CW: colonial violence
As thousands of unmarked graves of children who were held captive at Canada’s residential schools were unearthed in July 2021, Dr. Alan Lagimodiere, the new Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Relations minister in Manitoba spoke publicly for the first time. In this speech, Lagimodiere says, “the residential school system was designed to teach Indigenous children the skills and abilities they would need to fit into society as it moved forward.” At the time, many white settlers in so-called Canada were finally unlearning this dangerous lie, grappling instead with the truth that this state-sponsored educational institution had explicit goals to “kill the Indian in the child.” Wab Kinew, the leader of Manitoba’s NDP, interrupted Lagimodiere, approaching the podium saying, “I am an honourary witness to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I listened to stories of the survivors and I cannot accept you saying what you just said about residential schools.” More than listening to testimony, being an official Honorary Witness to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) comes with an active commitment to tell the truth about colonial violence in so-called Canada. “Witnesses were asked to retain and care for the history they witness and, most importantly, to share it with their people when they return home.”  Notably, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation asserts witnesses must commit to participating in a future where the genocide of Indigenous children is not forgotten or misunderstood. Kinew’s active interruption and correction of Lagimodiere’s narrative illustrates this commitment to participation that includes the destruction of false narratives.
While Kinew’s intervention did not occur in an explicitly theatrical context, it serves to illustrate the participatory capacity of performing witnessing as an act that changes both the participant and the world. Historically, some theatre theorists have articulated both the potential and outcome of this act of bearing witness as an activist element of being a spectator. Sometimes this activism is framed in moral or educative terms. In the introduction to his 18th century play The Robbers, German theorist Friedrich Schiller articulates the power of bearing witness as a preparatory practice for avoiding vice. Schiller says, “if I would warn mankind against the tiger, I must not omit to describe his glossy beautifully marked skin, lest owing to this omission, the ferocious animal should not be recognized until too late.”  For Schiller, theatre provides the space for audiences to safely bear witness to a metaphorical tiger, so that they will be ready for the dangers of immorality they will meet in real life. For Kinew, Schiller’s tiger is the testimony he heard. Where Schiller only expects action in the outcome when he shows his audience the “tiger,” witnessing as a dramaturgy of participatory theatre encourages action from the moment you first meet the testimony or the tiger. As a witness to the TRC, Kinew heard testimony with the intention that he is prepared to fight for (in Schiller’s case, against) what he heard. So, how exactly can this witnessing act be theorized as an active invitation into the future?
Indigenous writer Samatha Nock unpacks the subtle differences between listening and witnessing. Nock insists that “too often we think that the act of listening is equal to the act of witnessing.”  She describes listening as a passive endeavour. By contrast, she says that when we “witness a story we are not only present physically, but emotionally and spiritually, to hold this story in our hearts.” When we witness a story, “that story becomes a part of us,” and “you have entered a very specific and powerful relationship that exists between the storyteller and the witness.”  Witnessing is an active and ongoing invitation to participate in relation, it’s a contract between the witnessed and the witness, signed by the act of hearing testimony.
For our colleague Julie Salverson, a scholar of witnessing, “to be a witness, I must find the resources to respond. It isn't only passing on a story that matters; I must let the story change me. This makes me vulnerable in the face of another's vulnerability. I participate in a relationship. But to be present in a relationship, I must have a self to offer. Tricky territory. Who, right now, has the nerve to reveal themselves?”  Salverson also asserts that “courageous happiness”  is a resource to activate witnessing. Where Nock names the agreement as “relational,” Salverson says that “witnessing is a transaction that is personal, social and structural.” 
Salverson cites the work of Roger Simon and Claudia Eppert who claim that witnessing “demands (but does not secure) acknowledgement, remembrance and consequence. Each aspect presents different obligations.” These three moments of witnessing: acknowledgement, remembrance, and consequence are a map of activity from which participatory witnessing is charted. Acknowledgement is the awareness and confirmation of what is being witnessed. Remembrance “commits a person as an apprentice to testimony.”  As an apprentice to testimony, the witness agrees to be employed by testimony; an apprentice signs a contract as a novice committed to work. Remembrance marks the changing of the witness. The third term, “consequence,” is about obligation, about what we do with the knowledge we perhaps wish we did not have.”  Consequence marks the changing of the world. This is what Kinew does when he steps forward to speak.
Trophy, a work of solo storytelling, created by Sarah Conn and Allison O’Connor, materializes this three-part path of witnessing as theorized by Nock, Salverson, Simon and Eppert and exemplified by Kinew’s interruption. Marketed as “an episodic performance and living installation built around stories of transformation,”  audiences of Trophy are invited to roam through a “pop-up Tent City” of simple white tents. Each tent features the live recitation of an autobiographical story from a person in the community who experienced great change. After audience members listen to the stories of transformation, they are invited to write their own stories of change on coloured pieces of paper and attach them to the tent. “How the installation evolves is determined by the public’s interactions with it,”  Conn and O’Connor say. This visible and participatory manifestation of witnessing, I hear your story and it changes me (and the tent!) means that “the experience of Trophy becomes an expression of all participants’ stories, and a compelling exploration and conversation about how we all experience change.” 
Witnessing is a core participatory dramaturgy. Bearing witness is a participatory dramaturgy that signs a deal to continue to participate beyond the show. Witnesses are not participants in “spectacle or escape, or passive avoidance, it is the deadly game of living with loss, living despite the humiliation of trying endlessly, living despite failure.” 
 “The NCTR Supports Honorary Witness and invites Minister for further Education,” The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. July 16 2021. https://nctr.ca/the-nctr-supports-honorary-witness-and-invites-minister-for-further-education/
 Schiller, Friedrich. The Works of Friedrich Schiller: Early Dramas and Romances...translated from the German. George Bell & Sons, 1881, p xiii.
 Nock, Samantha. “Being a witness: The importance of protecting Indigenous women's stories,” Rabble. September 5 2014 https://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/samantha-nock/2014/09/being-witness-importance-protecting-indigenous-womens-stories
 Nock, “Being a witness.”
 Salverson, Julie and Bill Penner. “Loopings of Love and Rage: Sitting in the Trouble,” Canadian Theatre Review 181, (Winter 2020): 37. doi:10.3138/ctr.181.006.
 Salverson, Julie. “Taking liberties: a theatre class of foolish witnesses,” Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance, (June 2008): 246.
 Salverson, “Taking liberties,” 246.
 Salverson, “Taking liberties,” 247.
 Salverson, “Taking liberties,” 248.
 “About Trophy,” https://www.thisistrophy.com/about.
 “About Trophy,” https://www.thisistrophy.com/about.
 “About Trophy,” https://www.thisistrophy.com/about.
 Salverson, “Taking liberties,” 253.
Participation assumes an invitation. Something is happening someplace and audience-players are welcomed with an invitation into the territory of the magic circle of play. But what if we are not welcome? What if some are welcome participants but others are not? Normally, the value of universal access is invariably taken as given, and yet, there are some contexts where a closed door is not only a valid option, but is itself a powerful dramaturgical strategy that speaks in meaningful ways to the nature of an invitation and what or who authorizes that border crossing.
One specific example of being unwelcome manifests in David Garneau’s articulation of the necessity for what he calls “irreconcilable spaces of Aboriginality.”  These are “gatherings, ceremony, nehiyawak (Cree)-only discussions, kitchen-table conversations, email exchanges, et cetera, in which Blackfootness, Metisness, and so on, are performed without settler attendance. It is not a show for others.”  The unwelcome of these irreconcilable spaces first assert a private space, convenings---physical or virtual---that are closed to the gaze of outsiders. These are spaces of non-visibility that resist scopophilia. Second, Garneau says that beyond resistance to looking, these spaces also operate in resistance to resource extraction. There is a need to evade and resist colonial modes of engagement which are “characterized not only by scopophilia, a drive to look, but also by an urge to penetrate, to traverse, to know, to translate, to own and exploit. The attitude assumes that everything should be accessible to those with the means and will to access them; everything is ultimately comprehensible, a potential commodity, resource, or salvage.” 
