Spine explores man and the machine

Just in time for the Paralympics, multimedia <em>Spine</em> explores Second Life avatars and real-life pain, all set against a landscape of disability

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      Given that his Realwheels theatre company is mounting a new work, Spine, that’s partially based on a popular virtual-reality Web site, James Sanders felt honour-bound to seek out some firsthand experience of Second Life. It didn’t quite go as he’d planned.

      “Our Second Life consultant and content creator, Joanna Robinson, invited me to a play in Second Life,” reveals the Vancouver actor, in a conference call with Spine director Bob Frazer and the Straight. “Everyone that attended the play was wearing these very elaborate costumes, and they had this seating area where they all sat on these large, large chairs. My avatar was basically wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and I couldn’t sit down. I didn’t know how to get my avatar to sit down, so I kept bumping into this chair, and into other avatars. Finally, I got so embarrassed that I just left—I think I left my avatar flying over the ocean somewhere, and I haven’t been back since.

      “I’m completely useless in that environment,” he adds, laughing.

      Fortunately, Sanders is quite at home in the very different virtual-reality environment of the theatre. Along with Frazer and playwright Kevin Kerr, he was the driving force behind 2007’s Skydive, Realwheels’ gut-wrenching exploration of brotherly love, disability, and jumping out of moving aircraft. For Spine, they’ve expanded their focus: the cast includes 13 students from the graduating class of the University of Alberta’s Edmonton-based theatre department, where Kerr is playwright in residence; the human interactions they depict take place in a dizzying world of Second Life avatars and real-life pain; and computerized visuals are as important as set design.

      It’s hard to explain everything that’s going on in this multimedia production’s many-levelled world, but the plot touches on gender fluidity, the current economic crisis, and the seductive appeal of role-playing games—and that’s just as far as Sanders’s own role goes. James, the depressed and freshly unemployed character played by Sanders, seeks solace from his woes by posing as a woman on-line—and in the process discovers that he’s maybe not quite as wounded, or as isolated, as he fears.

      “One of the questions we started with was ”˜How do we, as people today, kind of negotiate the idea of real? What do we consider real? What does that word even mean to us?’ ” says Kerr, from his U of A office. “We wanted to allow the piece itself to fall into a fuzzy grey area, in terms of reality and stuff, so we chose to let the actors and the characters share the same names. And there are definitely overlaps between fiction and fact within the piece.”

      Some of the young actors, for instance, play an experimental-theatre troupe called the Precursors, using a play-within-a-play convention that dates back to William Shakespeare’s time. (Significantly, the troupe’s manifesto is all about how art can empower the otherwise powerless.) And details from the actors’ lives—including the fact that James, like Sanders, spends his days in a wheelchair as the result of an old injury—are intermingled with Kerr’s inventions. Spine also takes a somewhat critical look at the increasingly theatrical experience of everyday life—at least for those who indulge in on-line role-playing—while making giddy use of the new theatrical possibilities opened up by various digital technologies.

      “It’s a funny thing,” says Frazer. “When we were developing the show, Kevin and James were talking about all this technology and getting excited by it, and I was angrily defending humans, and just being human. So we would get into these great arguments—but eventually we kind of all agreed with each other that, okay, we have all this technology entering the world, but at the same time we are humans using the technology. So there’s some sort of blend that happens there that can actually be quite fascinating, and that shouldn’t be something to be afraid of.”

      Sanders, for one, has no fear of a technologically assisted existence. Without the highly sophisticated piece of machinery that is his wheelchair, he’d be nearly immobile, and he sees an analogy between how technology has made his life possible and the ways it can broaden human experience in general. In turn, he hopes that Spine’s Second Life–inspired story line encourages audiences to open up to the ways in which other people, including the disabled, experience reality.

      “Our mandate is to deepen the audience’s understanding of the disability experience,” he says. “We’re not trying to beat hard lessons into people, or tell stories where disability is the issue. Rather, disability is the landscape upon which universal issues are discussed.”

      Sport is another arena in which the disabled actively seek to challenge societal prejudices, so it’s fitting that Spine is being presented—at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU Woodward’s through March 20—in conjunction with the 2010 Paralympic Games. Were there a gold medal for imagination, the Realwheels team would most definitely be in the running.