My Theatre

25 May 2020

Nominee Interview Series: Nick Blais

By // Theatre

Before we announce the winners of the 2019 MyEntWorld Critics’ Pick Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.

As set and lighting designer for immersive company Outside the March’s ambitious production of Annie Baker’s movie theatre-set The Flick, 5-time Outstanding Design nominee (and 2014 winner) Nick Blais problem solved and innovated on countless fronts from careful forced perspective measurements to a device for spontaneously re-popcorn-ing the set in seconds-long transitions. He’s nominated alongside the rest of the Flick design team Nick Bottomley, Anahita Dehbonehie, and Richard Feren.

Are you from Toronto?
No. I’ve lived here for like six years now, but I’m from Calgary. I went to school at the U of A, in Edmonton. I did a design degree there, a BFA in theatre design, and that’s where I met Mitch [Cushman], the director of The Flick. That’s when we started working together, and then I moved out here about six years ago.

Did you guys co-found Outside the March together?
We didn’t co-found it, but he left the U of A and came to Toronto, and basically started it right then. The year after, he called me up and said “Hey, come to Toronto, do a show.” Then the year after that, I moved here, so I’ve done all but three Outside the March shows since it has started, I think. Like, 2012. We did a show called Terminus at SummerWorks, and then it was picked up for the Off-Mirvish thing, and then we did it at the Royal Alex, and a couple more times after that.

That’s a good strong launch, and it motivated you guys to do a lot more.
It’s true, yeah. It was really good. They’d done a couple of shows since then, one of which had done a bit of a sweep at the Doras called Mr. Marmalade, which is also a site-specific show.

I got to read that ages ago, but I’ve never seen it. It’s a play by an adult woman, but it’s a little girl with a fantasy guy, and then there’s trauma in the house?
Yeah. They did it in a classroom, like a playroom, sort of twisted and dark, and adults playing kids.

An actual classroom?
Yeah. I don’t wanna say it started it, but it started the site-specific nature of the company. The immersive nature, the finding an odd way of telling a story.

I was reading about you and off-the-grid lighting, something you’ve worked on. Is that something you wanted to always develop out of working with Mitchell and these site-specific pieces?
It developed out of a very specific project, actually. I was always interested in doing site-specific work, but the off-the-grid element came out of a show we were doing called Mr. Burns’ Post-Electric Play.

We actually did a whole bunch of workshops, and we were like, “How hard would it be to actually do this play without on-the-grid electricity?” Because that’s what’s supposed to be happening in the world of the play. We thought it was going to be impossible, but we tried a bunch of stuff, we did some workshops, and we came close.

Each act of the show was done with a different style of lighting. The first act was done entirely with carbide lanterns that they used to put on the railroads at the turn of the century. Act Two was handhelds and flashlights and lanterns and things you would commonly have around the house for camping, and Act Three was an evolution of that. Technologies change, and it’s in a somewhat dystopian future.

It’s all powered by the bike at the end, right?
It’s all powered by the bike, and by car batteries, but they’ve obviously got more sophisticated by that time in the play. So we did it without on-the-grid electricity, and Production Lighting Magazine got a hold of the story, and did a piece on us, which was really sweet. And it led to this guerrilla punk-rock lighting style that I’ve now done a number of times, but it started with that one, and that one was certainly the most intense.

So you’re just foraging through different shops or places; do you think, “I want those lanterns”, or does it come out of “What can we find what makes sense?”
Certainly the first time, those lanterns were an accident. The parents of the costume designer on the show run an antique shop, and I was researching all these different kinds of lanterns, and I was like, “Oh, we gotta get our hands on some real kerosene lanterns like this.”

I showed her a photo, and she said “Oh, that looks really similar to something that’s on our mantel at home!” So she went and got it, and told me what it said in the scratched out engraving on the side, and I was like “Oh, I don’t even know what this technology is.” Turns out it’s a Canadian-invented technology, invented in Ontario, and it led to how all the trains were lit. They’ve sat on the front of boats and trains across the country, and across the US, and it uses a powder. It looks like gunpowder, but it’s less volatile than oil or kerosene, and burns twice as bright, but half as hot. So it was this brilliant thing. And we used that powder for the show. It was very difficult to find, actually.

How did you find it?
I called places, typed this stuff in. I called chemical manufacturing places that at one point were involved with carbide, because it’s used for other things, like the actual chemical itself. And they had some old tins that were used for this purpose, and they were like “Sure, you can buy them.”