[What does this mean for my own Western-trained academic praxis? Read, collect, quote, cite, analyse, apply, synthesize, extend to new contexts. This is what I do. I have become acutely aware that it is without doubt a deeply extractivist approach. I begin with the assumption that everything is available to be read, quoted, and repurposed. Looking at this page, quotation marks and parenthetical citation brackets now look to me like nothing so much as spoons for my hungry scholarship and the scoop-like jaws of a giant yellow bucket excavator. I feel ashamed of my familiar mode of operation, and at the same time am profoundly uncertain how to proceed. How to engage with knowledge from other sources with respect and reciprocity?]
Dylan Robinson in his book Hungry Listening takes the next logical step: “If Indigenous knowledge and culture is mined and extracted, then it would follow that another key intervention for disrupting the flow of extraction and consumption would be the blockade.  He then does exactly this and performs the exclusionary blockade surrounding an autonomous textual territory. On page 25 of the Introduction, he writes, “I ask you to affirm Indigenous sovereignty with the following injunction: If you are a non-Indigenous, settler, ally, or xwelitem reader, I ask that you stop reading at the end of this page. . . . The next section of the book, however, is written exclusively for Indigenous readers.”  He also provides an explicit invitation to rejoin the book later at the beginning of Chapter 1.
Among the modes of non-participation in participatory theatre, the strategy of the blockade, of being unwelcome, functions differently than other multilinear mappings that also close off possible paths. In a choose your own adventure experience, multiple paths are available to you, but standing at the juncture point you choose one over the others. You still remain ignorant; it is an experience that you will not have, but the key difference is that you had an open choice. And that awareness of the path not chosen, like the blockade, functions to create dramaturgical meaning. The form of the experience can be marshalled to speak. The path that is closed off not by choice but by the consequences of my action is also distinct from the blockade. In Love Without Late Fees, an escape room/theatre play by Outside The March, for example, if our group of audience-players ‘wins’ at our episodic task then the plot moves in one direction and the couple rent one movie, but if we fail at the task, they rent a different movie and the romance plot moves in a different direction. Again there is a path that is removed from our experience but the closing of that option is causal, tied directly to my actions; there are transparent consequences. In both cases, the closed path could have been traversed within the parameters of the game-play. Any of the paths would be equally viable under other circumstances without prejudice.
What did I do at Robinson’s injunction point? I stopped reading. My personal history is one that renders me unwelcome in this delimited space. I am the child of refugees. My parents arrived as children on Turtle Island to the city of Montreal by ship across the Atlantic in the years following World War II. All four of my grandparents were Holocaust survivors; their parents, most of their siblings, nieces and nephews having been murdered by the Nazis. Being stateless, Canada was a welcome haven. Clearly, I have no rights of welcome to asserted territory of Indigenous sovereignty, geographical or textual. However, my lifelong citizenship story is founded on the imaginary of being welcomed as a proud first-generation Canadian, and so it is a new thought for me to stop and think about who did that welcoming all those decades ago and what was their authority to do so? This is one of the effects of Robinson’s performed blockade.
What does it feel like to be locked out? Surprise, certainly. What? I’m blocked?! That first hard stop is followed by a tingling pull of curiosity and FOMO. What am I missing? No peeking. Really, no peeking. I feel like an outsider. This is of course the intention and I must admit that this is not a common feeling for me. I am pretty accustomed to being able to go where I want and feel welcome. I feel a bit bruised. Hmmph. Ultimately, my feeling is respect for the closed door; it is rude to go somewhere and force your way in when you are explicitly asked not to attend.
But, this is exactly what I have done in life. (Even if not me, myself, directly as an immigrant, at the minimum I am the mute beneficiary of my unwitting ancestors’ door crashing.) And so the performance in Hungry Listening of a participatory blockade not only opens consideration of my personal imbrication in colonization, and challenges me to figure out why I am unwelcome and what I can do in response, but on a general level engages the flip side of thinking about the invitation. Instead of focusing on how to make the transition to theatrical participation easy as Gareth White does,  by rendering that transition very difficult if not impossible as Robinson does, we now may be engaged with how and why the border crossing of participation sometimes should be hard.  Who are the rightful holders of sovereign authority inside the circle, and what are the appropriate credentials to enter?
 Garneau, David., “Imaginary Spaces of Conciliation and Reconciliation: Art, Curation and Healing.” Acts of Engagement: Taking Aesthetic Action In and Beyond the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Edited by Dylan Robinson and Keavy Martin. Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2016, 27.
 Garneau 27.
 Garneau 23.
 Robinson, Dylan. Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies. U of Minnesota P, 2020, p.23.
 Robinson 25.
 White, Gareth. Audience Participation in Theatre: The Aesthetics of the Invitation. Palgrave Macmillan 2013.
 To date, I have not yet encountered this kind of unwelcome of an audience in an actual theatrical performance; however there are some recent adjacent examples relating to theatre-making processes and also to theatre reviewing. In the rehearsal process for Encounters At The Edge of the Woods (Hart House Theatre, September 2019), director Jill Carter held some separate sessions for Indigenous and non-Indigenous cast members. Moyan, Trina. “Encounters at the Edge of the Woods: Answering Calls and Standing at the Edge of a Pandemic.” Canadian Theatre Review 184 (Fall 2020): 76-81. When Yolanda Bonnell’s play bug was presented by Theatre Passe Muraille in February 2020, Bonnell asked that the work be reviewed only by folks who are Indigenous, Black, or people of colour. One of Bonnell’s asserted reasons is “that bug is an artistic ceremony, which she says ‘does not align with colonial reviewing practices.’” Fricker, Karen. “Critics who aren’t Indigenous, Black or people of colour aren’t invited to ‘bug.’ Yolanda Bonnell explains why.” Toronto Star 10 February 2020. https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/stage/2020/02/10/critics-who-arent-indigenous-black-or-people-of-colour-arent-invited-to-bug-yolanda-bonnell-explains-why.html. Recollet, Karen and J. Kelly Nestruck. “A Cree professor and a white critic went to Yolanda Bonnell’s bug. Then, they discussed.” The Globe and Mail 16 February 2020. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/theatre-and-performance/article-a-cree-professor-and-a-white-critic-went-to-yolanda-bonnells-bug/ See also: Carter, Jill. “A Moment of Reckoning, an Activation of Refusal, a Project of Re-Worlding.” Canadian Theatre Review 186 (Spring 2021): 8-12. https://ctr.utpjournals.press/doi/full/10.3138/ctr.186.002; Carter, Jill. “My! What Big Teeth You Have!” On the Art of Being Seen and Not Eaten.” Canadian Theatre Review 182 (Spring 2020): 16-21.
Remixed, created by the artists behind Trophy , blends the materiality of receiving a gift in the mail with an app-based personal questionnaire. As “a listening party for one, performed together across time and space in a collective experience,” the artists invite interactive participation before, during, and extending beyond the scope of the time we share together at the show. The creators, Laurel Green, Sarah Conn and Allison O’Connor are experts in care, moving audiences softly through a personal playlist of stories and music while offering us tools to literally plant change and watch it grow. Nurturing change through emergent strategy is the name of the game in Remixed. Our small acts assemble the show but also re-assemble ourselves, sending us off into the world with a sense of our own potential.
And a seed.
When the show starts, I am invited to open a cardboard box that arrived by post a week prior. Inside the box, there is a small cardboard pot, a soil pellet, a beautiful hand crafted paper ball, and a circular piece of cream canvas mat with three painted circles on it, delineating where to place the other objects you were gifted. After placing the items on the cloth as instructed, I am then invited to fashion the cardboard box into an upright phone stand set for the performance. (Genius!) After “setting the stage” for myself, I answer a series of meaningful and personal questions. Through the interactive app, I select a graphic of a face or a visual of a heart beat to communicate how I’m feeling at the time of performance. The app asks questions about what things make me calm, the music I listened to as a kid, the music I listen to now, and my relationship to change. As I ponder my own intense relationship to systemic change in light of these questions, I meet the spinning wheel, showing me that something new is aggregating.
