I’m not going to be reviewing Norah Paton’s show Burnt in the traditional sense. Instead, what I want to talk about is the concept of “the magic of theatre”. People often bring up this phrase when they’ve witnessed some incredibly unique event during a live performance that was either completely accidental or coincidental. It’s the hyper-awareness of watching real people on stage where there is always the risk of something happening that is out of the control of anyone in the production team. It’s an event that can only happen on stage simply because of the ‘liveness’ of the event and it simply can’t ever be replicated (at least not in a genuine sense). Most people might only experience one or two of these events in their theatre going careers, but one thing is for sure: they often become the most unforgettable of theatre experiences.
A good and recent example of this would be the lucky audience that was witness to the outrageously serendipitous performance of Inescapable at the Ottawa Fringe (performed by Martin Dockery and Jon Paterson) where at the very climax of the piece the Arts Court fire alarm went off at (what I heard was) the exact moment Dockery pushes the dreaded button. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like to be a spectator in that audience where you’ve been watching these two actors debate over the consequences of pushing this button for the last hour only to have these consequences seemingly manifest in real life. People still talk about this particular performance with a sort of reverence almost like they experienced ‘The Twilight Zone’ first hand. And the actors can never recreate that moment, for, I imagine, that half the satisfaction was probably seeing the genuine surprise in the eyes of the performers.
Paton’s Burnt opened to a relatively humble crowd on Thursday night, but those of us that were in the audience witnessed one of those very rare and special events and it inadvertently became a giant beautiful metaphor for the play itself. You can read more in detail about the physical production, but thematically Paton is trying to challenge the way individuals both curate and consume cultural and spiritual experiences, specifically through interviews with individuals who attended Burning Man over the last 3 years (an event which has become synonymous with sensory overload and radical self-expression). Sitting comfortably behind the Fourth Wall can be great and all, but sometimes the best moments are those that unexpectedly break that wall down.
So, to describe a the situation in a little more detail, like most plays before Paton enters the space the audience is left to contemplate the stage and take in the illusion of the desert whereby we start suspending our disbelief. The use of fog to represent the dusty clouds of Black Rock Desert; the sandy cloth that takes up the entire downstage area and leads upstage slightly to culminate into a small sand dune, as it were. The set (designed by Dominique Coughlin) is minimal but nevertheless doubles as a canvas for Sarah Mansikka’s fantastic lighting design.
This sand dune is precisely what Paton kicks over as she first strides purposefully onto the stage, revealing what looked to be a floor lamp behind it. While it didn’t feel that significant at the time that it happened- Paton played it off with humour like a pro- it’s not until much later in the piece that I realized how fitting this accidental imagery, this ‘revealing of the artifice’, actually was. The idea that Paton has somehow revealed the “falseness” of the theatrical illusion coincides directly with the revelations made in the play about the hypocrisy of Burning Man attendees and, ultimately, the “falseness” of some of the governing principles of this festival/community.
It further reflects the artifice in our own lives: the lengths we go through to create the right ‘illusion’ for our personal audiences on social media and even what happens when we’re faced with our own artifices being revealed. It just felt like such an amazing gem to be mined out of this show, especially considering something like this could spell complete disaster for another show. Like, could you imagine if performer Michael Hanrahan did the same thing upon making his entrance in Un-Countried* (extreme example, I know, but the sentiment remains)?
That’s the magic of theatre, my friends.
Burnt has three more performances at undercurrents Theatre Festival, playing until February 18th. Show times and ticket info can be found here.
(*let the record show that the author of this article has knocked on an object of wooden construction to ward off any potential bad luck theatre spirits.)