Close your eyes and imagine a stereotypical Western movie. Do you see:
- the guns?
- the horses?
- the whores?
- the whisky?
- the hero?
Do you already know how the movie starts and ends? Yes?
The general familiarity and predictability of the Western genre of film was what inspired Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse to write and perform A Western, which is part of Workshop West’s 2013 Canoe Theatre Festival. Gemma says, “we became really interested in Westerns as a gradual thing – James’ Grandfather used to always watch these John Wayne Westerns and we would talk about how funny that was and I think we kind of had this sense of knowing all the scenes from the film or knowing the storyline without having ever necessarily sit down and watched an entire film.”
Enabled by the use of a narrator, A Western turns the performance space into the backdrop of any Western movie. The aisle in the bar becomes main street, the space at the back becomes the prairie, the bar becomes the local saloon. Each scene is introduced by the narrator, saying “this is the scene where…” and then goes on to describe a stereotypical Western scene. The actors then rush over to another part of the bar and perform the scene the narrator described.
What I found most interesting about the performance was that the use of the narrator breaks up the performance and stops the audience from becoming absorbed in the world of the Western – the way we do during movies or more ‘traditional’ plays – and instead forced me, at least, to think about what was actually being portrayed. If you’ve ever viewed a film that used discontinuous editing, the experience of being constantly removed from the fictional world was very similar. All of the sudden, hearing the female character continually referred to as “the whore” became disturbing, even though that’s perhaps how we would think of, or even describe, her character after a film or a play. The same goes for when who the ‘bad guys’ were was defined to the audience – as the list of who was a ‘bad guy’ rolled on – for example, people with mustaches, people who are ugly, people who are Mexican, Puerto Rican, Italian, English, or otherwise not American, etc. – I found myself seeing how many of these categories I fit into and then realizing the stereotypes that Western films perpetrate and how, even though the Western film genre was used even in the early 1900’s , these stereotypes are still present in today’s American culture.
Perhaps the most enlightening moment for me was near the end, when we “lawmen” were waiting to gun down the hero of the play. As I looked around the audience, seeing everyone’s excitement more or less matching my own – and even seeing someone loading imaginary bullets into their imaginary finger gun – I had a moment of “wait, we’re all sitting around, excited to kill someone?!” It was highly disconcerting, but I wouldn’t have felt that way without having been taken out of the fictional world by the narrator.
When I had a quick chat with Gemma after the show, she told me that this run of A Western is the first time the show has been performed in Canada – Gemma and James, who together form the company Action Hero are from Britain. I was immediately interested in how Canadian reactions to the piece were different than reactions in other parts of the world. After all, we all took history in high school and know that Canada was also part of the Western frontier that “needed to be settled.” To my surprise, Gemma told me that most audience reactions were fairly similar, even in Europe where there isn’t necessarily that shared experience of having been part of the “New World”, saying, “we’ve performed this piece in all different countries, places, and contexts and stuff and sometimes with people who English is their second language and it’s interesting how that experience of the American west or the narrative of the Western feels so first hand to you, even if you’re not from North America. Even if you’re Canadian, there’s sort of a ‘lived’ experience of what that kind of narrative means or what it means to be in a place that was a frontier land… Hollywood cinema is such a dominant cultural force over the whole world… it’s a really strange thing to think that a large portion of my cultural input [being from Britain] is North American, or specifically from Hollywood. Even though it’s not my story, or my history, or my anything, it’s being exported to me and the rest of the world continually. So, you feel like it belongs to you, even if it doesn’t.”
A Western has one last performance in Edmonton – Sunday, January 27 at 7:30 pm at New City Legion (8130 Gateway Boulevard). Run time is approximately 40 minutes. Tickets can be bought from Workshop West or at the door. A Western travels to Vancouver’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival next and then is on to Bangkok.
– Jenna Marynowski