This Women-Led Production Company Is Taking Experimental Theater to New Heights

Toronto-based theater company Echo Productions delivers a brilliant show with its Charles Manson-inspired production.
Toronto-based theater company Echo Productions delivers a brilliant show with its Charles Manson-inspired production.
Courtesy of Echo Productions

Founded in 2012, Echo Productions is a Toronto-based theater company on a mission to bring theater to a generation of millennial Canadians who do not consider live theater to be preferred medium of entertainment. Having carved a niche for itself by adapting popular narratives centralized in the grotesque (“A Clockwork Orange,” 2012–13, “Frankenstein,”2014, “Jekyll and Hyde,” 2015), the company fuses together live music and hyper-stylized movement creating a unique brand that is versatile, dynamic, and intensely physical.

The mostly female team behind Echo works hard to ensure that the female voice is heard in a world dominated by masculine perspective. A Women’s Thing spoke to Artistic Director Victoria Fuller, Playwright Adrian Yearwood, and Choreographer Emma Bartolomucci about their latest production, “Charlie: Son of Man.”

 
“Our style of fusing story, movement and music is integral to our creation of theater. It is our mandate.”
 

Your production company focuses on reinventing dark stories that are a big part of our cultural fabric. Why do you think these types of stories matter so much and what sparked your interest in reinventing them?

Victoria Fuller: The fact of the matter is that theater is a difficult and, in a lot of ways, dying art form. Generally speaking, the average 20–40 year-old doesn’t view the theater as a viable form of visual entertainment. As a result, one of the biggest challenges is simply getting people to bother seeing it. People barely go to movie theaters anymore, let alone staged theater. So first and foremost, using familiar stories is a way of immediately connecting with people and hopefully piquing their interest enough to come check it out. The darkness in the stories that I choose to present is there because … well I guess I just connect with that darkness on a personal level and truly believe that it has the greatest ability to teach. We all spend our lives presenting our best face to the people around us, so seeing people at their absolute worst immediately forces people to pay attention! I put a modern, relevant spin on each story so that attention is then directed inward—I want to hold a mirror to their own lives so that they’re continuing to be moved by it long after they walk out the door.

Your latest production, “Charlie: Son of Man,” puts a new spin on the story of Charles Manson. How did you come up with the concept?

Victoria Fuller: What’s intrigued me the most about Manson is why society made him into a pop culture icon. Why does everyone know his name? I think the reason why people are so interested in these events is because it happened to people just like themselves not so long ago. You mention Manson to anyone from the baby boomer generation and you see them shudder. Through this production, I think it’s important to share the stories of those young girls and boys, who were known as Manson’s “Family.” It is mind-blowing how he manipulated them into doing exactly what he wanted. There was a lot going on in the 60s. It was a time of political change and it meant a new freedom for teenagers. Although the social revolution was essential to new perspectives on unity and peace, for some (and I think Manson’s clan was included in this), it was a harsh lesson in consequences. When does total freedom become dangerous? This freedom and collective consciousness of the late 60s parallels the same liberties that kids have today with the endless access to the internet on their phones. It’s a really important thing to be aware of as we delve further into this technological era.

You describe your style of theater as fusing together live music and hyper-stylized movement. What effect does this create and how does it shape the shows your produce?

Emma Bartolomucci: Our style of fusing story, movement and music is integral to our creation of theater. It is our mandate. We believe that multidisciplinary productions give our audiences the chance to personally connect with each individual medium. Whether you’re into hyper-stylized movement, intense text-work or live music, our brand of theater offers a wide experience to a varied audience. Specifically talking about the movement aspect of the company, we use dance to depict the more brutal and/or overtly sexual plot points of our given play. This allows us to give them the treatment they deserve, as the artistry prevents them from becoming overwhelmingly real. The fusion of all these art forms coming together creates a more powerful vehicle to affect people, but in a way that forces them to think, rather than recoil.

The mostly female team behind Echo works hard to ensure that the female voice is heard in a world dominated by masculine perspective.
The mostly female team behind Echo works hard to ensure that the female voice is heard in a world dominated by masculine perspective.
Courtesy of Echo Productions
Charlie: Son of Man Courtesy of Echo Productions
Charlie: Son of Man
Courtesy of Echo Productions

How has the recent death of Charles Manson affected the importance or relevance of this production to you?

Adrian Yearwood: The death of Charles Manson definitely provided some closure for a lot of people who harbored angry emotions from the trial, but to be honest his death didn’t change much for us; our show is about much more than just Manson the person. Our show is more about the control and manipulation that he put the youthful women and men around him through. We use his story as a catalyst to teach our audiences about how people like this can come to power. That said, it did affect us positively in marketing and general interest in the story. As morbid as it may sound, if there was ever a person whose death we’d have very few qualms capitalizing on, it’s his.

Writer Kurt Andersen recently wrote in the Atlantic that the 1960s were the big-bang moment for ‘truthiness’—a national lurch toward fantasy. Does this production touch on the phenomenon of the American public becoming more untethered from reality in the 1960s, more readily willing to believe in the fantastical? Do you find the susceptibility of the Manson girls as a metaphor for the anything-goes irrationalism in contemporary America?

Emma Bartolomucci: Reading Kurt Anderson’s article in The Atlantic, “How America Lost Its Mind,” gave us insight into why stories like Charles Manson’s exist. America (and we definitely feel its effects here in Canada) is a land of freedom and a place to capitalize on one’s ideas for mass appeal. In our show, we exemplify why people caught on to Manson’s drift and we make direct comparisons to Trump’s presidential campaign. We see this happening in history quite often; people become desperate within society and turn to a radical leader to give the voiceless a voice. That’s what happened to Manson’s girls. He preyed upon vulnerable and weak-spirited girls, giving them strength through his connection to them. He’d tell them that he could see inside of them, that he had never met a more bright, pulsed and free woman and that they belonged with him on the ranch. That they were destined for it. We think that this manipulation is absolutely unbelievable and a true tale of the 1960s break free from the conformities of 1950s America. We think that the revolutionary 60s are paralleled to the times of the present with our unmonitored and boundless relationships to the internet.

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