Halifax’s The Villians Theatre returns to live theatre this month with the world premiere of Observatory Mansions.
The first major production for the company since 2019’s Zomblet, the company’s artistic producer Colleen MacIsaac says they are thrilled to be back.
“As we come out of the pandemic, I think it is really important for people to see stories about how it is essential to step outside, take the chance to connect with the world and the people around you and let yourself be vulnerable and open again. – Dan Bray”
“The privilege that we have here in Nova Scotia to be able to do something like this safely, especially as we see numbers rising in other places, is not lost on us,” she says. “When you think about how few companies in the world can do this right now in a safe way, I just feel so grateful that we can work on this now.”
Originally intending to present Observatory Mansions last year, the pandemic forced The Villians Theatre to delay the show like so many others in the theatre world. For artistic director Dan Bray, who adapted Edward Carey’s 2000 novel and directs the production, it became somewhat of a blessing in disguise.
“I think in a lot of ways it is even more relevant and timely now, as it is very much a play about connection and human relationships,” he says.
Observatory Mansions follows a group of reclusive apartment-dwellers whose lives become disrupted by a new tenant.
From a woman who thinks she is a dog, a porter who only hisses at people, and a woman who believes that she lives in a television show, the myriad of eccentric characters inside its walls have become accustomed to their lonely lifestyle.
“For one reason or another, they have been hurt or traumatized by society,” says Bray. “When the new tenant arrives, she helps these characters in the house learn that although their lonely lives are comfortable, it is no substitute for human connection.”
Initially drawn to its vivid cast of unique characters and dark humour, Bray also saw Carey’s novel as inherently theatrical. “There is also this focus on the observer and the voyeur that I thought lent itself to the theatre,” he says.
While Bray says that he has adjusted the focus of his adaptation solely on the eight characters living in the mansion, it is a relatively faithful and accurate version of the novel.
“I think it had been very flattering and generous of [Edward Carey] to let me have my take on the story without trying to oversee or control it in any way,” says Bray. “He has not read the script yet, but he tells me he wants to see the show, although that may be a bit tricky right now as a British writer now living in Texas.”
But while Carey may be hands-off, that doesn’t mean his authorial intent is very far away.
“We have a copy of the book in the room, and sometimes we refer to it to help with some of the character decisions or development,” adds MacIsaac, who also performs in the show. “If there are questions, sometimes we will turn to the novel and look at what was written to help inspire where the characters can go.”
One of those characters is the mansion interloper, Anna Tap. Played by newcomer Laura Bain, the partially sighted actor took up the casting call for members of the sight-loss community, adding a necessary authenticity to the role.
“I can relate to Anna on a couple of different levels,” says Bain. “I not only relate somewhat to her on a personality level, but also Anna is losing her eyesight throughout the play, and I also have a degenerative eye disease and am losing my eyesight.”
Bain’s first theatrical performance, she says the process of learning a new set of skills is both challenging and rewarding.
“If I sound tired, that is because I am,” she says with a laugh. “It is a lot every day, but I feel like I am learning so much.”
“As Laura’s partner in rehearsal a lot of the time, you would not know that she has never done this before,” interjects MacIsaac. “She is an absolute pro. She is amazing.”
“And I will say too that we sometimes joke about just how much Laura has to do as a performer,” adds Bray. “I think Laura does more in this one show than I have done in a ten-year career. It is just non-stop.”
“As a first-time actor and as an actor with a disability, I feel like I could not ask for a better, more supportive group,” continues Bain. “I do think it is important to mention that The Villains worked with a sight loss consultant on the script, and I know there has been a lot of care put into the portrayal and how to do it in a way that is accurate, sensitive, and positive. I appreciate that.”
I think that there is a lot more recognition of the importance of having people with disabilities play disabled characters. – Laura Bain
Still unsure about pursuing a theatre career following her upcoming debut, Bain says much of her hesitancy comes from a lack of opportunities, although she sees things slowly changing.
“I think that there is a lot more recognition of the importance of having people with disabilities play disabled characters,” she says. “I am optimistic that there will be more space in theatre for people like myself, who have disabilities and maybe do not have quite as much experience. But it is a new thing after decades of feeling that it was something that was not available to me.”
For now, though, Bain is okay with focusing on her performance in Observatory Mansions. “The play is touching and funny, and I hope that people come to see it.”
“It is a dark, funny, and unique story with just some of my favourite characters and modern literature in it,” adds Bray. “As we come out of the pandemic, I think it is really important for people to see stories about how it is essential to step outside, take the chance to connect with the world and the people around you and let yourself be vulnerable and open again.”
For MacIsacc, the draw comes from the uplifting way Carey’s characters have not given up on themselves after being told they are not lovable and ultimately find redemption.
“That someone can come in, see them, and accept, and love them for who they are, and find that connection is the heart of the story,” she says. “It is precisely the kind of story that resonates with me right now, and it does so in a way that is dark, funny, and unexpected.”
Observatory Mansions comes with a content warning as it deals with difficult subject matter, including assault, death, and abuse.
Observatory Mansions plays DANSpace (1531 Grafton St, Halifax) with eight shows from April 21 through April 25. Tickets are available at Ticket Halifax on a sliding scale, including free tickets available for each show. The run also features relaxed performances, ASL interpretation, and descriptive audio. Visit villainstheatre.com for more information.