A creepy reminder that we’re all being watched spurred comedy-theatre duo Hip.Bang! to delve into dark new territory with Surveil.
“We were meeting to talk about our next show and talking about technology and how pervasive it is, and we spoke about Google Home in particular,” Tom Hill recounts over the phone with the Straight, referring to his initial discussions with Devin Mackenzie. “Then when we got home, both of us get a targeted ad for Google Home.”
The idea that our phones may be listening to us led Hip.Bang! to create one of several form-pushing shows at this year’s rEvolver Festival. Using immersive, and frankly scary, high-tech tricks, they force us to confront what many of us prefer to deny: that as we casually share our personal details on the Interweb, someone is looking on.
For the latest incarnation, the team has recruited the help of intelligence-software expert (and, yes, former Google employee) Kory Mathewson for an experience that will give you a direct wakeup call on just how invadable your privacy is. Audiences even have to sign a waiver to get into Surveil—not that it seems to bother them too much.
“The goal of the show is very much to make it tangible and very much face the nastiness of it,” Hill explains of Surveil, an evolving project that’s been a hit everywhere from JFL NorthWest and TOSketchFest to the Vancouver Fringe (where it shared the top artistic-risk prize). “The waivers, I think, initially started like more of a joke. And then it became clear that it was absolutely not a joke. We’ve had three people not sign it out of thousands who have seen the show, and it’s interesting to see just that amount of people who just kind of sign it and move on.”
In the production, the audience joins characters Charles and Daniel at the CES Technology Conference, with Peter Carlone playing their back-end worker Kyle. “The starting point for the characters was probably this unfortunate tech-bro culture that is happening,” Mackenzie elaborates in a separate call. Explaining that Hill plays the A-type Charles, he adds: “Daniel is more of a shut-in kind of dude and he had a bit of a traumatizing incident, so now he has some obsessive personality traits that lead him to install cameras.”
The show marks a bold new direction for a company that made its name in comedy with improv, sketch works, and full-length scripted shows like White Pants, but is increasingly hard to categorize. Along with exploring film series, Hip.Bang! is now traversing into solid theatrical territory, especially with director Marie Farsi (of Crow’s Theatre) at the helm of Surveil.
“Everything we’ve done to this point was 100 percent comedy,” Hill says. “Here, the comedy becomes a drama.” For its incarnation at rEvolver, Surveil has gone even further in that direction: “It’s demonstrably scarier. And I think vastly better,” Hill allows.
This is also the first time the troupe has ever won a Canada Council grant to create something—not that it didn’t take some hard convincing. Hill seems to be only half joking when he says the application process was “borderline traumatic”.
“I had been told we weren’t theatre,” he says, explaining “sketch comedy”, which Hip.Bang! has done before but clearly wasn’t planning for Surveil, was not allowed under the council definition of theatre. “To their credit they were interested in hearing us out,” adds Hill, who rallied prominent Vancouver theatre peeps to write letters in Hip.Bang!’s support. “But at first, they had fully rejected our application to apply.”
So now that it has national support for its bold new immersive-theatre direction, Hip.Bang! is eager to show audiences what it can do in an open, adventurous atmosphere like rEvolver.
Mackenzie says hitting the right balance of laughter and darkness is key. “There are expectations of comedy for our shows, so people are coming in with that, but here they’re also getting slammed pretty hard with some hard truths,” he says. “I actually like that a lot. We’re presenting something different and that’s exciting for us.”
And if all this is making you feel paranoid, don’t worry about what you’re signing away to see Surveil. “I don’t think anybody will leave feeling uncomfortable about what we do,” Mackenzie assures. “They’ll leave feeling uncomfortable about what these massive companies are doing to our lives.”
Upintheair Theatre presents Surveil at the Cultch Historic Theatre on May 23, 24, and 26, as part of the rEvolver Festival.