In the News: PuSh in CanPlay magazine
August 19, 2008
The PuSh Festival was written up in the most recent issue of CanPlay, the Playwright Guild of Canada’s quarterly news magazine. The article was a feature on various national festivals and we were given permission from the author and the PGC to reprint the PuSh portion of the piece, so read on . . .
By Alex Lazaridis Ferguson
Could this be the future of theatre in Vancouver? On one side, the glass front of the Public Library climbs several stories, leaving each floor open to view. On the other side, people stream in and out of flower shops, groceries and cafes. In the middle is a bank of seats for a few dozen spectators who watch the crowd. Hidden within this crowd are four actors from Australia’s Back to Back Theatre. They are performing small metal objects, one of the hottest tickets at this year’s PuSh Festival. Most of the passersby are unaware of the actors, but the seated spectators can trace dialogue in the headphones they are wearing straight to those actors. The whole thing takes place in the library atrium, a crescent shaped concourse that, as always, serves as social gathering place and entry to the library. For an hour, this theatrical performance serves as the nexus for converging civic elements — on the left, commerce; on the right, a center of learning; in between, art and the everyday flow of humanity.
small metal objects is about a clash of cultures. Two of the actors are mentally and physically ‘challenged’ (though the show quickly strips such reference points of their prejudicial logic). The other two are ‘normals’. The first couple comes to represent a culture built on compassion and a pace of life that allows for careful consideration of the effect of human interaction. The second, that of the ‘normals’, is fast paced, goal-oriented and utilitarian. This clash of cultures is felt immediately, as the cadence of the dialogue (and the music that accompanies it in the spectators’ head phones) pulls against the speedier rhythm of the concourse crowd. Our relationship to this civic space is reconfigured, just as our understanding of the characters in the play is reformed. small metal objects challenges our standards of art and citizenship, and the relationship between these two things. The PuSh Festival began six years ago with the first objective (raise the bar) clearly in mind. As it has evolved, consciousness of the second (spectator and social engagement) has become more prominent. PuSh has asked Vancouver audiences to reach higher, to demand more, to meet artists on the artist’s terms; and now it’s asking spectators to consider the significance of their co-presence at a performance event. In this sense it’s pushing against the flow of mainstream theatre as well as mainstream culture — perhaps it’s pulling some of that flow into itself. As in the case of small metal objects, the festival has become the link for a confluence of complementary and competing agendas, including art for its own sake, and art as a voice in civic issues.
In 2007, the festival opened with Forced Entertainment’s Quizoola! (UK), a durational question-and-answer performance that took place in a cement factory on Granville Island. Next year, it will present Radix Theatre’s acclaimed Assembly (Vancouver) at a conference room in the Granville Island Hotel. Assembly is an interactive “surreal self-motivation seminar” which playfully questions notions of success and dares to find common ground among the spectators. PuSh ’09 will also feature an installation verbatim-theatre piece about Filipino domestic workers (Urban Crawl, Vancouver). If you throw in this year’s production of My Name is Rachel Corrie by neworldtheatre (Vancouver), and Haircuts by Children by Mammalian Diving Reflex (Toronto), you get a sense that PuSh is pushing performance that seeks explicit engagement with social/political issues of the day. This is a refreshing change from the mainly apolitical theatre landscape that has dominated the scene for years.
But don’t worry, if issue-oriented theatre isn’t your thing, the art-for-art’s-sake quotient has been well stocked due to the work of Vancouver creation-based companies like Theatre Replacement, The Electric Company and Boca Del Lupo. Each of these companies was presented at this year’s festival, and each one has pushed its stagecraft further than ever with arresting, image-based work and with sophisticated technical prowess (something that was often lacking in the scene before these companies came along). But if the stagecraft is impressive, the writing in general lags behind. Both The Electric Company (Palace Grand) and Theatre Replacement (Clark and I Somewhere in Connecticut) served up scripts about the metaphysical dangers of art creation. Both used laboured metaphors and leitmotif writing (repeating sequences and images) that tended toward mere repetitiveness. Boca Del Lupo took a ‘lateral’ approach to narrative with My Dad, My Dog, blending fictional biography with live animation, but the oblique quality was stretched so thin the story got flattened out completely. Palace Grand did contain some beautiful passages; and James Long of Theatre Replacement made big advances over his previous script-writing endeavours with Clark and I, cleverly weaving the central image (himself in a rabbit suit) through the textual and visual narrative. But clever visual technique doesn’t make up for the kind of serious writing chops a dedicated writer can provide, one who is practiced in solving thematic challenges through language itself. Perhaps this is where the professional playwright can re-insert him or herself into the picture, not as a writer of plot and character psychology, but as one who constructs masterful passages that give extra dimension to the visual images supplied by the creation-based auteur. Societas Raffaello Sanzio (Italy) solved this problem in Hey Girl by matching stunningly crafted images with excerpts from the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet. Ah, the best of both worlds.
I can’t help coming back to small metal objects as the heart of this year’s festival. It seems close to the ideal that PuSh, and its Executive Director Norman Armour, is pursuing. It succeeded in bringing theatre to the city, and the city to theatre. Art concept and social issue were partnered in a way that was unforced. For an hour it seemed that theatre was essential to the life of the city, and not something that only happens in a specialized building for a niche citizen. At Havana, on Commercial Drive, people waited in line for two hours to get a ticket to neworld’s My Name is Rachel Corrie, a play about Western complicity in the Palestinian genocide. This seems to support the notion that if you do theatre that matters people will be banging on your doors to get in. Or in the case of small metal objects, they can just show up and be part of the performance. PuSh has raised the profile of Vancouver performing groups, raised audience expectation (and delivered), increased the size of its audience every year (by 100% this year), brought international artists to a city that is usually bypassed, and returned socially conscious theatre to the edges of the mainstream after a long hiatus. Because it also features contemporary dance and New Music/jazz, it has created a crossover audience. Because it has high artistic standards and a social conscience, it has the potential to become a going concern, not only for lovers of performance, but for Vancouverites looking for another way to understand themselves as a complex citizen body.