PuSh Play Episode 9: “Same Difference” Transcript

Listen to the episode here.

Gabrielle [00:00:02] Hello and welcome to PuSh Play, a PuSh Festival podcast featuring conversations with artists who are pushing boundaries and playing with form. I’m Gabrielle Martin. PuSh’s Director of Programming. And today’s episode highlights multimedia experiments in immersive form. I’m speaking with David Mesiha, responsible for concept projection design, sound design and also the project lead on Same Difference and Gavan Cheema, responsible for dramaturgy and co development. Same Difference will be presented at PuSh Festival January 18th to 20th 2024. As an immersive mixed media installation and digital performance, Same Difference invites audiences to wander through a beautiful, ever shifting environment of mirrors, music and video imagery where you might encounter the other and the self in new ways. David’s practice centres around examining questions of form in interactive and performance arts. His interdisciplinary works integrate VR, AR and video game design in imagining new creative spaces that open dialogue between visual arts traditions and those of the performing arts. Gavan created work and directed for various local, national and international stages and has extensive experience in youth engagement, theatre education and workshop facilitation. Her play Himmat premiered in Vancouver at The Cultch in May 2022 and will be presented at the Surrey Civic Theatres in April 2024. I’m thrilled to share this discussion on a work that invites us to encounter ourselves in a whole new way. Here’s my conversation with David and Gavan. 

Gabrielle [00:01:35] Hello, I’m Gabrielle and I’m the director of programming with the PuSh Festival. And I’m here in conversation today with David Mesiha and Gavan Chema. And we’re talking about Same Difference and a bit about the practice, your practice in general as collaborators and co-artistic directors of Theatre Conspiracy. So David, as the concept, production design and sound design and project lead behind Same Difference and Gavan is is dramaturgy and co-development on the project. And also just a little note that, David, you’re involved in quite a few PuSh projects this year. So your work will be while it’s really centred with Same Difference, you’re also you’ve created the original music and sound design for asses.masses, and you’re also the music composer and sound designer on Sound of the Beast. So it’s a little bit of a David Mesiha spotlight at PuSh 2024. Anyways, very excited to be in conversation with you today. 

David [00:02:36] Thank you. Grateful for it. 

Gabrielle [00:02:38] I just want to start out by saying by just acknowledging the land that I’m on today and where I’m having this conversation with you from. I’m on the unceded, the stolen ancestral and traditional territories of the Coast Salish peoples, the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh). And I know that I think Gavan you are in Surrey… Colonially known as Surrey?

Gavan [00:03:02] Yeah. So I’m on the Katzie, Semiahmoo, and Kwantlen First Nation land, which is also colonially known as Surrey. So I’ve been here, I’ve been you know a first generation kid, born and raised on these lands and always kind of thinking about my relationship to the Coast Salish people. 

David [00:03:18] And I’m calling in from colonially known as Toronto, Tkaronto, which is the traditional territory of many nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnaabe, the Chippewa, the Haundenosaunee and the Wendat peoples and subject to the Treaty 13.

Gabrielle [00:03:43] Thank you. Thank you for providing that context. And I want to jump right in. So, David, as a music composer, interactive designer, sound and video designer, your practice centres the questioning or the questioning of form and interactive and performing arts. And so I’m curious, how are you experimented with form in Same Difference

David [00:04:06] Yeah, thanks for the question. Same Difference sort of builds on a number of previous pieces, such as a long term investigation of of form and performance and centring design as an equal part of of development and presentation of the work and not just something that is quote unquote ‘supporting’ a narrative. It’s an integral part of the narrative. So in Same Difference, there is not a linear narrative. It is a kind of choose your own adventure in a way for audiences. Audiences are free to choose where and how to experience the piece in the in the context of the piece they can experience said by being in the middle of the space where projection and the set that this form of two way mirrors gives them the flexibility to choose perspectives and vantage points which changes drastically what they experience and see or they can experience around the perimeter. They’re listening to a series of interviews that have been done with immigrants and refugees. Now, more specifically, the piece does not have any like performers and so it is self-guided, does not have a guide, it does not have a master of ceremonies of any kind. So it exists in the in-between worlds of visual arts, installation, media arts and performance. And it is still a performance because of how things are constructed and how the space invites audience to be performers. And so, so to be more specific that there are no live performers and that audiences choose… It is self-guided for the audiences. And there are two simultaneous containers for the experience and within them many different vantage points depending on where and how you move in the space. And and it’s very much playing also with the tension between sort of a meditative experience and one that is actively engaged with narrative, although one that is nonlinear and emergent. 

Gabrielle [00:06:08] How does the way you’re working with form in this project relate to some of your other Theatre Conspiracy work? 

