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The NiX big thing for Whistler

Site-specific theatre finds a new home on a stage of ice and snow at Lost Lake during the Olympics

Athletes won't be the only ones taking to the snowy slopes of Whistler during the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, a team of talented actors is also set to star on their own special stage of ice and snow as part of next year's Cultural Olympiad.

Last week, VANOC announced the first round of projects to be included in the 2010 Cultural Olympiad program. Among the 600 projects that will take place at 50 venues throughout Metro Vancouver and the Sea to Sky corridor is one special site-specific theatrical production, entitled NiX, which will grace the shores of Lost Lake from Jan. 22 until Feb. 27.

Kendra Fanconi is the co-artistic director of the Vancouver-based theatre society, The Only Animal, and the playwright and director of NiX. The Only Animal is responsible for Other Freds, a production that took place on Granville Island docks and the waters of False Creek in 2005. Fanconi also worked on The One That Got Away, a play set in a swimming pool, before starting The Only Animal. Both are site-specific productions, which Fanconi specializes in.

"We're a zero-impact company and normally theatre creates a lot of waste - it's quite common to see a five-tonne truck leaving from a strike to go to the dump because no one can afford to store flats, and all kinds of problems with making things quickly and destroying them quickly," Fanconi explained.

With site-specific theatre, the idea is that you can work with existing objects and places, or like with NiX, which uses a "material-based investigation," their form of theatre is low-impact.

"The idea for NiX actually came from discussion when the bid book was going in for the Olympics, and at that time... I thought, 'well, wouldn't it be fun to do a piece with snow and ice?'"

Fanconi actually got the chance to build her theatre out of a snow and ice when she was invited to Calgary by the Alberta Theatre Projects (ATP) to create a site-specific piece. There was an ice rink right outside the theatre, and the ATP wanted a performance to take place in February, so Fanconi seized the opportunity to make her idea a reality.

After spending hundreds of hours on script writing, design meetings and rehearsals, The Only Animal premiered NiX at ATP this February, where it ran for almost a month and was met with a very warm reception from audiences.

"We got really great reviews and preview press," Fanconi said. "Whereas Vancouver and the West Coast has a little bit more of a tradition of site-specific theatre, Calgary didn't have any at all. We were the first site-specific show that had ever come there."

Now, NiX has been picked up by the 2010 Cultural Olympiad, which will see the production brought to Whistler.

"Our hope was always to bring it to Whistler for the Olympics, so this is kind of the big dream realized, many years later," she said.

The set is designed and built from snow and ice - approximately 20 dump trucks worth - by Carl Schlichting, a member of the Canadian Snow Sculpture Team who has come to Whistler many times to take part in snow sculpting competitions. The set will be housed in a 44-foot geodesic dome, which allows for some temperature control and protects the structure from direct sunlight.

From a practical standpoint, Fanconi and the rest of The Only Animal crew are acutely aware of the risks that come with staging a play in the great outdoors during a Canadian winter. But they seem to have developed some systems to help mitigate those variables.

The Only Animal costumes the actors in such a way that they can perform in temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius, while the audience sits snugly in blankets and sheepskin seat covers.

A few years ago, The Only Animal production team scouted a variety of sites throughout Whistler, going as far as the Callaghan Valley before finally deciding that Lost Lake in the winter months would provide the perfect feeling of desolation that fits with the icy apocalypse of their storyline. Plus, they liked that people could cross-country ski to the performance.

Aside from the spectacular setting of Lost Lake, and the unique staging, complete with a giant slide and hidden components that are excavated from the site during every performance, NiX also has a solid storyline, featuring a cast of three central characters left behind after an icy apocalypse: an arsonist, a woman who is 10 and a half months pregnant, and a young girl.

"It is a story, there is a script - it isn't an abstract performance. But it is very integrated into the images and materials themselves... It's kind of a strange love story that does, in the end, engender thaw in all three of the characters."

Fanconi returned to Whistler just last year to workshop a part of NiX with an audience, but since then, the production has changed pretty drastically, with a smaller cast and altered script and storyline. And though they've successfully performed NiX in its entirety to an audience, Fanconi said the production may still continue to change and evolve before its Whistler debut in nine-months time.

"There's a saying that I love, that a play is never finished, it's just abandoned."

NiX has a strong musical component, as well, including flaming instruments. The Only Animal commissioned i.e. Creative to build a functioning tuba and trumpet that shoot fire.

"They built us what I think is the world's best flaming tuba and we decided to go a bit further, because its really hard for the tuba to solo, so we asked them could you build a flaming trumpet? So we believe we have the world's first flaming trumpet!" Fanconi said with a laugh.

Tickets, which cost $19 to $45, are extremely limited as the dome only seats about 125 people, so Fanconi encourages anyone interested in seeing NiX to book early to avoid disappointment. E-mail to be in the first group to reserve tickets when they go on sale.