The app then spits out a custom playlist, specifically made for me. Featuring a collection of both music and personal monologues inspired by my answers to the preceding questionnaire, this playlist is to be listened to while I move through the other instructions from the show. The first song that preceded the monologues was totally on point with my assertion earlier that I definitely listened to early 2000s pop when I was younger; Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” blasts through my headphones. I felt seen, I felt heard, I want to dance along. The playlist was a gift, personally made for me, that put my lived experiences and memory in conversation with an emergent world beyond (See I LOVE YOU.). Listening to music from my youth while listening to stories about radical change from people I’ve never met put the personal in conversation with the political. My curated stories were mainly autobiographical stories of participation in systems change. I heard from a queer person who told the story of the first time they participated in a Pride parade. I heard from a Sri Lankan immigrant who runs programs to demystify the process of getting permanent residency in Canada. I heard from someone who runs cultural sensitivity training. I heard from an Indigenous woman who told the story of the healing ceremony that happens when a family member dies.
While I listen to this playlist of songs and stories, I am told to place the soil pellet in the pot and fill it up with water. I take apart the little paper ball to find it full of seeds. Then I plant the seed in the soil. I am left with the explicit instruction to continue to nurture the plant, to keep it alive. I am challenged to carry the stories of individual and systemic change I have heard with me beyond this moment, to actively encourage visible and emergent change through the now embodied metaphor of nurturing a little sprout. The key point here is that this gift stays with me. Jenn reminds me that we don’t usually get mementos like this in bourgeois theatre. My sprout grew on my windowsill for a month after the show.
Each of the stories in my personal playlist swirled around tiny individual intensely-local moments of change inside a bigger systemic movement. The stories lean into what adrienne maree brown calls emergent ways of thinking around the "the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.”  Remixed offered me not only autobiographical stories of small participation in big change and but also an invitation to try it out myself. This kind of emergence, specifically planting the seed, is a future-oriented phenomenon. The seed proves a perfect metaphor for the fact that small acts of nurturing and care do the real work to change the world by first changing my world. The website for Remixed cites Octavia Butler to remind us that “all that you touch you change, all that you change, changes you.” We hear the stories of change, they change us, we actively bring life to something green. Although the modest scale of Remixed prevents us from accessing fully emergent pattern-making, the artists echo Augusto Boal’s rallying cry that performance can act as “rehearsal for the revolution.”  Remixed is an example of training for phase change, or what Jenn calls “proto-emergence.” This is how we start with just one of those simple interactions brown describes. The first in a potentially rich network of such interactions. Through planting the seed, I was acting as a vehicle for change --from the storytellers, through my hands, into the dirt, up into the sun.
 Trophy is an award-winning interdisciplinary creative collective based in Ottawa that makes both performances and installations. Besides Remixed, they are known for their installation Trophy, a series of tents that house personal and autobiographical stories of change.
 adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy : Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Chico: AK Press, 2017, pg 2.
 Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed. Theatre Communications Group, 1985, pg 155.
Rebecca Draisey-Collishaw and Kip Pegley
It’s been more than a year since we heard news of the novel coronavirus, now ubiquitously recognized as Covid-19. And just over a year since much of the world found themselves with some version of a stay-at-home order. Since the beginning of 2021, the news has been full of anniversary reminders of the profound moments that have drastically altered the ways that we live and our capacities to interact. Indeed, it seems likely that one-year memorials will thematize our experiences in 2021. While many of our remembrances are woven with grief, anger, loss, and loneliness, with April 7 upon us it’s perhaps worth recalling the anniversary of a gaff-turned-sensation that brought laughter, inspired dialogue, and built community solidarity. In this blog post, we’ll explore how the DIY aesthetics and the figure of the prosumer (audiences that actively and interchangeably consume and produce content) muddy the waters between content creators and audiences and necessitate a revisioning of what it means to participate in the public life of a nation.
During the first 110 days of the Covid-19 pandemic in Canada, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau provided almost daily updates from the steps of his home (learn more about Trudeau’s almost-daily Covid-19 updates at https://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/110-days-81-addresses-to-the-nation-what-pm-trudeau-s-covid-19-messaging-reveals-1.5019550). On April 7, while describing measures each of us should take to hinder the spread of the virus, he uttered the now-infamous—and infinitely cringe-worthy—advice that we should avoid “speaking moistly” on each other.
Trudeau’s original announcement had a massive audience: CBC’s English language services, for example, reported an average reach of 4.4 million television viewers and 1.9 million radio listeners for the PM’s morning updates during this period of the pandemic. And those numbers only include people who tuned in via CBC; the actual audience more than doubles when other broadcasters and coverage in both official languages are considered (https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/grenier-pm-press-conferences-1.5587214). It was a verbal gaff with legs of its own that evoked laughter from audiences, comment from pundits, and elaboration by artists.
Indeed, one of those artists gave Trudeau’s utterance wings when he transformed the speech into a music video with danceable beats. On April 8, 2020, Brock Tyler (known by the username anonymotif) released his version of “Speaking Moistly” on YouTube. It was a runaway success that defied his expectations and went viral overnight. Tyler’s version of Trudeau’s speech takes the form of a “meme song,” a composition that involves creatively combining and remixing memorable video and audio, usually with the purpose of offering commentary on a person, moment, or concept. Meme songs exist and circulate exclusively via social media. Tyler's “Speaking Moistly” uses techniques like zoom, delay, slow motion, and quick cuts from the news footage of the PMs address to splice together a music video that follows the simple song structure. The song itself is an autotuned manipulation of Trudeau’s speech, which is underlaid with electronic effects, drums, and synthesized harmonies.
Within 24 hours, the music video received more than a million views. And a map of 1,393 Twitter tweets that appeared between April 18 and April 28, 2020 and featured #SpeakingMoistly shows that by the end of the month the song had been shared throughout much of the world.
The viral popularity of “Speaking Moistly” on social media was covered in traditional media, with the result that Trudeau’s words effectively hung around in the media cycle longer than could otherwise be expected, reaching an ever-expanding audience and building a shared rhetorical vision centred on Trudeau’s pandemic management. This rhetorical vision could then be maintained, elaborated, and contested through the participation of prosumers in digital spaces. As Tyler later reflected:
I think that the statement itself had enough behind it in terms of comedy that we probably would have seen a fair bit of that […] in terms of the slogan living on t-shirts. But I think the song just made it kind of hang around in people’s consciousness a bit longer. (interview with author, 23 September 2020)
In other words, what Tyler’s meme did was promote spreadability via social media platforms (like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) and, after initial successes, via a licensed audio-only version of the song to Spotify and iTunes. The relationship between audiences, memes, and Web 2.0 technologies is at the heart of that spreadability—and the meanings that emerge as messages traverse across off- and online spaces.
A phenomenon of social media, meme songs complicate how we think about traditional roles of creator, performer, and audience. Social media is a form of participatory culture that erases distinctions between (active) producers and (passive) consumers, instead relying on the figure of the prosumer (producer + consumer) to both create and engage circulated content. In the case of “Speaking Moistly,” Trudeau may have authored a memorable phrase, but his image and words quickly transformed to source material for creative elaboration by others. Tyler was a pivot between on- and offline spaces, and the embodiment of the prosumer: he was an audience for Trudeau’s speech, creator of an artistic/parodic meditation on a “very Canadian” moment, and, ultimately, a source of material for subsequent elaborations by other prosumers.
Legitimizing mainstream politics
At first glance, Tyler’s meme comes across as a parodic public service announcement (PSA)—and much needed moment of levity in a period of crisis. It was comedy with a familiar feel for many Canadians. After all, political parody has a long history in Canada.