David [00:06:14] Yeah. So actually, even before Theatre Conspiracy, I’d worked with Parjad Sharifi on a project many years ago called Project X was with Leaky Heaven in 2010, and in that piece, Parjad and I was the first time that we experimented with mirrors and audiences actually watching and experiencing a show through mirrors as the main container and driver of the affect of the piece. So that was one of the first times we’re sort of putting audiences in a totally immersive environment that dictates everything about their experience was sort of emerging. That work then became also part of Theatre Conspiracy when I worked as a co-creator and designer for Foreign Radical. And in Foreign Radical, it is an immersive and interactive piece. And the container for Foreign Radical is audiences are constantly being moved from space to space and what they see mediated through projection design, lighting and sounds is quite different all the time. And different groups of audiences experience different things at all times, and sometimes they are aware of what other groups of audiences are experiencing and sometimes they are not. And that really informs the emergent narrative that occurs between different groups of audiences in the space and how the space itself sort of evolves through the duration of the piece. So I feel Same Difference very much is sort of the natural progression of, of these two like sort of touchstones or landmark pieces and over the last ten years in that takes that further with allowing audiences to cater their own experiences. Also opportunities for audiences to interact with each other in whatever ways they choose. And yeah, so it, so it kind of pushes even further the idea of immersion and interactivity within a performance space. And this time, without even the help of a guide or a present performer as narrator. 

Gabrielle [00:08:12] Yeah. I want to know a little bit more of the dramaturgy considerations when working with form this way, but working with interactivity and immersion. Gavan, you’re a director, playwright, producer and dramaturg, and as a dramaturg and co developer on this project, what have been some of the key dramaturgic considerations throughout and specifically with regard to its form? 

Gavan [00:08:32] Yeah, absolutely. So like with this piece, just for some context that this piece was in development for for several years and has been in David’s brain for probably like ten years, right. So I think as somebody that’s, of course, a dramaturg on this project, but also somebody that’s, you know, a friend of David. I think it was a really special, you know, investigation of what this piece is going to be and what the form is going to be. Because as a dramaturgical outside eye you’re of course trying to look at what is this piece and what are the all the things that it can do. Right. But it’s also like, what is David’s vision and like what is the thing that he’s trying to execute and like, how do we make sense of this experience that doesn’t have any performers, that is immersive, but that has these powerful stories? So I think it was a really exciting opportunity to like, look at how all of these things are going to be in question with each other. And I think one of the most exciting things about being a dramaturg on this piece specifically is like A) asking the difficult questions in terms of like logistics, like trying to figure out how audiences are going to interact with the space, but then also asking the really obvious questions where it’s like, if we do this thing, like, how is that going to change somebody’s experience of this piece and just having the opportunity to watch it again and again and again and again and really try to understand like, what are the ways that we want audiences to best experience this piece and how can we develop a container for that? And also for some more context in terms of development, this piece did have actors at one point, right? So like when you’re working, you know, in devised creation processes and like in rooms with several people, like I think as a dramaturg, just trusting that like, instinct is important. And sometimes that means just tossing out something that you spent like a couple of years doing and being like, ‘this is the thing.’ And really just like encouraging people to like, move forward with that and trust their instincts and, you know, create the thing that makes the most sense. So I think with this piece in particular that was also a gift is when we figured out what it was. And what it was, was a piece that didn’t have live performers and trusting that like that was going to be the container and then trying to think about form in a different way with that context. Because we had spent a few years, you know, investigating this as a documentary piece of theatre that had actors, that had text, that had all these different pieces. And then another exciting thing about this piece and being dramaturgical, you know, lends to it is like trying to think about what documentary is, is in form. And I think that’s also really exciting with Same Difference because I think it it does kind of challenge what documentary is in form in a theatrical sense. And it was really exciting to be able to investigate what the limitations of that are and what the potential experiences are that we can create with audiences, you know, interacting with stories that are real, right? And how do we respect those real stories and those narratives as well as, you know, the experience that we’re trying to create for people? 

Gabrielle [00:11:48] Yeah. I just want to circle back. I’m curious why why this work did not require live artists or actors in order to communicate what it needed to communicate or why the other forms took precedent or where became a priority. 

