Talk about reaching out and touching someone: imagine holding the hand of an actor for the entirety of a play.
That’s the basic concept behind All Good Things, by Toronto’s Vertical City Performance. It’s part of Boca del Lupo’s Micro Performance Series—and of a national and worldwide trend toward more intimate theatre experiences in our high-tech, hyperdigitized world.
The play had its start at Toronto’s Rhubarb Festival as part of the One to One Performance Series—as in one actor, one audience member. For each of its Vancouver showings at the small Anderson Street Space, it will have 11 viewers—one who reaches out to actor Martin Julien over a small table, with the others sitting in closely on the 30-minute conversation in the near dark.
“It began with sustained physical contact—two people, two strangers, hold each other’s hand for half an hour. And that is something we don’t do in our lives or in our society—maybe only with spouses or our children,” says writer and director Bruce Barton, speaking with Julien over Skype to the Straight from Vertical City’s Hogtown headquarters. “Sustaining that contact is quite revelatory.”
For Julien, who speaks directly to the audience member he sits across from, it’s changed his ideas about what his art form can do. “When you’re acting in the theatre, you talk about trying to connect with the audience. But even in the smallest of black boxes there is a kind of conventionalized distance that is endemic and something you’re working against,” he explains. “As soon as you’re holding hands with an audience member, they act as a conduit, and it becomes extremely visceral and natural.
“But at the same time, a tremendous amount of craft is coming into play. So it’s incredibly intimate but incredibly calculated, and those two things don’t normally come into play in our lives. That’s challenging, and that is very satisfying.”
All Good Things is structured like a conversation, with Julien asking his chosen stranger a series of questions and slowly revealing a harrowing real-life event that happened to Barton (one they don’t want to reveal here; suffice it to say, it ties in directly and poetically with the act of holding hands). Julien says the show has a little of himself in it, as he must react to whatever the audience partner says, a little of Barton, and then a lot of the third, fictional character he plays in the work.
“So much of the event is in the way it’s performed. The script is only half to two-thirds of the event,” Barton explains.
The main audience member is drawn by lottery from a pool of people who volunteer for the role at the beginning of the show. Barton says it’s important not to put anyone in the spot who does not want to be there.
“My only stipulation was that I didn’t want to hold any responsibility for choosing that person,” stresses Julien. “There’s something integral about engaging with a stranger. That was one of the most provocative things about it that I enjoyed: that I didn’t hold their hand until they appeared [on-stage]. So there’s always a degree of randomness.”
“It’s remarkable to watch people settle into a relationship,” Barton adds. “It’s quite moving.”
All Good Things ends this season’s Micro Performance Series on an especially intimate note, though over the course of the past several months the program has found everything from performer Jovanni Sy cooking a traditional Filipino meal in the Granville Island Public Market’s courtyard (A Taste of Empire) to actor Emelia Symington Fedy leading a yoga class that becomes a portrait of a woman searching endlessly through every new-age treatment (Through the Gaze of a Navel).
Boca del Lupo, which has always stressed the series is about presenting work custom-made on a tiny, personal scale, has tapped into a much larger trend. A quick scan of the #MicroPerf Tumblr shows happenings on a similarly minute scale all year long across North America and in Europe, whether it’s a vintage VW camper van becoming a literally pop-up theatre venue or Broadway set designer Christine Jones inventing a portable cubicle called Theatre for One. As a recent article in the Guardian defined it: “Micro-performance, as the name suggests, is not about thinking big. Often put on in tiny spaces (think quaint cafes and living rooms) to small audiences (from two or three to two dozen), the allure of micro-performance is about quick and nimble productions unconstrained by large-scale planning, and free from the pressure to sell hundreds of seats night upon night.” It also tied the thrust to produce such work to economic constraints around the world, specifically in Spain, where austerity has led to a boom in tiny, DIY theatre.
Julien and Barton report the trend is growing here in Canada, pointing to shows like Mammalian Diving Reflex’s recent senior-citizen erotic talk All the Sex I’ve Ever Had as an example of what’s happening in Toronto. But they say the Vancouver scene, where everything from the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival to Theatre Replacement to the Hive events has experimented with the micro form, has been a big influence on their own work as well.
More than anything, shows like All Good Things seem to be appealing to new audiences because they offer an unplugged connection that’s barely attainable in an era when people prefer texts to phone calls, and virtual chats to the real kind.
As Julien puts it, in fittingly succinct fashion, “It’s respite from a busy world.”
Boca del Lupo presents All Good Things at the Anderson Street Space on Granville Island from Thursday through Sunday (June 26 to 29) at various times throughout each day and evening.