Parody is a form of humour that exaggerates the familiar aspects of an original text by, for example, caricaturing a person’s looks or comments, all without judgement (cf. Young 2014). This form of political humour is common fare in a plethora of CBC comedy shows (ranging from somewhat to heavily political) that have aired over the decades. These include, among many others:
Scholars of comedy describe parody’s function in rallying public opinion and humanizing political figures (e.g., Jones 2009: 44). Memes can fulfill a similar purpose, but their user-generated origins validate an “official” message in a cultural context that increasingly doubts the veracity of politicians and experts (cf. Parlett 2013). Youtuber comments about “Speaking Moistly” seem to support the capacity for parody to rally public opinion, humanize, and affirm Trudeau’s pandemic management efforts. As one person commented, “I love it. Trudeau has a good sense of humour he saw it and laughed too. So cute.” Another viewer added, “Love him more than ever!” A more critical voice (who identifies as proudly Conservative) tweeted, “And yet still Trudeau can't speak English. But let's cut him some slack #speakingmoistly takes great lip dexterity.” While unintentional, “Speaking Moistly” may have helped mitigate partisan divides during the strictest period of pandemic restrictions (to date) in Canada.
Producer vs/and consumer
There’s a necessary distinction that must be drawn between the parodies produced in the official contexts of the CBC and the user-generated memes that circulate over social media. Comedies like Royal Canadian Air Farce or 22 Minutes might contain skits—or even music videos—that are markedly like “Speaking Moistly” in their approach to poking fun at politicians. However, the assumptions about creators, audiences, and the direction of communication are quite distinct, even irreconcilable.
Audiences for shows like the Rick Mercer Report, for example, are expected to passively consume content (and hopefully be informed about important issues). Information, in other words, flows from creator to audience. The participatory culture that is the norm in social media spaces, however, presumes that audiences are also creators—that consumption begets new content and popularity involves more than a high rate of views. That is, the flow of information is multidirectional, with almost limitless potential for engaging and reinterpreting source content.
Reacting to the popularity of “Speaking Moistly,” Tyler explained:
When I was working on it, I really had no expectations at all. And to see it sort of slowly build momentum and then […] it just sort of takes off and it's out of your control now and you see the sharing happening in real time and it's sort of like this avalanche of social media activity and it's addictive at first because it's so fun to see people enjoy something you made. […] I think what was neatest about it, and one thing I certainly didn't expect [was] for people to do covers of it. […] I had to keep the song really simple because I was doing it so quickly. And I really didn't think through how I was going to do it. I basically went with every first idea I had. And it ended up being a song that was simple enough, melodically and chord wise, that people could cover it. And so to see that first cover come out, which was […] an acoustic cover and there were a few that kind of came out at the same time, like ‘oh that's so cool.’ I just had no expectation that people would want to embody the song and make their own version of it. (interview with author, 23 September 2020)
Tyler went on to explain that when he creates meme songs he is concerned with the fidelity of his representation; he’s interested in highlighting the humour of the moment, but he doesn’t want to put words into anyone’s mouth by splicing and reordering original statements (interview with author, 23 September 2020). And yet, consider Tyler’s words: “it just sort of takes off and it’s out of your control.” The meme, the image, the music, and the message have the capacity to move, reinforce, and reinvent meaning almost infinitely.
Politics in an age of controllessness
Politics and communications scholar Martin A. Parlett asserts that:
Online activism in vacuo is nugatory—the flame of social media revolutions is sustained by the oxygen of offline action and cultural participation. Presidential politics is still governed by votes counted at the ballot box and not the number of blog posts or retweets in a candidate’s favor. Broadcast still plays an important role in consciousness shaping, just as the doorstep or back fence persist as the more important sites of political persuasion. (2013: 134-5)
Writing on the role of social media during the 2008 presidential campaign in the United States, Parlett further contends that “participatory culture is Janus-faced” (2013:152) and that Barack Obama’s successes in this domain emerged, in part, from an appreciation of the “controllessness” social media engagements. While Obama successfully mobilized his base through Web 2.0 technologies according to a positive shared rhetorical vision, the opposition created a countervision that was just as powerful. That is, for each message Obama released into the world, each online engagement contained the potential to be read and recirculated as confirmation of an oppositional worldview.
For Parlett, online activism only becomes politically effective when it begets offline engagements, with prosumers fluidly moving between domains of engagement and fueling opportunities for further participation. “Speaking Moistly” is illustrative of an online engagement with offline consequences: the viral popularity of Tyler’s meme on social media meant that millions of viewers received well-informed public health advice that helped rally the population in a period of crisis.
But as Tyler himself points out, audiences didn’t just watch, share, and comment on “Speaking Moistly.” Like Tyler, they were prosumers who participated in making meaning by using his meme as a source for their own shareable creations. The resulting profusion of Tiktoks, YouTube videos, Instagram shares, and Tweets is so vast as to defy categorization. They include:
There is a tendency to focus on social media as a source of disinformation and the embodiment of the worst qualities of humanity. We all have a responsibility to engage critically with the content that circulates through our various feeds. But focusing only on the capacity of Web 2.0 platforms to circulate fake news or radicalize individuals to anti-social ideologies perhaps gets in the way of appreciating what the controllessness of this medium means, and how we might leverage the performative opportunities that emerge when the lines between creators and audiences blur beyond distinction.
Rebecca Draisey-Collishaw completed her PhD in ethnomusicology at Memorial University in 2017 and held a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Dan School of Drama and Music, Queen’s University from 2019 to 2020. Rebecca co-edited the Yearbook for Traditional Music (2018) and curated the Irish Traditional Music Archive's digital archival exhibition, A Grand Time: The Songs, Music & Dance of Newfoundland's Cape Shore (itma.ie/newfoundland). Her research, which focuses on intercultural musicking and public service broadcasting in multicultural contexts, appears in MUSICultures (2012), Ethnomusicology Forum (2018), Contemporary Musical Expressions in Canada (MQUP, 2019), and Music & Politics (2021).
Kip Pegley is a Professor in the Dan School of Drama and Music, Queen’s University and a researcher with the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research. Pegley is the co-editor of Music, Politics and Violence (Wesleyan University Press, 2012), and, more recently, their work on sound and trauma has appeared in Singing Death: Reflections on Music and Mortality (Routledge, 2017), Music and War in the United States(Routledge, 2019), and MUSICultures (2019).
Patricia Cormack and James F. Cosgrave. 2013. Desiring Canada: CBC Contests, Hockey Violence and Other Stately Pleasures. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Jeffrey Jones. 2009. “With all Due Respect.” In Satire TV, ed. Jonathan Gray, Jeffrey Jones and Ethan Thompson. New York: New York UP.
Martin A. Parlett. 2013. “Barack Obama, the American Uprising and Politics 2.0.” In Social Media Go to War: Rage, Rebellion and Revolution in the Age of Twitter, ed. Ralph D. Berenger, 133-167. Spokane, Wash: Marquette Books.
Dannagal G. Young. 2014. “Theories and Effects of Political Humor: Discounting Cues, Gateways, and the Impact of Incongruities.” In The Oxford Handbook of Political Communication, ed. Kate Kenski and Kathleen Hall Jamieson. https://www-oxfordhandbooks-com.proxy.queensu.ca/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199793471.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199793471-e-29?rskey=haFjSw&result=1
It is reminiscent of a joke told by a 6-year old. But instead of “How is an elephant like a loaf of bread?”, I’m asking, “How is QAnon like Ratatouille: The Musical?” In addition to their shared context, both phenomena rising to mass consciousness in the late days of the Trump presidency and in the shadow of pre-vaccine pandemic lockdowns, both QAnon and Ratatouille: The Musical are both manifestations of participatory and emergent behaviours, made possible by web 2.0 collaborative interactivity. But whereas, the amateur artists of Ratatouille: The Musical created, well, a musical; the adherents of Q who elaborate the intricacies of the QAnon orthodoxy created an entire alternate reality.
