Rising local playwrights Christine Quintana and Norman Yeung send Tremors into digital space

At this year’s festival of emerging talent, local plays Selfie and Theory look at social media and the dangers of Internet anonymity

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      Communication and how it can get warped in our wired world are at the core of two of-the-moment B.C. plays at this year’s Tremors festival.

      In Norman Yeung’s Theory, a young professor champions free speech, encouraging her students to take part in an unmoderated Internet discussion board—one that quickly spins out of control when an anonymous student posts offensive comments and videos. In Christine Quintana’s Selfie, a sexual encounter at a teen house party spirals into even more complicated terrain when one of three friends posts about it on Instagram. Here, social media plays a central role in questions of assault and consent.

      The plays are by two fast-rising Vancouver actor-playwrights: Yeung took first prize in the Herman Voaden National Playwriting Competition in 2015; Quintana’s accolades include being named the 2017 Siminovitch Prize Protégé Playwright by Siminovitch winner Marcus Youssef, and an Urjo Kareda Emerging Artist Residency at Toronto’s acclaimed Tarragon Theatre.

      At Tremors, the biennial fest of emerging talent, the two plays find clever ways to project the digital back-and-forth between characters, not to mention (in Selfie’s case) their carefully curated Instagram pages.

      But as Quintana points out to the Straight by phone, just because a script makes central use of social media, it isn’t necessarily about that.

      “I don’t think this play is any more about social media than Shakespearean plays are about letters,” says Quintana, whose full-length rework of the play just enjoyed a premiere at Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre this spring. “In a way it’s just a form of communication. It’s important to keep the lens on the human behaviour.”

      That said, she’s already had to update the platforms her characters use, developing the play since the award-winning premiere of its shorter, French-language rendition at Vancouver’s Théâtre la Seizième in the 2015 season: “In the first version most of it happens on Facebook, and now most of it is on Instagram. Teenagers don’t use Facebook anymore.”

      In Theory, by Norman Yeung, an online forum spins out of control.
      Mark Halliday

      Yeung, who’s been developing Theory since 2009, laughs to think about the way digital communication has morphed in the time since he began working on his play.

      “Snapchat didn’t even exist in 2009,” he marvels, speaking to the Straight from the Thousand Islands Playhouse in Ganonoque, Ontario, where he’s appearing in the new comedy The Canadian. “From the start it was about Internet communication, though—a discussion around emails and postings that become a problem, and the dangers of anonymity because it makes us bolder. When we speak up on the Internet, where is accountability?”

      Like Quintana, however, he’s digging at something deeper and more complex than just our digital world. Isabelle, the young on-track-to-tenure prof at the centre of Theory, considers herself liberal-minded, but the discussion-group free-for-all, which quickly turns to hate and harassment, forces her to question her rigid beliefs about open debate.

      “Isabelle champions freedom of thought, but nowadays where does that sit? Is that right-wing or left-wing?” ponders Yeung, who has tried to explore all sides of the issue. “A lot of it is her encouraging her students to fight the institution and change things in a revolutionary way.

      “I offer many angles about the pros and cons of political correctness,” he adds. “And it’s situated in a university setting, which is definitely a hotbed for discussion now. What is a university supposed to do as far as exposing students to new ideas and growth and things that we never thought of before? If you can’t talk about certain things, is that limiting growth?”

      Quintana, too, has pushed to show the complexity of the issues she’s tackling—even more now, in her longer version of Selfie, which speaks so meaningfully to the #MeToo discussion.

      “An assault happens between two trusted friends and it takes the whole play for the characters to name and acknowledge what happened. With the play longer, everyone has to sit with it even longer,” she reflects. “I have been able to put the character through more self-doubt and victim-blaming. That helped to make the scenario more recognizable as something that could happen in our own communities.

      “This is the lived experience of myself and many people I know, and what is great is that I feel the level of nuance I’m trying to get at is there.”

      To date, Quintana’s play has shown to younger audiences, but she’s eager to see it staged for only slightly older crowds at Tremors. “Adults are no better at talking about consent,” she says. “The idea is we recognize what sexual assault is, but when it comes time to name perpetrators, we don’t want to ruin their lives. That’s because we see sexual assaulters as complete monsters, instead of saying, ‘Here’s a person you like and trust but whose critical misunderstanding of consent transforms people’s lives forever.’ ”

      Quintana has been disturbed and yet heartened by the open, deep conversations about the definition of consent she’s seen at talkbacks for teens—and Tremors will host what should be similarly engaging postshow audience discussions on August 21, 23, and 24. In addition, Quintana, Yeung, and playwright Dave Deveau (whose Tiny Replicas is also on the Tremors roster) gather for a free Speaker Series event on August 22 to share their insights into working as a playwright today. They’ll also speak solo about their works after special performances—Quintana after the August 18 performance, Yeung on August 22, and Deveau on August 23.

      Both Quintana and Yeung are excited to see their ideas explored by the young directors, designers, stage managers, technical artists, producers, and performers working in the hothouse of the Tremors fest. And they’re eager to see their works presented in the intimate and intense atmosphere of the rooms of the Italian Cultural Centre, which serves as Tremors’ ground zero.

      “For an audience to be that intimate and up-close—that’s kind of opposite to the alienating effect that social media has,” Quintana observes.

      Rumble Theatre presents the Tremors Festival of Emerging Talent at the Italian Cultural Centre from next Thursday (August 16) to August 25.