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June 21, 2011

Making it New – Camellia Koo

Set and costume designer Camellia Koo has worked with many companies including Tarragon Theatre, Cahoots Theatre Projects, fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company, The Shaw Festival, Modern Times Theatre, The Second City, and Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People. Her work has previously been seen on the Soulpepper stage in The Guardsman, Waiting for Godot and The Caretaker. Camellia has won four Dora Awards, a Sterling Award and shared the 2006 Siminovitch Protégé Award.Camellia KooI don’t actually remember how it started, but during one of my very first meetings with Ted Dykstra, it came about that we were both interested in finding a new approach to interpreting Billy Bishop Goes to War, especially since both of the original creators, Eric Peterson and John Gray, were going to be performing it. It wasn’t interesting enough to simply re-stage it, with period accurate costumes and historical detail, and I was not interested in creating a make-believe-but-pretending-to-be-realistic “set” in which this play would be performed. We were more interested at looking at how to make it relevant to an audience seeing it today, and seeing it with the original creators at the very age that Billy is meant to be at the start of his storytelling at the beginning of the play. At the same time, we were also interested in making it relevant to both Eric and John back onstage together again; very likely the last time they would ever play these roles together again.

Onstage, there are props from the show, but not just props as dictated by the script, but also “prop” props that reference past productions and remounts of Billy Bishop Goes to War that Eric and John have done. The backdrop and floor is purposefully painted and hangs in isolation in the theatre as if it too is a piece of theatrical scenery. The set is decidedly not a “set” of Billy Bishop’s room, but more a collection of artifacts both from the history of the man and the history of this play being performed. The photos around the space as the audience walks in reference both Billy Bishop, the real man; and also Eric and John, the actors the audience sees onstage.

There were two simultaneous narratives that Ted and I were interested in telling that I hope comes across when the audience comes to see the play – the narrative of the life of Billy Bishop as originally intended when Eric and John wrote the play, but at the same time, the narrative of the lives of Eric and John playing these roles over the past 40 or so years. These two narratives intertwine throughout the evening as a result of the brilliant performances of Eric and John also embracing this idea of simultaneous narratives.

Normally, telling the creators of a previously proven hit how to reinvent the vision of their play onstage would be a daunting task, but Eric and John were very generous and open from the very beginning and everyone involved was up for this unique collaboration in the rehearsal hall.