Commissioned by Neworld Theatre and PTC
Presented by the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, January 21 - February 6, 2011
Created by Adrienne Wong & Joelysa Pankanea, Proximity Arts, David McIntosh & Max Murphy, and Martin Kinch & Noah Drew.
For tickets and show times, visit Neworld Theatre
by Sarah Banting
Let’s say I deliberately chose one of the chilliest wet days of a dark December to preview PodPlays - The Quartet. Dusk, too: the growing dark must have been my idea. That gives me a measure of creative control, making me director of mood and wardrobe in this new site-specific piece for solo audiences. Damp gloves, hoodie, umbrella. Gloomy sea-coast city. iPod. I’m set.
The weather affected my experience of these four short plays, of course, and whatever the day is like when you take them in this month or in early February, it will affect yours. Look forward to it. Because these are audio pieces, downloaded onto your mp3 player* and piped in by your earphones, they unfold as if from inside your head. They are so intimately with and within you, as you walk along listening to them, that it’s your body that brings them into contact with the world. Your skin, chilled or sunlit. Out there alone in our Vancouver, as the night fell too early, the rain and cold made me feel how exposed I was to the elements of this specific place. But at the same time I was secretly a capsule containing voices and soundscapes. I was buoyed up and protected by what I heard, warmed and secured by this good company.
I’m tempted to say too much about the content and precise map of the PodPlays: the plays are each moving and thoughtful, in their quiet but insistent ways, and the experience of being guided by them around the fringes of downtown, through doors and passageways I had never seen before, gave me plenty to think about. The histories and futures of this city. Colonial guilt and greed. Our strained relationships with those we love, or once loved. The feeling of being in city space. Not wanting to spoil it for you—though perhaps that would be impossible? Your experience will be different than mine—let me comment instead on just one of the remarkable things I think the Quartet does to temporarily transform the experience of living in a city.
Landmarks are clearly an important part of how we map our worlds. And, although some of them may be private, we necessarily also use landmarks in our attempts to coordinate maps with others. Can you tell me how to get to the Woodwards Atrium? Well, if you’re coming from the east, follow the big W… Living in densely populated places, we are aware that many other people share landmarks with us. Especially major landmarks: the stand-out features of the street grid. But each of us knows a different version of the city, so it can take some explaining to orient friends or strangers to the little landmarks in a neighbourhood that’s new to them. What do you see around you?, we say into our phones. Okay, you’re almost there. Just keep going past the Nestors.
The PodPlays guide you—expertly, I think—along their four consecutive routes using little landmarks. Each play does it slightly differently, depending on who is speaking, and whether the voice is addressing you directly or guiding someone else along a path through the city, while you listen in and follow along. Do you see that building that looks like a flying saucer?, asks one voice. Keep walking towards it as it fades from view. Another voice instructs you, encouragingly, to see something you hadn’t yet noticed, picking it out for you from the view ahead, so that you may move towards it. See the restaurant’s black terraced railing jutting out into your path. Lean forward over the railing. Peer in the windows. Don’t stare.
I’ve done research, recently, on how Vancouver landmarks get mentioned in theatre and fiction set in this city. What strikes me, in many cases, is how conspicuous and deliberate these mentions sound—how conscious they are of their varied audiences, some of whom might recognize the landmarks, some not. The Second Narrows Bridge!, a play or novel will say, importantly. Stanley Park! Main and Hastings! Mentioning these major landmarks is almost a political act: it coordinates maps at a grand scale, pointing out that there is an audience out here that recognizes and identifies with these places. We are Vancouverites!
What the PodPlays do is to invent a new kind of very little landmark, one that does not depend on your prior knowledge of the city. (Usually, in fact, when they weren’t taking me through a part of the city I’d never yet seen, they were coaxing me to look at familiar places from a new angle.) To move you along their winding path they give directions by offering some immediate feature of the world around you as a point of orientation. They mention these new landmarks in the most make-shift of terms. Do you see that door straight ahead? The letter R. That’s where we’re headed. No official capital-letter place names here, names that might be marked on a map. Instead, they are simple, general nouns—descriptive, yes, but stripped down to the fewest words possible—which should for those reasons be vague directions except that, in the circumstance of these plays, they are absolutely, spectacularly precise. They are what sub-local knowledge you share with the voices of these plays. They are just what’s suddenly right there in front of you.
We’ll go in here, underneath it, the service tunnel straight on. The arrow points right but go straight on, just watch out for the traffic.
I felt oddly secure, as I experienced the PodPlays. I felt taken care of, gently guided by voices that knew just where I was, because they were there with me. There it was, the arrow. My eyes found it just as they said those words. The service tunnel. I get it! I was a solitary body wandering along the edges of the city. But I was in sure hands: a Gretel following Hansel’s little trail of stones through the weird forest safely home.
* or one borrowed from Neworld Theatre
Sarah Banting, PhD
Arts Studies in Research and Writing