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Location! Location! Location! How we got to Stirling.

When we first began imagining the location for Mother of All Shows, from the initial script phase into pre-production and location scouting, my collaborators and I initially envisioned an empty soundstage. We had filmed in a studio like this before, and we thought it would suit the film. The biggest issue, of course, was budget.

A classic film soundstage before sets are introduced.

Our set-up for shooting Six Days To Die entirely on green screen!

The last time we had filmed in a studio, we were working on green screen with a very limited physical set, since so much of the backdrop was going to be a matte painting inserted in post-production by the vfx team. This time: we needed to build multiple physical sets - a game show set-up, a confessional booth, a restaurant, a kitchen... and many more. We were making an indie film with a limited budget; how were we going to afford this?

Now this was in 2021 when the pandemic restrictions were still in place to keep people safe, and live theatre was struggling (and in some cases still is) because of it. It occurred to me that perhaps we could use a blackbox theatre, since it would be more likely that they would have availability, it would be a smaller space to set dress (less money!) and we would be renting from a theatre that could probably use the boost in income; some film production was back up, but almost no theatre was happening.

So, I went over to good ol' social media and asked if anyone had a theatre space or black box that would be available for rent in January. That's when an old friend, Ken MacDougall reached out about the theatre where he is Artistic Director: Stirling Festival Theatre in Stirling, Ontario.

Ken doing a bang-up job as location manager.

I had met Ken almost 20 years before this on the set of a Dempsters bread commercial where we had to do a potato sack race over and over again in the west end of Toronto in a public park. Ken had gone to my alma mater, University of Windsor, and had graduated some years before I did, so I never got to meet him there. But he ended up marrying another UofWindsor alum, Jane McClelland who had been in third year when I was in first and whom I'd admired for her work onstage then and since. Worlds colliding!

This room ended up being very helpful... eventually...

Ken sent me a photo of their upstairs space, which didn't really work for the scope of what we were doing.

Intrigued, I went to the website for the theatre and saw a photo of the main performance space.

I was blown away by what I saw:

This is the photo that caught my eye.

The colours, the shapes, the lights around the stage, the vibe -- if anything said 1970s variety show it was this theatre.

Look at this stage! These colours. Stirling Festival Theatre

Raked seats. Raised stage. Huge cameras

And I started to remember that a lot of shows that shot on stages looked a lot like theatres with raked seating and an elevated platform. Certainly one of our main inspirations, The Carol Burnett Show, had this set-up. This could work...

We went to visit the space and it was such a slam dunk! Sometimes you just know that you're in the right place at the right time: this was one of those moments.

Shooting the Must Bee Nice commercial on blue screen

We even ended up using the upstairs room (the one I had initially rejected!) to film all of the blue screen sequences, as well as the final scene in the film.

And we used the lighting booth to film several sequences, including one of my favourite commercials in the film that is set in a kitchen. Here's Wendie Malick throwing a fake prosciutto leg into the garbage while we blow sawdust at her. Trust me: it makes sense in the film. I promise.

By using this space, that already had an aesthetic that matched the framing device of the film, we were able to put more of our budget into the actual set pieces, props, and other design elements. The theatre had already done so much of the work for us! And our art department did an incredible job of complimenting the space with rad sets and props. It worked so well.

Our Art Department knocked it out of the park.

It also meant a great deal to spend a month in a theatre making art with friends and colleagues.

The poster for our show in England!

Before the world shut down in March of 2020, I was in England at the Battersea Arts Center as a play I co-created, Daughter, was on tour there. I spent a week helping to get the play up with the team and it was thrilling. We had been working on this piece since 2015 and it was wild to be on tour and in such a gorgeous theatre in the UK.

I got back to Toronto and a week later we were all at home trying to stay safe and healthy while the world reeled and tried to figure out what to do... about everything. So, to spend a month in a theatre making this dream project felt really special.

Beyond that, so many of the people working on the project were people I'd met in theatre.

David James Brock and I on set

I met the co-writer of Mother of All Shows, David James Brock, in an incubator at the Canadian Stage Company called Bash in 2009.

Our choreographer, Allison Plamondon choreographed a Summerworks Festival show I was in the summer of 2005. Here's some behind-the-scenes of us working on a tap step for the film between set-ups.

Several of the actors: Juan Chioran, Michael Miranda, Tarah Consoli and Phil Luzi were actors I had met doing regional plays and indie theatre. And Ann Pornel, Darryl Hinds and Trevor Martin are all stage actors and comedians I've loved watching perform live for years.

Actors Wendie Malick &Thomas G. Waites in a scene from the WPA Theatre's production of the Off-Broadway play "North Shore Fish." (New York) 1986

Even Wendie Malick, who came on to the production just before we began shooting, has a background in theatre and described the process like going away to put on a play for a month. It was joyous.

And the Stirling was a dream to work in -- wonderful staff, great community. We even had a movie night with everyone who stayed over the weekend in Belleville - Wendie bought pizza, Juan brought his homemade wine and we watched West Side Story after I forced everyone to do trivia before the screening. I just loved it all so much.

It brings me joy to walk through the space now (as I do in the video above) and remember our great crew and how they filled the space with joy and curiosity; how they all rose to the occasion and brought their immense talent to this project.

Rikki Zucker (Hair) and Mikey Elliott (Make-up) chilling in the seats between touch-ups.

I'm so happy we were able to work in that space. I'm honoured to be celebrating National Canadian Film Day this April 17th, 2024 with a screening in the room where it happened: Stirling Festival Theatre. Long live theatre.

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