Gavan [00:12:06] I can let David speak to this in a second as well. But I think for me, in terms of thinking about it, dramaturgical, it was kind of essential. Like at least for me, when that clicked, it was essentially making this piece a play that isn’t a is isn’t like, you know, an identity play or it’s like when you put actors on stage and they’re embodying other identities that are really different, especially when we’re thinking about things in terms of immigrant stories and refugee stories. I think the exciting thing about making this piece have all these stories is just exist in the voices that they came from in various different ways. It really allowed us to create an experience that is about somebody questioning their sense of self, somebody thinking about like their relationship, you know, to all these different, of course voices, but also their relationship to their self. And I think it gave us a lot of opportunity to play and really ask the difficult questions and the exciting questions that we wanted to without kind of, you know, being, you know, cornered into this being somebody’s identity that somebody else is embodying. And then putting text onto stage makes it really concrete. And the form that this piece takes now makes it a meditative experience that people will take what makes sense for them away from it. 

David [00:13:28] It’s a little bit actually ironic because when I very when I started working on this piece at all, even before sort of starting to put into formal context, I was imagining it initially as an installation and we did our very first workshop, in fact, in 2018 in Toronto investigating the installation aspects of it and then over the pandemic and also as the original team of creators were present, there was a desire and a drive to try to find narratives through lines and not through lines led us down the path of having performers and having performers let us down the line of of imposing linear narratives and and stories in a way that is a different less about the affect and more about telling plot lines, even if they are informed heavily by real stories and documentaries. But as we sort of did those experiments and in fact did a public showing, I had a strong inkling that that was not it. Many of the reasons are what Gavan spoke to about, that this is not really about identity in a geopolitical sense. And as soon as especially when you’re centring refugee and immigrant stories and as soon as you put bodies of performers on stage with it, that automatically becomes a thing that everybody gravitates to. And not that that’s not valuable, but in this particular experience, I felt that that actually was creating a distance between what I was hoping audiences would experience firsthand and stories. And I was more trying to imagine a world where the affect of questioning sense of self and a relationship to identity is at the heart of it. And that relates to not only immigrants and refugees, but many, many people. And sense of self, I feel, is is a thing that goes even a step deeper than geopolitical and even ethnic identity. They’re completely related, of course. But, you know, it’s what makes people who grew up in the same communities and places their whole life still feel like outsiders. It’s that sense of self. There’s a fracture that can happen and that that is at a deeper level. And I was really curious about that. And on top of that, I also felt that actually even language as text in theatrical context could be a little bit detrimental in this kind of process because as soon as we use language as a way to approximate concepts, I sometimes it may allow people to again create distance between affect and and complex questions and simply overlaying it on somebody else and relating to it at an arm’s length. And I was really hoping that we could find a way to allow people to experience uniquely and individually completely the affect of questioning sense of self and questioning ‘How do I know I am who I am? How do I know that what I think is right? How do I know that my cultural heritage or community or context is right or is wrong?’ And interviewing immigrants and refugee, that was really clear. It’s easier to highlight in those contexts. It’s not only happening to them, but often people come from environments and societies where they believed one set of things almost an axiomatic way about the world. They’re transported to a new place and they’re faced with new questions and new realities that makes them question all of it: ‘was what I believe in ever true. And if it is or it is not, how do I know that what I believe now is true or not?’ So anyway, it’s a long way of saying about to say that we just felt, and with support of Gavan and other co-creators, it was actually a relief arriving at a place of like, we don’t have to force it. We can actually engage with this piece for what it wants to be and focus on the affect and experience of the space as opposed to telling one unique story. 

Gabrielle [00:17:23] I want to focus more on yeah what you’re talking about, which is this sense of self and belonging. And I know that the research process for Same Difference involved interviewing immigrants and refugees, which you’ve referenced as part of your exploration into how much sameness and difference we need to feel like we belong. And I’m curious if the nature of your inquiry or your perspective on this changed through the process of realising the project? 

David [00:17:46] Yeah, I don’t think it completely changed it, more like it confirmed suspicions and there was there was some comfort in that on a personal, very personal level, being an immigrant myself, I reference that in my program notes that I often feel like I don’t belong in any space. I’m often in kind of a state of suspension in between spaces. I’m not I’m not somebody who feels at home when I relate to Egypt or when I go on visits. I don’t. I feel like an outsider there in many ways. I feel like home in other ways. And similarly here. I also often find that I’m in spaces where even language and how my brain works because it jumps between many different language functions, I cannot fully express myself. Or if I do, there are assumptions about what I’m saying. So all to say that I was curious about if this was just me. Or other people would experience the same thing. And the interviews were phenomenal, not just because the stories are so incredibly touching, beautiful, but also that there was this underlying theme almost with all the stories. And no matter what we had, you know, people who are in the 60s who had emigrated from Ireland to young people from Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, the whole gamut. Bosnia as well as Serbia. I interviewed those two like back to back two days, and it was quite fascinating. They immigrated during the Yugoslav War and it was quite fascinating to hear what they had to say. And so what I… What was also comforting about it was a couple of things is that there is something about outsiders that felt like they were always outsiders, even where they come from. And there’s a suspicion that a certainly for immigrants sometimes actually the reason why they emigrate beyond their socio economic motivations, that there are also sometimes a feeling that wherever they are is not fitting, is not working, and they need to find something else. And then there’s also the similarities between all the different stories, regardless of the specificities about their political context, which could be very different on a personal level. There were a lot of similarities about how they were experiencing this sense of fractures, how they were coming to terms to it, how were they were living with it. And I found to me what was a revelation and discovery was being obsessed with sameness and difference was no longer actually kind of the objective. It was not really important to define one’s identity in terms of sameness and difference, understanding identity is transient and almost always changing and evolving, but in fact actually acknowledging the fracture that happens when your in-between states can actually be beautiful and can provide a whole new kind of outlook, an opportunity to engage in the world in a very different and hopefully empathetic way because you’re able to see through the fractured, the complexities and one’s identity and sense of self. 

