REVIEW: Overhear Toronto Interfaces with Real Life, Real People, Real Coffee
Too often, I find live performance asks of me a certain paradoxical behaviour. Entering a theatrical space as a spectator marks an unofficial, unsigned, and often unheeded contract of mutual presence. The deal goes that the bodies on stage are fully invested in the action they are performing and, in response, the audience is fully invested in rapt attention to the performance space. The trouble with traditional modes of theatre-making, however, is the lack of connection between performing body and spectator – the ‘fourth wall,’ which can block genuine connection between the parties.
I have to admit, I’ve come to expect that element of disconnection. I even catch myself looking forward to the moment I can sit down, shut up, and socially isolate myself for an hour and a half.
To that end, Overhear Toronto is a wake up call – a reminder of what theatre can be and often isn’t. A reminder that theatre can bridge gaps between people of different life experiences and cultural identities, and forge genuine connection – not the one we may perform (to varying degrees of success) under a sense of obligation in a darkly-lit proscenium space. It makes theatre out of life, and life out of theatre.
A co-production between Toronto-based Apuka Theatre and It’s Not a Box Theatre, out of Saskatoon, Overhear Toronto is part of the Lab at SummerWorks, described on the show’s webpage as a series of programming exploring and experimenting with “new possibilities in performance.” Participants are given a smartphone with the Overhear app pre-loaded and, with a pair of headphones, are guided on a short solo walking tour of the Queen West/Trinity Bellwoods area, narrated by Apuka Theatre founder Natalie Feheregyhazi. As they walk, the participant is regaled with stories of migrant experience in a digitization of the Canadian “cultural mosaic,” and have the opportunity to meet and converse with these same storytellers along the way.
Ironic, that the chief culprit in our Apple-sanctioned, Zuckerbergian twenty-first century anti-socialism is the very thing facilitating a performance bridging human interaction.
At Artscape Youngplace, I begin my journey by meeting Chantal DeGuire and Christian Arellanos, two artists who describe their relationship with Deafness to me. Next, I head to the Lucky Penny Cafe across the street where, having been taught by Christian, I use American Sign Language to order a coffee. Walking down Queen Street, I meet Kocou Dansou, a French-speaking immigrant from Cotonou, Benin who has struggled in his professional life due to his heavy accent. Sitting quietly on a park bench, I listen to Sue Croweagle’s story of oppression and ultimate survival. At the end of the journey, I join Sue in her circle of friends, and listen as they play “The Loon Song” with drums and singing.
Human interaction. Real life experience. Real connection. Real coffee.
I can’t help feeling awkward, as the enormity of my privilege becomes evident with each step of the journey. After all, I am white. I am able-bodied and not hard of hearing. I am from a suburb in the Greater Toronto Area. I don’t identify with many of the stories I listen to, and as such, certain aspects of the experience, such as ordering the coffee, feel slightly appropriative. I instinctively verbally say “thank you” to the barista, and “excuse me” to the small child that blocks the path between the door and myself. I find it difficult to lean into certain aspects of the piece when I know full well that it is the oppressive behaviours of my ancestors (and surely, albeit unintentionally, myself) that have perpetrated these experiences of exclusion. I get the sense that, perhaps, the Overhear team considers the individual’s participation in the piece as a pass to “try on” culture – it doesn’t quite sit right with me, and I suspect that the concept is contingent on a certain element of “acceptance” through Othering.
Despite that, Overhear Toronto is a truly collaborative work – all the storytellers are credited as writers and performers of the piece, and it’s clear that an ample amount of research and respect went into the piece’s construction. My concerns lie not with the experiment’s intentions, only with aspects of its execution. The piece is strongest when it asks the participant to listen, rather than take part – which, thankfully, it does for the majority of the time.
The pendulum swing between listening and interaction requires of the participant a certain amount of switching gears, and I will hazard to guess that the technology is not quite there yet. A more intuitive user interface, one that enables pausing of audio and lays out the travel directions in a clearer way, would benefit the experience – but as it is a Lab presentation (i.e., in process), I expect that these features will come with time and experimentation.
Despite my hesitations, I appreciate what the Overhear Toronto project attempts and achieves. It is a journey that shakes the complacency of traditional live performance, a feat that is not just admirable but necessary for theatre’s survival. As Ontario feels increasingly fractured by insidious alt-right ideology, it is heartening to take part in an artistic experiment reminding me that Toronto can still be the welcoming and diverse community I wish it to remain. I look forward to what further invention and technological advancements will bring to an already ambitious piece of work.
Kate Croome is a Toronto-based writer, performer, administrator, and theatre-goer. She is a graduate of Brock University’s Dramatic Arts program, where she developed her critical eye through a praxis-based curriculum. Her work has been previously featured in alt.theatre, Stratford Festival Reviews, and The Sound, Niagara’s Arts & Culture Paper.