Poor Alex Theatre, Toronto

Hillar Liitoja has been creating and producing his unusual works for theatre in Toronto long enough to have gathered something of a cult following. It would be deceiving to describe these works as “plays,” since there is typically very little of his own writing in what he does. (His first project as playwright, This is what happens in Orangeville, opened January 15 and runs through to February 1 at the Poor Alex Theatre, 296 Brunswick Avenue, Toronto). Yet Liitoja’s past theatrical creations have all utilized language and poetry with such intensity and individuality that the use of text in his theatre pieces demands analysis.

The problem of describing Liitoja’s brand of theatre is not new. Liitoja admits that “It’s the arts councils that are forcing me to articulate my work.” His DNA Theatre manifesto calls them “a sensory feast.” Sky Gilbert, artistic director of Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times, says Liitoja’s works are like musical pieces with actors instead of instruments. They are the opposite Shaw… the words are treated as music but it has a subliminal effect on you; it opens up your way of perceiving theatre, or anything. The Globe & Mail drama critic, Ray Conlogue, in his review of last October’s POUND-O-RAMA, commented, “the effect is brilliant, and original and celebratory. The show, in fact, ends as a circus; a false concert; did it end at all; a curtain call with knives and carnations. Unforgettable.”

Liitoja’s works tend to be full of people doing things and not doing things: a detailed collection of juxtaposed relationships with no single focus. Sounds, actions, music and lighting effects combine to produce a cacophony which continually threatens to break into some sort of pattern but never quite do. The actors often recite selections from the poetry of Ezra Pound. As with the imagistic theatre of artists such as Robert Wilson, demanding an overall meaning is probably the wrong response to the work. The show consists of seemingly random activities which have been in fact meticulously choreographed, performed by actors throughout the theatre space.

What you see and hear depends upon where you sit, a process which reveals that interpretation is by nature highly individual. This is altogether international: “If after a show,” Liitoja says, “ten people come to me and tell me ten different things then I’m perfectly pleased.” 

In POUND-O-RAMA you might have seen: someone taking polaroids of the audience; someone sweeping the floor with a broom fall over and remain still for several minutes; a member of the audience who appeared to be mentally handicapped have a fit while loud symphonic music played, and be carried out by two ushers (he was of course part of the show); many people repeating various poems by Pound at various times; someone drying her hair - she went unnoticed until all other sound and music gradually ceased, leaving only the sound of her hairdryer; someone undressing, dressing and then undressing again; and someone whispering something in your ear. On the final night Liitoja appeared as part of the piece for the final 30 minutes.

Liitoja plans his choreographed chaos on an elaborate time chart which plots the movements of every actor, along with sound and lighting cues. Initially he works one-to-one with actors. He allows them to experiment within the framework they are given and lets them choose a Pound poem they’d like to use. Then the show is created during an intensive 10-day period prior to opening. Often the structure derives from a musical form - a holdover from Liitoja’s former training as a pianist under Anton Kuerti. THE LAST POUND used the classical sonata form where two themes were separately presented, then transmuted and finally recapitulated.

Liitoja’s obsession with Pound stems from his fascination with Pound’s single-mindedness. While he was dropping piano, Liitoja came across Pound in a series of coincidences. After a recital, a diplomat’s wife read him one of Pound’s poems. Then he chanced upon a tape of Pound reading his poems on the radio and was mesmerized by the musicality of the poet’s voice. He came across a book by Pound on a bookshelf while bored at a party. He also encountered Pound’s prowess as an editor while reading the facsimile of T.S. Eliot’s  “The Wasteland,” which contains Pound’s notes to Eliot. Impressed by the tremendous clarity of Pound’s writing, Liitoja set out to celebrate the poems, not with plain readings, but through a series of theatrical spectacles, which number nine. THE LAST POUND used all of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” and POUND-O RAMA employed poems from “Moeurs contemporaines.”

In these theatrical works, Liitoja functions more as editor than author. The words belong to Pound, but their order and use are determined by Liitoja. Pound’s juxtaposition of (literary) images is given theatrical juxtaposition, both intensifying their status as meaningful images and placing them in a new context. Pound’s poems become events in Liitoja’s fragmented universe as we hear them. The poems come alive as words which are spoken in a world filled with people, movement, light and music.

THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS IN ORANGEVILLE does not involve Pound’s poetry. For the first time, Liitoja has written his own text for use upon the stage. Inspired by the case of a fourteen year old boy in Orangeville who strangled three younger children only to be found not guilty by reason of insanity, Liitoja is writing dialogue for scenes between the boy and the psychiatrist as well as monologues for various members of the boy’s family. Members of the chorus will invent their own lines during rehearsal.

Will that give the audience less to do during the piece or make it seem to be about something rather than nothing? Sky Gilbert, for one, doesn’t think it will; “His purpose is not to clarify or to make people come to conclusions…it’ll probably shock people even more.”

Liitoja’s works are neither linear nor issue-oriented like the work of so many other playwrights writing today. Instead, for Liitoja, story becomes orchestration; words become music.

Nigel Hunt

WHAT magazine | # 8 February, 1987