“Overcoming Creative Road Blocks, Cultivating Your Practice & The Power of The Movies” In Conversation with Vanessa Smythe, Co-Creator of THE TAPE ESCAPE
Interview by Megan Robinson.
Vanessa Smythe is in the middle of doing her laundry when she answers the phone. I can hear the beep of the laundry machine when she tells me that recently all her dreams have been about puzzle-solving. This definitely makes sense since The Tape Escape, which she co-created with Mitchell Cushman, is an immersive theatre experience that is a blend of puzzles and storytelling. Though it opened in July with Outside the March, Vanessa says they are still in the process of making tweaks here and there, adding pieces of content, and allowing ideas to evolve. The bones of the show have been solidified for a long time, but Vanessa is still so inspired by it and excited for all its possibilities that she says it can be hard to know when to stop working.
Even without the new tweaks and additions, The Tape Escape is an already complex show. For their track, “Love Without Late Fees”, they wrote sixty-five different scenes. I imagine it would be hard knowing some sections may never get seen, but Vanessa says part of the fun is letting the audience have agency over the ending. For her, it’s a bit of a lesson in letting go. Though she does admit to having favourite outcomes.
Vanessa and I spoke for an hour over the phone about collaborating with Mitchell Cushman, how this project has affected her as an artist, and what her advice is for getting through creative blocks.
MR: Let’s go back to the beginning of the project. So you and Mitchell walked into Queen Video, and you wanted to do something together. How long had you been having the discussion of wanting to do something? What was the first idea you had?
VS: I do a lot of solo shows and I had an idea to do a one-person show inside an old video store. I think what excited me was the idea of what these tapes had witnessed and someone taking you into their personal connections and the little moments of significance that are tangled into all these objects. I love collaborating with Mitchell, and he had worked at video stores before (he’s an enormous film buff) and has also always wanted to pay respect somehow to what video stores meant to him. We both had this emotional pull to the space. We began with the question, “what have these tapes witnessed?” and what could they tell us about the people who once held them, and cared about them, and shared them and exchanged them.
When we did our initial Kick And Push workshop the question was, “how can we tell the story of one couple’s relationship in six video rentals?” And that kind of lead into this almost-treasure hunt. I don’t know if when you were a kid you ever did treasure hunts with your friends but I always loved the idea of searching for something, so that was also a thematic interest.
MR: Is this the sort of thing you want to keep doing more of or are you inspired to go back to something simpler?
VS: I love storytelling so it’s been a really exciting experiment to see how puzzles and stories speak to each other. I’m hoping it’s made my writing stronger. I’m excited to remove that puzzle component and see what influence that has had on my impulses creatively. [laughs] What a vague answer… I don’t know!
MR: That’s fine. You’re in the middle of it!
VS: It’s funny, I’ve been acting in a couple of film and TV projects this summer and I was always so nervous to do those things (and I still am sometimes). But I would depart from being this puzzle-creator, where I felt like I was doing seven different tasks, and then I would show up to set and say lines and I’d be like, “This is a single task. I have nothing to complain about”, so I don’t know it probably has been good.
MR: It’s definitely a testament to stepping out of your comfort zone and the perspective you gain afterwards.
VS: Mhm. I think Mitchell Cushman is such a talented person and he really doesn’t hesitate to do something. I really admire that. Some people are like, “I’m not sure, let’s not do it.” And he’s like, “Well let’s find out if it’ll work and let’s do it.” And I really hope that that’s rubbed off on me a little bit. It really is the only way to do something, I think. Because there’s always going to be doubt and uncertainty.
MR: I’d love to know how you get through creative blocks. I’m asking this a bit from a personal place, as well, since I feel like I’ve been stuck for like three months, and I find it so helpful to hear from other people what they do in that case. What do you do?
VS: Sure! I think it depends on the nature of “the stuck”. I mean, I can answer your question, but I’m also just interested in why you feel stuck?
I’m realizing I’m a really sensitive person. I feel like it’s actually a good thing a lot of the time. I feel that people like me, we can be very perceptive and can detect impulses in ourselves and sometimes follow those but I think the flip side is that it’s easy for our voices to feel muted when we’re around a lot of noise. So I find a lot of the times when I’ve been stuck I feel the part of me that is really certain and honest is a little bit obstructed and usually I think it’s because (whether I’m realizing it or not) I’m paying a lot of attention to the voices and impulses and noises and ideas surrounding me and it’s cutting me off from that genuine current that is open and flowing.