Gavan [00:20:53] As Yeah, absolutely. I think David summed up that question really well, and I think it was honestly like a gift, being able to listen to those interviews multiple times and to be able to pull out the threads that tie us all together as as humans that go through these lived experiences that are really real and really visceral and like hearing how people describe those. You know, the first day of school at a new space, like, you know, trying to find a job in a new space like these experiences that I think everybody has in life and then try to think about ways that that gets even fractured when you’re new and you’re trying to figure out your place in this new world. Right? Because I think that was one thing that was really interesting when you’re looking at these interviews, back to back to back to back, and you get to listen to them all is is how does, you know, like coming to a new place like really change these formative experiences that you may have as a young person, but also as somebody that maybe came here older and how there’s so much sameness in that. But also people that still live here, like I was born and raised in Surrey, but I definitely come from a Punjabi family and, you know, like my older siblings were ESL for many, many years because they didn’t necessarily have the same language skills as a kid born and raised here, and how there’s all these layers of of complication that kind of we all navigate and work through as, as young people coming, you know, to a colonial space. I think that’s another thing where it’s like we’re all trying to investigate, like what our relationship is to the space, to ourselves. And it was really beautiful being able to listen to all of the interviews many times and find those threads and then think about it dramaturgically in terms of this experience and what are the, what are the stories that we want to highlight in the installation because we only have like 45 minutes, right? So how do we take like hours and hours and hours of beautiful stories and like really rich images and really kind of like zero in on the ones that we feel were kind of really providing us that container that we wanted to investigate. 

Gabrielle [00:23:10] I’m wondering and we’re talking about identity, we’re talking about sense of self, and you’ve also both touched on your own experiences and how they intersect with the subject matter. And so I’m curious beyond Same Difference, where does your lived experience sit in relationship to the work you create? 

David [00:23:30] For me, actually, that’s even when I was I remember even as a young child in Egypt, I was feeling and not an outsider in terms of like social context. I had I had a very social active social life, but an outsider in terms of perspective, I always was seeking what is where is the crack, What is different about what is being shared with me? When I was very young, I remember spending hours like making faces in mirrors, as I’m sure most many, many people do. But what I also remember thinking like if I was paying enough attention, I could maybe see how the image in the mirror is different from how I’m acting. And I could catch a break and I would be able to tell how we are different because it was a feeling I could never put my finger on. All to say that… So my work has been very much obsessed with finding the nuance and and looking at ways to sit in the discomfort of the grey zone, of not knowing where the clear lines are and and where we sit. And it’s a very uncomfortable space, but it’s a space that I also really relish in the work because I find that complexity of that space and the nuance that can be found in there speaks to me a lot more about what it means to be human and that that is something beautiful about that connecting with everybody, regardless of ethnic, religious, geopolitical context. Not at all saying that those things don’t have like an insanely massive impact on lived experience, of course, and complicate things on people’s lived experience, but also the norms that can be found in the complexities that arise with these systems, and then the experiences as individuals is something that fascinates me. So a lot of my work tends to be about using then also media and design as ways to look at those cracks and look at those cracks in form and aesthetically as much as in content. And I kind of view all of that as one thing. I think of design and and dramaturgy and content as one thing and not, you know, not as just layers that come after each other. They’re just all performers onstage at all times. 

