Hogtown is immersive theatre celebrating Toronto history playing at the Campbell House
Hogtown is precisely the kind of theatre experience this city needs. With no end in sight to our beautifying and building boom, doting reviews from around the world, and a renewed self-love (how many selfies have you taken at City Hall’s new Toronto sign?), it’s about time we had a production that’s about the history of our fair city.
It’s also wonderful to have a team forego the play-on-a-stage route to take a creative risk with an immersive, site-specific production. From the moment you step into Toronto’s historic Campbell House, it’s 1925 and you’re a ghost to the past, witnessing the stories unfolding.
Hogtown takes place during a New Years’ Eve party the night before a Toronto municipal election. Both mayoral frontrunners are present trying to ensure a win, as are other political heavyweights. Along with them, a total of 34 actors play showgirls, gangsters, moonshiners, and women from the temperance union and a secret society. There’s also a four-piece band, a jazz singer, and who knows how many crew in the background attending to the timings.
The entire house is the setting and in essence one of the characters. The audience (maximum of 80 per performance) starts out together in the front hall and is then split into groups for three initial scenes. After that you wander around at your will.
Which rooms you visit – and how long you stay in each – determine how you’ll experience the story. You might be interested in the drama in the bedroom, the speakeasy in the basement, or the conversations unfolding in the dining room.
And that cast of 34! It’s hard to name them all, let alone remember who’s who. Standouts include wanna-be mayor Sam McBride (David Rosser) with his booming-voice of conviction; McBride’s daughter Veronica (Dana Fradkin) who’s vocal abilities go on show in the speakeasy (much to the chagrin of anyone who’s aware of her familial connections); and Ben Stein (Drew Carnwath), Veronica’s amour and pen-in-hand reporter, not to mention Hogtown’s co-writer.
New York meets Toronto
I was really excited to get a chance to see Hogtown, since New York City’s Sleep No More, one of the more radical things I’ve ever experienced, inspired this Sam Rosenthal and Drew Carnwath production. Both productions involve complex storylines and multiple scenes unfolding at the same time.
Though the technique is the same, the two productions are quite different. Sleep No More uses a block of a Chelsea warehouse to recreate a massive hotel, with five arrival times for each performance. Hogtown is limited to the tight space of Campbell House.
Sleep No More is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth and has been running since 2011. This production is built on real Toronto history and the creative team has referred to it as “phase one,” hoping Hogtown’s initial one-week run will lead to an extended, annual, summer production.
I imagine that if it does (and I hope it does!) there will be more embellishments as the cast gets to work out the challenges of a multi-story, multi-storey production (Campbell House has two floors and a basement).
History and alcohol
One of the true pleasures is getting doses of local history, and more of that would be a bonus. Among other things, I loved hearing Lol Salmon (Allan Price) talk about financing the new Maple Leaf Stadium at the foot of Bathurst Street and how Toronto is growing. What great parallels to what’s going on today, and such a rush to feel like you’re in the past but know the future.
Some scenes are really engaging, others don’t quite make it clear enough what’s going on. Sometimes we weren’t allowed to enter or leave a room, at others we were encouraged to move on. Near the end of the two-and-a-half-hour evening, several people had maxed out on the experience and started checking their smartphones. I had to agree with the woman who asked whether Hogtown would end with an official denouement or should we just leave when we were ready?
And finally, the drinks! Given that a chunk of the evening takes place in a speakeasy and the entire event centres around a New Year’s Eve party, it would be terrific if actual drinks were served. Maybe that’s part of the plan for phase two? If Campbell House doesn’t allow it, then we’ll need to be forewarned that we’re visiting the speakeasy as teetotaling ghosts.
Hogtown (The Hogtown Collective) plays at the Campbell House Museum (160 Queen St. West) from January 27-31, 2016 with evening and matinee performances. Unfortunately, the performance is sold out, but do check in with The Hogtown Collective for more on their future productions.
Photo provided by the company.