Created by Philippe Cyr and Gilles Poulin-Denis. A 2par4 and L’Homme Allumette coproduction, presented by Théâtre la Seizième. At Performance Works on Tuesday, May 21. Continues until May 25
Ce qu’on attend de moi (What Is Asked of Me) wastes no time in blurring the line between art and social experiment.
At the beginning of the show, the French-language touring production, which features live English translations, demands its entire audience stand up and then self-eliminate based on a series of specific qualifiers. These include: if you’re a therapist, sit down; if you’re a journalist; not fluent in French; emotionally fragile; and if you’re 100 percent satisfied with your life, sit down. The creators, Philippe Cyr and Gilles Poulin-Denis, bring up five audience members from those who remain standing. They ask each of the five a question that requires a one-word answer, instruct them to close their eyes, and have the audience vote by a show of hands for the person they like the best. The social experiment is fully under way and we’re all somewhat complicit in what happens to the “winner", on this night a lovely 56-year-old teacher from Tsawwassen, over Ce qu’on attend de moi’s 75-minute run time.
This is an interactive, live video piece, not a traditional stage play. There is no physical stage, and in fact the audience isn’t even inside the venue, Performance Works, but rather in a tent outside. At the front of the tent is a massive screen under which four men, including creators Cyr and Poulin-Denis, wear headsets and stand behind laptops, like a DJ set without much music. The volunteer is taken into a separate room, miked, and given ear pieces, and a live video feed of her is projected onto the screen above the men’s heads. One of the creators speaks to her through a microphone, explaining, “We’re going to be creating a show together. You can trust me… Just remain yourself. That’s most interesting.”
As the subject answers his increasingly personal questions, she’s likable and charming, and grows increasingly comfortable sitting alone in the room just talking to the camera. It’s fascinating to hear a stranger talk about her life so candidly, steered deeper into vulnerability by the creator’s gently probing inquiries, and his invitations to her to consider alternative paths to the ones upon which she’s travelled.
After about 30 minutes, the show shifts, and the audience member is asked to choose a costume and imagine a different identity for herself. She gravitates to a tutu (she wanted to be a ballerina as a child) and large glasses, and decides her new identity is a 36-year-old saleswoman in Saskatoon who dreams of a cycling vacation in the Parisian countryside, talking to strangers. Eventually, as the details of her real life begin to bleed into her alter ego's, she’s instructed to think about the people she loves, the people she loved, and she’s in tears. This sets the woman up for the play’s sudden tonal shift into the sinister and surreal.
I don’t want to give away too much, so if you're intending to see the show, here's a spoiler alert: don't read any further.
There’s a particularly degrading moment that involves getting into a cage. It’s deeply disturbing, especially when one considers that the show essentially maps out how manipulative and abusive behaviour works. It makes its subject its sole focus, isolates her, asks her increasingly personal questions to gain her trust and lower her guard, seems to break her emotionally (when she begins to cry openly), and then demands she engage in her own debasement.
There’s real magic in the first 45 minutes, in the emotional terrain the creators explore with the subject and her imagined alternative identity.
But as Ce qu’on attend de moi devolves into shock theatre, it seems like the creators think they’ve crafted something with a higher philosophical and artistic purpose, when in reality their endeavour feels exploitative and cruel.