Gavan [00:25:50] Yeah, absolutely. And I think to add to that, like for me, one of the exciting things about seeing difference and thinking about it in relationship to my other work is how it really challenges for me personally and also I think for both of us, just like what documentary can be and like the place the documentary has in our theatrical landscape here, because I think a lot of the work that I’ve done in the last little while with Theatre Conspiracy and also my personal projects is really thinking about, you know, memory, thinking about how we remember particular things that happen in our lives and how, you know, even a documentary story is going to be affected by the way that people choose to share different information about themselves. And then how as a director, you know, a writer, a dramaturg, you get to work with that material and create a narrative that makes sense to you. So there’s always all these layers, even within documentary work, of kind of editing and reframing and fracturing and working with stories that I think is really exciting. And I think for me, when I think about, you know, my relationship to my work, I think that it’s also exists in my brain. Like, how do I edit my own stories? How do I fracture my own narratives and how do I piece together stories that create an opportunity for people to just be vulnerable with each other? Because I think at the end of the day, like that for me is really like the powerful nature of of documentary theatre and of works like this that are not prescriptive is it really gives people an opportunity to exist in spaces and really just like ground themselves in this like mutual sense of vulnerability that like David’s speaking to where it’s like we are humans and like we all experience these different things regardless of like how we arrive to them and like how do we provide people with the space to investigate that, to challenge that, and also to like be playful with that and kind of how do we infuse some fun and humour in that? And I think that’s one of the really exciting things about this piece. And then also about how I think about my work is to not necessarily lose that fun, to lose that humour, because sometimes documentary work can get really heavy. I guess people’s stories carry a lot of weight and they’re really rich in especially these ones. So those are some of the things that I think about when you ask that question. 

Gabrielle [00:28:15] Thank you. Yeah. In conversation with you, it’s really clear the passion that you bring to your work, your shared areas of inquiry, your rapport. And I’m curious, you’re both co-directors of Theatre Conspiracy and clearly collaborated on this project. And so I’m curious about what the shared values are that energise you to to collaborate. 

Gavan [00:28:37] Yeah, absolutely. Like I think for both David and I like if it’s not already, clear we love working collaboratively and like we really love working in spaces that are non-hierarchical that really provide us an opportunity to kind of come as we are and see those differences in maybe thought in perspective as like ways that we can elevate the work. So I think for us, it’s always being in conversation with each other about what are the things that are important to us and like not necessarily losing our values. Because I think David and I have both very similar values. Like we both work at Theatre Conspiracy and we’re drawn to Theatre Conspiracy because the company has historically created spaces for artists to come together from various different backgrounds and work collaboratively and work in spaces you know that are devised. And I think for us, when we think about our co leadership, a lot of it is really intertwined with the values that already exist within the company and thinking about the ways that we’re excited to kind of move forward with all these things. 

David [00:29:38] So beautifully said, everything Gavan said. And yeah, and just like I’ve said, like Theatre Conspiracy already has a long legacy, led by Tim Carlson was one of the co founders, of empowering and enriching the community of artists in Vancouver while creating work that is also in conversation with internationally, with with our international community. And so I’m very passionate and excited about us being able to continue that legacy in terms of how we support our local artists, but also creating work that continues to challenge to be in conversation with the international community, but also challenge our assumptions about everything, challenge our assumptions about what we know about how we create work and about form and about what is performance and about what is documentary. That really excites me again, because that’s where complexity and complexity I think is beautiful. 

Gabrielle [00:30:39] Perfect, precise, articulate note to end on. It’s been really inspiring to be in conversation with you. It’s a real honour to be able to have Same Difference as part of the 2024 PuSh program. Same Difference will be on at the Roundhouse January 24th to 28th. Yeah. Thank you so much. Thank you so much for having spent all the years of research on developing this piece and realising it as it is now and for bringing the piece to PuSh. 

Tricia Knowles [00:31:12] That was Gabrielle Martin’s conversation with David Mesiha, responsible for concept, projection and sound design and project lead on Same Difference. Joined by Gavan Cheema, who is responsible for dramaturgy and co-development of Same Difference. The performative installation will be a part of the 2024 PuSh Festival. I’m Tricia Knowles, producer of PuSh Play along with Ben Charland. PuSh Play is also supported by our community outreach Coordinator, Julian Legere. Thanks to Joseph Hirabayashi, conductor and creator of the original music featured in our podcast. New episodes with Gabrielle Martin are released every Monday and Thursday. And for more information on PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, please visit us at pushfestival.ca and follow us @PuShFestival on Social Media. Coming up on the next episode of PuSh Play: 

Rakesh Sukesh [00:32:10] Breath is a it’s like the inner root of our self. It’s like the tree. So the deeper the karma, the the proper you breathe, the more resilient you become. Bringing the power of breath and dealing with the different natures of us, Body, mind, spirit, spirit whatever, the environment and past and future. And how do you navigate all those different aspects? By keeping the breath as the core.