Feb. 03, 2010 - Issue #746: Spine
Spine explores the gap between the physical and the virtual worlds through disability and Second Life
When it came time for Kevin Kerr to fulfil his commission as Lee
Playwright in Residence at the University of Alberta this spring, he dusted
off an idea that had already been in the works for years with his friends at
RealWheels Theatre in Vancouver—James Sanders' theatre company, which
produces works encouraging understanding of the disability experience, had
already accepted a separate commission for this year's Cultural Olympiad in
Vancouver. The original pitch, Sanders describes, was for something
resembling a re-telling of the Frankenstein story.
But while fulfilling his residency at the U of A, Kerr hoped to team up again with actor Bob Frazer, who performed in Kerr's Governor General Award-winning play Unity (1918) in 2002, and actor/producer Sanders—all three had also worked together on the aerial action-adventure play Skydive in 2007—it just looked like both timelines wouldn't jive. Plus, the stipulation of Kerr's commission was that his resulting play would include the graduating BFA Acting class of 2010, and had to be presented at the U of A before the cast's graduation this spring.
"I knew I wouldn't be able to work both projects, and James said, 'Well, what if the two projects were the same project?'" Kerr describes, adding that Sanders, who became quadriplegic from a spinal cord injury in 1990, was the one who really got the ball rolling for Spine—as he has a tendency to do with most of his undertakings. "His fearlessness and his belief is what got this institution on board with the idea," says Kerr. Enter Frazer and Sanders as Studio Theatre's Distinguished Visiting Artists for 2010—Frazer this time as Director and Sanders joining the onstage ensemble—and bada-boom: you've got Spine, which is scheduled to premiere at the U of A before packing up all 12 BFA grads and shipping them off to Vancouver to perform the show in conjunction with the Paralympic Games later this month.
Now, Spine actually exists on two different planes of reality; much like our modern existence is increasingly mediated through virtual networks of people (or their consciences, if you like), Spine's story lies on stage and in the bodies of actors, but is also told through the actors' avatars in a Second Life simulation. (meaning: the corporeal BFA class will be there along with Sanders onstage, but the audience will also experience them through various technologies—don't worry, explanation on the multimedia to come shortly.)
The basis of the story surrounds a collective group of artists, known as the Precursors, who hit a roadblock in their creative process when one of their cohort is injured. As Carmela (played by Carmela Sison) recovers from the recent accident that has left her paraplegic, she meets peer counsellor James (played by Sanders), who has suddenly lost his job. Meanwhile, a visitor from Japan named Hokuto (Nikolai Witschl) arrives in Vancouver in search of links to his Canadian past and meets the Precursors, whom he tries to help by navigating them through a Second Life plotline.
Somewhere beyond the fray of the Precursors and their Second Life project, there's a pair of researchers (Darren Paul and Sarah Sharkey) toying with human experiments that attempt to bridge responses in the nervous system with psychological and emotional cues. There's yet another character played by the petite Karyn Mott, an avatar that oversees everything from the year 2152 named, cheekily enough, Lee Playwright (which does conveniently resemble a Second Life-style moniker).
"Maybe it's what Kevin hopes he could be, a five-foot nothing, red-headed pretty girl," laughs Frazer. "Essentially, the idea is that somewhere outside the theatre, outside of our avatar lives, is someone controlling this entire project: and that is the Lee Playwright. God." Collective chuckles aside, it's this character that emphasizes the audience's role as avatars watching the play, too.
The fun of creating the commission was that there were so many pre-given variables to include, explains Kerr. "Producing independent theatre, it's pretty rare that you can do a show with 13 actors onstage, so we looked at it as a gift," he says. "A really great part of the process is knowing the group of artists that are going to be onstage and wanting to capitalize on that. They've been fantastic: they are fearless, talented, enthused and inspired individuals. This [BFA] group has been noted through their journey in school as an unusually cohesive group and have formed a very strong ensemble, and that energy has really influenced and aided the project."
In essence, Spine explores the modern idea of identity, and the gap between the physical body and who we actually are in a world mediated by virtuality. The point of the show's query, the three collaborators insist, lends to a theme that resembles the trials and tribulations that many people with disabilities experience, as their physical bodies can often be mistaken for who they are instead. This idea, Sanders notes, is summed up by a single line in the show, when Carmela expresses her frustration in rehabilitation: "I hate having this catheter in me so I don't wet my pants, I hate shitting myself. And mostly, I hate how much I have to talk to the staff about pissing and shitting myself."
"It's not so much what Carmela is going through physically in her body," explains Frazer. "It's more what she's going through mentally or emotionally: 'physically I shit and piss myself, big deal—it's the talking about it that really bothers me.'"
"There's more than the bodily functions that's at stake when you go to rehabilitation," adds Sanders. "You have to explain everything and you have to talk about it and rationalize, and I can see how that frustrates Carmela, and James relates to that because he's been there," he says, noting that there's a lot of instances in Spine that ring close to home for him. "There is a bit of personal risk in doing a character that is this close. When I look at James the character and I look at my own life, there are a lot of parallels, but the parallels have been fictionalized to provide a what-if. What if my life took a different direction?" Truly: what if you got the chance at your own Second Life?
Which leads us to the multimedia bit. Theatre traditionalists (and many a reviewer) are notoriously reluctant to accept techno-integration onstage. The Edmonton Sun's Colin McLean has gone on record saying, "I often approach dramatic multimedia productions with unease. Too often enthusiastic directors pile on the visuals, obliterating performers and overcoming subtlety." Even arts and film editor Paul Blinov at our Vue offices expressed a similar feeling: "If you're lucky, there's some interaction between the actors and the media, but multimedia often tends to be dispensable, a quick trick that sometimes feels lazier than it does innovative." (Both comments, it should be noted, come from reviews of Theatre Network's Buddy last season, which went on to receive city-wide accolades on how effectively the play used live video to tell its story).
In Spine, projections and video are used to manifest the Second Life world, while onstage sensors and actor-controlled Bluetooth devices are used to conduct a soundscape.
"I mean really, what is multimedia?" quips Frazer. "They started out at one point with candles onstage, and then they invented lightbulbs, and was that met with reservations? Then they introduced phonographs—oh my God, sound that's not live? It's just part of the process of growing as people as technology grows, too. It's gone beyond candles on the stage."
It's the technologically mediated world, Sanders says, that often causes the most visceral emotions in people on a daily basis. Think about how a simple status update on Facebook can send one reeling, or an anonymous comment can provoke uproar in an online community.
"My interest in the technology is to meet the demand of a more contemporary audience, and to try and attract people into the theatre that wouldn't normally go, because theatre is more traditional and it is something they're not familiar with," says Sanders. "The way we've employed technology in this show, some of it can be a little slick and sexy and some of it can enhance the experience for the audience—just as that they might have similar experiences with their computer, or with a film, or listening to music. I have no problem with people that want to do traditional, straight-up theatre, but what we're trying to do is provide an experience that people will enjoy and that they will invest their emotions in." V
Thu, Feb 4 – Sat, Feb 13 (7:30 pm)
Written By Kevin Kerr
Featuring the U of A's Graduating BFA Acting Class
Timms Centre for the Arts (87 Ave & 111 St), $10 – $20
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