That was enough for the whole run?
Yeah. I still have some left, actually. And the other day I sparked it up for fun, just ‘cause why not? I found these lanterns on Etsy in the end. People didn’t know what they were, and they certainly didn’t work, but you have to replace a couple of parts and gas kits and things. Other than that, they eventually worked just as well as they did then. It was pretty reliable technology, and it was a really cool way to do the show. It was a really unique way to approach it, and it was challenging, but it added something that we could boast about – that we actually did this play that a lot of people were doing. There have been a couple of productions since that had large profiles, but we actually attempted to do it, and succeeded in doing it.

I’d only ever been in that space before as a movie theatre. There was a projection booth where there would be three people on their Macs anytime you’d go in, and I remember when I went to see the show, I’d think, “What is the lighting gonna be?” Because I don’t think they have that, really.
There was basically nothing built in.

Did that also spark the idea of “Why don’t we just try something different?”
Well, we knew this venue was the right place for the storytelling that the play called for. Doing the adaptation of the media adapting TV into live performance in a movie theatre was very interesting to us. We knew that having a troop that would camp out in this movie theatre to tell these live stories that there was something interesting about that. Obviously, we’re very interested in movie theatres. [laughs] It was one of Mitch’s jobs, working at a movie theatre; I think he’s very fascinated. We’re all very fascinated by movies. But it was just the right place to do this gritty, gritty show in an old movie theatre. Now it’s been beautifully restored.

General question: design, lights, sets. Did that just happen, going to school and like, “Oh, this is the thing I wanna focus on in theatre?” Or did you go in knowing, “This is what I wanna do in theatre?”
I was very interested in the theatre in high school, but I went directly from high school to an apprentice program at Alberta Theatre Projects, which is a fantastic theatre company, and they offer this amazing apprenticeship. It’s a year long, and you spend time in every department: in play development, in marketing, in stage management, in props.

I got a little exposure to design in that, but I didn’t know I was interested in design. I was interested in certain aspects of tech, and stage management, but I got to follow some designers around there, and when I said “Hey, this is what I really wanna do,” they dedicated the remaining three months of my apprenticeship to just assisting the designers they had for the rest of the season. And I asked them all where they went to school, and they all, almost without fail, said the U of A. It led me there to the professors and talked to them about the program, and it just seemed like the perfect place. So I would say once I got into that apprenticeship, and got exposed to design, I knew that’s what it was gonna be. Four years there, and it’s pretty much what I’ve been doing ever since. Set, lights and costumes are the main three that I do. I do love to do all three. Never got super into projection or sound, but I love design.

Was it a show or shows you’d seen as a person that was like, “This specific design element of this is exciting me in a way”?
Yeah. I remember seeing The Overcoat. The Overcoat was a big show. I remember seeing that, and the design of it, the music of it, the costumes; it’s quite a big design, and the fact that it is without words – it’s stunning. I remember being like, “Wow. Every part of this is what I wanna do.”

You said you guys were kind of interested in movie theatres. Was The Flick a play you guys wanted to do for a while?
Mitch had seen it, I think. We’d done an Annie Baker show two years prior- we did Aliens at Coal Mine Theatre together- so she was very much on my radar after that. I loved her, loved her work, and Mitch told me about this other play that he’d seen, and he was like, “I just wanna do it, and I wanna do it before anyone else has a chance to do it. And I think the Outside the March team, and [Crow’s Theatre], of course – could do a really good job of it.”

But there was a challenge, because it has been done quite a bit, and it is very specific. I would say it’s not our usual wheelhouse, in that it’s very prescriptive. It sort of tells you what you should do with it, at least from a design point of view, which is certainly not the way Outside the March and its designers are used to working.

I was looking at the play and it even said the seats have to be red.
Yeah. There’s a little bit of leniency, but it does spell out the kind of theatre that it is. But to be honest, very quickly after the play and talking to Mitch about it – we knew that other productions had gotten a lot of things right, but not everything right. So we sought out to do something a little bit different with it, something a little bit more, something a little bit grander with a little bit more majesty, and we knew that we were gonna commit to stairs. We were gonna have this auditorium on stairs, as opposed to shallow. And we wanted to mirror that with the audience, so you really could walk in and there were two auditoriums, and the screen was this invisible thing in the middle. It was a challenge. It took some convincing; we had to rehearse on stairs, and we actually had to spend some time at a theatre that we have a relationship with up on Mount Pleasant called the Regent. They let us rehearse there.

