I think it’s fair to say that audiences have never really known what to expect from Canoe Theatre Festival. But, for the 2015 festival, it’s especially true for Mark Harris’ immersive, interactive show, The Hierarchy of the Lost Children. Mark says, “It’s a little bit like a sports event. You kind of don’t know how it’s going to end, but [in this case] you really don’t know how it’s going to end.”
Having been mounted several times in the United States since 2013, Mark describes The Hierarchy of the Lost Children as, “Inviting audiences into the world of this new age group and allowing them to interact with the group and experience some of their techniques and ways of engaging attendees… The show is about allowing yourself to get involved with a group like this and see what happens and where it takes you. Or where you decide to go with it. A group like this is often called a cult, so it’s about allowing yourself to come in and interact with directly with a group like this which you may never do in any other circumstance.”
The show is separated into three distinct parts all wrapped up into one continuous experience: a recruitment event, an initiation ceremony, and a documentary about the group’s patron saint, Evelyn Hamilton. While there is a structure to The Hierarchy of the Lost Children, Mark emphasizes that the show gives audience members the chance to create their own narrative within that defined structure. “The show has a structure and we will lead the audience in a specific direction – that can all explode because it’s dependent on the audience getting involved – but there is a direction. I say ‘create thier own narrative’ because they’re going to choose different narratives within the show to follow. The show is set up so… you can’t do everything in the show. You have to make choices, and that’s by design. You can create your own narrative and it’s my hope that you do certain things, I do certain things and later on at the bar we get to tell each other stories about what we did.”
For this run at the Canoe Theatre Festival, the show is being presented in partnership with Rapid Fire Theatre, which means that the cast members we typically see at The Citadel will be playing the roles of people who have already joined The Hierarchy. “Working with [Rapid Fire] so far has really excited me, not only for how excited they are, but they seem very together, they’re a tight-knit group of people who work together a lot. They seem like they’re going to make the show unbelievable.” And while Mark acknowledges that in a community as small as Edmonton, many of the show’s attendees will already know the actors or seen their improv work, but there’s a plan for that. “We definitely blur the lines between reality and fiction and that’s even more-so with Rapid Fire because probably a lot of people coming to the show will know them personally, but we already have a plan in place to take the creep level up to 11 for those people.”
With such a large component of the show based on unscripted, natural audience interaction with the actors (including interactive activities like soul readings, creative visualization exercises, and personal intraphysics testing), I asked about what the process is to help the actors prepare for the show is. “I have a lot of [documentation] that maps out not only what’s going to happen, but also how to deal with certain situations and a whole mess of research material that I give them that they can start looking at ahead of time. There’s plenty of material to talk to people about off the cuff if people have questions.”
I also asked about what some of the most interesting audience reactions and responses have been in previous productions and Mark has a wide range of recollections. “Two people walked out of the initiation in the Lincoln Centre and were horrified. That was great because the guy doing the initiation just screamed at them and told them to, ‘Get out with the rest of the maggots!’… In the Florida show, there was a girl who came, not more than 20, and in the begining of the show there’s these video monitors playing and she plopped herself down in sort of a yoga pose. We do have cases where people have shown up trying to punk us – they take on a character, and I couldn’t tell if that was her case or not – but she went through the whole thing and during the film portion she left like three times and came back in. Afterwards at the concession stand they told me she kept coming up in tears for water. I don’t know what her deal was, but that was a pretty powerful situation. Similarly, there was another woman who ended up crying in the Act 1 piece, there’s a one-on-one piece where it’s just one actor and one audience member. So, if people are primed right you can get pretty powerful emotional reactions, which is good because that’s what this is about. Pushing your right buttons to make you fall in for this.”
On what he hopes will be the end outcome for audiences after taking part in The Hierarchy of the Lost Children, Mark says, “I really want them to have a religious experience. Which, I know, will probably happen in very rare cases. [But] I want to be able to seduce them enough by the ideas of this group that they understand that they can be taken in as well. That anyone of us could be taken in under the right circumstances. Once that happens, there’s elements of the show that turn around and challenge you…. What I want is for people to fall in love with this group and see the consequences of that.”
The Hierarchy of the Lost Children plays at the PCL Studio in the ATB Financial Arts Barns as part of Canoe Festival January 28 – February 1. Performances are January 28, 29, and 30 @ 8:00. Tickets are $20 – $25 from Workshop West.
PS – check out The Hierarchy’s Twitter account for more information about the group, their beliefs, and what members of the group are saying about it.