Undercurrents Part 1:Pieces of the Past

A Quiet Sip of Coffee, Tashme Project, and Broken

Brianna McFarlane

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Seriously, out of all the events I look forward to every year in this city, the Undercurrents festival, hosted by the Great Canadian Theatre Company, breaks my top five every time. For the last four years, the people at Undercurrents have been luring the community out of its winter doldrums and into the theatre with a program of shows that, as Artistic Director Eric Coates says, “represents the vibrancy of Canada’s indie theatre scene.” “Theatre below the mainstream” is the festival’s tagline and with six shows spanning 5 different provinces (including the first ever production en français), the 2014 festival has gotten me excited to see what our country has to offer.

However, sitting here after having watched three out of the six studio-stage shows, I am unsure whether or not the festival has lived up to its mandate yet. A major concern, for me, is the abundance of memory-verbatim pieces in this year’s program. A Quiet Sip of Coffee (or This is Not the Play We’ve Written), Broken, and The Tashme Project: The Living Archives all revolve around, roughly, the same meta-theatrical concept: what you are watching is a play. Some of it is real and some of it is not.

While I understand that docu-drama, verbatim theatre, and memory plays are all very dominant genres and writing styles in English-Canadian theatre, I expected more variety from a festival that’s looking to promote indie Canadian theatre. Not to mention that Hannah Moscovitch’s new pseudo docu-drama, This is War, is playing just downstairs on the main stage at the Irving Greenberg Centre. So my question remains: can verbatim, docu-drama, and memory plays really be considered indie? This leads me to suppose that it is perhaps the individual stories themselves and/or the physical staging that makes these shows so different and special. Yet, two out of three times I was disappointed in these hopes as well.

A Quiet Sip of Coffee, created and performed by Anthony Johnston and Nathan Schwartz, is the real life story about the gay/straight best friend duo who write a prank letter to a fundamentalist “ex-gay” organization to ask for funding for their new play, Never Cry Wolfman. To their surprise the organization agrees and the play then follows their two weeks at the organization’s retreat in rural British Columbia where the friends participate in gay conversion therapy in exchange for a place to workshop their fake play. We are told that due to events that transpired during these two weeks, it isn’t until years later that the friends reunite in an attempt to retell their entire experience as a piece of theatre.

The stage itself is jam packed with a number of props and set pieces, such as a video projector, two long tables set upstage (one completely filled with Styrofoam cups and the other with filing boxes all labelled ‘Summer 2004’), folding chairs, and another filing box filled with various props and costume pieces placed downstage centre. This causes for the majority of the story to be told directly centre stage and doesn’t allow for a lot of movement around the space. Futhermore, some of the items don’t seem to be used very much, if at all, which makes me wonder if they could  just do without.

The story itself is obviously very real and meaningful to the actors, which you can see most times in their performances, and one can easily argue that no other performers would be able to stage this piece (perhaps this is the reason why they were programmed at this year’s festival), yet I found the actual telling of their story to be fairly sloppy and interspersed heavily with filler material.

When put into a more linear structure, the story should have taken 45 minutes to tell, but because this performance is interlaced with film clips, scenes from the fake play, and numerous examples of the anti-gay theatre improvisation games Johnston and Shwartz end up leading, this production clocks in at one hour and a half and by the end, I certainly felt it. Easily the best parts of this show are the actors’ character work and their chemistry on stage and these are best displayed in the scenes that take place at the workshop and in the Never Cry Wolfman scenes. Everything else just seemed superfluous.

I was confused as to why we need to see several different improv scenes, when having only one or two could have accomplished the same goal in mocking this particular mentality and behaviour. Yes, they were funny, but it wasn’t as if the rest of the story didn’t already have humorous elements. Moreover, the film clips: of course I understand the wolf-man reference and how it pertains to the larger issue at hand, but, considering that they neither add anything to the piece nor do they detract from it, the actors could have just explained it outright, considering the Never Cry Wolfman scenes are effective enough at underscoring the same point. The fact that both the improv scenes and the film clips don’t create or negate anything within the piece I can only dismiss them as needless filler.

Overall, while Johnston and Schwartz are certainly excellent comedic performers, the filler material has caused this production to rely too heavily on slapstick comedy and cheap visuals and unfortunately I did not feel the intended emotional punch of the piece’s most climactic moment: the breakdown of the actual friendship. Though this piece has great potential, it perhaps still needs to trim a little fat.