It would be so cool to rehearse there.
Yeah! Because we’d done a couple other shows there, we did a show there called A Community Target, which was just a show about the fall of Target, but we used it as a gathering space. I based a lot of the design off of that theatre, and maybe some of the Aztec Theatre – the one on Gerrard where we did Burns. Aspects of theatres we’ve worked in certainly made their way in.

So you said you guys wanted to focus on the grandeur and the majesty; were there other elements you wanted to bring that you felt hadn’t been in earlier versions?
Like all of our work, we wanted to bring in our immersive element to it, so my task was achieving everything that Annie Baker spelled out – like, this is the kind of movie theatre it’s supposed to be, but also finding a way that that can live within the Streetcar Crowsnest, so we’re not putting this bubble of a theatre into a theatre. They’re together. So I loved watching people walk in being like “Was that always there? Is that a part of the Crows’ design?” or like “All of those lights are really beautiful!” Things that we added to the production that people thought was there all the time, and vice versa. Like, “You’re gonna keep those after for the next show!”

Most of the challenge of designing The Flick is spacing, and traffic, and getting the dimensions right of those risers, and the distance between seats. We’re on a relatively tight budget even between the two companies, but we also got crazy lucky – the Humber Cinema, which was near where I used to live in Bloor West Village – they closed down right as we were designing this show, so we walked in there and said, “Hey, can we have your seats?”

We ended up buying them, but they were really supportive too, and it was nice going in and talking to all these mutual movie-lovers across the city that ran theatres at one point or another. They helped us out a lot with donations of things that we could set up in the lobby, deals on popcorn – it was great. It really took all of that to complete the whole picture.

I remember watching it and wondering, the popcorn the characters were sweeping up- were they just shovelling it away and then shoving it back? I was like, “How much popcorn can there be?!”
It was quite the saga. Now that the show is done, we can talk about it. The design challenge in this show was, there’s something like sixteen scene changes, and each time, the theatre has to look just as dirty as it did at the beginning of the play, so myself and Courtney, who was the PM on the project – we sought out to design these popcorn cannons. That’s what we thought would be the best way to approach it. If you were there on an exciting night with a happy audience, you got to see them at curtain call.

So that was our plan, initially – that we would fire popcorn through these popcorn cannons, and it would be a bit of a shtick. It would be completely clean, and then blackout – [makes sudden exhaling noise] – lights up – popcorn was there.

But it was too heavy-handed. It was too loud in such a small space. It was too jarring, and ultimately, we couldn’t do it sixteen times, so in the end, because we’d built it on risers, we had the ability to open flaps behind the stairs. Our ASM Noa [Katz] was underneath there with these little flip things that he could fill with popcorn, so he could just *fft fft* and it would grace the aisle with popcorn.

It gave us a controlled way of resetting the popcorn each transition. Sometimes he would open the door if we needed a little bit more, and flip more out during the blackout – but he only had seconds to do it. It was a little less overwhelming than the cannons were. With the cannons [makes exploding noise], the popcorn floated everywhere.

I remember that was surprising at the end. But sixteen!
Sixteen times. Bam! But it was fun to try, and it added to the fun at the end, and to the release at the end of the show too, which was a big important part of why we decided to keep it in and make it a thing that we did at curtain call. But ultimately, it was the work of primarily our ASM Noa crawling around underneath the risers. He’s very good. He was a great sport. We had him working very hard backstage. He was changing out movie posters, so every time that door opened –

Well, I was gonna ask about that, because it changed all the time. I remember noting, “That’s pretty accurate for the season, or the month.” Beyond the specificity of “This is era-appropriate”, were there thematic choices as well with the posters you see at certain points?
Yeah. Myself and my assistant Hans [Krause] went through and made a first draft of all the dream posters we would have loved to have, and how many we’d change; we knew budget-wise, we’d only really have five or six.

But The Avengers is one, very clearly, that we wanted to save for the end as a fall from grace. And that came out of conversations with Richard Feren, the sound designer, as well. It was like, we wanna find something that, when this theatre changes hands, it’s the opposite of what we’ve seen before.

We threw a whole bunch out there. We knew we wanted Black Swan out there for [when] Colin’s character has an exit out the doors, when he’s just found out he’s been betrayed. And that flash of Natalie Portman’s Black Swan, which was the year it came out – they’re just images. That’s where we approached it from. We wanted to align it with sound, so it was a conversation with Richard Feren; what sound was good for this transition? He was grabbing things from movies from the time as well. Not just from the time – anything he felt emotionally attached to, and we’d find the right version of the poster, or we’d make our own. We tried to find thematic ways that were not too heavy, but that led you down the right path. So if you saw it, you got a little extra, but if you saw it but didn’t get it, it didn’t distract you from it.

