By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
A preamble to Tracks, the online theatre that’s happening this week on your own screen….
Ever since going out to theatre, my way of life for forever, abruptly ended a thousand years ago (or 10 weeks, depending on your calendar), I’ve been at home.
In distractible fragments of late, I’ve watched filmed versions of productions, excerpts, play readings, archival footage and online scrapbooks, internet interviews with actors, director, assorted sages. I’ve watched discussions about whither theatre?, the history and future of theatre, how theatre is different from film and, oh I don’t know, gardening or making focaccia. I’ve seen Shakespeare at the Globe and the National Theatre in London, and the Stratford Festival in Ontario (including the marvellous Robert Lepage Coriolanus, available till Thursday). I’ve watched Brecht’s wife, the legendary actor Helene Weigel, in the Berliner Ensemble’s Mother Courage from 1950, and heard the audience coughing.
I’ve watched Helen Mirren and Judi Dench explain what acting means in an acting “class” on YouTube. Thanks to the clever pandemic reinvention of Die-Nasty I’ve watched improv as a radio play, with the cast members in their own homes responding to directorial cues as they go along.
There’s no shortage of theatre “content” online, but mostly it can’t capture the live theatre crackle of being with other people, both on the stage and off. (Not to discount the efforts: it serves as a reminder of what we’re missing, what we’ll love more than ever when it’s back). Until Tuesday night, though, I hadn’t seen an online play actually produced live and on the spot — especially for a small audience with tickets for a certain night. An audience (of 30) who are invited to adopt nickname aliases, make choices, and interact with the performers from time to time.
That show is Mac Brock’s Tracks, an ambitious venture by the experimental indie troupe Amoris Projects, supported by the Fringe (and especially by the creative expertise of the Fringe technical smartie Bradley King) and by director Beth Dart.
There were things about going out to the theatre last night I recognized from my vantage point in front my MacBook on my “office” table overlooking the back yard. For one thing, there’s an actual curtain time. So you could actually screw up and be late — a viable reason to get that familiar five minutes-to-curtain stress that’s usually related to misplacing your ticket, or parking. In honour of the occasion, and verisimilitude, I wore actual clothes (it seemed only right). And there’s pre-show music, an airy score by Matthew Cardinal that gives off hints of discernible voices. And, hey, there was a glass of wine (solely, you understand, in honour of opening night).
Tracks is a play about making a play — from storytelling. It’s a loose-limbed collection of personal “stories” from nine different artists (including playwright Mac Brock) about what kinds of stories they could, or maybe should, be telling as artists. It is self-referential, by very definition: it tracks artists back to their own homes. That’s where we find them gazing out at us, wondering about what they should reveal: Tracks is set, if that’s the right word, on the shifting frontier between art as confession and art as reinvention.
“We’d like to know you’re here,” says the screen, being typed by someone on the spot, then vanishing letter by letter in a visual metaphor you’re bound to appreciate. “Where are you?” wonders the production. “What is your story in three words?” The second question is, as you might imagine, a lot harder than the first.
I don’t want to spoil your sense of discovery that Tracks sets its collective mind to creating. But I can tell you that Brock’s own introduction and periodic returns — as an endearingly self-doubting quester figure — gives us a glimpse into the tentative, conditional nature of making your own story into art. It takes guts to unearth the meaning in a real-life event or self-destructive thought or reflection. And, as he reveals, it takes guts to share it, without knowing in advance whether the thought will find a receptive resonance with others. “I’m kind of freaking out,” he confesses, alluding to “a mountain of trying….”
Brock gives us a choice after each of his interventions. At every juncture we can choose to meet this artist or that one, via our typing fingers. I’m being vague on purpose about names. Choose away, for yourselves. But judging by the four high-contrast performers I saw in their homes, they seem to have a wide range of relationships or engagements with the unseen audience, me and 29 others.
Here’s a curious thought: If the Tracks performers each live in a theatre, so do you when you’re watching it. In the post-show Zoomed discussion, Mustafa Rafiq amusingly mentioned that since his performance takes place on his bed, he’s taken to sleeping on his own couch. NUIBOI echoed the thought. Part of their place is The Theatre; they live at the moment as a refugee in the remainder.
The most playful and oblique of the performers I saw casts himself, microphone in hand, in classic stand-up comedy configuration for a story of cross-cultural confusion. He even brings his own laugh track in case we flip off his wave-length.
One is a kind of witty, poetic confession about loneliness and multiple identities, and the way that screws up potential relationships. There’s one performer you never see, physically, except as shapes and sounds, and the play of light and shadow. One is more direct about seeking audience connection: a question-and-answer relationship in which the artist finally emerges from the shadow.
Seeing the performers at home (Regina-born Brock talks from a room dominated by a prairie landscape) is not just de rigueur at the moment. Dart makes it integral to her fascinating production, which is at pains to emphasize that this is a live experience. And I think you do feel that (with occasional moments, for me, that seem a little obviously an interaction “technique”).
We know the performers are with us, thanks to the smarts of an intriguing venture that had to invent its own way of rehearsing. It’s harder to create the feeling that the rest of the audience is live, too. Is there a real-life “us” when we can’t applaud and hear each other laughing and sighing? It’s our responsibility, as audience members, to make that connection spark and fire, in our written messages. That communication, unspoken, is easy, inevitable almost, in a shared room; it takes more ingenuity in the digital world.
Today I find myself wishing I could rewrite my messages so they’d be better, livelier for my fellow audience members and the performers. This new kind of resourcefulness is a premium when you’re making tracks through a new pandemic world.
12thnight talks to playwright Mac Brock and director Beth Dart HERE.
Fringe Theatre Off Season
Theatre: Amoris Productions
Created by: Mac Brock with the ensemble
Directed by: Beth Dart
Starring: Asia Bowman, Mac Brock, Fatmi El Fassi El Fihri, Anthony Hunchak, Moses Kouyaté, Marguerite Lawler, Hayley Moorhouse, NIUBOI, Mustafa Rafiq
Where: your own home
Running: through May 24