When theatre artist Itai Erdal saw TJ Dawe perform his solo show Medicine four-and-a-half years ago, he could immediately see they had some things in common. Both played themselves on-stage, performing monologues mined from their own experiences. But that’s not why he wanted to work with Dawe.
“He couldn’t be more different than me,” Erdal says over a speakerphone with Dawe, both of them on a break from their first collaboration, Hyperlink. “I’m completely gregarious and social, and TJ is more of an introvert—he even talked about that in Medicine. And then I just thought, ‘How interesting to put two people who are so different in a show.’ ”
Dawe cuts to the chase: “He said ‘This guy couldn’t be more different than me. I want to work with him!’ ”
As the two innovators began to discuss subject matter they could explore together, talk inevitably turned to a topic that’s ubiquitous right now—albeit not on-stage: the Internet, and how it’s affecting our lives. Erdal remembers showing Dawe a social-media post that ended up making its way into Hyperlink, a seemingly innocuous shot of four girls going to an all-ages club that had unleashed a viral torrent of abuse and debate. “They were dressed up slightly provocatively but this thread was so mean,” Erdal relates. “Some people called them fat, some told them to go to the gym… Not one of them was even slightly fat but it was the way they shamed them. And then there were all these comments, with some defending them. The conversation was so ruthless, the way that people would never do in real life.”
From there, Dawe says, the two started digging into their own experiences with the wired world, and then mixing those with stories like the one Erdal had found.
“This subject is as vast as it is very much unexplored on-stage or on TV or in literature,” remarks Dawe, who has tackled themes of loneliness and alienation and stories about everything from ayahuasca trips to high-school athletics in his work. “It’s considered a difficult thing to perform because if someone is sitting at a computer and typing, they’re perceived as not doing anything.”
Dawe and Erdal, who has made his name as a lighting designer, have countered that idea by animating the Firehall stage, helped by three projection screens they not only use to illustrate, say, profile pages or videos they’ve found online but also more metaphorical visuals created by projection designer Cande Andrade. Bassist Mark Haney also plays live on-stage, and the movements are choreographed by Kayla Dunbar.
Hyperlink is more like a collage of ideas than a narrative play, and true to its name, it tries to mimic the fleeting impressions of surfing the web. Expect Dawe and Erdal to abruptly jump from topic to topic or interrupt an idea, just as web users do when they head down the wormhole of hyperlinks.
What they won’t do is weigh in too heavily on whether they think social media is a harbinger of doom. The duo prefers to portray the web in all its colours, from Internet scams to cute pet posts to “like-farming”.
“We show how ugly it can be and how wonderful it can be,” hints Dawe. “There were many avenues where people were really awful to each other before the Internet; it’s very much an extension of who you are as a human being.”
Mostly, the pair concur, they just want you to start talking about it—preferably in person.
“One of the things theatre has going for it is the potential for conversation and interactivity,” says Dawe, “especially in a digital age where we don’t get face to face. Emotions are amplified by people being in a room together.”
And what has been the result of Erdal and Dawe, who almost always creates his shows solo, “being in a room together”—along with director Rachel Peake, Andrade, Haney, and Dunbar?
“It’s a classic case of the sum being greater than the parts,” Erdal says.
“I’ve spent the bulk of my career without having a collaborator,” adds Dawe. “A big part of that was shyness. So it’s been truly rewarding to be part of a group. It really feels like being part of a superhero squad. I’d been conditioned to think I have to do everything.”
In other words, this group has become inextricably linked—and not at all in a “hyper” way.
Elbow Theatre presents Hyperlink at the Firehall Arts Centre from Wednesday (October 4) to October 14.