Fixt Point puts neighbourhoods in the spotlight

Like a line out of a Stompin’ Tom Connors song, Fixt Point Theatre’s Lisa Marie DiLiberto was saddened by the outright homogenization of the cities she saw while travelling through Canada.

“Everywhere I went, I saw the same big-box stores on the other side of town, forcing many of the smaller independent stores to close,” said the Toronto-based playwright. The Tale of a Town: Queen West, inaugurating the launch of Theatre Passe Muraille’s fall season, celebrates these independent businesses, which Ms. DiLiberto refers to as the “unsung heroes” of a neighbourhood.

An audio-visual exploration into Queen West’s recent history, Fixt Point’s latest production begins at Theatre Passe Muraille, where Ms. DiLiberto, as a pesky condo developer, leads the audience through a short walking tour of the neighbourhood, leading to the venue, a loft space above the newly opened location of Duke’s Cycle. The space is divided into various rooms modelled after Queen West fixtures such as the Cameron House and CityTV. The audience is invited to interact with Ms. DiLiberto, in the guise of a variety of characters, and also to listen to interviews with merchants and residents.

As the area’s history extends far beyond the days of the late Handsome Ned’s rockabilly revival at the Horseshoe Tavern and Cameron House, several tales could be told about the roaring labour movement in the garment district of the 1930s, but Ms. DiLiberto and Fixt Point Theatre partner Charles Ketchabaw’s work focuses on the recent past, specifically the 1970s to the present day. “We’re interested in the living memory of a neighbourhood,” she said.

Earlier this year, Fixt Point presented the first phase of The Tale of CORKtown, a “promenade performance piece” exploring the Esplanade area through the words of Jane Jacobs and audio interviews. “The area was developed in line with Jane’s thinking, both private and public spaces being mixed together. It’s really fantastic,” added Ms. DiLiberto.

They intend to document other neighbourhoods such as Yorkville, the Junction, even the east Danforth, creating a digital collective community memory, and have partnered with The Hive, a Toronto-based marketing agency, to help weave historical storytelling into other live events.

Forthcoming is a look at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, which presents a unique challenge by examining an institution – which celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2012 – as opposed to a neighbourhood. “It’s a different path, but there really is no template for the show. The complex has a really rich history,” said Mr. Ketchabaw.

Set to interview gallery curators and street vendors who’ve been grilling hot dogs for thirty years, Mr. Ketchabaw, a sound engineer who has worked with CBC Radio, is also fascinated by the building’s geographical divide: “Unlike other arts complexes in Toronto, a giant highway essentially cuts it off from the rest of the city.”

But the Tale of a Town concept, which has also been produced in Parkdale and in St. Catharines, Ont., did not begin as a repository of local oral histories.

“It was accidental,” revealed Mr. Ketchabaw. “We realized there wasn’t much recent information available at the city archives and in city records. It’s like everybody took a holiday after 1978 or so, and those are the years we’re interested in.” For Ms. DiLiberto, the accident was a blessing in disguise, as the interviews revealed stories not often documented in print. “Those [stories]are always the most exciting, like hearing from the people who saw Prince play at Acid Jazz or Madonna at the Cameron House,” she said.

“There’s nothing quite like the sound of the human voice,” added Ms. DiLiberto on the production’s audio elements. “When we presented the show last year, it inspired others to share their own memories with us.” It’s an ever-evolving production, with new surprises brought forth by every story.

The Tale of a Town: Queen West runs Sept. 14 to Oct. 9. Tickets available at Theatre Passe Muraille box office, 16 Ryerson Ave.

This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on September 23, 2011

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