Dusty Flowerpot Cabaret nurtures roots in community

East Van theatre collective gets ready for its close-up

Outside Dusty Flowerpot Cabaret’s studio, groups of strangers chitchat and exchange curious gazes before their audition with artistic director Kat Single-Dain.

None of the 15 women knows what to expect except for an online clipping in The Dusty Flowerpot Gazette announcing an upcoming production in May at the Russian Hall. In classic Dusty Flowerpot fashion, the show counts on everyone to pitch in, inviting audience members to attend the filming of the 1955 musical extravaganza The Queen of Mercy.

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Single-Dain, one of the collective’s founding members, gets to work bouncing to 1930s jazz. The dancers dive into vintage footwork, tapping and swinging while Single-Dain scouts for candidates with crisp coordination and a dash of playfulness.

The sequences are a walk down memory lane for Single-Dain who watched Fred Astaire musicals while her friends were busy with the Backstreet Boys. True to the collective’s focus on community engagement, she insists everyone at the audition will have a part.

The birth of Dusty Flowerpot dates back to 2006 when a group of artists assembled in painter Jordan Bent’s Keefer Street studio to discuss putting on a show for the Ayden Gallery. But when the gallery decided to pull out of the show, the artists decided to continue and mount The Valley of Ashes about a boy on a quest to grow the flowerpot strapped to his back.  

The momentum from the first show snowballed into subsequent productions such as 2011’s Hard Times Hit Parade. Set in the 1930s, the “theatrical dance marathon” was adapted from a screenplay written by Single-Dain about dance marathons during the Depression. With the help of designer and builder Brodie Kitchen, the Russian Hall was transformed into a 1930s dance hall with custom-built wooden bleachers lining the perimeter of the venue.  

With roughly 15 core members, the cabaret swells and contracts with new and old talents. For the first few shows, rehearsal space was temporary. The Valley of Ashes was produced entirely out of community centres, recalls Single-Dain.

The troupe settled this December at its new rehearsal theatre in Mount Pleasant under a 10-year lease with the city. Having a place to store props and costumes means more play time and “popcorning” sessions where they experiment and brainstorm. The kernels of ideas are then submitted at “dust storms” where the curating committee examines which project to endorse based on its community engagement mandate.

Audience participation has become a signature in the cabaret’s shows. For most of the core members, it’s an extension of their clown training with David MacMurray Smith at Fantastic Space Enterprise. But it’s not clowning as one would expect, explains actor Alastair Knowles. Clown school teaches students how to connect with the audience by being spontaneous and incorporating them in dialogue.

Its rootedness in community is what distinguishes Dusty Flowerpot from the Vancouver theatre scene said Knowles.

“I don’t see the Dusty Flowerpot engaging in the theatre dialogue as much as we engage in the community outreach and community theatre things. The festivals we produce are very theatrical and they involve the community in a very large extent.”

Despite the consensus on audience participation, the genres and aesthetics of the Dusty Flowerpot Cabaret’s past performances are as eclectic as the ensemble that makes up the collective. Every show is a blend of the artists’ skills and vision, from storytelling and pantomime, to live music, videos, dance and puppetry.

“It’s an anarchist process,” said actor and writer Amber McIntyre-Byatt. “It’s as big as a Broadway show in a way but it’s not perfect in that there can never be a mistake. That’s way more thrilling.”

Whether it’s a dance marathon or a movie set, Dusty Flowerpot Cabaret is open to using any medium that makes sense for the production and creates an immersive world for the audience says Single-Dain, who compares the bygone quality of their shows to George Lucas’s Star Wars films. “It’s in a future time but you feel like it’s in the past because there’s a sense of history.”

For details, go to dustyflowerpotcabaret.com.

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