Vancouver Fringe Festival solo show: After the Beep

Pamela Bethel shares the rejection, heartbreak, anxiety, and more on the answering-machine tapes of her teen self

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      It takes guts to step into the spotlight alone and bare your soul. The Straight talked to a few brave performers going it alone at this year's Fringe Fest. Here's one of them:

      Most of us can look back at our awkward teenage selves through photographs, but few are able to actually listen to themselves and their friends navigate that most painful and embarrassing period.

      Playwright and theatre artist Pamela Bethel was able to do just that, thanks to analogue answering-machine recordings (remember those?) she kept on tape. Yes, in the 1990s, the generally unsupervised Bethel had been granted a then almost unheard-of luxury: her own phone line, “mostly because my dad was on the phone all the time and didn’t want to share it with me”, she reveals to the Straight with a laugh, speaking from Victoria, where she lives. And as time went on, she just stopped erasing them, storing them as she moved around in her life.

      “It’s like you have your old diary but can’t quite face it,” says Bethel, who grew up in Vancouver. “I had been simultaneously saving them and avoiding them.”

      In the new solo show After the Beep, she presses Play, integrating the tapes—most of the time in stories told through other people who left messages, though her own, young voice does appear on outgoing greetings over the years.

      “It’s a bit more of a forced document—there were a few things I misremembered and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s kind of different than what I thought,’ ” says Bethel, who calls After the Beep a “memorabilia play” rather than a “memory play”.

      Reexperiencing herself navigating the life changes between grades 9 and 12 also helped Bethel manoeuvre through a big shift in her adult life: becoming a parent. “I think that’s why I went back to the material,” she reflects. “That weird transition state [parenthood] is very similar to being an adolescent. The idea that we only mature once is so misguided.”

      Reviewing the tapes and writing her show, which projects surtitles when the messages are too scratchy to hear, she also got new insights into the way technology affects our lives. She was amazed at how much information her friends and family could fit into the 30-second time limit of her old answering machine. “The message machine was like early social media,” she observes. “All my friends knew I had my own and it was very uncensored.”

      Rejection, heartbreak, high-education anxiety, and more play out on the cassettes. And Bethel doesn’t hold back on the more embarrassing moments—including a tape where an old boyfriend is a little too affectionate. “I still blush every time I do the show and I still feel it—like I’m blushing right now just talking about it!” she says.

      There’s also an outgoing message where she does her own customized version of “Stayin’ Alive”—“Stayin’ on the Phone”.

      As she puts it: “Now that the seal is broken on this stuff, I love the cringe-y stuff!”