Hey, hey Toronto movie nerds. Good news. The Secret Sessions is back. Founded by Jennifer Dysart and Bronwyn Cuthbertson, the art project/supreme-act-of-film-geekery was inspired by a similar event in England known as Secret Cinema, which shoves audiences into a 360 degree recreation of their favourite movies along with a screening. The first entry in this series happened a few months back, when the gang brought Anchorman to life (read our write up on that amazing inaugural Secret Session here). It was a delightful event, filled with local improvisers playing up iconic 70s scumbags while audiences dressed in 70s cheese, gobbled down burritos and drinks, giggling away at the presentation while also secretly marvelling at the fact that the cartoon satire of male idiocy also occurred simultaneously with Trump’s unfortunate win of…well…you know. For a follow up, the Secret Sessions gang decided to go for something very different. The film this time was Casablanca. The presentation was also far more elaborate. It shows off the team’s range and growing ambitions and while it probably wasn’t quite as fun the first edition of the event, there’s no denying that the unique theatrical experience feels like catnip for film fans.
The venue was larger this time, Revival Bar in Little Italy, a three-story space that The Secret Sessions used every inch of. The sets and decoration were all black and white. A piano upfront was constantly playing period standards, which got particularly impressive once returning performer Emma Banigan started belting her heart out next to the piano man (beautifully, by the way). The lighting was dramatic, with carefully placed circles and shafts providing the moody vibe of a film noir. The designers did an impressive job of transforming the space into Rick’s, even if the space obviously didn’t allow for a 1:1 representation of the iconic movie bar, it was definitely evocative of the film and set the scene. It’s gotta be said that the Moroccan food was damn good as well. Almost too good (I may have eaten too much. It’s a thing).
A cast of actors mingled about the crowd for interactive theatre again. Some were characters from the film, some not. There were far more performers this time to fill the larger venue. It was clearly designed for a bigger crowd, which unfortunately didn’t match the media preview’s turn out. But with a larger audience mingling in costume uncertain of who was part of the show and not, it would play like gangbusters. Little narratives were slowly established that played across various rooms involving various characters in clever ways. The directors did well in carefully choosing unexpected moments in the evening to stage their re-enactments, with characters getting booted out or arrested in ways that drew attention from audiences all across the space quite effectively. The increased ambition of the production really showed here and it was impressive how all rooms and seemingly throwaway props slowly became vital components of the whole production.
While the actors were certainly all committed to their characters (especially a scouring version of Bogie, Stephen O’ Martin’s dapper Claude Rains impression, Basel Daoud’s kindhearted twist on Peter Lorre, and Sarah Swerid’s bizarre version of Yvonne) and the environment of Rick’s felt vivid and alive throughout the interactive preshow. Obviously it wasn’t quite as giggly and amusing as having professional improv comics mock you as various Anchorman characters, but the tone was different and would work well as a gradual reveal for anyone uncertain of what movie they’d signed up for on arrival. The fact that the subject and setting were so drastically different from Anchorman felt like a conscious attempt by the Secret Sessions team to show their range as a production and it certainly showed off some very different ways of staging this type of show as well as the varied talents of all involved. There were surprise shifts of location to fit into the narrative of the show and set up that makeshift theatre that added an extra level of interactivity as well as clever ways to change up the setting while keeping the illusion alive. Granted, the secret belly dancing session, sing-a-long, and dance lessons will likely play better for more comfortable and social attendees than awkward press folks like myself, but hey, such is the life of an nerdy writer!
Eventually the film played on a much larger screen than the previous Secret Sessions and the directors wisely took advantage of the added space and stage for the shadow cast re-enactments. There were lighting cues and careful stage compositions to interact with the screen as well as pulling the audience’s eyes away from the movie and to other spaces around the room. This material was definitely another step up in ambition from The Secret Sessions 1.0 and was undeniably impressive. It was a nice way of adding a lil’ somethin’ somethin’ extra to a movie most have seen far too many times as well as a way to shove a little life into the sluggish middle of Casablanca. Now, if anything there were possibly a few too many of these re-enactments this time, with at least as much of the movie performed live as screened in isolation. Though, I suppose that’s likely a result of the rhythms of 40s filmmaking being defined by longer and fewer scenes than the punchy assault on the senses of Anchorman.
Undoubtedly the second entry of The Secret Sessions was bigger, more ambitious, and more impressive production than Jennifer Dysart and Bronwyn Cuthbertson’s first stab at this concept. The team have done a damn fine job of mixing together guerrilla theatre techniques with a screening series and are clearly only getting better at it. While I have to admit the evening wasn’t quite as satisfying as Anchorman, that was entirely down to the film choice and my taste, not a reflection of the production itself. Casablanca may have provided an evocative environment for the creators to play with, but it’s just not as memorable of a movie to bring to life with actors or as fun of an environment to spend an evening. That’s fine though. The fact that it was such a different experience shows off all the various possibilities open to The Secret Sessions creators in future productions (god willing they’ll get to a horror movie eventually, because the interactive haunted house possibilities of this sort of show are delicious).
Given how goddamn well the first two entries turned out, hopefully it won’t be long before the next Secret Session. Clearly the creators are only getting more ambitious and effective with experience, so bring it on!