New York City director Kathleen Amshoff knew little about Winnipeg when she accepted an invitation to come here to create the latest version of a graphic novel for the stage.
Swell is an art comic by American artist Juliacks that has been dramatized by groups of artists around the world before its full-length première last March at Culture Project's Women Center Stage Festival in Manhattan.
Winnipeg doesn't typically follow New York City on the avant-garde art-making circuit.
"I think I heard the name when I was in grad school in Pittsburgh," says Amshoff, who is helming Swell at the Atomic Centre this weekend. "I always had the idea that Winnipeg and Pittsburgh were related cities with a post-industrial legacy and perogies.
"Then I started reading about the work Guy Maddin is doing here. I watched a little bit of My Winnipeg. In my mind, it seems like a centre of experimentation."
Swell has been developed south of the border, as well as in Australia and Scandinavia. It was in Sweden last year when local curator and writer Milena Placentile met Juliacks and offered to host Swell 2.0 in Winnipeg at the Atomic Centre, a huge multidisciplinary art space at Logan Avenue and Martha Street.
"We plan to keep touring the project both in the States and nationally, in each place collaborating with local artists," says the Houston-born Amshoff. "It's a lot more interesting, though a lot more work, than simply dropping down in a city and doing a show."
The 20-something Juliacks (Julia Stein), who is also coming to Winnipeg, uses the world of comics to explore challenging topics such as death, grief and memory. Swell, the final work of a series called The Tome of Hallow County, is the story of Emmeline, who unexpectedly loses her sister after a strained time in their relationship and goes on a strange, idiosyncratic journey of grief.
In a New York Times review, the actress playing Emmeline was lauded for carrying "you through the story's emotional netherworld, and you emerge grateful for having made Emmeline's acquaintance."
In Winnipeg, with cast members Tanja Woloshen, Coral Maloney, Brenda McLean, Chris Sabel and Charlene Van Buekenhout, Swell is being re-imagined by local designer Barb Choboter with live manipulation of projected images from the book. As with the graphic novel, the dominant colour scheme is back and white.
Since 2008, Swell has been a recurring part of Amshoff's artistic life. She, like Juliacks, is one of three sisters and could immediately empathize with Emmeline.
"The story and imagery in Swell are one of a kind," says Amshoff, who, also like Juliacks, is a Fulbright scholar. "I love Juliacks' drawings: they are primitive, intricate, kaleidoscopic. They capture something about the experience of loss."
Following the Friday and Saturday evening performances, bereavement consultants and educators will conduct a post-show conversation. Performance artist Lasha Mowchun will be handing out free maps to the afterlife in the lobby.
Atomic Centre, 167 Logan Ave.
Runs tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.
Tickets: $10, reserve at 204-944-1621