Saturday, January 22, 2011

PuSh Review #3: 100% Vancouver at SFU Woodward's

Last night was the premiere of 100% Vancouver at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU Woodward's. Developed by the Berlin-based Rimini Protokoll, who brought PuSh audiences last year's Best Before, the show is a locally produced (in this case by Theatre Replacement, in conjunction with PuSh and SFU Woodward's Cultural Programming Office) version of similar performances previously staged in Berlin and Vienna. Using Rimini's trademark theatrical protocol of having "everyday experts" (i.e. non-professional actors) reflect back to audiences a version of the communities from which they come, 100% Vancouver gathers on stage 100 Vancouverites who each represent 1% of the city's total population, and who have been selected according to the following demographic criteria, as gleaned from most recent (2006) census data: gender, age, marital status, ethnicity/mother tongue, and neighbourhood. As Tim Carlson, dramaturge for the piece, notes in an essay included in the publication booklet accompanying the production (wonderfully produced by local arts press Fillip, together with a boxed set of cards of each of the performers), whereas in Best Before's video-game format audience members were invited to create--via their on-screen avatars--virtual versions of themselves, in 100% Vancouver "flesh-and-bone citizens" literally stand in for the abstract virtuality of numerical statistics.

Theoretically this process of statistical embodiment is supposed to unfold as a daisy chain of once-removed relationships, as each individual selected is in turn responsible for finding someone whom they know who matches the requisite demographic profile of the next link in the chain, and so on. However, as expert number 1 of 100, statistics librarian Patti Wotherspoon, tells us at the top of the show, in the case of 100% Vancouver, the producers had to step in on several occasions to shore up gaps in the chain by calling on their own acquaintances and by putting out an open call for participants matching the statistical data they hadn't yet humanized in a participating expert. And even with these measures, Wotherspoon also let us know that three neighbourhoods--including, most interestingly, Shaughnessy--failed to be represented on stage.

Given her own professional expertise, Wotherspoon also had something to say about the creative use and interpretation of statistics, as well as the politics of the Canadian long-form census, the last iteration of which (in 2006) was the starting point for this show, and whose 2011 application will be its last thanks to the Conservative Party's own misuse and misinterpretation of public opinion. One of the questions asked of the participants in 100% Vancouver is in fact how many of them support the long form census; the overwhelming majority respond in the affirmative. And expert number 69, Patricia Morris, offers a compelling account at one point in the show of administering the 2006 census door-to-door in her neighbourhood of the Downtown Eastside, visiting SROs and asking the occupants--often while parties were in full swing--whether they had every used farm machinery.

One would think that all of this would make for some pretty lifeless theatre, but from the opening roll-call of names and special objects as each expert/participant paraded out onto the circular stage and paused before one of two microphones to identify themselves and something that defines them, I was hooked. Based on video interviews with each participant, Carlson and director Amiel Gladstone have put together a portrait of the city that at once spotlights individual stories through oral testimony (number 86, Joan Symons, who moved to Vancouver to escape memories of her first husband, who died in WW II, only to lose her eight-year old daughter a few years later, and who subsequently became a real estate agent and now has 22 grandchildren; or number 70, Minh Thai Nguyen, who came to Vancouver from Vietnam only five months ago to provide better educational opportunities for his children, and who was hilarious on the social similarities between Vietnamese and Canadians) and creates striking visual tableaux. Indeed, the massings of bodies into ME and NOT ME categories in response to a series of questions ("Were you born in Canada?" "Do you recycle?" "Do you smoke pot?" "Have you been in prison?" "Do you know someone First Nations?" "Are you happy?," etc) offers a revealing profile of Vancouver, as George Pendle suggests in his essay in the accompanying publication, "not just demographichally, but temperamentally and morally as well."

I have lived in Vancouver 20 years now, just under half of my life, and way longer than anywhere else. I like to think I know something of the city, its neighbourhoods, and the residents of those neighbourhoods; this show confirms that I do at the same time that it points to how much more there is for me to discover.

100% Vancouver is a major gift to our city, and you have just two more opportunities to catch it. Today's 4 pm matinee is technically sold out, although there may be rush tickets at the door. And there are still tickets to this evening's performance at 7 pm. I urge you to attend if you can.


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