Nov. 14, 2012 - Issue #891: Heap and Pebble
Don’t call it a comeback
Two figure skaters get inventive in a world without ice rinks
6.0: How Heap and Pebble Took on the World and Won may seem like a frivolous take on a serious issue, at least upon first glance: after all, if global warming really did result in a mass catastrophe that eradicated all ice on the planet, would the loss of ice dancing really be at the top of the list of tragedies?
Probably not, at least not for most people. Certainly the premise seems laughably improbable as I tromp through knee-high snow drifts on my way to an interview with the cast. A world without all this ice? Sounds almost tempting.
But when ice serves as the chilly foundation for your very existence, losing it would be nothing short of devastating. "The play's not very political, in terms of putting forth a message," explains Amber Borotsik, who plays the role of Pebble. Curled up on a couch in the cozy interior of the Arts Barns with co-actor Jesse Gervais and director Trevor Schmidt, she describes her perspective on the show. "What's interesting is what happens to people who just suddenly lose their future, or suddenly lose their livelihood, and that sort of weird scramble to put something back together.
"We've had five years with no skating," she continues. "I think unlike professional ice dancers now, when they retire they can maybe coach, or teach, or do other things. But everything is stopped dead and there's nothing for them to do, so it's been a long five years. For me it's a more human story, than a ... "
She trails off as Gervais chimes in: "A climate change parable."
Heap and Pebble was written by a pair of English performers, Valentine Ceschi and Thomas Eccleshare, who staged it at in the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Stumbling across a single reference to the show online, Schmidt proceeded to follow the universal breadcrumbs that ultimately led to the show's first staging on this side of the pond.
Though the original writers offered to send videos of their production for Schmidt to work with, they also gave him permission to recreate the entire physical performance from scratch. "That's what makes it so exciting, is the opportunity for invention, and the license to invent too," notes Gervais. "We're taking what they did and we're jumping off with it. We're using their ideas to inspire us to create new ones."
"When you've created something on your own, there's no way that somebody else can recreate that," states Schmidt. "You can give them all the notes on what you did, but so much of it is organic and particular to the two people that create it, that it's impossible to actually recreate it the exact same."
The question that was foremost in my mind upon reading the show's premise was a matter of basic logistics: what are they dancing on, if not ice? The wood floor, of course.
You're not alone in having trouble picturing this. "Nobody gets it," says Schmidt. He goes on to explain that everyone assumes they are on roller skates or roller blades—or even in their socks or sneakers—but in fact the duo performs the entire show on regular ice skates. There's no special stage, no ice; just two people trying their best to glide on wood.
Schmidt notes how physically demanding it has been for the two actors, to spend that much time rehearsing on skates—let alone doing full ice-dancing routines with lifts and jumps. Borotsik notes that she did some figure skating when she was quite young but stopped before it became too serious; Gervais proudly states that he has skated only twice in his life. Even more remarkable is the fact that he just recently recovered from breaking both his heels—a ladder slipped out from under him when he was stringing Christmas lights. "I was in a wheelchair for a couple of months, so I'm just sort of recovering from that, which is an exciting turn—to be able to walk around, and now I'm on skates," he says.
After the initial novelty of ice dancing on wood wears off, the momentum of the show is carried along by the close relationship between the two characters. "They've been skating together for years and years and they just have that weird, sort of like shorthand," states Borotsik. "They can have a fight without saying anything." Though their characters are not a couple, Borotsik and Gervais are; this shows in the subtle ways they pick up on each other's trains of thought and finish each other's sentences, and promises to make for some great stage chemistry.
"It's a slim script," notes Schmidt. "When you look at it, originally it's not very long, and there's not a huge amount of dialogue. It can look pretty straightforward and simple on the page. But I remember a couple days into it, there's a lot going on underneath; there's a lot of subtext and figuring out how the relationship informs what little bit they're saying, and how much is like the iceberg underneath."
"I think there's a great love between the two of them," he continues. "He really wants to do this, and she really wants to support him. She may not necessarily want to do the comeback, but she wants to support him in his need and desire. She wouldn't be there if it was anybody else."
All too often celebrity comebacks are regarded mockingly, clouded as they are with self-effacement and desperation. This isn't exactly the case with Heap and Pebble, as the two were at the peak of their career when all the ice disappeared.
"The global warming episode happened before a loss happened," explains Borotsik, "So they ended on the highest note. And now, five years later, it's the worst of times. Us, just trying to squeak out a living doing cabaret acts, and it always makes me think of celebrity boxing."
Gervais elaborates, mentioning Tonya Harding's celebrity boxing episodes. "It's like when C-list celebrities try and do bad things to get attention; their old publicist is trying to be super creative and get them opportunities." (For those interested, there are some pretty hilarious YouTube clips of Tonya Harding's boxing matches.)
It may seem like a last-ditch effort for fame, but it's also a simple inability to go back to being what they were prior to becoming champion ice dancers. Schmidt notes that Heap and Pebble's situation resonates with his own experience as a performer. "I think, as actors, you never want to go back to your waiter job once you've acted as a full-time actor for a while. Then you're failing; you're failing somehow. You feel like a failure, and everyone will know."
But despite the gloomy tone that this situation would seem to imply, all three agree that the show has an overall hopeful, positive energy—though the ending is by no means definitive.
"It's very ambiguous," says Gervais. "I think that's what's exciting. I hate Disney endings. It leaves more with the audience to walk away with."
"That's life, man!" quips Schmidt. "I love plays, more and more, that don't answer any questions—that just ask questions, and you have to go away and discuss it; you have to invest in it, you have to have an opinion. It's up to you; you tell me how it affected you."
Thu, Nov 15 – Sat, Nov 24, 2012 (7:30 pm)
Fri, Nov 23, 2012 (11 pm)
6.0: How Heap and Pebble
Took on the World and Won
Directed by Trevor Schmidt
Westbury Theatre, TransAlta Arts Barns, $16 – $28 vueweekly.com comments: powered by Disqus
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