LORI GARRISON Thu Sep 7th, 2017 2:30pm
‘It offers perspectives that community members in the audience might not even be aware exist’
Regardless of how you feel about Canadian actor Jim Carrey and his flailing limbs, most people are familiar with the famous ‘bathroom scene’ in the 1998 film, The Truman Show.
In this scene, the viewer watches Carrey — playing the titular character, Truman — pretend to be an astronaut, drawing a helmet on the mirror with a bar of soap and talking to himself as if he were landing on the moon.
The pleasure in this moment is not based solely on simple voyeurism — Truman does not know he is being watched — but from the intimacy of seeing someone say and do things with an authenticity and lack of reservation. Seeing him be himself in such an inhibited way, it’s hard not to think of the similarities and differences of your own private behaviour, and so you feel both intrigued and attached to Truman.
Busted Up: A Yukon Story attempts to do something similar on a much more personal, localized — and real — level. The play, written by Open Pit Theatre’s co-artistic director Geneviève Doyon, revolves around real conversations with real Yukoners about their relationship to the land, performed by actors. The dialogue comes from recorded conversations from interviews conducted by Doyon and director Jessica Hickman.
Hickman and Doyon interviewed 60 participants from communities across the territory, narrowing them down to 33 ‘characters.’ These dialogues are performed by seven actors, three of which — Brenda Barnes, Roy Nelson and Doyon herself — are local, four of which have been hired from Outside. This small number of actors and large number of roles means the actors must don multiple personalities in a really intimate way in a very short span of time, a challenging feat requiring a tremendous amount of sensitivity and skill, says Hickman.
“We were looking for people who can play multiple roles simultaneously,” she says.
The ‘characters’ in the show are all real people — people audience members may know and see every day — but their names have been changed to protect their identities. All participants were made aware — often multiple times, says Doyon — that their words could and would be used in a theatre production. The actors behave as what Doyon refers to as a “vehicle” for the thoughts and words of the interviewees, which protects their identities and allows for a curious blend of honesty and anonymity.
Busted Up features these interviews without the questions or input Doyon used during the interview process, and is designed to be true — or as true as possible — to the interviewees’ experience and selves.
The piece belongs to a family of theatre known as ‘verbatim,’ where each word — including pauses, sighs, cadence and ‘ums’ — the interviewee uttered is repeated by the actor. It has been compared to journalism or documentaries but Doyon says that it is neither of those things. Since it is theatre and not a movie or an article, it allows the audience to “witness the story being told to them,” in a unique way, she says.
“My theatre professor used to tell me that theatre is one of the few places where people come and sit down and listen for an hour, since people don’t go to church anymore,” she says.
“I’m very aware there is power in editing. We don’t need the hook journalism needs…. We’re able to give more than one minute. It allows for authenticity.”
This kind of authenticity is a really important idea in the work, she says. In the face of the issue of cultural appropriation, Doyon, a self-described “thirty-something white female,” says it was very important to her to keep her own voice out of the play as much as possible.
Doyon says she and Hickman endeavoured to make sure their interviews represented as comprehensive a Yukon experience as possible — immigrant, settler, born-and-raised, First Nations, young and old. That meant doing a second set of interviews when the first round proved to not have all the voices she felt needed to be included.
“It’s not like, ‘great, now I have these words, now I can do whatever I want with them,’” Doyon says. “I really wanted to remove myself and my voice as much as possible. For me, this was an authentic and respectful way to represent our community without putting ourselves in it and making it about ourselves.”
“I’m not into theatre that doesn’t take risks.”
No matter how sensitive and thoughtful one is, however, working with actors in a medium like this — especially in a small community — presents challenges. Accents, for example, pose a particular problem, Hickman says. If the interviewee has an accent and the actor doesn’t, do you have the actor try to affect the accent? How do you do that without making “a caricature” of the interviewee? Does the accent and dialect not somehow impart meaning on the dialogue, and does it change the meaning of the words to exclude it?
“With the accents, there’s no definite answer,” Hickman says. “Is it offensive to do it? Is it offensive not to do it? There’s no hard and fast rule… it’s case by case.”
Hickman says she combatted these concerns through careful consideration to details, through physicality and the “becoming of these people.”
“It was a very detailed work…. We went sentence by sentence with the actors,” says Hickman. “As soon as you put it through the theatrical lens, it’s so easy to go to the extreme of making a caricature of them.”
One of the things Doyon and Hickman says surprised them about the piece was the wide variety of perspectives within the community, thoughts and opinions that they didn’t even know existed, they say.
“It offers perspectives that community members in the audience might not even be aware exist,” says Doyon. “The community is on a stage but also kind of off stage at the same time.”
“In a more general way, what struck me the most was how many different perspectives there are on topics and themes you didn’t even know about,” says Hickman.
“You may think you live in a very uniform community, but … to really see all those different perspectives, what does that mean, how we do we unify?” says Doyon.
“(Busted Up) was a way (of presenting these perspectives) that was felt was authentic and respectful to the Yukon of today,” says Doyon.
Busted Up: A Yukon Story has taken more than two years to produce; Doyon began conducting interviews in 2015, she says. It received $45,000 from the Canada 150 grant, an amount Doyon says is small in the grand scheme of things, but “a great honour,” for the company. Open Pit Theatre is the only local theatre company to receive Canada 150 funding. It premiers Sept. 13 at the Old Fire Hall, where it will play Wednesdays through to Saturdays, with Sunday matinees, until Sept. 23. There will be one show in Haines Junction on Sept. 26.
Contact Lori Garrison at firstname.lastname@example.org