Picture this. Four friends, a little drunk on Howe Island, sanitizing their hands to toss copies of new Canadian scripts over a bonfire. They haven’t seen each other in nearly six months. This sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.
These new Canadian scripts are a part of Plays2Perform@Home, created by BC-based Boca del Lupo as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the social distancing recommendations that followed. Sold as a scripted “boutique box set,” P2P@H features four new works by Canadian playwrights, divided into separate books by character, and mailed directly to your house. The plays are intended to be “performed around the dinner table, picnic blanket or campfire this summer.” They ask “the audience to take a leading role in creating a piece of theatre with the close friends and family they have chosen to be a part of their “bubble.””
In the introduction to the printed scripts, Boca del Lupo Artistic Director Sherry Yoon and Artistic Producer Jay Dodge say they commissioned P2P@H to endorse the notion that “theatre is live, theatre is communion, theatre is something to be experienced together, in the flesh.” Although I resent the underlying assumption that digital arts can’t achieve ephemeral liveness and that P2P@H is, as playwright Leanne Brodie says, “an exciting counterpoint to the drive to take the performing arts online,” I appreciate that the concept and the results that follow are brilliant. With the forced six-month intermission from live performance, this boxset is exciting for theatre people and more than minimally tolerable for their bubble-mates who have been dragged into the exercise. (In one of the plays, a character description reads, “the person who least wants to read should read Symm.”)
Beyond the response to the pandemic in its performance form, P2P@H addressed the current context directly in its content. Each one of the three plays we read, Tara Beagan’s Super, Karen Hines’ Where does that blue come from? That robin’s egg blue?, and Hiro Kanagawa’s Negotiations, navigated the pandemic differently.
Tara Beagan’s Super had the players read for three supermodels stranded on a private jet, grounded because of capacity issues at the airport terminal. This was the lightest of the collection, playing with Indigenous Futurism and reframing the inequities of COVID-19 experiences by laughing at the spoiled rotten and rich. Karen Hines’ Where does that blue come from? That robin’s egg blue? peered into the cottage living room of a family dealing with the erratic behaviour of a sleepwalking child. This play says “pandemic” through the quiet reflection on what a resting space can mean for a family. When the family is tasked with writing a letter to the patriarch, lobbying to keep a cottage in the family, the play invites players to look at our surroundings with detail and intention. Whether it is actually a family cottage or a one bedroom apartment or a bonfire, many of us are intimately familiar with our homes and sheltering places. On the night we read this piece on Howe Island, the environmental references and natural setting of this piece especially resonated with our reading around the campfire. When the sleepwalking child Avery looked out the window and says, “I love it here” (I played her), the campfire players were quiet for a moment to listen to the cicadas and look at the moonlight on the meadow.
Hiro Kanagawa’s Negotiations asked players to participate in a formal exercise that kept very true to the realities of the pandemic. By playing characters that may or may not be themselves, readers are to negotiate taking their masks off, then to get a bit closer, and eventually to touch. This was definitely the most participatory of the set, inviting readers to fully put the script down and actually negotiate these boundaries. The similarities to everyday negotiations were poignant.
Besides the pandemic realities, this collection facilitated “upsurges of the real” through the space it provided readers to be themselves. We were only asked to participate in ways we felt comfortable. We were handed these four plays and were invited to embody them however we wanted and wherever we were. You could tell both in content and form they were directly responding to realities felt right here, right now. In her introduction to Jovanni Sy’s Pappadum, playwright Leanne Brodie says “think of this text as a little artistic sourdough starter… a gift from our bubble to yours.”
In this research project, Jenn and I argue that the works we are interested in are “co-created” by artists and the participatory audiences they invite into the fold. Sometimes, when I explain the project to people I tell them that these participatory pieces wouldn’t exist at all without the creative input of their audiences. Although in the book, Jenn and I argue that this is always the case anyway, the remarkable thing that happens in P2P@H is that the work has been emancipated from the team of artists to be inhabited more-or-less autonomously by the audience participants. It’s given to us like a gift. A little play (in both senses of the world) for us, handed right to us. Besides the playwright as artist providing the blueprint or the recipe (the script), the other artists we recognize as part of play-making (the directors, the actors, the designers) artists are not involved in the active co-creation of meaning here. Besides the play itself, the character descriptions, and the stage directions, participants are on their own, creating an entirely new relationship between artist and audience participants and a potential restructuring of the roles involved. It reminds me a bit of the ‘self-checkouts’ that have appeared at the grocery store. The role of cashier has been repurposed, but the store still can’t stock itself.
So - if the actors and set designers and directors aren’t involved in the co-creation of meaning, who’s doing that work instead?
Us. Why? In the same way that each piece touched on the pandemic in content and form as a microcosm, the whole exercise tailor made for our needs, right now. What do we need? Physical Togetherness. Easy, unprecious, physically present togetherness. Like Michael Wheeler posed on twitter, it isn't liveness that we're missing, it's something else.
P2P@H as an exercise needn’t be seen as a substitute for theatre, it is theatre specific to this moment. It makes space for a kind of embodied kinship that some traditional theatre doesn’t always allow for. I think felt more “gathered” in this group of four around a fire than I would in a room with a bunch of folks sitting, quiet, in the dark. In this case, the participatory turn feels like a hand extended to me in this moment. If we participate in this exercise, P2P@H promises a physically present togetherness fix that isn’t possible in a pandemic.
It also needn’t be seen as a substitute for digital theatre because they’re achieving different means. While both P2P@H and digital theatre can be live, P2P@H offers us good old fashioned physically present togetherness and gathering.