When the curtain goes up at the Emmett Robinson Theater on Wednesday night, a large black wall will quickly be consumed by images beaming out of a single projector. Those silhouetted shapes, and the onstage bodies that are, in turn, illuminated and obscured by them are the only things that audiences will see in “When It Rains.”
Billed as a “live-action existential graphic novel,” this experimental play by Canada’s 2b Theatre Company follows two couples as their relationships begin to crumble. That one projector provides the show’s sole source of light and also makes up the set design.
Samantha Wilson, one of four actors in the show, said working this way took some getting used to.
“It was very different and incredibly precise,” said Wilson, who has been involved with “When It Rains” for five years. “We act on a floor mat in front of a flat black wall. Depending on how you move in front of that wall, it can make or break the illusion.”
Wilson was initially concerned that the technology might upstage the story the actors were telling.
“Once I really got involved, though, I realized that absolutely wasn’t the case,” she said. “Anthony Black has written a beautiful, heartbreaking story, and the design elements ride along hand-in-hand and accentuate everything we’re doing.”
Black, who co-founded 2b in 1999, started working on what would become “When It Rains” with projection designer Nick Bottomley in 2010.
“I was interested in an aesthetic constraint that would only use one projector,” said Black, who also directed and acts in the play. “I wanted that to be all the light in the show and see what story we could tell with that. I would write in response to what was happening with the design.”
Through the process of several workshops, the show began to take shape and premiered in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in April 2011.
Black and Bottomley say the comic book elements of the design were not part of their original vision.
“As we were designing, we found that it was starting to look a little bit like ‘Sin City,’ ” Black said.
Bottomley agreed, adding, “I think a graphic novel fits better than trying to compare it to a film, because we move through the scenes based on the picture, the lines and shapes. We really boiled things down to the basic visual premises. If you go into academic studies on comic books, they’re very interested in how lines and panels affect how you read.”
“When It Rains” has toured all over the world, playing festivals as far away as Australia, but Spoleto Festival USA will mark only the second time it has been performed in the United States. It previously played at the La MaMa Experimental Theater in New York City in 2013. For the five Charleston performances, 2b has modified the physical production to work within an expanded space.
“The show was designed and premiered in a small theatre in Halifax, and the idea was to come up with a slightly larger version of the show,” Black said. “Our backdrop wall has been 16 feet wide by 9 feet tall. And for the Spoleto performances, we wanted it to fit more comfortably on a larger stage.”
Wilson said audience members frequently stay afterward to meet the “When It Rains” cast and discuss what they saw.
“I’ve had people come up to me after the show and tell me that they felt inspired to start seeing more theater,” she said. “As an actor, that’s really wonderful to hear.”
Haley Chouinard is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.