Famine has a taste for the unusual

Student theatre company tells stories of the past to comment on present issues in found spaces

Famine, presented by Single Thread Theatre Company, is being staged at NGB Studios, a former factory and produce warehouse, which adds to the effect of the 19th century setting.
Famine, presented by Single Thread Theatre Company, is being staged at NGB Studios, a former factory and produce warehouse, which adds to the effect of the 19th century setting.

On the east end of Cataraqui Street, a stone’s throw away from the frosty waters of the Kingston Inner Harbour, sits a run-down factory that, upon first sight, looks frighteningly similar to the imagined locale of childhood nightmares.

After treading through the rickety, dimly lit entryway and climbing up two flights of graffiti-littered brick and board walls, you find yourself stumbling across a set of hay and sawdust—a theatrical haven in the midst of rustic decay.

This is tin, bricks, wood and stone; an abandoned industrial complex transformed into the depleted setting of Single Thread Theatre Company’s Famine.

With anonymous mementos of the past scribbled on the wall (“This is Hell,” “The Beast,” “Sucker’s List”) and the faint smell of livestock in the air, this homely location is a paradise for agrarian theatre.

“This building is very rich,” said Dustin Freeman, the play’s producer.

“It used to be a fruit warehouse. A building used historically to process foods,” added Liam Karry, co-founder of Single Thread and Famine’s director.

Set in the trying years of the Irish potato famine, the irony of using former nourishing grounds for this production was a definite attraction, Karry said.

“The very fact that it is an old building in Kingston gives it an earthy feeling, it brings together the component parts.”

This is a company notorious for their use of found-space theatre in the past. Again, Karry has opted to pursue this theatre concept in Famine, relying mostly on the space itself to produce the set pieces and props.

“Most of the stuff you see here was found in the space,” said Freeman, as he described the set and light piping that was meticulously adapted from the building for the purposes of Famine.

“Working with found space has its rewards but it definitely has its difficulties—yet in the long history of the company, doing several shows in found space, it has repeated rewards.

“Because of the pretense of found space theatre, if you’re going to do it outside a theatre, you’re not going to present it as a theatre, you’re going to say we’re putting it on in this cool, derelict old space,” Karry added.

“One of the things that theatre can do [in contrast with other art forms] is be put on everywhere. With any art form, you want to play to the medium’s strengths, so why not present theatre in unique places?”

This uncharacteristic use of space was more necessary than usual with this production of Tom Murphy’s 1968 text—one that boasts an unfamiliar connection with Canada and, indirectly, Kingston. In a desperate scene of negotiation, the play’s bureaucratic characters decide that the only famine-avoiding solution lies in settling overseas.

“The famine Irish were a big part of the founding of this city,” Karry said.

“There are four or five thousand buried in a grave near [Kingston General Hospital]. They’re here, they’re in the earth.”

Although the tragic events of the famine are now more than 150 years in the past, Karry still feels that there is a strong thematic and historical relevance to our contemporary community.

“The mandate of the company is to do things like this that are relevant to the people of this community in unique ways,” Karry said.

But the play’s resonance doesn’t end in Kingston.

“One would like to think that the civilized world wouldn’t let that happen again, but how many times have we, are we, letting it happen?” Karry hopes the play’s message will be accessible to a broader audience in this new space, concerning itself with social issues on both a local and larger scale.

“Theatre is really cool, yet it has a reputation for being high-brow,” he said. “If you can bring it to other people, if you can get people to go to a really cool show, they’ll definitely come back.”

Featuring a large cast and a dedicated production crew, this ensemble piece has been a true team effort.

“The experience has been very rewarding for all,” Freeman said.

The dilapidated former fruit processing plant is home to a variety of artisans.

“This building is a musician’s space, band space, blacksmith and potter’s, so to put theatre in a place where so much art is already happening is a really exciting concept,” he said.

Armed with the thought-provoking Famine and a passion for relevancy, the latest group of artists to take up residence at 12 Cataraqui St. promise to leave you hungry for more.

Famine plays at 12 Cataraqui St. Nov. 16, 17, 20-24 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12 for students and available at Destinations The Grand Theatre’s box office.

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