There was a half hour period when I thought I might be losing it.
Wandering the labyrinthine halls of a dusty old school, I’d lost the people I came with and found myself slipping in and out of classrooms, auditoriums and shadowy passageways watching dozens of scenes simultaneously unfold between shifting, wraithlike characters clad in school uniforms.
One moment I stood with two or three other people in a science lab set in the 1920s watching a charged sexual encounter between a teacher and student, the next I was pressed into a cramped teacher’s lounge engaged, for the second time in two hours, in a 1950s-era protest against gender-segregated classrooms.
Such was my experience of Brantwood: 1920:2020, an innovative musical production put on by The Canadian Music Theatre Project, Sheridan College’s musical theatre department.
Co-created by professional Toronto playwrights and directors Mitchell Cushman and Julie Tepperman and produced by Michael Rubinoff, Sheridan’s dean of visual and performing arts, Brantwood is set in a recently-shuttered Oakville elementary school several blocks from Sheridan College.
Granted permission to use the empty building, Cushman and Tepperman conceived of a fictional high school – also called Brantwood – in which to set their immersive, three-hour play.
The premise is that Brantwood alumni –the audience – have been invited back for a final tour of their old school before it is torn down and converted into condos. But, as they gather on the school’s lawn to watch Brantwood’s principal and valedictorian unveil a time capsule buried by the class of 1920, a sort of rupture of the space-time continuum awakens the ghosts of students and teachers of the school’s past 100 years, who eerily usher the audience inside the school.
What ensues is an interactive, choose-your-own-adventure-style experience wherein, at any given time, 15 distinct scenes are occurring in all corners of the school, acted by 40 actors playing a collective total of 100 characters.
The play includes 40 musical numbers and a smattering of dance sequences.
“Mitchell and I are both interested in pushing the boundaries of intimacy between performer and audience,” Tepperman told The CJN.
She explained that they and Rubinoff were inspired to bring the kind of immersive, site-specific theatre embodied by the popular New York City play Sleep No More to a Toronto-area audience.
Brantwood’s 11 storylines span the fictional school’s history – from 1920 to 2020 – and the actors are constantly transitioning from one era to the next.
The effect is trippy – particularly when plots loop back around and you end up watching a scene you’d already seen part of happen a second time, only from a slightly different point in time or physical angle.
As scenes unfurl regardless of who – if anyone – is watching, I’d just as likely find myself alone with two characters in the midst of a tense confrontation, as in a crowded cafeteria watching an elaborate drug bust go down.
To capture the essence and angst of high school and the ethos of each decade, Cushman and Tepperman, who wrote 15 hours of script, left no stone unturned when it came to featuring the gritty, uncomfortable and, often, political, issues faced by teenagers throughout the ages.
Topics included race and gender-based discrimination, sexual assault, abortion, teen pregnancy, drugs and bullying.
“The [Sheridan] students were so excited to explore…those coming-of-age moments and the idea that we’re all just repeating the same transgressions through different lenses of history,” Tepperman said.
One storyline, set in the late 1930s, involves several students starting a school “swastika club.”
“We were interested to explore what a 15-year-old who sympathized with Nazi ideas might be like,” Cushman said. “We wanted not to portray him as an evil genius but to look at his circumstances. In this case, the character’s father was laid off and he’s angry and finds meaning in these ideas.”
Cushman and Tepperman hope to adapt Brantwood to a professional stage.
“We would love to be able to bring this show to Toronto. We feel like the market there could support it , and is ready for, a long-running, immersive production like Sleep No More,” said Cushman.
Brantwood runs until May 3. Tickets can be purchased online at sheridancollege.ca or at the Theatre Sheridan Box Office, 1430 Trafalgar Rd. Oakville.