Between the posters and sound from big corporate movies, did you have to pay anything to use those posters?
I hope not. We certainly didn’t. It’s funny, though; as we were going into these movie theatres and getting stuff like projector parts, they had piles and piles of posters. What were they gonna do with them? The movie comes out, they have eight or nine of them to put up all over the place – two weeks later, the movie’s gone, and another one’s in there, and they just have rolls of them. So they sell some of them, but when these theatres were closing, there were really great posters.

I remember being a teenager; I had movie posters everywhere on my wall, and I would have loved to know that that was a thing. I remember paying $40 for specific movie posters I really, really loved. They were in a projection booth and there’s just, like, 100 sitting there.

When you were going through all these movie theatres, was there any really incredible treasures you discovered, like a film reel?
The biggest ones were these projectors; to get rid of them is cost-prohibitive. Like the 35mm projectors – they were too expensive to get rid of, so they just keep them there, and they work. That’s the thing. They still work. But nobody’s making film for them anymore.

The Regent actually still have one, and they still use it every now and then. They have a digital one as well, but every now and then they’ll do a 35mm run of it. That was probably the best thing. I took two of them apart in prep for the show, and they were like, “Hey, if you can get it out of here, you can do whatever you want with it.”

So we went there and spent an afternoon and took it apart with a whole set of Allan keys, like the IKEA ones. It took a whole set to take them apart, because they’re very complicated and the lightbulb that powers them is big. It’s got a long, long, weird stem, and looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. But all the gears and parts that go to make it work – it was amazing. And the reels and the film and all of that stuff, but the film was actually the hardest part to get.

We didn’t project real film 35mm film. It’s hard because you wanna do the story justice, and you wanna do a real 35mm projector. But there’s no way we could have got a real 35mm projector up in that little booth at Crow’s. There was no way it was gonna happen. And also, the content of it needed to be so specific in length and quality and that kind of thing, so we worked with Nick Bottomley, our projection designer, and myself as the lighting designer to replicate the quality, and be able to switch between digital and 35mm, at least the appearance and feel. We put a lot of effort into trying to get the feel of it right, knowing that it was our job to do justice to it so that we could see the difference between the two. I think we did a great job of it, and it would’ve been amazing to actually do 35mm, but it would have been prohibitive for a lot of reasons.

So the feel and the look in terms of the audience perspective – is that what they’re seeing? I remember it comes through the glass, and you see the thing out-of-focus. Is that right?
Yeah. When you look down the barrel of a 35mm lamp, what it looks like – with digital, it’s cold, it’s harsh, it’s sharp. We actually overdid [the 35mm] so that it looked even more different than it actually is. We added a tiny little bit of a flicker to it, and that kind of stuff, but it wouldn’t have that, to be honest. It doesn’t have that flicker, especially when you look down the veil at it. But it was important that the audience see one of them as being beautiful and having some majesty, and the other one being easy and effortless – it’s just that the whole process of being a projectionist, and it being a skill that’s dying, and something that these characters really, really want – and when the change-over happens, they just put up a digital projector, press play, a little light comes on, and that’s what it is? It’s an evolution and something is definitely lost by that, and I think that’s something that’s very clear in the play. We wanted to make that as evident through design as possible.

Did the actors figure out how to do projecting? Did they do tutorials about projecting?
Absolutely, absolutely. We set up a portion of what we could set up in that booth, so that it would operate like a real 35mm projection room. They knew it was getting fed in through here, and because we had a lot of real parts, it actually made sense. A lot of it was also fake, but you wouldn’t normally see through the window, so we opened things up and stuff like that. Characters walked back and forth, weaving little bits of film that we’d found as scrap at theatres that we’d explored, and set it onto reels that were essentially screwed to the wall, so they could spin. So I like to think that they knew what they were doing had a purpose, and that it was close to what you would actually have to do in real life. Obviously, it’s a much more difficult job than what they had had to do, at least up in the booth, but we wanted to do an homage.

