David McIntosh says that the storyline of his newest show, Lives Were Around Me, will be incomprehensible to listeners who are hearing it for the first time. And he’s more than cool with that. In fact he personally enjoys material that’s so dense that it challenges—and even defeats—literal understanding. And when they’re taking in this theatrical experience, he hopes that audience members will give up on trying to nail down every detail of the narrative and allow other levels of meaning to emerge.
McIntosh is the artistic producer of battery opera, which is producing Lives Were Around Me, a roving, site-specific theatrical work that he has conceived and created. It leaves the Alibi Room hourly from 7 to 10 p.m. every Tuesday, beginning January 13 and running until February 24, with a guide walking an audience of three through the streets of the Downtown Eastside and into a couple of surprising interior locations. The guide—either Adrienne Wong or Paul Ternes—recites text from “Lives Were Around Me”, one of the chapters in Scottish author James Kelman’s 2001 novel, Translated Accounts.
Sitting in battery opera’s office in the Dominion Building at Hastings and Cambie streets, McIntosh reveals that he became interested in Kelman because of the writer’s reputation for unreadability. “Kelman won the Booker Prize for a novel called How late it was, how late,” McIntosh says, “and I was drawn to it because it was the only Booker Prize–winning novel that had no net benefit in sales, because the work is so dense and difficult.”
In “Lives Were Around Me”, the details of the story are deliberately vague. The narrator describes walking through a once-great port city. But exactly where he is, where he’s going, and what he’s doing, are all unclear. Referring to the climax, McIntosh says, “It could be a riot or it could be some kind of terrorist or insurgent act. We don’t really know.”
But, for McIntosh, the details of the literal story are less important than the way that the narrator imposes stories on others in order to understand himself. Unpacking that idea, McIntosh explains, “He [the narrator] is killing time and he’s imagining how he’s perceived by other people.” For instance, he wonders if the boy who is shining his shoes sees him as a tourist, a privileged outsider, and hates him for it. That fantasy involves creating an imagined life for the boy that may not be accurate.
McIntosh says that this exploration of the imposition of narratives on others results in one of the most interesting dynamics in the text: the tension between empathy and contempt. In imagining circumstances of the shoeshine boy’s life, is the narrator condescending to him? Is the narrator’s attempt at empathy a reductive intrusion?
In Lives Were Around Me, the idea of tourism becomes uncomfortable at times. I attended a dress rehearsal for the show and, sauntering through the impoverished streets of the Downtown Eastside on an art walk, I worried that I might be seen as a voyeur.
But McIntosh argues for allowing greater subtlety and variety in our perceptions. “I feel comfortable working here,” he says, “not because I represent anybody in the neighbourhood, but because I’ve shopped here at the Army & Navy and Woodward’s. And I played at the Smilin’ Buddha and all sorts of other art galleries and clubs in bands. And I drove a cab for nine years at night, so I was familiar with the bar scene from a working perspective. Lots of different parts of my own life have intersected in this area. So I don’t feel like it’s a no-go place.”
“There’s not just one kind of person in the downtown core,” he goes on. And he maintains that everybody in the region has a stake in the neighbourhood. “It’s still the centre of the city,” he says. “We’ve created this. Wherever you come from in the Lower Mainland, this area has been created by the Lower Mainland. And all of our lives are tied to it somehow.”