Listen to Me Listen to You
Review by Ian Huffam
Interactive theatre is still fairly unexplored territory in Ottawa. There’s been SubDevision and May Can’s HappinessTM in TACTICS last year as two standout examples, but performances of this variety are far fewer in number than traditional dramatic productions in this city. Wait, you say, a non-mainstream form of theatre? Sounds perfect for undercurrents!
One of the reasons that interactive theatre has a harder time getting a foothold in an artistic community is the blurring of lines between performer and spectator – appreciating art is traditionally thought of as a passive activity, and even the most seasoned of theatregoers might enter into an interactive environment with hesitation. After all, what we think of as ‘traditional’ theatre is a realistic production with a fourth wall in a proscenium arch theatre, and everyone must stay silent and within the lines of a strict etiquette lest the ‘illusion’ be ruined. The fragility of the realistic ‘illusion’ makes the need for its preservation all the more significant, and the line between artist and performer is rigidly drawn and observed.
None of this applies in interactive theatre. Well, it might, depending on the production – because of the interactive nature of the genre, there are endless possibilities for how such a performance might be set up. The only criterion is that the spectator must become an active participant rather than sit back and let the performer’s art wash over them. A daunting definition, but the interactive Listen to Me at this year’s undercurrents cleverly uses an entirely different paradigm of performance – speed dating – in order to give a tight framework in which participants/performers still have great freedom. Or do they?
With only 8 tickets to participate in every performance, there’s an interesting air of exclusivity among the front tables in the Arts Court Studio where the participants are seated, while the remainder of festival guests continue to mill around, drinking, talking, and possibly watching the goings-on in the performance. Not only is the burden of performance placed on the participant when each must choose how much they want to open up to their “dates”, but with the ever-present crowd it’s also hard to ignore the fact that you’re being watched. It’s a lot like pretty much any given social situation, in that sense.
Before the start of the “performance” each ticket holder is given a name tag with a number corresponding to one of the 8 tables and asked to write down their cell number (they don’t hold onto it, so you have nothing to worry about there). From there you sit down at your designated table and meet your first “date,” before moving on to the next table after 3 minutes. Overseeing all of this is Catherine, who has the emotional yet supercilious air of a businesswoman trying a little too hard to be relatable, reminding everyone to open up and really listen to what you and your date are saying to each other.
I have to say that I may not have had the ideal experience as a participant, as part of the goal of the show is to open up to complete strangers and I just so happen to personally know all of the performers. I was prepared to play along and pretend not to know any of them if it was necessary, but they’ve prepared for that – the performers all use their real names and if you’ve met before, they’ll bring it up. Still though, one of my “dates” managed to trick me into doing her activity (it seemed like every performer has a certain ‘thing’) while convincing me that this was an alternative to the ‘script.’
The speed dating model works well for the most part – as a deliberately contrived form of social interaction it sets up an ironic foil to the message of human connection (how connected are you going to be with someone after talking for only 3 minutes?). The title of the show as well seems deliberately vague when Catherine helpfully reminds everyone to “listen to each other, but more importantly, listen to me.” Like daily social interaction, the situation is fraught with the ever-burning question: just who has the upper hand here? Participants never have to say or do anything they don’t want to, and yet there is some plan at work to mould your experience into something you can take away. This contradictory matter of free will vs. ‘playing right into their hands’ is an elusive question in theatre studies when interactive performance comes up, but I wonder whether this tacit debate could have been brought out a little more. At one point when Catherine gives ‘helpful’ advice she asks how much we were listening to each other: do we remember the name of everyone we’ve chatted with so far? What we talked about? I can imagine Catherine singling out a random participant and asking them to rattle off the names of everyone they’ve chatted with so far, in a surprise turning of the tables. It’s stressed in the program as well as the word-of-mouth framing for the show that the participant is in control, but the emphasis on this aspect mostly makes me question it. As the hostess with the microphone with an oddly superior air, Catherine’s persona is reminiscent of a shark circling around before it goes in for the kill, and the artificial environment of speed dating made me anxious to prove how open I was being – speed dating is one of the ultimate examples of choosing quantity over quality, but the activity of trying to force something that can’t really be forced seems to be a given rather than the point they’re trying to make. Still, at two tables in a row I played a different schoolyard game which clearly indicated preplanning (one does not simply pull a cootie catcher out of one’s pocket). If the point of the show is not to prove that human connection is fundamentally unquantifiable, then it admirably made me extremely paranoid about power dynamics in social situations. Oh well.
After 4 rounds (and a phone call!) you’re paired up with your first “date” for a do-over, something that rarely happens in real life. This non-realistic touch comes almost as a sort of palate-cleanser for the 25 minutes of carefully navigated social interaction that precedes it.
This last round has a different feel to it – maybe it’s because socially a do-over is seen as a redemption of sorts as well as the fact that it is the final round, but there’s certainly the possibility for you to turn this final round into your own happy ending. It’s impossible to get into the finer points of this show without bringing in your own experience of it, so here goes: my first “date” and I first met at Fringe 2 years ago after I had published a fairly negative review of a show he wrote. The first round was perhaps a little awkward but certainly not hostile. He asked me about grad school, I asked him how he was doing now, but before he could answer the bell rang and we had to move on. In the do-over round we both acknowledged our mutual history and achieved closure for an issue I don’t think either of us really cared about anymore. We weren’t strangers before the performance and yet by opening up we definitely got to a place that we hadn’t before. Opening up was both of our choices (as far as I know) and I came out of the performance with a different point of view where our friendship was concerned. Was it planned? Maybe. Maybe not. It was nice to open up though. See, even if you aren’t totally in control of every element in the performance, you do get to control your interaction in it. You get out of this performance what you put into it, regardless of who you know.
While I would like to see this concept developed further – the undercurrents program synopsis compares face to face interaction with its online counterpart, a comparison I felt wasn’t very prevalent in this production as each participant’s cell number is used once and then forgotten – I congratulate Resounding Scream Theatre on finding such an ironic way to control something that seems fundamentally uncontrollable.
Listen to Me
A Resounding Scream Theatre Production
Created by Stephanie Henderson
Directed by Stephanie Henderson and Catherine Ballachey
Performed by Tony Adams, Catherine Ballachey, Artem Barry, Alain Chauvin, Norah Paton, Danielle Savoie, Jake William Smith, Mahalia Golnosh Tahririha, Chelsea Young
In the Arts Court Studio
Friday 12 February 8:15 pm
Saturday 13 February 2:15 pm & 8:15 pm
Wednesday 17 February 8:15 pm
Thursday 18 February 8:15 pm
Friday 19 February 8:15 pm
Saturday 20 February 2:15 pm & 8:15 pm