ISSUE 16.1

Process Not Product

Sarah Culkin speaks to members of Tiny Bear Jaws about their production The Worst Thing I Could Be (Is Happy) and (re/)creating a performance that speaks to a Queer experience of futurity

Members of Tiny Bear Jaws perform as part of the Rhubarb Festival in 2018. Photo by Dahlia Katz

written by Sarah J. Culkin

The world premiere of The Worst Thing I Could Be (Is Happy) was slated as part of RISER 2020 which was cancelled due to COVID-19. This review was written about the third phase of development that took place in Montreal, in April 2019.

I sit in the dark with 20 other people listening to four performers take turns reading their own eulogies into a microphone with brightly coloured gauzy fabric draped over their heads. At the outset, I giggle along with the rest of the audience, but by halfway through the second eulogy, I’ve fallen down a wormhole of thinking about my own mortality. I don’t remember if this was before or after the part about VR porn, or the part where they shared chips with the audience.

Such is the effect of The Worst Thing I Could Be (Is Happy), a new work from indie company Tiny Bear Jaws, described as “an interdisciplinary devised creation about the ways in which happiness ‘[keeps] its place as a wish by its failure to be given.’ (Sarah Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness)”. The work just completed the third phase of its evolution.

Elena Eli Belyea, Tori Morisson, Ira Doré, and Philip Nozuka, with costumes and props designed by Alison Yanota, presented phase one of The Worst Thing I Could Be… at Theatre Junction Grand in Calgary in 2017, and phase two at Rhubarb Festival in Toronto in 2018. Phase three was a workshop production at the Diving Bell in Montreal, adding Rebecca Durocher as stage manager, and Tanya Rintoul as director and dramaturg to the process.

I’ll admit, having seen (and loved) a polished-looking phase two at Rhubarb Fest, I came into phase three with lots of expectations. What I was not expecting was to see the skin peeled back from the piece to expose and rework the bones. Both versions collided with questions of fulfillment and queerness – asking questions about what it means to envision a future when there’s no guarantee of one. Or as Jack J. Halberstam puts it: “…about the potentiality of a life unscripted by the conventions of family, inheritance, and childrearing.”(1)

Halberstam’s notion of queer time framed my experience of The Worst Thing I Could Be… beyond the content of the performance and into the question of what it means to create theatre that is as much queered by its process as it is by its subject. I choose to believe that it’s ultimately appropriate for me to have taken months to write a response to the piece, as the question I was left to sit on since April 2019 is: can a piece of (queer) theatre ever, really, be finished? In a theatre-making culture that can seem to drive towards delivery of a product, what does it mean to take a step back from a performance that implied a stamp of finality, and reevaluate? When a piece of performance permits its process to be iterative, cyclical, and challenging, what new possibilities do we access? After the workshop, I sat down with the creators for a group interview.

“I’m excited about the idea of something queer as also being something undefinable,” said Nozuka, ”As soon as one defines what something queer is, by definition queer has to become something else. One way of thinking about is that it goes against something that is a kind of normative way of structuring, formalizing, naming, labelling, and to play into a space of unknown.”

So, if a queer performance, by this logic, resists formalization, how did the team negotiate jumping back into the process? The reasons were manifold: “The idea was to really focus on process,” said Morisson, “and not so much on product. We had goals of what we wanted it to be, like the next phase, but definitely sitting in it a little more.” Coming back to the piece permitted all the artists involved to continue to deepen the work and the connections within the work. Bringing in a director facilitated dialogue between the different ideas on offer, and having someone dedicated to technical support took the pressure off of the performers to activate everything from onstage. There was the added bonus of having everyone in the same room: “In past versions, Philip was on Skype 70 per cent of [our rehearsal time],” said Belyea, “More than that, probably. Honestly, like, 85 per cent.”

Reworking a devised performance with added team members also provided an opportunity to see what parts of the creation remained relevant, and to rediscover the joy of creation with new energy: “I’ve never experienced a process like this before,” said Rintoul. “Up until yesterday there was still, like, ‘Hey last time we did this,’ and I’m like ‘Cool, I’ve never seen that thing before or heard about it before. What is that?’” (Everyone laughed)

“I have never had a script that less effectively articulates what the thing is,” continued Belyea, “Tanya literally spent the first three days asking us questions – we would talk about what we did, what we’d been trying to do.” The result was a question of flattening a hierarchy in the rehearsal room – even with someone in the room who might traditionally be looked to for the answers. “I felt like we had a lot of moments of ‘Oh, in a traditional process X is supposed to happen,’ and then Tanya has created a lot of space to be like, ‘But WHY do we do that? Is that valuable to us that that happens?’”

The version of the performance that ran in Montreal was a combination of experiments in storytelling, creation, and finesse. Baby pictures were mashed up next to scenes of lip-synching, monologues in Snapchat filters, a staged photoshoot on a fake beach, and a series of interruptions to the performance in the form of the artists staying aggressively hydrated. There was a spirit of joyful interrogation of symbols and meaning that Nozuka echoed in the interview: “An excitement and curiosity to genuinely try to stay in that unknown.”

When asked how and when they will know that the piece is finished, the entire assembled team barely missed a beat before chorusing, “Never!”

“I have this fantasy,” Nozuka closed, “that this is a piece in my life that every year or two I come together with these people and we play around…. It’s a product that never, ever comes. We’re 70 years old, we’re coming together, we’ve got our pantyhose on…”

“We’re doing the dance!” added Morisson. Everyone is laughing in the interview, I can’t hear the rest of the vision over the true joy being taken from the process.

Tiny Bear Jaws is expanding a notion of queer theatre by creating and re-creating a performance that speaks to a queer experience of futurity, while resisting the compulsion to define and finalize a product. To aggressively paraphrase academic José Esteban Muñoz: Queer theatre is not here yet. Queer theatre is an ideality.
And I can’t wait to see what happens next.(3)

Works Cited

1) Halberstam, Jack J. In A Queer Place and Time: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives New York: NYU Press, 2005
2) Davis, Will. “Queering the Room”
3) Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: the Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York; NYU Press, 2009

Sarah J Culkin is a theatre creator and facilitator from the prairies (Treaty 6) whose practice is accountable to queer process and subject in performance, with a vested interest in spectacle, new work, and community. Current passions include sending postcards and hate-watching Glee.

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