QAnon is an apparently widespread American conspiracy theory, born in the dark corners of the web, that believes among other things, that Donald Trump has been chosen to save America from a deep state cabal of Satan-worshipping Democrats, who are also pedophiles.  Ratatouille: The Musical, on the other hand, was born on TikTok, and is an assemblage of lyrics, music, dialogue, choreography, set and costume design sketches, that re-imagine the animated Disney/Pixar movie Ratatouille as a Broadway-style musical.  In early January 2021, both QAnon and Ratatouille: The Musical seeped out of the virtual realm and into reality. Over the weekend of 1-3 January, a production featuring a cast of well-known Broadway performers, streamed on Today’s Tix. The event raised $1.9 million for the Actors Fund.  On 6 January, the day of the certification of the results of the 2020 election, a crowd comprised of right-wing ‘militias’ and QAnon supporters who believed that the election was ‘stolen,’ stormed the US Capitol building with the aim of disrupting those proceedings. Five people including Capitol police and protestors died. 
Ratatouille: The Musical is at its heart a crowdsourced work. Beginning with an a cappella rendition of an ode to the main character Remy the rat, posted by TikTok user Em Jaccs, other TikTok denizens augmented this initial song, Daniel Mertzlufft added orchestral scoring. Others constructed a set model, wrote and performed more songs, invented choreography, even puppets. Not only is it participatory, but the iterative recycling and re-imagining marks this as a potentially emergent phenomenon. There is no director, no producer, no playwright or composer. Apart from the inspiration of the original movie, there is no controlling animus at all. There is no gatekeeping. Every contribution is valid—even potentially contradictory or exclusive elements become enfolded into the sprawling motley whole. One notable characteristic that distinguishes the Ratatouille project from myriad other similar collective works is that there is a knowing wink, a sly pretense that this could in fact be, IS in fact, real. Rebecca Alter makes this observation in her history of the musical’s development on Vulture.com. She writes, “the specific appeal of the Ratatouille musical is the alternate reality of it all: It is not inconceivable that there is a timeline where Ratatouille: The Musical was announced as a big-budget, family-friendly production alongside the likes of Aladdin, The Lion King, and The Little Mermaid.”  Additional creative elements that project that reality include a (faux) Broadway-style yellow-header Playbill and video from a high school cast party at Denny’s. This is where Ratatouille: The Musical tips into performance--using mimetic representation to create (probably) alternate fictional worlds.
Pervasive games, or alternative reality games (ARG) invite players to participate in covert activities in a hidden universe existing in parallel with the usual mundane one. One of the simplest pervasive games is perhaps Assassins where a group of friends or co-workers are each given the name of another person in the group to “kill.” The kill, depending on the agreed rules, is accomplished with coloured dot stickers, water pistol, or simple touch tag. If you successfully assassinate your target, you take the name of their target and move on to your next mission. The winner is the last person still alive. The pervasive nature of Assassins arises from the extended duration and expansive boundaries of the game that takes place in the interstices of everyday life over the course of days or even weeks. There is also a critical element of being secret weirdos, as your kills cannot be witnessed by anyone else, especially non-participant bystanders. The foundational book on this subject is Pervasive Games: Theory and Design  by Markus Montola, Jaakko Stenros, and Annika Waern. They begin with Assassins and trace the proliferation of the genre through fictional-game-events like The Beast,  Shelby Logan’s Run,  and Uncle Roy All Around You,  linking at the end to the global TV phenomenon of The Amazing Race. These game-performance hybrids necessitate the imaginative invention of a separate world for the in-group of players within the magic circle.
By this logic, QAnon is a massive pervasive game. With its focus on discovering and decoding secret messages, the active logic of QAnon’s search for the ultimate truth is the same. In a September 2020 article in WIRED Magazine, writer Clive Thompson documents the insights of game designer Adrian Hon, who makes exactly this observation: “ARGs are designed to be clue-cracking, multiplatform scavenger hunts. . . .To belong to the QAnon pack is to be part of a massive crowdsourcing project that sees itself cracking a mystery.”  There is real pleasure in solving these perceived puzzles. The distinction however between the QAnon alt-reality narrative and that of something like The Beast is that in the case of The Beast, it is the fictional creation of Microsoft/Warner Bros to support the promotion of the film AI: Artificial Intelligence. There is an intelligence behind the game scenario. For QAnon, the hidden narrative that they seek to reveal is non-existent. There is no secret plan for global domination. There is no wizard behind the curtain. The truth is not out there. (Really.) Rather the ‘truth’ is being created iteratively by the seekers out of nothing.
What’s fascinating about this, then, is how this is an illustration of emergence in action. Emergence is a participatory phenomenon. Emergence doesn’t need a leader or a coherent narrative to get started, coherence arrives as a dumb product of the game mechanic, of the controlling algorithm. It is Internet-based social media platforms that provide the accelerator. Emergence algorithms require thousands, if not millions, of reactive local responses. Think flocking birds or colony building ants. Conspiracy theories are not in and of themselves participatory. They are the result, however, of a participatory emergent algorithm that produces the standard genre characteristics of a conspiracy theory (or a murmuration of starlings or insect architecture).
BONUS THOUGHT: Participation in conspiracy theories seems to align with feelings of powerlessness, perceptions of lack of control. It is not coincidental that paranoid conspiracy narratives tend to foster themes of control by elite “others.” (Sometimes radical socialist Democrats and Zionist globalist Jews, but also aliens). Mariah points out quite rightly that the musical theatre creators of Ratatouille: The Musical are also, within the realm of professional Broadway-bound musical development, powerless. Their pretense that their Ratatouille musical is real is a gesture of defiance that recognizes their outsider status.
 Roose, Kevin. “What is QAnon, the Viral Pro-Trump Conspiracy Theory?” New York Times. 4 February 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/article/what-is-qanon.html
 Alter, Rebecca. “Broadway Is Closed but But Ratatouille the Musical Is Cooking on TikTok.” Vulture. 19 November 2020. https://www.vulture.com/2020/11/ratatouille-musical-tiktok.html
 The official Playbill for Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical. https://www.playbill.com/ratatouillemusical; Bereznak, Alyssa. “Anyone Can Cook: The Oral History of Ratatouille the Musical.” The Ringer. 31 December 2020. https://www.theringer.com/movies/2020/12/31/22206943/ratatouille-musical-oral-history-tiktok-trend-making-of
 Healy, Jack. “These Are the 5 People Who Died in the Capitol Riot” New York Times. 11 January 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/11/us/who-died-in-capitol-building-attack.html
 Alter. “Broadway is Closed.”
 Montola, Markus., Jaakko Stenros, and Annika Waern. Pervasive Games: Theory and Design. CRC Press, 2009.
 The Beast is one of the earliest known mass ARG. It was developed as a promotional event in support of the movie AI: Artificial Intelligence. It ran approximately 5 months beginning in March 2001 and reached upwards of 5000 players worldwide. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Beast_(game)
 Shelby Logan’s Run is the October 2002 Las Vegas iteration of a regular game, treasure/puzzle hunt, road rally called The Game occurring annually on the US west coast. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Game_(treasure_hunt); https://web.archive.org/web/20050720002159/http://www.shelbylogansrun.com/
 Uncle Roy All Around You was a combined online and in the street mixed-reality game produced by Blast Theory in June 2003 in London, UK. https://www.blasttheory.co.uk/projects/uncle-roy-all-around-you/
 Thompson, Clive. “QAnon is LIke a Game--A Most Dangerous Game.” Wired Magazine 22 September 2020. https://www.wired.com/story/qanon-most-dangerous-multiplatform-game/
 Roose, Kevin. “A QAnon Digital Soldier Marches On, Undeterred by Theory’s Unravelling.” New York Times. 17 January 2021. From a New York Times profile of a QAnon “meme queen,” the author writes, “What attracts Ms. Gilbert and many other people to QAnon isn’t just the content of the conspiracy theory itself. It’s the community and sense of mission it provides. . . . New QAnon believers are invited to chat rooms and group texts, and their posts are showered with likes and retweets. They make friends, and are told that they are not lonely Facebook addicts squinting at zoomed-in paparazzi photos, but patriots gathering “intel” for a righteous revolution.” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/17/technology/qanon-meme-queen.html
This is an excerpt from a month long email chain between Mo Horner and research assistant Derek Manderson about Re: Current Theatre’s New Societies at the Kick and Push Festival in August 2020.
