Vitals (2014)

On Monday July 14th, I was a lucky patron who got to attend the wrap party for the theatre company Outside the March and their latest play “Vitals” that performed at a site-specific venue back in the spring. The show revolves around Anna, a Toronto first responder, as the audience gets to delve into her psyche. The play was performed inside a whole house, one that was lent to the production by company member Sebastian Heins. Throughout the show you are taken room by room as you learn more about impactful events that Anna has experienced on the job. The show is a one person show in name only, as there is only one character seen played by Katherine Cullen, but there are nine other Anna’s who double as memories and parts of her mind all played by actresses who look nothing like Cullen.

This was a fascinating idea for a production one that is buoyed by an original play by Rosamund Small and directed by Mitchell Cushman. What was even more fascinating was the fact that the crew secretly filmed the play one day and have turned it into a film that was shot entirely in one take. There have never been such a crawling yet intimate film like “Vitals” that relies so much on imagination and tension ratcheted up to the nth degree.

This was no usual wrap party for a play, as everyone in attendance was treated to a sneak peak of the film for the first time. I was fortunate enough to speak with Cushman on this unique project that is so ground breaking.

“From the early stages we were focused on the idea of building the show in such a way we could then do a film adaptation. It was an idea originally inspired by another project we did ‘Mr. Marmalade’, which we did in a kindergarten classroom. We shot an archival of that just so we would have a record of it. But because this (Vitals) was our first original show and because the content and the experience would lend itself well to film we sort of built it from the beginning with one eye to how we could adapt it to film.”

After arriving at House of Moments in the East End of the city, I noticed a palpable buzz in the venue. The rafters and support beams were strung with telephone cords like a spider’s web to match the set from the film. There were seven screens set up throughout the large space so that everyone had a semi-private viewing. The nine “other Anna’s” were in their paramedic costumes and walking around.

“If you had seen the theatrical show or knew that it was a show first, then you might have one perspective on it. But then if you went in knowing nothing about the theatrical show it would still offer you something. So it doesn’t necessarily own up to being a theatre piece but a lot of its style will give that away, like a lot of long monologues given to the camera that you wouldn’t normally have if you were just making a film.”

The setting is very unique as all the set pieces are places where Anna was called into for a job. That specific room is then transformed into something that does not resemble a ‘house’. For instance there is a suicide at High Park and the kitchen is turned into the park with moss filling the sink, tree branches in the cupboards and fish in the dishwasher. There is another scene with a subway jumper and the detached garage looks like a replica of the platforms including a thick yellow strip for the warning track that passengers should stand behind.

While all these set pieces look and feel like the real thing, very subtle sound design provided by Samuel Sholdice was added. Faint subway sounds replete with “Stand clear the doors” and dogs barking all make up this world of unseen emitters. It is little things like that, that transport you to each individual scene back when Anna originally experienced it.

“She (playwright Rosamund Small) originally became fascinated by the day to day nature of having a job where your professional life is responding to other peoples emergencies and what the daily grind would be like.”

While this film has its darkly comedic moments like stories about incompetent co-workers and schizophrenic patients screaming about Toronto’s wolf infestation, the reality is that this is a scary piece of work. Paramedics are known for dealing with people at their absolute worst. They see the horrors and brutality that most people want to pretend doesn’t exist. While Anna describes a lot of different stories the script mostly focuses on suicides and the people who attempt them. After seeing people time and again try to take their own lives you better believe it has a psychological effect on a person. Since this play takes place in Anna’s mind we are treated to seeing her go through a mental breakdown in front of us.

“It was not even a case of us looking to cast the role (of Anna), Rosamund connect with Katherine very early on in the process so she was essentially writing the part for her. It’s hard for me to envision anybody else playing the role and doing it so beautifully.”

Sometimes we are fortunate to witness an actor playing a role that is so suited for them you can’t imagine anyone else daring to question it. Last year with Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” people walked out of theatres knowing that Cate Blanchette was going to win an Oscar for her performance, a role that also tracks the mental state of a traumatized character. Cullen is a revelation as Anna, finding humility and strength under her gruff exterior. As an EMT you become desensitized to the world pretty quickly but every once in a while something will still shock you and those warts are put on in full display. While Cullen has a pretty showy scene talking about dealing with an asthmatic patient in a crack house, she truly shines in the final scene. Seeing Anna go through every emotion, particularly since a chunk of it revolves around finding an abused dog is most effecting. You worry for Anna’s life while also terrified by the very literal descriptions she is providing of a scene she stumbles upon, it makes your skin crawl.

“We are hoping to have some theatrical distribution and we submitted the film to TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) already and we will submit it to other festivals as well. We hope it will have a life of itself too.”

With its gorgeously shot steadicam footage that manages to always have the actors in focus and well lit, this film is a near lock to see the light of day elsewhere. The acting and script is top notch and its unique format is sure to intrigue the film community. Cushman and his team are making Toronto art more exciting and relevant than ever before. With their 12 Dora Mavor Moore nominations for the best in Toronto theatre, they don’t show any signs of slowing down.

After the screening the night was concluded by the mingling of the crowd that featured most of the cast and crew, along with the giddy audience. A four-piece band featuring three actual paramedics and a nurse played a set consisting of covers by the likes of Imagine Dragons, Barenaked Ladies and Young the Giant.

About author

Music Editor at Live in Limbo and Host of Contra Zoom podcast. Dakota is a graduate of Humber College's Acting for Film and Television. He now specializes in knowing all random trivia. He writes about music, sports and film. Dakota's life goal is visit all baseball stadiums, he's at 7.