Theatre Replacement heads North to challenge concept of expertise

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      For some, the opposite of a TED Talk or a PechaKucha is your friend’s usual drunken diatribe/monologue on bike lanes and city planning. But Theatre Replacement twists the concept of public presentation and “expert” discussion even further with its new theatre piece, Three Lectures on the North, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek send-up of the practice of and cultural fascination with public lecture.

      James Long, co–artistic director of Theatre Replacement and the writer of one of the titular three lectures, says the idea sprang from a talk that he and his colleagues were giving overseas about multiculturalism in Canadian theatre, which they then spun out into more absurdist directions.

      “We’re all constantly watching these seven-minute excerpts of experts talking about expert things,” Long tells the Straight over the phone during his lunch break, less than a week before opening night. “What if we tried to challenge that notion a little bit by having the nonexpert deal with the ‘expert’ material?”

      The inspiration to focus on the North—as place and concept—came out of the 2014 announcement by then prime minister Stephen Harper about the recovery of a ship from Sir John Franklin’s failed expedition to find the Northwest Passage in 1845.

      “This conversation was happening right around the time that—and this is big air quotes around this one—they ‘discovered’ the Franklin boats up north,” Long says. “It got us really thinking about this region of the North and the history, and how we attach this massive identity as Canadians to the idea of the North, when in reality we have very little idea about it, or a very small sense of who actually owns the North or belongs to the North. This fascinating arrogance of going up and saying, ‘We discovered this thing,’ when, really, the Inuit population knew exactly where those boats had been for years and years, but we just never took the time to listen to them.”

      The Franklin story ended up inspiring the piece that Long himself wrote for Three Lectures. Theatre Replacement also invited Métis playwright and artist Marie Clements to contribute a piece, as well as Edinburgh-based artist and playwright Clare Duffy, both of whom turned in drastically different works on the theme.

      “The text that Marie delivered was very much a personal story about a trip she had—she was right up at the top where the Mackenzie River squirts out into the Arctic Ocean,” Long recalls. “She was doing a film shoot and they were scouting locations, but she also has relatives up there. She was actually standing in the ice river, the Mackenzie River, as the water rushed underneath.”

      Duffy’s text is rooted in science and contains plenty of jargon to help trip up the actors/“experts” every night.

      “Clare has done a bunch of research about light conditions, extreme light and lack of light, for people living in the Far North, the Hebrides, northern islands off of Scotland,” Long explains. “She spent quite a bit of time there doing research, actual scientific research on what light does to your eyes and brain.”

      With each new layer or complication, Three Lectures very much lives up to its premise, not only on-stage but in reality. Each performance features two actors who have never seen the script before. It’s an act of metatheatre that directly parallels their characters’ role as experts devoid of actual expertise in their subject matter.

      “I don’t know if it’s intentionally difficult,” Long says with a laugh. “I think it’s more playful. We’re just interested in effing around a little bit.”

      It’s not improv, but it’s not rehearsed, either; rather, it’s largely uncharted territory for the actors—a situation that could be viewed as high-risk with little reward. But, Long points out, actors are trained to perform like they really do know what they’re talking about, even when it’s for the first time. There was no shortage of takers.

      “Everybody wants to do it, because it takes all the pressure off. You don’t have to be good. You just have to be able to read,” Long jokes. “We’re asking good actors. These people are capable for sure, but the pressure is low—you just have to try to be present and engaged.”

      Three Lectures on the North runs Wednesday to Saturday (May 18 to 21) at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts.

      Theatre Replacement's Three Lectures on the North.
      Candelario Andrade