Norah Paton’s Burnt is both a thoughtful rumination on the utopian ideals behind the Burning Man festival and an excellent example of how Ottawa theatre festivals can aid in the development of outstanding new work.
Burnt is a verbatim-ish show largely based on Paton’s experiences at Burning Man in 2014, 2015, and 2016, and the interviews and conversations she documented with attendees and organizers. Between the verbatim sections, where Paton re-enacts some of these interviews, are her own experiences as well as observations on the hypocrisy and other unsavoury aspects underlying one of the world’s biggest counter-cultural gatherings.
Paton’s own performance, both as herself and as the interviewees, has a driving force that takes no breaks until the end. There’s scarcely a pause for breath at any point, except when actually part of the story. Transitions between ‘characters’ and talking points are clean and smooth, and Paton’s physicality and vocal texture when embodying the subjects of her interviews deftly captures the essence of these people. Certain interviewees’ words are staggered throughout the show, but every time we return to an interviewee we’ve heard from before, Paton’s slick transitions and consistent physical/vocal choices leave no doubt in the audience’s mind as to who it is we’re hearing from now.
The design elements behind this show work wonderfully with its subject matter and overall tone. Paton’s costume, clearly based on Le Petit Prince, echoes a talking point from early on, where she notes that the act of being in the desert and wandering from one interesting thing to the next applies equally to both the book and the festival. The set, with its dirty white canvas on the floor sloping up to a representation of the horizon of the salt flat that Black Rock City is built on, also navigates this duality – it’s a desert, it could be the moon, but it is certainly a place marked by absence, much like the slat flat. At the very beginning of the show Paton kicks over the stand holding up the horizon – intentional or not, this works excellently with the ultimate, slightly ambivalent message. Lastly, the sound design’s pulsing beats set the tone for both exciting exploration but also the nausea that literally overtakes Paton at one point in the narrative.
The overall tone of Burnt is marked by a refreshing lack of judgement – to be sure Paton hardly shies away from the negative aspects of Burning Man, from the lack of racial diversity to the smattering of rape culture that still manages to pervade this ‘utopian’ society and more, but this is intertwined with philosophical reflection on why Burning Man remains appealing despite these underlying issues. This neutrality, which likely stems from the verbatim origins of Burnt, is occasionally used for humorous ends – when explaining the money-free economy and the concept of ‘gifts’, Paton enthusiastically hands out meaningless garbage, as happens often in Black Rock City – but also allows for objective audience judgement. There may be more negative content than encouraging, but Paton never shows disrespect (somewhere, Brecht is smiling).
Besides being a well-constructed piece of theatre, Burnt is also something of a success story for the development opportunities afforded to new projects by smaller theatre festivals in Ottawa. The initial iteration of Burnt, Burnt Out, debuted at the Fresh Meat Fest and, later on in its development, was part of the New Play Tuesday readings at last year’s undercurrents. I would leave it to Paton herself to assess the correlation/causation relationship between these festival experiences and the overall quality of Burnt; even so I interpret this a sign that festivals that take an interest in developing new work, paired with artists who are willing to continue developing and presenting a project to fruition, are exactly what Ottawa theatre needs to put itself on the map.
Created and Performed by Norah Paton
Dramaturgy by Emily Pearlman and Brad Long
Sound Design by AL Connors
Lighting Design by Sarah Mansikka
Set and Costumes by Dominique Coughlin
Stage Managed by Michaela Steven
Running Time: 55 minutes
At Arts Court Theatre
Saturday 11 February 9:00pm
Friday 17 February 7:00 pm
Saturday 18 February 3:00 pm