By Calum Robertson, December 20 –
One Yellow Rabbit, based out of Calgary’s Big Secret Theatre, has been a strong artistic presence in this city for many decades. One of their core members, Denise Clarke, recently released a book titled The Big Secret Book: An Intense Guide for Creating Performance Theatre. The book draws on Clarke’s many years of experience with One Yellow Rabbit, sharing many of their “big secrets” to approaching creation — specifically performance.
However, Clarke says her book is not solely aimed at those in theatre.
“It’s geared to, obviously, theatre and making theatre, but I tried to keep the ideas oblique and open enough, reaching out to anyone who has creative practices and priority,” she says. “I really wanted it to be very accessible. I didn’t want it to be saturated in academic speak, which I find alienating.”
Her writing sits comfortably between a captivating textbook and an honest, poignant memoir. The stories she tells are dripping with terms from the unique in-house vocabulary that One Yellow Rabbit employs. That customized lexicon is integral to Clarke and her creative process.
“I think that it’s really important to name things because if you can share that with collaborators — if you can name it for yourself — you can break your own rules and you can make the decision to move away from the so-called lexicon that you’ve worked yourself into,” she explained. A recent example, she says, is the highly adaptable term “same-pagery.”
Each chapter is accompanied by a passage reflecting on a past performance or rehearsal that illustrates the concepts she touches on. One compelling excerpt details Clarke’s experience portraying Mata Hari, an exotic dancer-turned-spy, in the 1996 production Tigress At The City Gates. Twenty-two years later, Clarke still vividly remembers her immersion in the character.
“I only need to think about it, and it definitely gets to me. She wasn’t a genius, she was a survivor and she was just doing her best,” Clarke says. “She just didn’t really clock what kind of a really dangerous situation she put herself in. She was just so completely set up, because they just needed a scapegoat.”
Clarke’s book also touches on her own connection to the two World Wars and how the brutality of those conflicts lingers in today’s world.
“I think I’m so affected by all the stories of the First World War and the Second — well, all war, but especially those two. My father was a veteran of the Second and my grandfather served in the First,” she says. “Something that has just been horrifying for me is how much murdering of their own the Brits did. If you were a young 17-year-old, completely shell-shocked, staggering out of the trench, and just being so fucked up that you just walk away into a field, you were shot.”
The conflict that ended a century ago has greatly impacted Clarke’s outlook on the world.
“All those stories just hurt me so deeply, because I transpose them onto the culture of now and the culture of my young friends and it just breaks my heart,” Clarke says. “A few years ago I was asked how I would fill my next chunk of time, and one of the ideas I threw out was writing a book on the message of the [Intensive] Lab, which is “a yearly three-week master class on all aspects of the performing arts, held by One Yellow Rabbit every summer.”
Her publisher, Lorene Shyba, embraced the idea, and work on the book began in earnest, says Clarke.
Clarke’s dedication to her craft is apparent from her loving attention and reflection on the many aspects of performance. A care that did not go unnoticed. In December of 2013, Clarke was appointed as a member of the Order of Canada. Her takeaway from that honour was one of hope and solace.
“If you can stay the course and keep yourself alive, you feel pretty good about it,” Clarke says. “But it’s really something else to get a call from the Governor General’s office saying you’ve been made a member of the Order of Canada, because it was a total surprise.”
And how does it feel now that the book is out in the world, after one year of dedicated work?
“Really good. Really fucking good,” she says.
The Big Secret Book is currently available through Durville Press.