Stan Douglas on Edinburgh International Festival show Helen Lawrence
helen lawrence

Focusing on a historical crossroads, artist Stan Douglas miraculously merges stage and film noir to put us in the picture, writes Susan Mansfield

helen lawrence
[Photographic images and a staged recreation of the past pose challenging questions about our perceptions of art and reality in Helen Lawrence]

1948. The war is over, though shock waves still reverberate through nations, and individual lives. The provisionality, the compromises, the hardships of wartime are fading. The jolly, morally wholesome 1950s have yet to arrive. So what is 1948 really like?

This is one of the questions at the heart of Helen Lawrence, the new work for the theatre created by Vancouver-based visual artist Stan Douglas, which will be at the Edinburgh International Festival this week. A film noir for the stage, a piece of film-making as live theatre, it turns its exacting lens on a moment in time. “I want to find a way to condense that moment into a dramatic situation to see if we can understand it better,” says Douglas. ‘We all know what the war was like. There were black markets, people were doing things that were not very legal to enjoy and get by; these were ignored and allowed to happen. The 1950s was a time of hyper-morality as the economy is rebuilt and they invent consumer society. How do you get from one to the other?”

I meet Douglas in Munich, where Helen Lawrence has its European premiere, and where a major touring show of his recent photographic work opens at the Haus der Kunst. But his interest in the 1940s is not just for its own sake, it is to see what light the period might shed on our own time, to understand one moment through the lens of another. “I wanted to see if there was a parallel with what I thought might be a post-war period in the war on terror, assuming that ended when George W Bush left power. But,” he says wryly, “it seems that war kept on going. There are some parallels, though, the banking crisis, an external threat that’s threatening the West, a housing crisis and a big recession.”

Douglas works across film, photography, installation and digital media (he has made an app, Circa 1948, to accompany Helen Lawrence). The play is pioneering in its mix of theatre and film, which required him to develop techniques as he went along to achieve the effects he wanted. Actors appear on a bare stage behind a semi-transparent screen, playing their parts but also filming one another. The “movie”, in which the characters are added to digitally created period backdrops, is then shown on the screen in black and white. It was such a long and complex project to realise that Douglas had time along the way to make series of still images based on his period research, Mid Century Studio, which will be part of his solo show at the Fruitmarket Gallery, opening in October.

Helen Lawrence oozes atmosphere. Though its backdrops are entirely artificial, they feel as though they have come straight from a film noir. The fast-paced, noirish script by acclaimed screenwriter Chris Haddock tells the story of a femme fatale, who arrives at the rundown Hotel Vancouver looking for a man with whom she has unfinished business. The story unfolds here and in a Hogan’s Alley, a mixed-race neighbourhood with bootlegging dens, prostitutes and jazz music, created through extensive research into the real neighbourhood of the same name, which was razed in the 1960s.

The actors had to learn to position themselves exactly, so that the action would fit inside the digital backdrops. Douglas says his job as director was often to explain as precisely as possible where the walls were. They also had to learn to operate movie cameras on stage. He says: “The cast is making a feature film every night, live. It is a tension between the two. It’s exciting to watch that tightrope happening, where there are so many things that could go wrong, and the fact that they don’t” – he reaches for imaginary wood – “is quite a miracle.”

The effect of the stage-screen interplay, according to critics who saw the premiere in Vancouver, is to create a distance between the audience and the action. Douglas says that’s the point. “There is really a gigantic alienation effect built into the structure of the piece. We’re seeing a cinematic image on the screen in front of us, but at the same time we’re always seeing through the screen to the puny human beings on stage. I realised making this piece that film noir has something to do with the trauma of war; every character has some kind of barrier or shield between them and other people. That was an epiphany to me which became an engine for this work.”

When he was in high school, Douglas planned to become a theatre director. “I tried with theatre classes in school, but people didn’t learn their lines, it drove me crazy. Then I discovered art and I realised that there was some amazing stuff I could do by myself and not have to worry about actors. Of course,” he shrugs, “it came to pass that I began to make the kind of work where I need collaborators all the time.”

Might he follow in the footsteps of Turner Prize winning artist Steve McQueen, who has gone on to make films for the cinema, including Shame and multi-awarding-winning 12 Years A Slave? “No,” he says, then hesitates. “Well, never say never. But the thing is, the more money you spend, the less autonomy you have. If someone was to give me $10million I’d be happy to make a movie, but my suspicion is that people would be giving advice I don’t necessarily want to hear.”

He does, however, use the techniques of film-making to create still photographic works. Abbott & Cordova is a 50ft long photographic mural made for a corporate building in Vancouver depicting the Gastown riots of 1971 which took place nearby. He created sets, costumes and period signage like a film set, then digitally stitched together hundreds of still images to create the final piece.

Few artists are more aware both of the potential of digital photographic technology and the issues it presents. On a basic level, no one trusts a photograph any more, because digital manipulation is so widespread. At the same time, the mechanical aspect of photography creates an interaction between camera and subject which is not under the photographer’s control. One of the bodies of work in the Fruitmarket show is Corrupt Files, a series of abstract photographic images resulting from errors in digital memory. “Photography used to be associated with indexicality,” he says. “That sense of truth in a photograph has disappeared. What this means is that the photographer has more responsibility for what they do.”

The word “truth” is an interesting one when applied to Douglas’s work. He goes to immense effort to recreate moments from the past, photographs and film which look like documentary work. In fact they are stagings, elaborate fictions. It’s that old chestnut about truth and lies in art. He puts it like this: “Sometimes it’s possible to tell more of a truth about reality by lying than it is by being authentic.”

Helen Lawrence, King’s Theatre, 24-26 August, more info
Stan Douglas’s solo exhibition at the Fruitmarket opens on 29 October

Originally published in Scotland on Sunday

Going to the Edinburgh Festival?

• Unsure what to see? Read all The Scotsman reviews
• What’s hot (or not): Browse the reviews by star rating
• Don’t miss a thing. Sign up to our daily email newsletter
• Join the conversation with #WOWFEST and follow it live