 spidery wire arches. This is the maquette, the small-scale model for the set, he explains. The full-scale version, made with steel posts shaped to allude to gothic cathedral arches, has just been completed in the Citadel’s carpentry shop. So far, it’s the only thing that’s solidified for the show.
It’s two months from the pre-premiere in Fort McMurray and three months from the world premiere on the Citadel’s Shoctor stage and nothing else is ready. Not even the script. The Catalyst creative team has just finished a month-long workshop with the cast and is now busy rewriting, rejigging and rebuilding every idea it went in with.
Actor Ron Pederson, cast as Quasimodo, says, although he has been living in Los Angeles or Toronto for most of the past decade, Catalyst has continued to pop up on his radar.
“Their process was a mysterious one to me,” he says. “There was always this sort of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory secret behind how they make their theatre. I would imagine that Bretta would have a team of Oompa-Loompas working with her.”
By the end of the workshop, Pederson – an alumnus of Rapid Fire Theatre and former co-star of Die-nasty – didn’t see a single sketch of Quasimodo, but his extensive experience in improvisation provided him with ideas to bring the deformed outcast to life. The workshop was a challenge but, he says, more like a summer camp.
Throughout the workshop, Gerecke watched and sketched. When she saw a certain movement in rehearsal, it set off her imagination as to the shape or texture of a character’s costume.
Actor Scott Shpeley, who tours as Edgar Allan Poe in Nevermore, says, “If we’re strong at something, they’ll exploit it. If we can be physical, they will push that. If you can sing high or low, they’ll go, ‘How low?’ As an actor, you really get to stretch and discover what you’re capable of with them.”
Things started to grow exponentially for Catalyst in 2006 withFrankenstein. It was the company’s first effort at a large-scale musical using a recognizable classic as its launching pad. With choreographer Laura Krewski joining the creative team, the development of Frankenstein‘s staging, script and design was a gestalt process of experimenting, checking in and hashing out everything simultaneously.
Even creating movement for Catalyst characters is impossible without knowing their costumes, says Krewski: “I remember the first day I went into Frankenstein, Jonathan said, ‘Oh, by the way, everything is made of paper.'”
Gerecke’s design determines the physical capabilities of the performers. A toppling headpiece or a sharply angled skirt can accentuate the odd way a character moves, or it could impede it. If it’s the latter, it means back to the drawing board for someone – often Gerecke.
“I can always let go of something,” she says. “I have huge investment in what I do, and I am so ready to hear when it’s not right. Jonathan was the one that taught me how to do that. I think it’s great training for life to be able to let go of things if they’re not working.”
Christenson says, “The cutting room floor at Catalyst would be three buildings of this size. For Songs for Sinners  , we had a three-month rehearsal process. We got to one week away from opening and sat down after our first full run-through and thought, ‘It’s not working. The characters can’t speak.’ They were covered in plaster and really otherworldly, and when they would open their mouths, it would shatter the illusion we were trying to create. So we cut 80 per cent of the script.” All of the spoken lines and a good number of the songs – gone.
Another time, for The House of Pootsie Plunket in 1999, they struck nearly the entire set days before opening.
“Those experiences solidified this notion that we have to be fearless and made us feel confident about making radical change right up to the very end,” Christenson says. “For us, the idea that, 15 minutes before opening, Bretta’s madly reworking some costume piece or building a prop for the first time – it doesn’t feel very sane, but it feels very familiar.”
“Opening night is only the first deadline,” says Gerecke. “We keep evolving as we go.”
Perhaps that’s why no one’s panicking three months from the premiere. The folks at the Citadel, especially, understand that Catalyst works are ever-evolving. When the Citadel’s artistic director, Bob Baker, asked about commissioning Catalyst’s next production after Nevermore, he didn’t even know what story he had signed up to see.
“Normally, they wouldn’t commit to doing a full production until they had several drafts of a script and were definitely sure that it was the right piece,” Christenson says. “It’s different in this case, because they know they’re investing in a team of people who have a way of working together, and they’re familiar with the results that we produce. But it’s still a tremendous leap of faith.”
A couple of weeks down the road, the set is coming together. Ava Jane Markus reports excitedly on her first fitting as Esmeralda.
“Bretta has found such an edgy style for this show,” she says, describing the bubble-wrap skirt and enormous, vertically spiked black wig she tried on in Gerecke’s shop. “Now that I see the costume, I’m getting a larger sense of who they’re seeing Esmeralda as and how I can use the costume to convey all these new energies.” Anticipating those visual cues can be nerve-racking, Markus says, but it’s part of the work: “It’s what you sign up for when you do a Catalyst show.
“It feels like Frankenstein and Nevermore and Hunchback are this weird little mnage trois. Everyone’s waiting for the third, to see if they’ll fit in – you wonder if it’s going to be a good lover,” she says. “And this novel, in particular, feels quite dangerous. How far would you go for love? Would you risk your life? Would you kill?”
Christenson reads aloud from the heavy Hugo tome on his desk: “The blinder the passion, the more tenacious it is. Never is it stronger than when it is most unreasonable.” He smiles.
Consciously or not, this passage nods to the delicate balance he and Gerecke seem to walk, a balance that teeters between ever-changing creative obsessions and assuring, comfortable sanity.
The Hunchback, premiering at the Citadel this month, is just the first version. And it likely won’t be the last. Successive change and growth, however uncertain, is Catalyst’s most efficient fuel.