On Theatre

A Week in Retreat: The Need for Space in Theatre Making

Space is so often talked about and is such a basic element to every production that it is perhaps surprising that I had not spent more time actively considering its effects on a production. But until my experience in Wells, I honestly hadn’t.


Swimming with Piranhas has, for the most part, been written in transit.  I wrote some of it in the Andean wilderness, some in the Amazon jungle, some from my parents’ home in Nelson, some from the floor of my father-in-law’s house, and the most recent part on the 55-minute flight from Wells to Vancouver.

In August, after not having had any creative writing inclinations in months, all the while knowing I had a play that needed to be finished, the idea of going to an out-of-the-way place to write began to grow in appeal.   A retreat was not something I had ever done, but the dramatics of it appealed to me, and since my Kitsilano apartment had been doing nothing for my writer’s brain, it seemed worth a try.

My intention was to go to The Sunset Theatre in Wells, B.C., wherein I would spend a week working on the finer points of what I hoped would be the “final” draft of my solo show Swimming with Piranhas – a show which I am taking on tour in 2013.

I imagined myself intensely hunched at the computer for hours at a time working on the script, and I thought that what I would take away from the experience would be a substantially improved script and some peace of mind.  Naturally this is not what happened.  Well, not exactly.

Shit, I thought to myself late into my second evening in Wells.  It’s practically done.

There was the odd word and phrase here and there that needed tweaking, some transitions that were off, but certainly nothing that would take up the rest of the week.  And while I knew that there was something else still missing, it was also clear to me that sitting in front of my computer or attached to my notebook, was not going to get me anywhere.

So I spent the next five days reading plays; walking around the snowy bog the town of Wells is situated next to, script in hand, mumbling lines to myself, making notes; and getting onto the icy stage of The Sunset Theatre to put Swimming with Piranhas on its semi-finished feet.  It was in this bumbling process that I began to understand the need for space in the act of theatre creation.  But not just any space, the right space.

Space is something theatre people love to talk about, usually in reference to the physical area in which a production will be either rehearsed or performed.

“What’s the space like?” someone asks.

“Oh it’s utterly gorgeous.  Very intimate yet somehow wide open,” the other responds. Or, “It’s a piece of shit.  No energy.  Feels like a coffin.”

Space is so often talked about and is such a basic element to every production that it is perhaps surprising that I had not spent more time actively considering its effects on a production.  But until my experience in Wells, I honestly hadn’t.

Having acted in spaces ranging from an 800-seat theatre with a proscenium stage to a roughly lit barn, as an actor I have an understanding of how space can affect a performance.  However, during my week in Wells I saw how much a space affects both the rehearsal and creation process of a piece of theatre, and not just the performance.

In the case of my last solo show, the entire play had been rehearsed in my living room, which had been cleared of all furniture for this precise purpose.  The entire play had also been improvised/written in my living room, making that space an appropriate one for rehearsal.

However, unlike my last solo show, it had so far been impossible to rehearse Swimming with Piranhas in a normal room.  The most I had managed in my apartment in Vancouver was to do some read througha, as actually getting the characters on their feet seemed extraordinarily difficult.  And I experienced the same issue in Wells.  In the apartment I could do little more than read the play out loud.  I moved the furniture aside and tried to get the characters going physically, but it was like walking through six feet of mud.

Frustrated, I decided to go into the theatre itself, which, being too expensive to keep heated at all times, was about 9 degrees.  The moment I was standing on the 25” x 15” stage of The Sunset Theatre, script in hand, the characters came to life.  There was a sense of the dance from one scene to another, from one character to another; the physicality of the characters developed without great effort; ideas about how the characters might stand or move arrived of their own volition; the sweep of the show could be felt.  I went back to the apartment in the early evening when the theatre had gotten too cold, planning on continuing the work, but again I was unable to rehearse.  The energy and life of the characters were gone.

One might argue that I’m just a lazy actor, and that I hadn’t tried hard enough to rehearse outside of the theatre, or that it’s just a mental block I have in relation to this piece and not actually related to the space.  However, that doesn’t seem right, especially when I look at how the writing for this current play has so far taken place compared to my last solo show.

Swimming with Piranhas has, for the most part, been written in transit.  Thus, it seems almost inevitable that the characters in this play (having been created out of a no-man’s land of expansive movement and transition) would not be interested in coming alive in a 600-square-foot apartment and would instead require the sweep of a stage or the open space of a bog in order to be found.

Without a doubt, the greatest gift of my retreat was the personal experience of seeing and feeling the difference a space can make on a piece of theatre during its creative and developmental process.  The tricky bit in future will be deducing how much and what type of space is ideal and then somehow conjuring it up.  Which, of course, is part of the theatre-making art.

For as much as some would like to think of theatre making as a craft – an amalgam of trades – that cannot be the case.  There are no formulas in theatre that will always result in a compelling end.   Indeed, just as a painter’s art is in his sometimes calculated and sometimes intuitive choice of brushstrokes and colors, so too is the theatre maker’s art in her choices.  And the theatre maker’s choice of space, much like a painter’s choice of canvas size and construction, is a vital one.  One that can set the characters of a play free and enliven the text, or, if the choice is ill made, put the play in a prison from where its truth and vision can be neither seen nor heard.

Colette Nichol acts, writes, sings, and in general enjoys the process of creation. After having spent four and a half years living in South America learning Spanish, teaching English, working on her first solo show, and in a happy surprise, falling in love and getting married, Nichol returned to Canada in 2012 and is currently producing her second solo show, Swimming with Piranhas. Visit her site at: www.colettenichol.com/

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Colette Nichol

Written by Colette Nichol

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