Monday, January 31, 2011

PuSh Review #10: PodPlays-The Quartet

Yesterday the sky was cloudless, the air crisp, and my time mostly disposable. In other words, it was the perfect occasion for a brisk afternoon walk of the city--which is exactly what I did courtesy of the PuSh Festival's PodPlays, a quartet of outdoor audio dramas commissioned by Neworld Theatre and the Playwrights Theatre Centre that leads participants on a surprising and intimate guided tour of Vancouver's downtown core.

The tour begins in the Cordova Street atrium at SFU Woodward's, where efficient Neworld staff equip one with a portable media player, a set of headphones, and a map. Then all you do is hit the play button and await direction. A warm, pleasant female voice (that of Yumi Ogawa, our guide and host) instructs you to climb to the top of the spiral staircase adjacent the Nester's store (something I'd yet to do since the reopening of the Woodward's complex) and face the eastern brick wall. This is the departure point for the first play, Look Up, written by Neworld's Adrienne Wong, and performed by Wong and Todd Thomson. As you are guided through a pedestrian overpass, a carpark, and eventually east on Water and Alexander Streets, you learn of a couple's move to Vancouver and their evolving relationship with the city, and with each other.

At the old Alexander Street Pump Station you begin the second leg of your tour: Five Meditations on the Future City, written by Proximity Arts' Christine Stoddard and Tanya Marquart, and narrated by Karin Konoval, leads you to Main Street, over the bridge at the north end of it, and through CRAB Park. Looking at the train tracks below the bridge, or across Burrard Inlet to the North Shore mountains, or at the memorial marker in the park to the murdered and missing women of the Downtown Eastside, you are invited to contemplate all that a future-oriented urban temporality necessarily overwrites.

Through a parking lot for cruise ship passengers you arrive at Waterfront Road, and the start of the third play. Portside Walk is written and performed by battery opera's David McIntosh, and it takes you west, towards Canada Place and the new Vancouver Convention Centre. But at the same time as the text directs you to look at the flying buttresses of these monuments to the city's global cosmopolitan progress it also insistently digs deeper, to the buried roots and the much-trafficked routes of that progress, a scenario of transnational contact, conquest, and migration that we continue to replay to this day--not least in terms of those unseen underclasses who service our taken-for-granted urban mega-projects and amenities. To this end, it's a singular achievement of this third--and, I think, strongest--link in the quartet that we actually traverse the service road underneath the new convention centre. A carpark elevator eventually takes you to the more salubrious outdoor plaza of the centre, complete with the cauldron from the recent Olympic Winter Games.

Cross Cordova and Hastings, and then up Burrard: you're off on the final leg of the tour. G...Cordova, written by Martin Kinch, and performed by Patrick Keating and the wonderful Gina Stockdale (whose dulcet tones I absolutely loved having in my ear) concerns a son and his aging, Alzheimerish mother. In this piece, which eventually deposits you at the Vancouver Art Gallery, lapses in individual memory get inscribed onto the built environment, becoming a metaphor for a collective urban amnesia that of course haunts all four plays.

Cities are built spaces, to be sure, but they are first and foremost embodied spaces. As Michel de Certeau has famously argued, walking is "an elementary form" of experiencing the city, a tactical procedure which produces new maps that don't always correspond with the official criss-crossings of streets you find in guidebooks or A-Zs, maps which are anyway out of proportion in terms of scale, and which (as per the very alphabetical designation of A-Z) are all about shepherding folks (usually tourists) to a destination rather than exploring a location. De Certeau notes that we are not always able to read the maps we write with our bodies, but in the very fleeting moments of passing and being passed by we nevertheless open up cracks in the pavement, steal time, and breathe life into possible new intersections.

PodPlays will remind you of this, and so much more. It continues next Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, with departures leaving every 5 minutes between 12 and 4 pm.


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