As a performance style, site-specific work is still relatively new in Edmonton. Of course, we do have wonderful companies working in site-specific theatre like Thou Art Here Theatre and the Common Ground Arts Society (who produces Found Festival), but it’s always great to get more shows in the city that take advantage of the neat spaces we pass through every day.
For Ken Cameron, a Calgary-based playwright, director and theatre producer, the specific characteristics and traits of an iPod were inspiration for the piece he is bringing to Edmonton as part of Canoe Theatre Festival (January 28 – February 1), How iRan: Three Plays for iPod.
Ken says How iRan tells the story of, “An immigrant leaving Iran, travelling through a number of countries in a kind of itinerant way and finally coming to Canada, meeting a woman, having a relationship with that woman and then his wife and family come over and he has to sever that relationship and build a new life with the wife and family and then the new generation grows up in Canada and finally that new generation returns to Iran.”
The story, which is based on Ken’s interviews with 20 people, including blogger Hossein Derakhshan, portrays the immigrant experience beyond the generalities that most people assume. Ken says, “What I got out of the interviews was I got specifics. I got emotions, I got tiny, tiny incidents that were very telling that people generously shared with me and generously allowed me to work into the play.”
As mentioned above, the play is site-specific in several ways: audience members listen to the play on an iPod set to shuffle while moving around a library to find the specific art display the audio track is referencing. Each display of art corresponds to an audio track that’s part of the show and is a volunteer’s personal response to that specific part of the play. The original art works were mostly created by the same people who volunteered to be interviewed by Ken about their experience of coming to Canada, although as the show has traveled Ken has engaged local community members to add their own works of art in response to the show.
Ken says his challenge to himself throughout the entire creation process was to always bring the play back to why the audio component had to be experienced on an iPod. “I started with the idea of an iPod… I had been seeing a lot of plays that were taking place on an iPod and not a lot of them seemed to be answering the question, ‘Why does this play have to be on an iPod?’ I would see something and think, ‘Oh, that could be a radio play.’ Or I’d see something and think’, ‘Oh, that could be a walking tour with an actual person walking me through it. It doesn’t actually need to be on an iPod.’ So, I set myself the challenge, why does it have to be on an iPod and not any other medium or platform? and I asked myself, ‘Well, what does an iPod do?’ and I came up with three things. An iPod shuffles… That was why it was important to me that it was a non-linear thing. [In terms of] site-specific, the “site” was an iPod. The other thing was well, when you put on an iPod and walk through the city, it also isolates you from everybody else in the city. I wanted to create an experience where many people could be going through the play at the same time but none of them would be in the same world or the same phase as anybody else… The third thing I thought about was the sense of social. With an iPod it’s intimately connected with iTunes and there’s a sense of sharing with an iPod. What do you have on your iPod? What do I have on mine? How do you share music? So there’s a social aspect to it that happens when you take the iPod off and talk about the music… So, when the play is over and everyone takes their iPods off, we take them into another room at the end for the final phase, which I call the second act, and that’s where [the audience] talks about what they’ve experienced and compare notes about the fact that they’ve each had a vastly different experience of the same story.”
And by the way, if you’re questioning whether Ken can really be right about everyone having a different experience, he says the number of combinations resulting from playing the tracks on the iPods on shuffle is 10.6 million.
Another way How iRan uses site-specificity to develop its theme is that it has been developed to be played in a library. Ken says this is important for three reasons, “If I’m having a non-linear story where the time is cut up… location should therefore be the stable piece. I wanted to have the whole thing set in one location… I wanted a place where people would remain for a long period of time – 30 years… The second reason is the connection with freedom of speech. The third reason is that libraries have become one of the main points of contact for new immigrants to Canada. When you come to Canada you need resources. You need books in your own language, you need books for your children to read in English and you have a limited budget so you can’t be buying them all the time. Recognizing that, libraries have taken on a role in providing a whole plethora of immigrant services: resume-building, language-building, language classes, new immigrant services, sexual abuse centres, marriage abuse centres are often finding a locus in and around the library. There’s a whole new social role that libraries have taken on over the past few decades that resonate with this play as well.”
As mentioned, How iRan is much more than a solitary experience of putting on headphones and walking through the library listening to a story and looking at works of art. The second act of the show, which happens after the audiences unplug from the iPod, is an interactive, engaging discussion of what each audience member has experienced. Ken says, “It’s about recognizing the fact that you just did an extraordinary thing in that you’ve pieced a non-narrative story back together again and it also reinforces for the audience that you have just experienced something that no one else in the room as experienced and no other patron will experience… People have told me stories of being at one of the art installations and they’re looking at the artwork and listening to the story and they’re laughing and the person next to them is looking at the same artwork, listening to the same story, and they’re crying. What causes that is the information you have at that point is different from the information the other person has at that point. The person who is crying knows what the last scene of the play is. So, this scene happening right now is full of tragic irony that the other person isn’t aware of because they haven’t gotten that far. So, Act 2 is an important portion of the story for everyone to highlight that for themselves, to reflect on that on one level – the whole narrative level – and on a thematic level it’s also an opportunity for them to tease out those bits of themes… on a third level it’s an opportunity for members of the audience to build a community for themselves.”
My interview with Ken closes on a beautiful note that I think summarizes the experience audiences can expect from How iRan:“It’s a piece that you can only experience individually because of the iPods, but you can only understand it collectively, as part of a group.”
How iRan: Three Plays for iPod runs January 28 – February 1 at the Old Strathcona Library as part of Canoe Theatre Festival. There are three performances each day – all for free! – so check out Workshop West’s website for schedule information.