Theatre traditionally starts with words, ideas, images, and stories—but what would it look like if it grew straight out of cold, hard numbers? We’re about to find out at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival with 100% Vancouver, a show that takes statistics from the 2006 census and puts a human face on them.
Using a format first tried by the Berlin-based troupe Rimini Protokoll in both its hometown and Vienna, local group Theatre Replacement has broken down census figures on age, sex, marital status, mother tongue, and neighbourhood and recruited precisely 100 regular Vancouverites to represent those percentages. The result is that, when all the nonactors are gathered on-stage at the SFU Woodward’s Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre on January 21 and 22, you’ll see 51 women, eight kids in the zero-to-nine age range, and three people over 80 years old. As far as first languages go, you’ll see 49 with English as their first language; 26 with Mandarin, Cantonese, or Taiwanese; and two with French or Korean. In other words, the gathering is a living, breathing microcosm of Vancouver. And when the participants start telling the stories of who they are and what brought them here, this grand theatrical experiment promises to paint an even more detailed picture of the ever-shifting and incredibly diverse city on its 125th anniversary.
“I imagine that if I jumped on the SkyTrain at YVR and took it downtown to see a show, I’d rub shoulders with about 100 people and might know some to talk to, and others I wouldn’t have ever probably been in their neighbourhoods. And I tend to think this sample of the population will look like that,” explains Tim Carlson, the work’s dramaturge and one of four casting directors who helped scour the city participants in the show, which will be part of PuSh’s 125th Anniversary Series. Carlson is sitting in a Main Street coffee hub, clicking away at a laptop that displays the elaborate Google grid and computer files used to compile participants’ data and stories. “That’s what’s interesting: we’re taking that sample population, putting it on-stage, and putting it under the microscope so they [the participants] have to respond to each other.”
Carlson and his team found participants by following Rimini Protokoll’s format. It stipulated that the first person chosen had to be a statistical expert, and that he or she would have 24 hours to recruit the next person, who would have to find the next, and so on. To cover off harder-to-find categories, 100% had to do more general recruitment calls. Where the casting directors stepped in was to ascertain if the players fit the statistical criteria and were available for the show. Then they would travel to the person’s home to perform an interview that would form the basis for the loose script, and to take a photograph of the person with a favourite object that he or she will bring on-stage.
“In the interviews, we would immediately put them on the spot with questions like ”˜What makes you unique? Why did you choose that item?’ ” Carlson relates. “ ”˜Would you refuse to fill out the long-form census? What’s the best city in the world? How do you define wealth?’ ”
Not surprisingly, when visiting people’s homes, Carlson heard fascinating stories from everyone from young children to senior citizens. In one of the tales that has made its way into the work, Joan, an energetic 88-year-old, recounts the moving history of how she came here from New Brunswick: when her husband was killed in the Second World War, she and her children packed their bags and went as far as the railway would take them.
“She jumped on and said, ”˜I’m taking it to the end of the line,’ ” Carlson recounts. “She has lived in Kerrisdale ever since and is a remarkable example of a Vancouverite of that generation and time, and really speaks to who’s here from that generation.”
Also telling was the story of Thai, a man who moved his family here from Vietnam last summer. “It was not to run away from persecution or as a refugee but as a business and an education decision,” Carlson says. “That kind of speaks to immigration now—20 years ago he would most likely have been a refugee.”
100% Vancouver won’t just recount a dozen or so select stories; it will ask questions that force the players to sort and re-sort themselves to show demographic patterns—for example, those who were born on other continents might have to group together. Or they might have to simultaneously mime the actions they do during a 24-hour period.
Part of the excitement of this kind of theatre, says Carlson—who also worked with Rimini Protokoll on last year’s interactive video-game-themed Best Before at PuSh—is its unpredictability. “We’ve got 100 people on-stage in this piece and just a few rehearsals,” he explains of this cutting-edge fusion of reality and performance. “You don’t know exactly how people are going to react. But if you want a picture of what a population is doing, that it is an evolving thing.”
The 100% show will be accompanied by a publication that collects images of the players along with text from their interviews; it will be on sale at the shows and is put out by Fillip Editions in the format of 100 postcards in a box.
The project is a huge undertaking with unpredictable, highly revealing results—not unlike the national long-form census it’s based on. And Carlson is all too aware of the irony and significance of mounting this project at a time when the federal Conservatives are provoking controversy by threatening to axe that detailed survey.
“Right at the time I was starting the project [last summer] was when the Conservatives were talking about cutting the census,” Carlson says. “So it’s just interesting doing this right at that political moment.” It’s a moment—and an opportunity for Vancouver audiences—that might never come again if our federal leaders have their way.
100% Vancouver plays at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre stage at SFU Woodward’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts on January 21 and 22.