Lifeline: The Strengths and the Challenges of Devised Theatre

As much as I love playwrights, I am not one of those people who assert vehemently that they are an absolute requirement for the development of a powerful piece of theatre. The art of Devising, or, as it was known when I was a teenager in Nova Scotia “Collective Creation,” is an exciting, dynamic technique for developing plays that dates back in Canada at least to Theatre Passe Muraille’s iconic Farm Show. Ensemble 21, a company that emerged out of York University’s 2008 Creative Ensemble graduating class, presents a devised work entitled Lifeline at the George Ignatieff Theatre as part of the Toronto Fringe Festival.
Lifeline reflects much of the strengths and the challenges of the Devised theatre. Its strength is that since the characters are all being developed through improvisation and other theatrical exercises, they can be tailored to the specific talents of the actors playing them. The weakness is that, even with a director, incorporating the ideas and perspectives of a collective can not only lead to a play of inconsistent quality, especially in the dialogue, but it is also more challenging to achieve a unity and clarity of vision and to keep scenes crisp and punchy without becoming wayward transgressions that peter off into irrelevant tangents.
Lifeline centers around a young morose girl named Allison who is waiting for a heart transplant, whose estrangement from her only family, her brother, is continually alluded to, but never fully developed. Her doctor, Tess, is grieving over the sudden death of her younger sister, Paige, while her Nurse, Molly becomes involved in an oddly complicated random sexual encounter with a paramedic. Wes, the corpse from whence Allison gets her new heart, visits her in her dreams, in an interesting twist that unfortunately doesn’t become clear enough to be dramatically effective or emotionally satisfying.
Some of the highlights of the play include a poignant performance by Mike Arajs as Wes, mostly because his eloquent monologues and poetic insights are lovely to listen to, and Claire Armstrong whose portrayal of Tess always roots the play back into the realism of a hospital when the implausible elements (such as a pathologist eating food off the floor in the autopsy room) threaten to turn the play into a Mr. Bean sketch. Brandon Brackenbury has created a vibrant character as Richard, the paramedic, and some of his dialogue is particularly inspired and astute.
It seems as though all eight of the performers involved with this play are proficient actors and that they are passionate about exploring the issues and ideas that interest them in a dramatic, creative collaboration, but Lifeline needs some rigorous dramaturgy before it can emerge as the profound production that I think it wants to be.
Lifeline plays at the George Ignatieff Theatre (15 Devonshire Place) at the following times:
Mon, July 5 1:00 PM

Wed, July 7 2:15 PM
Thu, July 8 4:00 PM 
Fri, July 9 Noon
Sat, July 10 6:15 PM

all tickets $10 at the door or book in advance by calling the fringe hotline at 416.966.1062 or go online at

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