At the PuSh Festival's Fictions series, it’s blindfolds and human books

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Imagine putting on a blindfold and letting a complete stranger guide you through the city for two hours, into spaces both public and private. Or picture yourself walking into the downtown Vancouver Public Library and checking out a “human book” with a title such as Born-Again Christian. Or what about walking through the lobby of the Vancouver Art Gallery and suddenly seeing yourself worked into a story line that’s being projected onto a big screen?

Welcome to the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival’s new Fictions series, a three-show project that blurs the boundaries between performer and viewer like never before. Do You See What I Mean? is the sightless tour of Vancouver, put on by Lyon, France’s Projet in situ; Human Library is the brainchild of Copenhagen, Denmark’s Stop the Violence; and Sometimes I think, I can see you is Buenos Aires, Argentina, artist Mariano Pensotti’s concept of writers projecting their spontaneous stories on big screens. Each is a giant logistical feat in a public space, and each puts the audience in a vastly different role than we are used to when sitting in a darkened theatre.

“There’s an intimacy to these pieces; certainly, the work is experiential—in Europe they use the word immersive, and that suggests not only the aesthetic but also the idea of being inside of things,” explains PuSh executive director Norman Armour, speaking over the phone to the Straight from Toronto over the holidays before rushing back for the festival. “I’ve always said that theatre naturally takes a bigger commitment than watching a film; if you have a bad theatre experience, you may not see another show for six months. Well, this is taking it to the nth degree, whether it’s through a time commitment or just sitting down with someone.”

The most ambitious project is Do You See What I Mean?, which French artist-choreographers Martin Chaput and Martial Chazallon tell the Straight will involve almost 200 volunteers, not to mention a team of performers and visual and sound artists. Vancouver is the sixth city to host the piece since its debut in Marseille in 2005, and the two have made several visits here to get to know the players and secure the places along the one-on-one journey.

The pair has discovered that it really is possible for an audience to experience art without seeing it—and sometimes experience it on a deeper-than-normal level. “At the end of the day we realized there was more interacting for the audience member to feel it physically versus watching it,” explains Chazallon over the phone from France, before heading here. “The imaginary is there and it’s linked to the senses. It’s to give audience members the chance to let go. For us, it’s really to be in the moment, and to achieve that is difficult. It means you have to trust a stranger.”

That trust is a key part of the show: you are handing yourself over, blindfolded, to a Vancouverite who you don’t know. “They are walking together for two hours and the interaction is very deep and profound,” says Chazallon, who is reticent to give away too much about the exact locations or dance-performance aspects of Do You See. “They actually won’t see each other before it starts and they may not ever see each other.”

The participants in Human Library will certainly see each other, but it’s a similar exercise in an extended, one-on-one interaction with a stranger—an all-too-infrequent type of encounter in big-city life. Local playwright Dave Deveau is playing the role of curator—or librarian, if you will—choosing the people and the “titles” for his 25 human books. (Ten are available for visitors to “sign out” at any given time; you have about 20 minutes conversation time before you have to “return” it.) Deveau’s aim is to represent a wide spectrum of Vancouverites and collect points of view that people might not ever have been exposed to: titles include Occupy Activist, Drag Queen, and Islamophobe.

“They’re going to share things that we don’t necessarily share every day, and that to me is very theatrical,” Deveau tells the Straight. “It’s rare in theatre to have such an intimate encounter. Usually, your role is explicit: ‘I’m the audience and I’m going to sit here unless you invite me on-stage.’ But here we have an intimate moment with someone we potentially aren’t going to see again—so that 20 minutes is completely unique.”

Deveau has been meeting with his human books to coach them on jumping-off points for conversations. “My background is in playwriting, so in my case I’m working with each person one-on-one in finding the mini-narrative within their story as a way to engage the reader.”

That sense of “reading” will also come into play in Sometimes I think, I can see you, says Armour, who adds the concept ties in nicely with the Fictions series title. “It’s the idea of the audience as a reader—a reader of what they’re experiencing,” he says of the work, which will also place writers in the VPL atrium. “It’s igniting the imaginative space, which a lot of us have entered, whether sitting in a train terminal or in the lobby of a hotel.”

The Fictions series’ sense of directly engaging the audience and asking for a degree of trust from it is something Armour says PuSh has been building toward with previous public-sited works—and he’s excited to continue expanding that kind of programming into 2014 and beyond.

“With this community there is a growing intelligence and savvy around these kinds of projects,” Armour says. “It’s PuSh’s ninth year, and next year is our 10th anniversary. You hope you’re becoming more of yourself, with more depth and reach. And this year the festival has probably the greatest breadth and reach of any in the past.”

Human Library is at the Vancouver Public Library’s central branch from January 18 to 20 and 25 to 27, and from February 1 to 3. Sometimes I think, I can see you is at the VPL and the Vancouver Art Gallery from January 18 to 20 and 25 to 27, and from February 1 to 3. Do You See What I Mean? departs from the Access Gallery from January 25 to 27 and from February 1 to 3.

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