Last December local media reported the story of "Madame Butterfly," a homeless resident of the Downtown Eastside who every evening would erect an elaborate structure of nested cardboard boxes underneath an old wooden bus shelter on Gore Street, inside of which she would bed down for the night, protected from the elements. When the bus shelter was removed suddenly, folks in the area familiar with her daily routine worried about her whereabouts, concerned that she had been displaced from what was in effect her home. It is this paradoxical disjuncture between being homeless--in the strict sense of not being permanently domiciled at a fixed address--and resourcefully and purposefully building a home for oneself every evening out of found materials that, in the eyes of theatre artist Megan Stewart, would qualify Madame Butterfly as an "unlikely architect."
Stewart has created and directed The Builders, on at SFU Woodward's through this evening, as part of her MFA graduating project in the School for the Contemporary Arts. As much a work of installation art as an exercise in immersive theatre, the piece emerges out of research conducted by Stewart (who has an extensive background in site-specific performance) on "outsider artists," individuals who for a variety of different reasons feel compelled to transform the quotidian spaces they occupy, creating new environments out of a total fusion--as in the case of Madame Butterfly--of body, materials, and structure. Often we don't recognize the profound effect such transformations have had on our own experience of the world around us until--as, again, in the case of Madame Butterfly--they are gone.
In conducting her research on this phenomenon, Stewart has been aided by the ensemble of builders she has assembled for her project. Having been lead in successive waves via the staff elevators to the basement fine art studios of Woodward's (behind the Wong Theatre, and a place in the building I'd never visited before), audience members encounter what looks like three independent contractors in the midst of Sisyphean labours. Robert Azevedo sits amidst a pile of dried leaves weaving twigs into different spherical shapes. Eveleen Kozak is tending an overgrown--and still growing!--garden of plastic bottles and bags. Gordon Havelaar goes back and forth between smoothing out pathways of tinfoil on the floor and threading what looks like electrical wire from one side of a box-like metal structure to the other. Totally absorbed in their tasks, the builders tolerate our ambulatory transgressions of their spaces, beautifully lit by Jaylene Pratt, and also enhanced by the atmospheric live guitar of David Cowling. Though this is by no means participatory theatre, we are occasionally conscripted to help one of the builders, as when Kozak asked me to keep an eye on a large container of bottle caps. They are less tolerant of each other's boundary crossings. While the "Rules of the Game," as posted rather discreetly on a concrete pillar, clearly state that the builders are allowed to move some of their materials into the environments of their neighbours, the same rules also state that such breaches are simultaneously subject to repulsion and/or elimination. I saw this most clearly in the interactions between Azevedo and Kozak. The leaves that--whether accidentally or more than once by design--ended up among the flowers of Kozak's garden were just as quickly swept back on the other side of the border of upturned red plastic cups that had been meticulously erected to delineate one space from the other. In all of this, what at first glance might look like meaningless toil, an industriousness that belies the drudgery underneath it, is actually the opposite of Marxist alienation. Far from being estranged from themselves and their environments as a result of a class-based society that commodifies labour, these builders are completely at one with the detritus they are recycling and the new worlds they are creating out of it.
This I took to be the allegory embedded in the "sideshow attraction" that takes place adjacent to, but also somewhat at a remove from, the three other "mainstage" environments I have so far described. In it Keely O'Brien uses the sink and cupboard area near the studio entrance, as well as an upper overhang accessed by a short flight of stairs, to enact her own transformation from a very alienated tailor into a banjo-playing "rhinestone cowboy" (I couldn't help thinking about Toronto writer Derek McCormack's Western Suit and The Haunted Hillbilly, but I doubt those references were deliberate). In part I saw this as Stewart's site-specific training kicking in--that is, wanting to respond in a meaningful way to every aspect of the architectural space she was given to work with. At the same time, O'Brien, like her fellow builders, is working with her own found materials (sparkles, twinkly lights, CDs repurposed as mini hanging disco balls) to create the environment that will enable her to become the cowboy she always needed to be. The song she eventually sings when this transformation is complete is prefaced by the story of her granddaddy, who taught her how to play the banjo, despite only having one arm and also having lost a leg to a threshing accident; like the snippets of conversation we also occasionally get from Azevedo and Kozak about loved ones surviving adversity, O'Brien's story is about the body becoming one with its environment, the banjo in this case literally an extension of her granddaddy's body--as, indeed, it now becomes of her own. That this is the moment when the three other builders also become indistinguishable from their own forged (and foraged) habitats--Azevedo having encased himself in his twig coverings, Havelaar creating a spark of light from inside a globe-like relay of tinfoil, and Kozak purchased on a pile of milk crates, seeming to hang, suspended, within her own hanging garden--thus feels inevitable, but also singularly instructive.
For it not only challenges our own mostly disembodied and deeply functional/instrumental relationships with the built environment, but also with our attachment--especially in a setting like Vancouver--to space as a product whose exchange value is completely alienated from its use value. As Madame Butterfly showed with the nightly construction of her cardboard home, building is a process. Assembly perforce implies disassembly. Which is why, in The Builders, having become one with their environments, our contractors are far from finished. As with a loving home renovation (as opposed to expedient house flipping), you just start all over again. Same process, different room.