Hi Jenn and Mariah,
My apologies for an email this late at night, but I just attended the opening night of Re:Current’s New Societies at the online Kick and Push Festival. WOW. It was so exciting for me to see a strong example of participation in a digital theatre performance. There is a lot to think about here in terms of the guide, in terms of digital theatre creation/translation, and in terms of the gamification of a utopian society.
Without spoiling, it sounds like there are a range of things that can happen in this show which affects teams of players differently. When I can find some spare time over the next few days, I’m hoping to get some more cohesive thoughts put together about my own experience which I would be happy to share if it’s of interest.
In any case, I had such a great time with this show and thought I should share while I’m still charged with excitement! I hope you are both doing well as the summer draws to a close.
You were certainly right about the participatory potential of this one! I’m curious what you think: Was New Societies really a game?
Looks like a game. Smells like a game. Plays like a game.
BUT - I’m fairly certain that it ends the exact same way every time. In war. One district is selected to be the “winner” and that district has to choose one other district to “save.” This ending is fixed and happens every time. For me, that fixed ending becomes a “phony multiplicity,” it’s not a real game, there is no real slack or wiggle room, all our choices make no difference. If it’s not a game but instead a performance or a work of art, then I do wonder about intentionality. Is this kind of inevitability the point?
This brings me to my second question. The players in my district seem to identify as a bunch of anarchists so it definitely felt like we were designing a society with potential! However, because of the fixed ending (the fixed ending that is war, even worse) New Societies is feeding us a participatory promise that we couldn’t achieve. The promise is: “Design your own society, however you want” but the range of actions are colonial and capitalist (ie, buy land, make decisions re: land ownership and Indigenous people, save money). Design your own society but no matter what you do, there is war.
I’d love to chat more with you about it!
So interesting to hear about your experience with the show. It certainly adds some new layers.
I should begin by saying that my group was the one to eventually “win,” which may influence my opinion. To me, it felt like a game because of the real-time decisions we needed to make which influenced the overall state of our society. My district was in the lead from the beginning, choosing to invest heavily in the supply storage early on and then quickly moving to establish societal advancements in favour of occupying land. Witnessing the rewards of our actions was a deeply satisfying experience, especially in the form of competition. When it comes down to it, winning is just fun.
If the selection of the “winner” is random, I think this show loses some major points in the game category. The construction of the experience is very game-like, but perhaps with a pre-determined ending, it is more of a performative game than a true game itself. I have heard that the “losing” districts must decide whether to revolt or to go in peace in the end. I wonder, if every group decided to be peaceful with the final decision, would there still be war? Perhaps a revolt is always the ending because groups of people will resist their political demise with war. And I felt that was part of the statement that the show was making. Can we truly create a Utopian society? Or is conflict eternal?
I was quite taken with the gamification of governing. The negotiations between a group of strangers about how best to rule a society was an interesting experience for me. There was one point where my district elected to limit families to one child because the alternative was allowing our people to starve or to deport a portion of our population. Talking it over with some friends afterwards, we debated whether that was the correct choice or not. The show, therefore, sparks some interesting conversations about governance and whether or not one can “win” at governing a society.
I think the container for participatory experiences is always going to be a challenge. Ideally, a true participatory sandbox would have allowed you to design a society to your exact specifications and given you more choice over how your society grapples with overpopulation.
I think in many ways, the game is guided too heavily. However, I personally am not bothered by some fixed options because I know that there needs to be a container. I’ve played enough “open-world” video games to know that the sandbox needs to end somewhere. What makes them fun and what made this experience exciting for me was that we made choices which had real-time consequences. One of my biggest thrills was feeling that I had “won” because of my choices and hearing from my friends that they had chosen to revolt against me.
Let me know what you think! Thanks for talking this through with me, I’ve been thinking about this show a lot over the past little while.
All the best,
I’m responding here but I also have an idea. I wonder if this little email exchange could find a place on the blog? I’ve been thinking about this show since I saw it and this exchange has been really rich in that thinking process.
My main concern with this game is what it asks us to do in order to “win” the game and be the “best” because you’re right, winning is fun. When asked if we would pay the Indigenous community in our district a tax for taking their land, it meant we’d empty our supply storage. We did so. In effect, this made us “lose” the game. That troubles me as an exercise. It’s positioning colonialism and land ownership as the way to “win”. It’s the same thing with your thoughts about “gamifying governing.” I think that is an interesting question, ethically, but the way they push us towards governing decisions that depend upon colonial instincts troubles me.
I love your thought "I wonder, if every group decided to be peaceful with the decision, would there be war?” That is a beautiful way to phrase it. A colleague of mine said the same thing. Maybe this show is a mirror. We will always choose war so there will always be war.
If this is the point, that our world (digital, game, or otherwise) will always present us with an inevitability of choice that leads to war, then my frustration feels like an intention from the artists. However, if the piece as a game, is trying to offer an experience that breaks apart that inevitability of choice, then I’m not sure it’s a successful experience.
That’s it for now,
I apologize for taking a little while to respond! I would love to make this exchange a blog post. I think the document reads in an engaging way, and it shines a light on an evolving process of deconstructing a participatory experience.
Here are some more of my thoughts to add to the conversation:
I think the colonial lens is an important notion to ponder. My district didn’t encounter an Indigenous community in our problem set, and so I only heard more about that ethical dilemma afterwards from other participants. As far as I understand it, “winning” in this container boils down to keeping enough resources in the supply storage to provide for the society, and paying attention to social advancements. I think the issue with this exercise arises when the Indigenous communities are entered into the container, and their presence forces the participants to decide between losing the game or winning through a colonial attitude. I agree that this mode of play is troubling, and the colonial undertones are problematic.
I think perhaps the win condition is worth pondering further. Although I initially felt that the winning and losing the game was critical to the experience, our conversation has sparked some alternative perspectives in my mind. There’s a reason that we consistently use quotation marks to indicate winning: there is no real winner. Even in victory, the “winning” society crumbles to chaos in the shadow of war. What if the statement here is that the game of governance cannot be won because there is no such thing as a utopian society? Inevitably, the imperfections and complications of co-existence topple the image of utopia. One of those complications which all colonial societies must confront is the harrowing past, present and future of stolen land. Maybe, the point here is that when faced with the truth about how our new society continues to displace Indigenous communities, we are forced to reflect on our own drive to win and how morality complicates this desire. We must “lose” and give up on utopia if we wish to follow our moral compass. Thus, the players are benefiting not from the game itself, but the frustration of colonialism and war in this container. This ultimately emphasizes the role of the player and the self-reflection that can only arise from participating.
You are totally picking up what I’m putting down re: the colonial choice. Colonialism as “winning” is an oppressive and dominant perspective and unless this game is self-referential enough for that to be the point, I find it a troubling exercise.
When you’re talking about the win condition, you get exactly to a point that Jenn and I got to yesterday in a meeting. Perhaps this awareness is the point. Our systems (colonial, land ownership, capitalism, central government, etc) are so pervasive, that regardless if we have free reign, we will always end up creating a society that looks like ours and is ultimately broken enough to end in global conflict. If it’s like a mirror, then this is an extremely worthwhile exercise. If New Societies asks us to witness the fact that capitalism, colonialism and war is so entrenched in our psyche, we will always end up with the same result, then I’m sold. If they are asking us to consider the fact that our current systems are leading us to inevitable failure, I see that…but I’m still grumpy.
Maybe the reason I’m grumpy is because I see a potential that wasn’t reached. I don’t see utopia principles as something inherently impossible. In a talk by artist and activist Syrus Marcus Ware yesterday during the Scholar Strike, he quoted Toni Cade Cambarayou by saying “it is the role of the artist to make the revolution irresistible.” In a moment when abolition, anti-capitalism, and the call for new structures is finally getting airtime, why didn’t New Societies offer the potential to “make the revolution irresistible,” find ways to allow participants (who are also citizens) to imagine and “play” a utopia with entirely differently systems that perhaps didn’t inevitably lead to war? It looked like that’s where it was going.
