Saturday, September 26, 2015

Landline: Vancouver to Kitchener

Earlier today I took part in Boca del Lupo's latest Micro Performance Series presentation. The show was Landline: Vancouver to Kitchener, the most recent iteration of Adrienne Wong and Dustin Harvey's trans-geographical, site-based, audio-guided, participatory and smart-phone-assisted performance piece. To explain the ethos of the show by way of its development:

In 2010-11 Harvey and Wong were living and making theatre on opposite ends of the country (he in Halifax, as part of Secret Theatre, she in Vancouver as part of Neworld Theatre). Both had begun experimenting with the creation of intimate, site-based audio plays using mp3 players, arming audiences of one and two with mini-iPods and headphones, and sending them off into their respective cities to reencounter familiar and not so familiar landscapes as one might look anew at a landscape painting in a gallery with the aid of a recorded docent's voice describing the drama behind its creation. The results were Harvey's The Common Project and Wong's Look Up, the latter part of the PodPlays series that played the 2011 PuSh Festival, and which I wrote about here. Discovering their shared interest in this kind of performance-making, Harvey and Wong began discussing a cross-Canada collaboration that would, in effect, enable audiences to immerse themselves in two different locations simultaneously, using real time text-messaging to collapse the spatial distance between paired participants.

Out of these discussions came Landline, which was first live-tested between Vancouver and Halifax in 2013, and which has since hooked up citizens in Ottawa (where Wong now lives) and Dartmouth, and, just last month as part of the Edinburgh Festival, folks in that Scottish city with those living in Reykjavik. The script for Landline was also published in the Summer 2014 edition of Canadian Theatre Review (where, coincidentally, Wong has a separate article coming out next month in an issue I co-edited on art and performance in Vancouver after 2010). For Landline's return visit to Vancouver, Harvey and Wong have paired local participants up with audience members in Kitchener-Waterloo, currently playing host to the Impact Festival. Our first connection with our partners is made soon after checking in with intern Ming Hudson at Boca's Anderson Street Space. Neworld's Chelsea Haberlin confirms our cell phone numbers and then instructs us to wait for a text message reading "Stand by." Once received, we are told to reply with "Standing by," and then to take a seat and await further instructions from Wong. Along with double-sided maps of Granville Island and Kitchener's downtown core, we are each given a mini-iPod connected to a pair of headphones. At the signal given by Wong, we press play and then are off to wander on our own over the next hour.

The text we hear, as seductively voiced by Wong, mixes a story that unfolds as a series of autobiographical confessions with field recordings and facts relating to the respective locales of Vancouver and Kitchener, and successive temporal, kinaesthetic and dramaturgical prompts designed to cue scenes that we will construct with our partners in Kitchener via a series of exchanged text messages. In the first of these scenes we are asked to introduce ourselves to each other. "Give yourself a name, and describe yourself" are the instructions we hear via the audio. I took this as license to invent an identity, so I told my invisible interlocutor in Kitchener that my name was Laslo and that I was tall and very handsome and spoke with a middle European accent. He texted back that his name was Walt, that he was short with long hair, and that he liked to longboard and cook. You so cannot make up a combination like that and I immediately wanted to take back my little lie as I feared I'd betrayed our experiment in virtual intimacy even before it had really begun. (In the sequence immediately preceding our official introductions we are asked to find a place to sit down and to begin waving; we are allowed to text to see if our partners are also waving, but if we trust that they are, then no text is needed. Needless to say, neither Walt nor I texted each other.)

I tried to make up for things in the next scene exchanges by trying to find the right mix of honesty and poeticism in my texts--which is easier said than done when one is trying to text quickly with clumsy thumbs in the full-on glare of the sun (curses to those backlit Apple iPhone screens!). Still, I think I did achieve something akin to SMS lyricism in my description of standing behind the Granville Island Hotel looking at the wavy Erickson condo building across False Creek, flanked by two bridges and with a boat docked below named "See You Later" perfectly encapsulating the themes of distance and change that Walt and I were meant to be ruminating on. This, incidentally, also speaks to how much I am assuming the particular urban location one is wandering about affects Landline's co-authored text-message exchanges (not to mention the individual experience of the narrated confessions). That is, I was quite conscious of the difference between the physical landmarks Walt was describing to me (an all-ages nightclub, a park with a fountain and a clocktower) and those I was describing for him (boats floating on sun-dappled water as viewed from boardwalk, shops filled with an assortment of arts and crafts). I always feel like a tourist in my own city when I go to Granville Island, and this no doubt seeped into some of the picture postcard sentiments I was texting to Walt--including in answer to the specific question he was allowed to ask me, which was "What's it like living in Vancouver?" I talked about the rain and how expensive it is and the social inequity, but I ended by saying it was beautiful. (Incidentally, my question to Walt was about how he planned to vote in the federal election. I won't betray his confidence by revealing his answer here, except to say that it's not going to be Conservative!) I can imagine that had I been walking around the Downtown Eastside, or even Yaletown (near the since-closed Subeez Restaurant on Homer Street, from whence the first Vancouver iteration of Landline departed), my answer might have been different.

That is, of course, part of the unique alchemy of estrangement and familiarity embedded in such a performance: that our experience is shaped not just by our texts with a stranger in another city, but also by the process of making strange--paradoxically in order to make it more tangible and accessible for an other--a place we already thought we knew. It's perhaps fitting, then, that in texting what he would remember most about our conversation, Walt said it was my name: Laslo.


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