What were some of the other challenges that came with The Flick?
One of the things for it was just how to fit that many seats in there. I fought for every seat in that auditorium because I knew every seat we would lose, that would be an experience sort of lost. Part of what I loved about the play is when Durae [McFarlane]’s character finally sits down and gets to watch a movie, and he sits in the middle of the auditorium. The edges of the seats – the edge of the auditorium, the closer it is to him – the less effective that moment was gonna be, for me, and I really had to sit in the centre and be this kind of void of seats that the light could play off of, because it’s not a tiny little moment, it’s actually quite a big moment for him. And it’s a big moment for the two characters when they’re watching this movie; much like the best seat in the house for the king in the middle of the theatre would be dead centre and all the perspective lines would line right up with that one seat – I wanted him to sit there. So making sure that the auditorium was big enough so he could feel alone in it was key, and that it filled the space, that it really did look like the Crowsnest was this theatre. It wasn’t just set inside of a black box.

How many seats were there?
There were 166, I think.

And were there any placed in perspective? Are they all equally spaced?
They’re definitely not all equally spaced. There are challenges, too; all the seats are the same size, because we got them from this theatre – but I angled them all in so the aisles would angle in backwards, which is inherently perspective. But I also did that to hide the aisles, to an extent, because there was some action that we needed to hide; for example, whatever popcorn delivery method we ended up using underneath the seats. Raking it that way allowed the room to feel like it was going back, feel like it was deeper than it actually was, because it actually wasn’t very deep. The play area that we used was small, but because it was stacked, it was quite an area for them to cover, but in the actual ground plan of the space, it wasn’t very deep. It was about a third of the whole length of the room.

So the choreography of what they’re doing has to be pretty specific, because they can’t go into spaces that don’t make sense. They might get trapped.
It’s true. There were some aisles that they couldn’t go down, to clean, and you wouldn’t know it by looking at it. There were sections of it where there wasn’t really floor underneath some of those seats. Risers are expensive, and we knew that the up-left and upper right corners of the set weren’t great positions for a show like this anyway; perspective and all in, put all the value in these two alleyways and these two crossovers that we had. That’s where most of the action took place.

What happened to the set, to the chairs? What’s going to happen to them?
I believe somebody took them – not, like, made off with them. We were hoping to sell them either back to the place that gave them to us- somebody had swooped in and bought all the rest of them, and we tried to get that buyer to buy them- and then it looked like for a moment that we were gonna have to dump them, and pay to dump them, which was so sad. Then I think somebody scooped them up and said “I’ll take them”. I don’t know who it was. I’d have to ask Michael Gutowski, who works at Crows, but it’s nice to know that they didn’t just get thrown into the dump.

It’s one of the biggest sets that I’ve seen. You’ve been in bigger theatres, but there’s so much stuff on the stage.
Honestly, a lot of it was stuff that you reuse. You didn’t really see all the risers underneath because the chairs covered it. The whole back wall was fake. It was made to look like the real Crows back wall, but it was a fake back wall. That allowed us to put the door in it.

The booth itself was a scaffolding that they had at Crows already, and they dressed it, and made it look like it belonged there. But I feel like the chairs was the most significant purchase for the show. I don’t think a whole lot went to waste in the end, as opposed to other shows; for example, everything we bought for Jerusalem still exists, but it was all new. From scratch, we built almost everything. And then it was all that stuff to store. There was a lot of stuff to store, whereas this, most of it went back to its source.

Do you re-use stuff?
I would say we started to re-use certain aspects of lighting gear, because we’ve started to do more consistent styles of projects. Like, we’d move into a space that doesn’t have great power, so we have invested a bunch of money into extension cords, and generators, and things like that. So I’d say we’d use that stuff quite a bit.

We’ve got a little bit of computer and technology in lighting and sound that we re-use a lot, but scenically I wouldn’t say we re-use a lot. Every show that we do requires a different kind of re-invention, so it usually takes something different. Some materials are more useful than others; we’ve got a floor that we’ve laid down for events. Stuff like that. But most shows require some very, very new thing, so there hasn’t been a lot of crossover on our main stage productions.

We’ve talked about how you visualize both the film and the digital projection – but [with] the sound – are you just projecting what the movie that we’re hearing is?
It’s all original content, really. The 20th Century Fox or the MGM lion- that was a portion of the video content, but it was all designed and created by Nick Bottomley and Richard Feren, and they used some of it, but it wasn’t just as easy as syncing it up. They had to manipulate it a lot so that we could see it. Specifically, the projection content – we wanted to play what it looked like bouncing off the screen, even though the screen wasn’t there, so we had the beam that hit the audience in the face, but then it had to match up with the modelled balance that was playing on them. But Bottomley created all of that, so that it looked right, and fit with the sound, because the actual projection of what it would be wouldn’t register enough, even if you really boosted the contrast. They did a lot of work on making that feel real.

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