Two years ago, as part of the National Arts Centre’s Canada Performs initiative, Alexa Higgins and Ian Ottis Goff of Falling Iguana Theatre staged a digital production of their company’s debut work, DIANA. Later that same year, Higgins and Goff would broadcast DIANA again from their Toronto apartment.
In 2021, Falling Iguana headlined the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival with their second original production, 81 Minutes. The summer production marked the company’s return to in-person performance. Written and directed by Higgins and Goff, 81 Minutes is a speculative depiction of the 1990 heist that saw thirteen works (estimated worth: $500 million) lifted from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts.
Last month, Higgins and Goff announced the Toronto-based company, in collaboration with NotaBle Acts and Live Bait Theatre, would be touring 81 Minutes in late April. Falling Iguana’s East Coast tour will see the original cast perform in Fredericton and Sackville, and then Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.
Below is my interview with the duo behind Falling Iguana. We talk about the company, DIANA, and remounting 81 Minutes.
Falling Iguana is a physical theatre company. What is physical theatre, and how does it manifest in your work?
Alexa Higgins: People often get nervous when we say physical theatre because there’s an image that it’s mime slash dance. There are elements of that, but we consider physical theatre to be present in all types of theatre. Physical theatre explores bodily movement in ways that enhance the story. We use movement to reveal what a character is really thinking versus what they say. We also use movement to build the world. In both of our plays, we jump around to different cities and timelines. We think using broader movement helps the audience go on that journey with us. It makes for great comedy as well! Both plays have a lot of comedy, and we think it comes through because of that physicality.
Falling Iguana has presented DIANA four times, split evenly between the stage and online. Could you describe the experience of taking a stage production and translating it for a digital space, all while working within your living room?
Higgins: It was a challenge, as you can imagine, but that’s where the physicality comes in handy. You can expand and collapse your movement to fit whatever space you are in. When we found out we were going to be performing from our living room, we decided to reshape the piece from the perspective of a film. We thought it would be fun if the camera was an additional character in our story. We decided what we wanted to share and not share with the camera. We also played with scale and forced perspective. At one point, I used the wall as though it was the ground.
Do you have a background in film and operating a camera, or was that new for you?
Higgins: We have experience in front of the camera.
Ian Ottis Goff: I have worked on films as an actor and a member of crew. As theatre creators, you are always thinking about what the audience sees. We thought a lot about what does it look like from this angle? If we move the camera like this, what does it feel like? You think a lot about how it’s going to be perceived.
Did the experience lead to any discoveries?
Goff: The amount of eyeballs we got on it. A theatre is only so big, meaning you can only fit so many people inside. After the Canada Performs stream, we checked the numbers and saw that nearly 1,000 people had watched it. If we did DIANA in a 1,000 seat theatre, that would be an incredible performance.
Higgins: For me, how we built our virtual version of DIANA. We are proud of it. We are going to use that non-linear thinking back in the rehearsal hall. It has informed 81 Minutes, and it will inform our future productions.
The original cast of 81 Minutes is coming back for the tour.
Higgins: Yes, all five performers are returning.
You are in different cities right now. What is the rehearsal process like?
Goff: We are lucky because 81 Minutes premiered last summer, so it wasn’t too long ago. This kind of physical work sits in your body. We have a week of rehearsals before our first show in Fredericton. If you show up with the lines learned, the movement will come back quickly.
Higgins: We also have archival video from our summer show. We sent that out to the actors. Everybody has been making sure they know their individual track. Once in the rehearsal hall, we’ll be able to take more care with each scene, so everyone knows where they are going.
Tell me about the play. It’s based on a real heist?
Goff: On March 18th, 1990, in the early hours of St. Patrick’s Day in Boston, Massachusetts, two men disguised as police officers went to the side door of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The “officers” knocked on the door, and one of the museum guards came down. The police officers were investigating a disturbance in the area and needed to come in to make sure everything was alright. The guards let them in. The thieves handcuffed the guards and chained them to a boiler in the basement. For the next 81 minutes, the thieves perpetuated the largest unsolved art heist. Actually, I just read recently that it is the largest theft of property in history. They did it, and they were gone. The pieces are still missing.
What is it about this story that attracted you to it?
Higgins: I had never seen an art heist explored on stage before. That seemed like a fun slew of characters we could create from this real story. In our extensive research, we learned that most art heists take 3-5 minutes. This one took 81 minutes. Were the thieves confident in what they were doing? Or, were they unsure? There are a lot of unknowns.
Also, we started to think—81 minutes straight is a perfect length of time for a play. We started thinking about counting down our show, from 81 minutes to zero, with a giant clock on stage. When the clock hits zero, it’s blackout. No matter if we are done the show or not. It adds a layer of tension for us and the audience. We hope to emulate the feeling from that night.
When did the clock enter the creation process? It seems like it arrived early on.
Goff: We traveled to New Brunswick for a writer’s retreat. We sat by the lake, writing scene after scene. The idea came into our head: what if we had a clock sitting on stage counting down from 81 minutes? Our original idea was it would be a classic clock face, and then it turned into a digital clock which is a lot of fun. A digital clock sheds its own light, an eerie red glow.
Higgins: During that writing workshop, we realized we also wanted to include a second timeline in the show. We follow the thieves and the guards the night of the robbery, and then we jump back in time to Isabella Stewart Gardner’s life in the late 1800s. She was one of the only female art collectors around at that time. She’s an ethically complicated character when it comes to her opinion on art and who art belongs to. We jump back and forth between her timeline and the heist to explore what these art pieces mean and where they came from.
Where did you get the clock?
Goff: We bought the clock online. Originally, we were thinking the clock was going to be a gigantic thing, like five feet by six feet. It’s been pared down a little bit.
You have to travel with it.
How did the tour come together?
Goff: One thing we think a lot about is how a lot of times you’ll do a play once, and then it’s put on the shelf. It’s done and gone. We don’t like that. As our history shows, we like to keep working on a play and putting it in front of new audiences. As 81 Minutes was happening, we were looking for another place to put it.
Higgins: Ron Kelly Spurles, the artistic director of Live Bait Theatre, saw our production in the summer, and he invited us to perform in Sackville. Okay, if we are going back to New Brunswick, we better go back for more than one show. What can we realistically build? Fredericton is a great place to start because we already have a base there. We started talking with community members there about building our show. NotaBle Acts is presenting us in both Fredericton and Sackville. The last stop in the tour, which took a little more time to figure out, is Alderney Landing in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. We are very excited. They have a fantastic space. It will be the fourth province Falling Iguana has performed in.
What does it mean for you to be able to perform in-person again?
Higgins: When we did our live show this past summer, it was very moving. There’s nothing like having a live audience response. We are looking forward to sharing this weird and wild and partially true story with other real humans in the room and counting down the clock together.
Falling Iguana’s touring production of 81 Minutes arrives in Fredericton on Friday, April 22. 7:30 p.m. at UNB’s Memorial Hall. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door.
Sackville: Saturday, April 23 at the Sackville Legion. 7:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online.
Dartmouth: Sunday, April 24 at Alderney Landing. 7:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door.
For more information about Falling Iguana, visit their website.