I find (and I don’t know if there’s a solution for it) that I really have to get on my own side again. Sometimes it’s not gonna happen the way that I think. I might need to stay up really late until four in the morning and watch old episodes of a bad show and then, like, go for a walk and eat a weird candy that reminds me of someone I had a crush on when I was eight and maybe that will make me feel more like myself and sort of collapse those obstructions that get in the way. I feel like connecting to joy is important. And more and more just really embracing how you do things. Because everybody does things differently and sometimes while working closely with other creative people, it can be tempting to try and mimic or participate in their rhythms when really your rhythms might be a little different.
It takes an effort to cultivate a habit of checking in with myself and trying to make sure that those pathways of creativity are as unobstructed as possible, but whenever I do I’m always so glad, you know? You really feel this relief. I really think one of the best feelings in the world is when you feel like yourself. When I’m talking to somebody and I’m like, “this is how we talk!” and it’s so good and easy, you know? Versus when you’re having a conversation and it’s taut and your cheeks hurt and you’re hearing yourself and you’re like, “what am I even saying?” And the gift or luxury or whatever you want to call it, of being creators is that we’re asked to return to our own voice – can you just believe in it and love it and spend time on it and see where it takes you? That’s my bread and butter. That’s the biggest joy to me. And it’s hard but if I continue to cultivate a practice that supports it then I feel like I’ll be okay.
MR: Oh yeah, that really hit me. That’s definitely it.
VS: I don’t know… It’s so funny how the things we tell other people are often the things we need to hear. Or the things we make are often the things we need to witness.
MR: My other question for you was going to be how do you tap into your honesty, but the other question I asked you brought us right into that.
VS: I’m so glad!
MR: The last question I have is based off how you said earlier that you write to heal something in yourself or tap into something in yourself- was there something with The Tape Escape that you were healing or tapping into?
VS: Yes. When I was twenty-two I used to go to this acting class and there was this boy who would drive me home from acting class and we both were these like frightened human beings who loved stories and believed that movies were your guides in your life and he had seen every movie. He was a very nervous, cripplingly shy person. But it was almost like he had every movie in his coat pocket, and when he talked about them, they were his strength. I just have this memory of this time when we’re these two friends, driving home from our class together, and we were afraid of the world and we felt uncertain and lost and confused and like we didn’t belong anywhere but then we would talk about our favourite movies and we would imitate our favourite scenes from stupid comedies and we would laugh and it would be this really special time, and that’s gone now. He actually had a license plate, MOVIE MAN, and in initial phases of this project I wanted to call it that. I wanted this to almost be like a love letter to a friend. We found each other when we were both very lost and kind of used movies to feel okay. I feel like that is at the seed of the project for me.
MR: Has he seen it?
VS: We’re not really in touch anymore. But it feels like an extension of moments in your past that were special and you didn’t even maybe realize they were special at the time. And now they’re gone, kind of like how video stores are gone. I don’t know, I feel like just being in the store and letting yourself be drawn to certain tapes draws me closer to the people that I miss. I feel like for me that has been an emotional centre for what’s inspired this.
MR: Do you have any tips for audiences to maximize their experience at The Tape Escape?
VS: I think it’s really fun to come with another person or a group of people that you know. It’s really exciting to see people that know each other tackling these puzzles together. And do it with someone that you like (you also see tensions run high when people can’t solve puzzles). It’s also really fun to do two back to back. And to make an evening of it. We’ve had people come and they’ve rented out an hour and it becomes more of an evening, and a fun social event.
The Tape Escape
An Outside the March Experience
In Association with David Versus Goliath
Co-creators: Vanessa Smythe, Mitchell Cushman and Nick Bottomley
Production Designers: Anahita Dehbonehie and Nick Blais
Dramaturg: Griffin McInnes*
Assistant Video and Puzzle Designer: Allie Marshall**
Assistant Production Designers: Hans Krause, Julia Howman and Edith Nataprawira
Creative Technologist: Daniel Oulton
Sounds Designer: Bram Gielen
Interstitial Sound Designers: Christo Graham and Tucker Bottomley
Head painter: Edith Nataprawira
Head Carpenter: Andrew Chute
Escape Artists: Kayla Chaterji, Daniel Halpern, Madeleine Jung-Grennan and Bryanna Blackwell
Model Builder – Bryanna Blackwell
Most video stores let you take the movies home. But at THE TAPE ESCAPE, the rentals happen to you, pulling you deep inside its collection of thousands of VHS Tapes. Disappear back into 1999 with this love-letter to the lost art of browsing. See if you can escape into (and out of) some of your favourite movies by selecting from our collection of “in store rentals”.
480 Bloor Street West
(former home of Queen Video)
On now and extended until August 11th.