Sure - here I am rewriting the ending, which is bad dramaturgy. But alas! Maybe it’s because I’m studying a lot of abolition theory right now. We don’t have to lose, we can dream up and “play” utopia. It’s possible. There are other options than capitalism and colonialism!
That’s it from me,
New Societies is created by Re: Current Theatre and presented at the Kick & Push 2020. Created by Re:Current Theatre, with concept and direction by Brian Postalian. Performed by Sena Cagla, Howard Dai, Alexa Fraser, Evan Medd, Hannah Meyers, Brian Postalian, Pascal Reiners, Amanda Sum, Meagan Woods, Montserrat Videla. Dramaturgy by Evan Medd. Scenography by Christian Ching. Sound Design by Stefan Nazarevich and Liam Carsley. Stage Management by Laura Coons. Technical Direction by Kevin Kiju Kim and Mandeep Sunnerd. Read more about the show HERE.
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.
Audiences are well acquainted with the meal that comes out of the bourgeois theatre recipe: we pay $30 for a ticket, sit in the dark, and in return we are collectively moved, challenged, entertained and inspired by a live performance.
New questions about this exchange come into play in the context of participatory works.
Because many of the artists we’re musing over in the play/PLAY project are asking more of their participants in reception, shouldn’t participants get more in this exchange? If artists need my audience labour to co-create this piece, what do audiences get in return? Am I paying $25 to make your show with you? What are the expectations, on both sides, of this exchange?
Before the pandemic, participatory artists were already manipulating this exchange, giving tangible and intangible offerings to their participants in exchange for additional audience labour. Good Thing Collective’s Good Things to Do offered a meaningful demo in self care in exchange for a crowdsourced list of good things to do. Lost Together gave you a craft as a tangible memory of something you lost if you were vulnerable enough to share. Bonjour Hi paid participants real money if you made them sandwiches or folded their socks. In B-Side, if you placed a lemon, you got lemonade.
However, amidst the pandemic, these tangible offerings are harder to extend across the fourth wall. It’s harder to give and harder to get.
So what if instead, the artist offers me love? Not the abstract kind of love that I may feel from my seat in witnessing a bourgeois play or actual money like in Bonjour Hi, but actual personalized love. A real gift from them to me, specifically.
In the wake of the pandemic, many participatory artists are centering on this different kind of gift giving. These are not substantial or material gifts, but small, personalized, tailor-made moments of intense and genuine intimacy (in form and content) between participant and artist. “I see you.” “I love you.” “This is for you.” Me, specifically.
In Convergence Theatre’s pandemic phone-play series The Corona Variations, each of the short plays ended with an actual exchange of “I love you” between performers or between participants and performers. In some instances, as a listener, you’re a fly on a wall listening to two actors mend a dispute. Sometimes, like in a vignette by clowns Morro and Jasp, artists reach through the phone to say “I love you Mariah”.
Like The Corona Variations, many of the live participatory performances we have witnessed during the pandemic dramaturgically manipulate this exchange as a gift of individualized love. In order to give real personalized love, these artists use various techniques to build a genuine one-on-one relationship with participants. They get to know the participants by asking for autobiographical details. They tell secrets of their own before they ask participants for theirs. Many performances up the intimacy level by using the phone. Without a face-to-face visual, the voice is very intimate. A phone call isn’t spatialized as much as it’s embodied. It’s so close to your body it’s in your mind. These dramaturgical techniques build relationships that leave space for giving and receiving an actual gift.
In early May, I brought this sensibility to my own work as a site-specific theatre maker in a new piece by Cellar Door Project called To You. Created with Laura Chaignon and Kay Kenney, To You is a surprise birthday party disguised as a pop-up porch performance piece. We picked twenty households in the neighbourhood that we wanted to love bomb and we showed up on their porch to throw them a surprise party. We offered a pothos plant as a gift. We made cupcakes that we offered to participants but then ate them ourselves instead (#pandemicproblems). We danced to Whitney Houston together. Each performance began with a personalized story of the first time I (as Mariah) met the participant in real life. We relied on pre-existing relationships to build a more intimate relationship within the piece because in order to really give a good gift, you need to know the person receiving the gift. Although the driveway was a less intimate space than a phone call, embarrassing yourself on your street dancing to Whitney with a real friend is a real vulnerable moment.
In Outside the March’s episodic phone play Mundane Mysteries, the artists build this friendship from scratch. In the first phone call from the Ministry of Mundane Mysteries, your “inspector” asks you a series of random questions to get to know you before they solve your mystery. Besides the week of silly and playful antics, at the end of the experience, they too offer listeners a personalized gift.
For some context, anyone who knows me knows that I’m a real firebrand when it comes to dismantling patriarchal power structures. I told my inspector this off the top.
At the end of the final episode of the phone play, after she had solved my mystery, my inspector told me she found herself questioning the system she was working within. She wanted to imagine a Ministry that was run entirely by women. I asked her if she was an anarchist and she laughed. This final dramaturgical push towards the radical feminist agenda really solidified this feeling that this show was made...specifically for me. The show used my dialogue to fill-in-the-blanks like mad libs, but it also thematically intertwined with my own politics. At the end of the phone call, she thanked me for empowering her. Cue serious warm fuzzy feeling.
When Erin Hurley charts out the path from affect to mood to emotion to feeling in her book Theatre & Feeling, she says “emotions are relational: fear lies between the person and the bear.” Although physical distancing forcibly inserts uncrossable distance between participants and “the bear” (the art or the artist), these meaningful, personal and individualized gifts of love cross the space between. Although intangible, these artists are offering intensely personalized and genuine love notes in return for playing along. Like Hurley says, “feelings are stimulus responses and that they extend our perception beyond our own body and it's situation” and in this case, connecting us to a greater community that is apart, but together. Pandemic quarantine places strict limits on our body and its situation so feeling special and signalled out and loved is a gift.
#ThrowBackThursday. We decided that as interesting and all-consuming as the current pandemic moment is, the play/PLAY blog cannot be always mired in the present. And so, this post looks back to a play that I saw and wrote about in February. It is an example of one of the entries that we imagine will comprise the book in progress. The words that are in ALL CAPS indicate a page-flipping link to another (as yet unpublished) entry.
If (following our core thesis) participation is always about participation, what is the role of participation in bluemouth inc.’s Café Sarajevo? Presented in a black box studio space in Toronto’s Theatre Centre, the play is framed as a live recording of a podcast. Company member Lucy Simic, who is the daughter of a Bosnian-born Croatian, is being interviewed about her experiences during a visit to Sarajevo in 2016, twenty years after the end of the civil war that held the city under lethal years-long siege by snipers. The cast and all audience members wear bluetooth headphones for the entire show through which we hear the mic’d dialogue as well as background scoring and other sound effects. Gloria, the stage manager cues the beginning of each scene recording, counting down the beats until we are ‘on air’ with “four,” “three,” switching to silent hand gestures “two,” and “one.” The podcast situation centres narrative storytelling and alleviates any need or expectation for realistic scenography or indeed for any scenography at all. Freed from visual mimesis, space is created for audience members to be recruited as unrehearsed voice-actors. About eight audience members (chosen during the pre-show) have been given lanyards with name tags. At intervals, they read from scripts on music stands, performing dialogue in partnership with the members of the company. One is the announcer who reads the sponsorship credits at the top of the podcast. Others are locals met in Sarajevo-- including guides Dino, Samara, and Jasmin. Through this collaboration, we populate Lucy’s story, bringing it into our bodies. A curious effect of this kind of selective participation is that even though not every audience member speaks, those who do become our PROXIES. Having come out of the audience mass, they are of us. We feel through them and with them differently than we do the actors. Something similar happens when four audience members become soccer players representing England and Croatia in the FIFA World Cup. The rest of us standing shoulder to shoulder, our toes outlining a large white rectangle taped on the floor, are both the watching crowd and the game boundary. We use our feet to keep the ball in play, tapping it if it rolls near. The enthusiasm of the players is infectious and the audience group becomes energized. When the ensuing fireworks cause the cast members (and with them the audience soccer players who mimic them) to drop to the floor covering and cowering as if sheltering from explosions, we are immediately sobered. The abrupt plummet from our adrenaline high is stunning. It is a powerful effect born out of our proxy participation.
