When audience members arrived at the Mackenzie King Estate on a recent summer evening, some seemed bemused when asked to exchange their printed tickets for a stone, stick, leaf, acorn or pine cone. Those items would determine which of five 25-person groups they would be sorted into for the night’s sold-out performance of Theatre in the Bush, a freewheeling show by Whitehorse’s Ramshackle Theatre. People took the acorns in good stride. After all, this show—part of the Canada Scene festival organized by Ottawa’s National Arts Centre (NAC)—had been clearly billed as something unusual. People who had made the half-hour drive from Ottawa to this site in Quebec’s Gatineau Park were likely primed for adventure. And they would not be disappointed.
The evening began with musical entertainment by Yukon musicians Brigitte Desjardins and Ryan McNally, on the lawn sweeping down from the one-time summer home of former prime minister Mackenzie King. Then Brian Fidler, Ramshackle Theatre’s artistic director, took the mic to welcome the crowd.
“Tonight is a big experiment,” he noted.
It marked the first time Theatre in the Bush would be presented anywhere but on Fidler’s 2.5-acre property near Whitehorse, and he and the NAC had searched far and wide for a spot that would evoke Yukon’s wilderness. King’s beloved retreat fit the bill.
“It is the connection with this land, the trees and the paths. This is something that Mackenzie King gave to all Canadians to share,” Fidler explained.
Soon, crowd members were partitioned into their groups, each led by a park guide. Someone rang a giant bell, and we set off on forest trails for a night of theatre unlike any other I’d ever seen.
In an open glade, Joella Hogan explained the basics of making soap using northern ingredients and taught audience members the Northern Tutchone words for ingredients such as juniper berries. One of the newest members of Ramshackle Theatre, she was surprised when asked to join. She wasn’t sure how her experience as a soap maker and as the heritage and cultural manager for the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun in Mayo, Yukon, would dovetail with a theatre group. However, once she learned more about the company and its all-encompassing concept of theatre, she wanted in. “It’s a pretty amazing group of people.”
In another corner of the property, Whitehorse culinary author Michele Genest and her team had laid out tables of northern and Ottawa-area ingredients—everything from sour cherries to elk sausage. Audience members made small snacks and chatted. Genest’s plan was that we would trade our snacks with another audience member while talking about food, but I wasn’t the only one who was so interested in what I’d created that I kept it for myself.
In an open meadow, an intriguing performance unfolded consisting of a man in a HAZMAT suit opening boxes containing helium balloons clothed in black dresses, and in one case, a woman in a black dress festooned with lights and balloons.
Nearby, a group of three actors dressed as Mackenzie King’s dogs cavorted around a photograph of King and nuzzled up to audience members, angling for pats on the head.
Under an archway, multidisciplinary artist Michel Gignac energetically badgered participants to fill out a crossword puzzle, build a house foundation from wood scraps, put on costumes, dance and much more. “It’s going to be a little bit frantic, my thing,” he’d explained during rehearsals the night before. Frantic it definitely was. Perhaps it was a comment on the busyness of modern life? Our frenetic pursuit of “more”?
In a spotlit grove, composer and sound designer Jordy Walker had stretched guitar strings along tree trunks and hooked them to amplifiers. We spent our 10 minutes there happily plucking and banging on the strings to create an original woodland symphony of sorts.
At the Mobius Collective North site, we admired the collection of natural items in a “Stardust Museum,” then settled in for a 10-minute performance featuring harmonica, light and poetry.
As the evening wound down, we gathered on the lawn for a few more tunes from McNally and Desjardins before wandering back to our cars, many of us smiling.
Before the show began, Fidler said he hoped the show would spark audience members’ interest in the Yukon. “I’d like them to take away that they are intrigued and want to come to the Yukon.” If I were Fidler, I’d expect to see at least a few Ottawans in Yukon next year, hoping to recapture a little of this starlit mayhem.
For more information on the Ramshackle Theatre and upcoming performances, click here. Check out Travel Yukon to plan your visit to the Yukon.
This post was sponsored by the Government of Yukon, which did not review or approve the article.