Review: WHAT SHE BURNED, Barrie, Ont.

by Lynn on October 2, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live, in person, in The Gables. 250 Tollendal Mill Road, Barrie, Ont. Part of the Bees in the Bush Festival from Talk Is Free Theatre. Playing until Oct. 3, 2021.

Created and artistically lead by Joe Pagnan

Based on the folklore written by Alexander Afanasyev

Composer, Richard Lam

Video Designer, animator, Cameron Fraser

Movement Director, Clarke Blair

Narrator, Glynis Ranney

Dancer, Macayla Paris

A stunning, creative piece of theatre that is a perfect way of ending the Bees in the Bush Festival.

This is from the Creator, Joe Pagnan’s programme note. It gives context, history and comments on the process: “An album pressed onto an x-ray plays the last sounds and conversation she heard. A young woman and her doll go to the wood to seek what her family demands. On returning, she brings with her a choking fire. Through Russian folktales by Alexander Afansyev, this sonic experience tasks its solitary audience into the woods to witness performance ventred from a spinning vinyl record.

During the Cold War, “Rock on Bones” or “Ribs” was a technique used to record and trade banned music across Russia. Taking discarded x-rays from trash bins of hospitals, the records were cut using stolen recording devices from Germany during the war. It was called “Ribs” because many of the x-rays were of lungs from the tuberculosis outbreak at the time. With vinyl sales controlled by the state, the flimsy x-ray film was ideal for its availability and ability to be rolled and hidden in sleeves. The process of printing “Ribs” caused the record to be volatile with deteriorating sound quality after the first play. Knowing each play depreciates the performance, we hope to capture the vital essence of live theatre through organic erosion by using rib technique. This has been synthesized in our piece, though the erosive wear on the disc, the act of hand lathing, echoes this tradition. What She Burned experiments with the spirit of oral tradition. Passing the work to each creator along a path with little contact between.”

This explanation is all the more fascinating because the performance takes place in the woods, the Gables in Barrie to be exact. It’s a very small audience—I was there with another woman who I didn’t know.

We are led into the Gable by a Talk Is Free guide. She explains a bit about records made from old x-rays. We are offered bug spray. My time was 2:00 pm on Friday, Oct. 1 so the bugs were not heavy.  There are several shows scheduled during the day of 20 minutes each.

We were led to a place on the path where the ‘set’ was. There was an old wood chair without a seat. There was a wood box near it with a table setting on it of a dirty, rusty knife on the outside, then a rusty spoon, then a clay figure of a little doll next to the spoon and then a rusty fork. This was a proper table setting from ages ago. On the end of the box were a pair of horns that were from a goat. I did not enquire about how or where they got those horns, or of the goat. There was another smallish wood cabinet up from the box. There was an old-fashioned record player on the box and a record made from an x-ray in the player. A man from Talk Is Free Theatre pointed a remote-control device at something in the box and the record began playing and the story began.

The story was of Vasalisa, a young Russian girl. Her mother was dying and she gave her daughter a tiny doll to keep her company and protect her. Vasalisa’s mother told her to keep the doll in her pocket and not tell anyone about it. She said that if she got into trouble and needed help and solace she should feed her doll some food and some water and she would be protected.

Vasalisa did that the first evening, she was so distraught without her mother. The doll told her to sleep and it would be better in the morning. And it was. Vasalisa lived with her father but then he married a woman with two daughters. All seemed good but her stepmother put her to work quickly. Vasalisa soon learned her stepmother was mean and so were her step-sisters. There are echoes of “Cinderella” here but without the prince.

When the record began playing, the soft, lilting voice of Glynis Ranney is heard as the narrator. It is almost a lulling sound, yet compelling. As she narrates the story an animation appears on the front of the cabinet. It is of a green dancing image. It’s not a hologram because it’s not three dimensional, but that’s what this dancing image suggests.

Clark Blair choregraphed work for dancer Macayla Paris. Then Cameron Fraser videoed the dancing and then translated it into the green animation projected onto the wood cupboard. Richard Lam provided the evocative score.

The story is of resilience, tenacity, resourcefulness and the help of spirits. The production created by Joe Pagnan and company is magical. To have these old artifacts set in the words to tell the story, juxtaposed with this technology makes it all seem futuristic. We were actually shown the record that was playing, fashioned from an e-xray. The story was captivating. The artistry is par for the course with Talk Is Free Theater. Loved it.

Talk Is Free Theatre presents:

Plays until: Oct. 3, 2021.

Running Time: 20 minutes.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 maja October 2, 2021 at 8:41 am

I wish I could see this one. I hope it happens again. I have witnessed such an amazing and original diversity of creations by all these artists for the Bees in the Bush Festival. See what happens when you leave artist alone to offer the result of their imaginations, their fascinations, their research and their talents? It proves that you don’t always need dramaturgy. (That’s a provocative comment that I’d be happy to discuss with anyone)


2 Anonymous October 12, 2021 at 3:04 pm