Another participatory feature of the performance-as-podcast is that the audience of about forty or so is entirely mobile. For each “scene” of the podcast, we arrange ourselves. Some people stand or lean on the walls, some sit on the floor closest to the actors. There are portable plastic stools. Then in the “off air” breaks between scenes, we are hastily herded into a new configuration elsewhere in the space. With each scene, we navigate and negotiate to find a space and a view. In addition to the live action, we are also given “cardboards.” These are handheld personal virtual reality viewers; little boxes with screens that we hold up to our faces. Inside are images of Lucy and Steven on their trip--on the steps of their apartment in Brooklyn, at Lucy’s mother’s house in Porec, driving down the road to Sarajevo, sitting in a café. We tilt our heads up and down. We turn around. Elbows akimbo we blindly bump, apologizing, into our neighbours. It strikes me that this exploratory combination of ASYMMETRY of our point-of-view positioning in relation to the actors and the accidental, but oh-so-polite incursions we make on each other as we continually shift shapes my understanding of Café Sarajevo.
The podcast-within-the-play overtly presents its key question: “What causes people to divide? Are these divisions part of our nature? Or is it something else?” In the early days of the Trump administration in the US, we are invited to “tackle the question of why that sense of togetherness feels necessary, even urgent.” In a telling scene, Lucy is discomfited when ordering coffee in a Sarajevo cafe, she calls it “Turkish coffee” when the guide Dino calls it “Bosnian coffee.” Lucy is unsure if she is presenting as simply naive or whether she has revealed some kind of unintended political bias and Dino is now judging her. Something similar happens in a conversation with Samara who deflects Lucy’s questions about Muslim tourists in Sarajevo. Samara says, “It is no longer appropriate to ask a Sarajevan what religion they observe. Or our nationality. If someone asks us, we just smile and say we are Sarajevan.” In the closing moments of the play, we return to a video from the beginning--a televised debate from 1971 between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault. In this clip, Chomsky makes the point that power doesn’t imply justice or correctness and therefore it may be necessary to stage acts of civil disobedience to prevent the state from perpetrating criminal acts. Specifically in the context of the Vietnam War, his point is that illegal acts in support of anti-war views are right and proper. What, therefore, would constitute civil disobedience in the context of the Sarajevan civil war narrowly or more generally in the current divisive moment in US politics? How does civil disobedience counter sectarianism? The answer, the play suggests, lies in eschewing revenge and blame and embracing a kind of radical forgiveness; offering forgiveness even for the unforgivable.
And this is where the participatory dramaturgy of Café Sarajevo neatly underscores this point, bringing the play’s understanding into our bodies. Audience proxies create affectionate bonds between strangers as the volunteer-actors are valued as “one of us.” Regardless of how they perform and independent of any specific personal characteristics, simply by virtue of being a proxy performer, that person stands in for the group as a whole, and we endorse them. Likewise, the mobile, closely-packed, bumper-car audience, isolated by our headphones and (at times) our VR viewers, is constantly engaged in negotiation for sight lines. We are far from sectarian violence to be sure, but in this very gentle way, through proximal and social INTIMACY, we are reminded that we are in this together and need to find ways to share the space and accommodate everyone. Engaged in participatory co-creation, we are all Café Sarajevans.
Let’s start with acknowledging my privilege. I am living in a spacious one bedroom home with my best friend, a very amenable kitten, lots of food, and strong support systems if things get really scary. Because of this privilege, like many other people, I’ve had a multitude of feelings these past three weeks that I have spent inside. Some I am proud of, others not so much. I am anxious, whiny, bored, experiencing “flu-like symptoms,” tired, sad, worried for my loved ones, overwhelmed with check-ins, yearning for more check-ins and also . . . curious about what’s next.
Mainly, I think I am experiencing two things. The first, is grief. For tragedy and death, for suffering, for those who have loved ones far away, and for my recently unemployed friends.
This week, a mentor of mine suggested I apply to my PhD ASAP because the performing arts ecology is about to be truly rocked. I don’t disagree. In a recent Toronto Star article, it is predicted that theatres in Toronto are about to lose a devastating $500 million in ticket sales this spring. I am worried for many of these companies and festivals across the country that form the bedrock of the Canadian theatre community. I deeply admire and respect many of the leaders of these organizations and believe in many of their mandates. I will say though, I am more worried for the people inside them than I am for the institutions themselves.
Which brings me to the second thing I’m feeling. Curiosity? If you know me, then you know that in my opinion, capitalist systems need to GO. I am curious (and maybe even stoked) about what could replace neoliberalism and capitalist greed. (Aside: That said, fracking, pipelines, and land theft are still considered “essential work” in this country).
In a YouTube video that surfaced in mid-March called Coronavirus Capitalism, economist Naomi Klein talked about two routes that American economy could take during the next few weeks. The first route is a bail-out of major industries like hospitality, tourism, airline, big business, oil and gas -- industries that can be detrimental to the climate crisis and the disenfranchised. The second route though, is an investment in clean industries and Green New Deal. Two options: We could save industries of the last century, or we could try something new.
If we apply this perspective to Canadian performing arts economy, the question arises: Are some of these major theatre institutions “industries of the last century?” For better or for worse, they certainly rely on capitalist structures (subscriber bases, huge corporate donors, endowments, land ownership, etc) to survive. Brick and mortar institutions that have been around since the 1970s rely upon systems that have been in play since the 1970s to exist. Although this makes me uncomfortable to write, I’m more interested in investing in the “Green New Deal” of theatre than I am of saving capitalist institutions that have remained largely unchanged for 25+ years. Now that the capitalist systems they rely on have been put on hold, what are we making room for?
When I think about the future of the live arts, I am grieving but I am also . . . curious. We’ll think of something? It might take us a while. In the same way I hope that capitalism topples in favour of something else, I’m hoping we don’t resurrect old institutions before we invest and imagine an entirely new phenomenon.
I am not advocating for a shift entirely to the digital. The act of gathering live will remain paramount. In the likely case that this won’t blow over any time soon, people trapped in quarantine will be craving liveness and community and gathering more than ever. We are already seeing this with balcony singalongs and group fitness classes. Folks around the world are applauding for health care workers at a specified time each day.
Like the scheduled applause, the act of social distancing is one of the most global acts of participation in history. We won’t call it art but many people are certainly taking part. Participation works best when everyone is doing it. All you have to do is play along. Sometimes it’s scary and confusing, but it’s often for good. One billion people for common good. That is participatory work.
Because of this participatory effort in play over the last two weeks, I am unsurprised that Canadian artists who make participatory work are the first to begin to experiment with producing work right now - Outside the March, DLT, Convergence and Theatre Replacement had all announced new projects within a week of Ontario declaring a state of emergency. After all, these artists were already experimenting with the relationship between the audience and the art in their work. Theatre Replacement’s Bioboxes happened inches away from your nose. DLT’s The Stranger happened two steps behind the actor. Proximity is just another kind of distance. Suddenly these artists are working to connect and communicate from as far away as possible. How can we be close when we’re really far away?
So far, this work is lo-fi. Because many artists are being forced to adapt their practises quickly, the aesthetic is not precious. It’s raw and intimate. It’s your cat walking across your Zoom call. It’s talking over each other and audio that cuts in and out. There is no rehearsal. That’s what excites me. It’s entirely uncharted territory. Less of a rebirth and more of an emergent phenomenon. If systems we once relied upon (like capitalism and gathering in groups) have been disrupted, I guess we have to get creative. Sometimes, we have to make something with nothing. I don't think it's right to patronize digital work as "quantity over quality". Everyone is trying.
To be clear, in my opinion, this is not a crisis-tunity. This is a terrible thing that will make something new. To move forward we’re going to have to grieve but also we’re going to have to (eventually) pick ourselves up, innovate, and make new work for this new world.