Realwheels Theatre

a photo of a smiling Gretchen Kingma

“Hell is other people.”

This classic line from Jean-Paul Sartre’s classic No Exit has seen a lot of milage over the years. Used bitingly, it’s often sighed by those who feel they have to suffer through the actions or company of those they dislike, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

In actuality, “Hell is other people” refers to the inescapable gaze of others in how they perceive you, their never-ending judgement and scorn and how this can eventually restrict your freedom, leading to an isolated and lonely life.

Judgement, scorn, and isolation are three things that the disability community faces on a daily basis. With 25% of Canadians identifying as disabled, they face constant systemic exclusion from much of the world around them and seclusion has become a much bigger problem for the disability community in the past few years due to the ongoing pandemic. 

From Zoom to Google Hangouts to Skype to Facebook Live, there’s almost no limit to the ways we can, pardon the old phrase, reach out and touch someone. It’s how we make daily connections, have work meetings, or connect with our families. Even live entertainment has turned to online meeting platforms, theatres and clubs offering virtual performances. While they can help unite us, online meeting platforms can also remind us that we are quite alone, trapped in little boxes or bubbles while still lacking that fundamental human contact. 

Realwheels Theatre hopes to tackle all these issues and more in its reimagining of Sartre’s masterpiece. Now titled In Camera (the direct translation of Sartre’s own original title for the French play – Huis Clos), conceptualized by Realwheels’ new Artistic Director, Tomas Mureika, and sporting a brand new translation by French-Canadian actor and playwright, Cory Haas, it will be set in the midst of the onset of the global pandemic in 2020. The idea came to Mureika one day when he wondered what it would be like if Hell were a never-ending online meeting. What if you pressed on the leave meeting and absolutely nothing happened? “It’s the ultimate symbol of the global lockdown, the ideal metaphor to look at human relations, connections, and isolation during the pandemic,” he says. “What if the platform itself is one of the instruments of torture the characters are looking for?” 

Sartre’s classic is still oddly relevant, especially in this day and age, but it needed to be refreshed while perfectly capturing the playwright’s original plot, characters, dialogue and philosophy. It was imperative to return to the original French (as opposed to the stale WWII-era standard version) to ensure the subtle—and not so subtle—were kept in balance and made Sartre’s masterpiece more accessible to a new audience.

Haas was excited to work within the context of Hell being an online meeting, but stressed it was important to maintain the type of language the original play uses because it’s vital to knowing where the characters are coming from. “I think the most important job of the translator is to not so much translate literally, but maintain the meaning of the play in the translation,” Haas says.  He also acknowledges the parallels between Sartre’s work and what’s happening in the world today. “We’re now two years into the pandemic. A lot of people have gotten the digital route –which is great, but I think we’re still pushing that boundary of what it can be.”

Pushing the boundaries is what In Camera is all about. The show will be a marriage of digital media and theatre — thanks to a grant from the Canada Council whose challenge was to do a digital adaptation of a classic work of theatre in a novel way for the COVID era.  In Camera will be shot digitally and live action performances will be integrated simultaneously and in new cutting-edge experimental fashion with pre-visualized computer animation – effectively, in this new production, the performers (an inclusive, classic integrated Realwheels cast of mixed abilities and diverse backgrounds) will effectively be acting seamlessly with the special visual effects in a bold and ambitious new kind of technology.  But who would be able to transform this artful magic into believable and breathtakingly barrier-breaking heightened surreality…?

The Centre for Digital Media (CDM), a uniquely creative and artful division of Simon Fraser University, came on board to help bring Realwheels’ bold new vision to life —  developing and rendering the cutting-edge technology for the digital, mixed-reality Hellscape: the unspoken fourth character of In Camera in which Estelle, Garcin, and Inez exist. Within that atmosphere, the main three will be able to merge, become transparent, and be transported into each other’s online “boxes” while still maintaining the feeling of an inescapable purgatory, one in which they are forced to confront and torment each other until the end of eternity.

Valentina Forte-Hernandez is CDM’s Digital Media consultant for In Camera and describes herself as a bit of a translator and a bit of a jack-of-all trades when it comes to simplifying communication between teams of experts. She is a graduate of the CDM program and collaborated with Realwheels on a project when she was a student, so she knew this was going to be a perfect fit. “It seemed like a natural fit for me as someone who understands the inner workings of CDM student teams and Realwheels productions,” she says.

Forte-Hernandez explains that CDM students and Realwheels are soon going to entering a beta testing phase, where technology and actors will meet for some serious world-building. Fairly enough, she was hesitant to share any specific effects, but did mention a few things audiences can look forward to. For example, certain glitches may seem annoying at first, but may have thware the characters in control of the digital platform? When is the digital platform is in charge of the characters?”

An integrated cast and crew are helping bring this project to a computer screen near you. The show will have ASL, closed captioning, and audio description for those who identify as People with Disabilities (PWD). 

In Camera is a limited five-show production slated for June 2-5 this summer — and admission is completely free for anyone who wants to attend virtually.  “We’ve all been through a lot recently,” offers Realwheels’ A.D. Mureika,”So we wanted to end this challenging season with a gift to showcase the bold and ambitious new work being accomplished by Realwheels Team and the CDM students working together to give our audiences something they have never experienced before…”  

Next issue, our exclusive behind-the-scenes look at In Camera will continue, spotlighting the magic of the actual production phase and talk with the extraordinarily multitalented integrated cast and creative Team about bringing this uniquely daring production to a dazzling new life and eerily timely relevance… Please visit Realwheels Theatre’s webpage, Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook for more information…

 The Realwheels Acting Academy

The Acting Academy finishes its first year in early 2022. A unique program—and one of the only one of tis kind in Canada—that is open to those who self-identify as being disabled. This inaugural program saw the students learn about professional techniques of acting, voice, and movement. Once the semester is over, they will continue their education in the form of discussion panels, which are built around such topics as finding an agent, learning about casting calls, and other professional integrated cast acting and related arts-specific knowledge.

As the year draws to a close, we met up with Acting Academy Director Hannah Pearson to ask her about what Realwheels was able to take away from its foundational year. “We’ve learned a ton,” she exclaimed, “and will continue to learn!”

Her highlights included the first term, which saw the students learn about the building blocks of acting from Shawm Macdonald and the second term, where they were instructed on the one of the actor’s most powerful tools: their voice. “I saw huge confidence in the students and was extremely impressed by the quality of work they presented,” says Pearson.

She is enormously proud of both the students and the faculty at the Acting Academy, lauding their achievements as the driving force behind the success of the program, saying the “care of the instructors and Realwheels staff…and the curiosity, passion, and talent in our amazing first cohort” is what kept the Acting Academy strong. 

Congratulations on a wonderful first year! (Anglia Redding)