August 17, 2017

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Producer of Canada Games ceremonies has creating memories down to an art

It’s a hot day in Winnipeg, even hotter at Investors Group Field, where the sun beats down on the turf and glints off the steel ripple of the stadium’s awning. It’s quiet here, save for a power-tool buzz, but that won’t last much longer.

On Sunday, this place will sparkle. When the closing ceremony of the 2017 Canada Games gets underway, IGF will be filled with people and colour borne by young athletes, curious fans and some 1,000 mostly local performers.

Already, the Blue Bombers’ home turf has traded yard markers for water. Painted blue corridors undulate over the field, converging underneath a circular stage. The design echoes the city’s rivers, their history as a meeting place.

It’s not mere decoration. When the athletes enter the stadium Sunday afternoon bearing their provinces’ flags and soaking up the last cheers of the two-week event, they will follow this ersatz road of watery blue.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Patrick Roberge owner of Patrick Roberge Productions has produced the 2007, 2011 and 2015 Canada Games Opening and Closing Ceremonies returning this year for the 2017 games. </p></p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Patrick Roberge owner of Patrick Roberge Productions has produced the 2007, 2011 and 2015 Canada Games Opening and Closing Ceremonies returning this year for the 2017 games.

"You look for inspiration in so many different ways," Patrick Roberge says. "The converging of water is always an incredibly powerful message, both metaphorically and literally. It’s been such a part of the heritage of this region."

Roberge is producing these ceremonies, and he looks the part as he bustles into the stadium shortly before noon: plaid shirt, khaki shorts, a walkie-talkie clipped to his belt loop. He’s busy, but not frantic; preparations have so far been smooth.

Besides, he’s an old hand at this. Based in Vancouver, Roberge is the owner of an event production company bearing his name. So big shindigs such as Sunday’s festivities are his stock and trade.

He rattles off some of his greatest hits: Grey Cups, Paralympics, Special Olympics and the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland. (That one, Roberge says, was entirely too much fun: "the whole community opened their arms.")

"They’re all different," he says. "The constituents are so different, so it makes it really interesting."

So he knows the venue already, which helps. (He was even formally introduced to the Rum Hut, when he led the halftime show at the 2015 Grey Cup.) And he knows the event, too: this is the fifth Canada Games ceremony he’s produced.

His first was in Saskatoon in 1989. The closing ceremonies then were held in the middle of a field near the University of Saskatchewan. Back then, audio cues whirred on reel-to-reel tape. So the logistics have come a very long way.

"We had to build the entire infrastructure," he recalls. "It was a whole different beast. We had to build every costume from scratch... technology is so much better now, that it makes it a little easier for us. But the spirit was the same."

That spirit, Roberge says, centres on the thousands of youths at the heart of the Games. Sure, there will be entertainers on Sunday’s stage — Fred Penner, Alberta country star Brett Kissel — but the athletes are the stars.

"The message hasn’t changed," he says. "This is the top of our youth athletes. Some of these athletes are going to go on to the Olympics, some are going to go to professional sport. Some of them... this is the pinnacle of their career.

"So when we put on a show, we want to make sure that this might be the first and last ceremonies they ever attend, or this might be the stepping point," he continues. "But either way, it’s equally as exciting."

Ten seconds. That’s a key mantra that Roberge takes into crafting these shows, and it’s not a time frame chosen at random. The human mind, he says, best processes and stores events in snippets of five to 10 seconds, no longer.

Photos by MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Left: The stage under construction Friday for the closing ceremony. Patrick Roberge’s firm has produced five Canada Games ceremonies.</p></p>

Photos by MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Left: The stage under construction Friday for the closing ceremony. Patrick Roberge’s firm has produced five Canada Games ceremonies.

Just think of a musical you watched, he says, or a concert or a TV show. The memories that jump to mind will come clearest in pieces: when a dragon swooped towards the battlefield, when a chandelier crashed down on the stage.

So he tries to build those moments, those flickering bursts of memory, right into the program.

"We’ll have five or six guaranteed 10-second moments the audience will remember," he says. "They won’t remember the half-hour athlete parade, but the athlete might remember when they stood on the field. That’s their 10 seconds."

In Winnipeg, Roberge found fertile ground for 10-second inspirations. The opening ceremony, which he also produced, was dotted with whimsy — a living Golden Boy swatting a mosquito — and the closing party will be, too.

There will be a tribute to the many festivals of Winnipeg’s summer. There will be an army of local performers, many of whom auditioned via video. They’ve been rehearsing off-site for months; now, they’ll bring the show to life.

"I like to look at this from a perspective of, we have a lot of kids in the show," Roberge says. "Sometimes this will be the only chance they get to participate in something like this. So we try to make that a memory they’ll never forget."

He turns his attention to the work crews hustling about the field; there is still work to do. Canada Games crews got into the stadium to start setting up Wednesday, leaving just five days for the transformation.

So on Friday afternoon, the mood in the stadium is calm, but focused. Crews haul portions of stages into place and secure them.

The goal, Roberge says, is for the technical setup to be finished before Friday night.

"It’s an aggressive agenda... but we gotta be ready," he says, with a big laugh. "Not being ready is not an option."

Thinking about attending the Canada Games closing ceremonies? It starts at 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $10 at Ticketmaster, and children age two and under get in free.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Melissa Martin.

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