The next memory-verbatim play on the list is The Tashme Project: The Living Archives, created and performed by Julie Tamiko Manning and Matt Miwa. The concept behind this play is an admirable one: it traces the history and “common experience” of second generation Japanese Canadians (or Nisei) through their childhood, WWII internment, and post-war resettlement. The creators interviewed over 60 individuals and present their stories of adventure, play, hardship, and injustice on stage.

The performance space is beautifully set up with a wooden table and two wooden chairs taking up centre stage with two “streams” of multi-coloured origami cranes on either side. As the performers enter the space they pick up a number of these cranes and unfold them throughout the piece denoting new shifts in perspective (the unfolding of stoicism), time (the unfolding of curfew), or feeling (the unfolding of loss).

Due to its undoubtedly comprehensive interview process, the project raises some serious and valid questions: one character recalls wondering why his family had to move when his German neighbours did not, while another suggests that the only way to get through all of the hardship and injustice is to not rock the boat. We see the difficulties of the Nesei who cannot integrate fully with Canadian or Japanese cultures contrasted with the reality of today kids being able to “assimilate so well that they disappear”, all of which I found to be quite interesting. However, what I take issue with is the complete lack of movement within this piece.

Theatre is supposed to give an audience an experience that television, radio, and film cannot provide, which I sadly did not get this from this performance. The actors remain seated at the table for the majority of the piece, sometimes standing to pour tea or to unfold a crane and read the exposition written inside, performing their characters sitting down, facing the audience, and hardly interacting with one another. I probably could have sat there with my eyes closed throughout the whole show and gotten the same overall experience.

This is not to say that the individuals who were interviewed or their experiences are not interesting, but out of these 60 people I could only determine four or five distinct characters being performed that, I must admit, get fairly repetitive. I do not doubt these individual performers’ talent, however, after a four year development process I would expect that there would be something more onstage that engages me to watch.

The actors could have unfolded every single crane on stage by the end of the performance, infused somehow some movement styles of Japanese theatre into the piece, or absolutely anything to make it more visually stimulating. Like A Quiet Sip of Coffee, this piece has some definite potential. Yet, I don’t believe at this stage in its development process that it fulfills the Undercurrents’ mandate.

Finally, the third memory-verbatim play programmed at this year’s festival is Broken, a Ramshackle Theatre production from Whitehorse YK written and performed by Brian Fidler and directed by Maiko Bae Yamamoto. Broken is a story about a man who has discovered a box of his late grandfather’s things which all individually trigger different memories that reveal a heartbreaking relationship between a hero-worshipping boy and his grandfather, who is slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease. Drawing on Ramshackle Theatre’s pension for found object theatre, the play showcases some very interesting interactions with the various props on stage.

Of these props and set pieces there is a steel ladder, which we are told to imagine represents a set of wooden stairs leading into a basement, a single hanging lightbulb, a long table almost directly centre stage with a projector set up in front of a projector screen, a battered tripod, a rich looking leather armchair, and an unassuming filing box containing an old pre-WWII camera, the projector slides, a baseball cap, and a golden pocket-watch. These items transpose us to William’s basement where his grandfather lives.

We are told at the beginning of the show that the story itself is real, though the names of the characters have been changed, and that some of the objects (the chair, the tripod and camera, and the watch) are all real items, or primary artifacts if you will, from the story, while the other items (the ladder, the projector screen, and the lightbulb) are “not real” in that they are borrowed from the theatre space.

This distinction serves to create immediate significance in some objects, i.e. the camera as representative of the grandfather, while suspending disbelief in others, i.e. the ladder being representative of wooden stairs or the lightbulb being used as a flashbulb to illustrate the grandfather’s career as a photographer. This is why, when Fidler enacts the scene with the collapsing of the tripod you feel an immense sadness, because he has given it human and “real” characteristics, whereas the ladder and the lightbulb are used solely to create time and space within the piece.

Ultimately, I think this show is the strongest of the plays in the genre, because of its effective integration of story and theatricality as well as the fact that neither element seems to overpower the other. Broken is nicely balanced. Fidler does a good job of transitioning between young William and his aging grandfather, though I do wish there had been maybe one or two other characters (the parents or doctors maybe?) added in for a little more variation and I also felt he could have gone slightly further in his characterization of the armchair, yet, on the whole, I feel this piece is a smart choice for the Undercurrents’ festival.

Again, I feel the need to express my confusion and disappointment at the decision to program three plays of roughly the same genre and style, especially when two out of the three don’t showcase anything particularly new or exciting in either story-telling or performance. Broken, through its effective blend of memory play and found object theatre, is the only production that I have seen thus far to create something engaging and visceral on stage in such a way that is not typically seen on the main stages and as such is the only piece of the three to truly embody the Undercurrents’ vision.