Sleepless in Sackville

Sleepless in Sackville

Alex Fancy
1988 3M Teaching Fellow

t is a typical Saturday night in Sackville, New Brunswick, a small college town often described as “sleepy.” The Phantom of the Opera is playing to a full house at the Vogue Cinema, and the Struts Gallery-Sackville has more galleries than traffic lights-is hosting an opening. The pubs are heating up and meanwhile, on the Mount Allison campus in a formal hall best” known for its Alex Colville mural, large numbers of people are being greeted by bellhops who stamp their passports before they enter Hell.

This is not just any hell, but Jean-Paul Sartre’s version of where people go after having lived in bad faith. And this is no routine production of his famous Huis clos, or No Exit which premiered in Paris in 1944, during the Occupation, and reminded spectators that “Hell is other people.”

This discovery is anticipated early in the play by the postal worker, a lesbian who is infinitely more honest than her two unlikely roommates for eternity, and is validated near the end of the piece by the would-be activist whose cowardice has led him to this place. They share their eternally lighted room with a socialite who secretly committed infanticide rather than admit to the birth of a baby by “the person (she) was intended to marry.” Heavy stuff for a Saturday night in Sackville.

And it gets heavier. The eighty-six minute existentialist melodrama is staged in French, repeatedly from 8:05 p.m. Saturday until 7:16 on Sunday morning, with two alternating acting teams supported by seven “hellhops” who deliver a non-intrusive narration in nine languages-Hell is an inclusive place.

When, near the end, the socialite uses a letter-opener in her efforts to stab the postal worker who reminds her would-be killer that she is already dead, the three share a rare rapprochement, united in hysterical laughter.

The visual generation saw symbols everywhere: a fireplace that was never used, not needed by people who have refined the art of psychological torture; the subtle heartbeat, created by our student sound designer, that pulsated through the space for eleven hours and eleven minutes; and the red door, “like a huge flame” through which the characters are afraid to pass when they are mysteriously given the chance. This image inspired one student to write, “Le destin semble reculer d’un pas” (destiny seems to step aside for a minute). Such an intense and immediate experience can demolish the disconnect between signifier and signified, and even narrow, at least for one memorable night, the gulf between theory and practice.

My actor-students and I staged the play as alley theatre, with spectators seated on two long sides in widely separated rows to permit freedom of movement. Spectators came and went at will, often arriving with coffee purchased in The Limbo Café / Le Café des Limbes. Their freedom underscored the state of the characters imprisoned in Hell, to which admission is free just as it was to this production. Some student spectators attended for five of the eight cycles, and numbers varied between twelve and one hundred, over the official capacity. Thirty-five spectators were in the room at 3:00a. m. One said: “I never thought I’d be going to the theatre in my pyjamas.” Audience engagement was highlighted by one student who wrote: “We were witnesses, or maybe voyeurs, rather than spectators.”

As the play ends with the line “Et bien, continuous,” this was a non-stop event with one very moving curtain call at 7:16 a.m. One actor remarked when she left the stage for the last time: “I can’t believe what we’ve just done.”

My principal fear-a lack of vocal clarity and character motivation during the period just before dawn-was never realized even though only three of the thirteen actors were Drama majors. One of the three, who often deals with diction issues, spoke more and more clearly as the night went on. The actors were encouraged to train as for a marathon-from using techniques for visualizing the rhythm of the journey to consuming large quantities of water.

Like other director-teachers, I am never entirely satisfied with a production. However, this event surpassed our expectations as many generous people worked together to create a fiction at times more real than the October night we left behind when we entered this place. Our solidarity effaced those binary relationships that threaten to distract us at every turn-teaching vs. learning, curricular vs. extra-curricular, cognitive vs. affective, play vs. work-as we shared a night that made a difference.