Never mind the mosquitoes, outdoor theatre is flourishing in Quebec City

A large glass tank filled with water caught the attention of many passersby at the d’Youville public square in Quebec City last week. Every evening, performers took turns enacting daily scenes in it while submerged in warm water.

called holoscenesthis American show is one of 13 performances offered by the theater festival Carrefour International Theater in Quebec City this spring.

The festival, which is in its 22nd edition, hosted its first immersive outdoor show in 2009. The show was a big success and prompted the organization to look into non-traditional forms of theater that people could watch at their own pace.

But it’s really when the pandemic hit that the festival felt the need to offer a greater variety of outdoor shows, according to its artistic director Marie Gignac.

Not only did it make people feel safer, Gignac said, but it also offered an opportunity to perform in unique spaces.

L’heure bleue, another outdoor play presented by the festival, takes place at twilight in a forest in Quebec City’s Beauport neighbourhood.

David Bouchard, one of the co-creators and an actor in the show, said many residents were excited to learn that there was a play happening so close to them.

“We meet people and [they tell us] ‘hey you’re coming to us!'” he said. “I think we need to find ways to reach new audiences and I think that’s part of it.”

Marie Gignac said having free outdoor shows allows people to enjoy theater without feeling obliged to sit in a room for two hours. (Emilie Warren/CBC)

Bringing theater outdoors allows people to stumble upon a play and helps “democratize” the performing art, echoed Gignac.

“Lots of people are still afraid to cross the door of a theatre, they think it’s not for them,” she said. “It brings another type of audience.”

A new set of opportunities

In addition to reaching new audiences, outdoor plays also allow for a certain freedom of expression and “looseness,” according to Marc Gourdeau, the artistic director of a theater company based in Quebec City called Premier Acte.

The show Parc Optimiste offers a unique mix of theater and basketball and was inspired by a yearly country festival in the town of Saint-Tite, Que. (David Mendoza/Premier Act)

Premier Act is presenting an outdoor performance called Park Optimist in August.

The show mixes basketball and theater and will be performed in a church courtyard. Spectators are invited to grab some food and beers as they watch the performance.

“We like to present plays that are not in [our indoor venue],” said Gourdeau. “There’s a freedom that we can have.”

For example if an actor drops the basketball during the play and the ball rolls toward the audience, the spectators are more likely to feel comfortable picking it up and throwing it back if they are sitting outside than if they are sitting inside a dark, quiet theater hall, Gourdeau said.

“It changes the relationship between the actor and the spectator,” he said. “The public feels more free to react.”

The show’s director, Étienne La Frenière, said people’s inhibitions are lowered when they are outside and they may feel less stressed. Actors feel it too.

“It also allows a certain level of exuberance in the acting that spectators might think was exaggerated [if it was indoors].”

Adapting to the outdoors

The show L’heure bleue is a contemporary Quebec adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and takes place entirely in a forest. (Philip Larouche/L’heure bleue)

Performing outside does bring some unique challenges, weather being one of them. Ella Gignac and her team had to cancel some of their events last week because of heavy rain and thunderstorms.

In the case of L’heure bleuesome of the challenges also included figuring out how to deal with mosquitoes, how to perform on even terrain and how to work around trees that were in the way.

But being outside also provides artists with unique opportunities to be creative and take advantage of what the environment has to offer, said L’heure blue‘s co-creator and director, Maxime Robin.

The play depicts an isolated community, so being in a forest helps illustrate that, he said.

“There’s a notion of danger, of fear, and by being outside, in the forest, in an environment that’s really wild, that hasn’t been colonized by humans, there’s this unpredictability, this fear that totally corresponds to the play.”

While the Carrefour International Theater festival ends this weekend, Quebec City residents can still look forward to Park Optimist later this summer.

“There’s always been outdoor theater in Quebec,” said Gourdeau. The artistic director said there are years it’s more popular than others, but he’s confident that people’s keen interest for it will endure over the summer.

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