Imagine a world where a government agency decides who you are.
That’s the premise of Some Assembly Theatre Company’s The Identity Bureau, a youth-led theatre production set in an absurdist near future where the titular organization assigns everyone in society their identity.
Valerie Methot, director, scriptwriter and Some Assembly founder, tells the Straight the whole existentialist concept came from listening to youth expressing their frustrations with being ignored.
“It started with conversations I was having with young people last February and March, and young people were talking about how damaging it is when their identity gets disrespected,” Methot says in a phone interview. “I knew I wanted to involve a lot of people because identity is so complex.”
More than 100 youth were involved in the script research phase. Turning that into a functioning play was “quite a complex process” over 10 months, as their ideas were eventually distilled into a theatre production that Methot co-wrote with a team of young scriptwriters, which in turn is being brought to life by a team of seven young actors.
As a visual designer by training, Methot found that “the visual metaphor is the first artistic aspect that comes to life.” The set comprises huge ID cards, each one made up of smaller ID cards. “There’s a lot of overlap, kind of showing how we’re all connected to each other,” she explains. The brightly coloured cards contrast with the actors, who wear drab neutrals.
Each character in the play has a different relationship to the eponymous bureau, demonstrating the different ways that people can relate to authority and identity.
“It depends on status, largely,” Methot says. “Some of them can’t stand the Bureau, some of them are scared of the Bureau. [The Bureau] tries so hard to control everybody that it just becomes chaos, because humans can’t be controlled like that.”
Since Some Assembly’s inception in 2002, Methot has worked with thousands of young people and established local artists to generate original plays based on real-world concerns and social issues. So the parallels to current political attacks on queer and trans identities—as well as to historic and continuing denials of Indigenous, disabled, immigrant, religious, or other kinds of other marginalized identities—are definitely deliberate.
Holding a marginalized identity is also often complicated by the discrimination it leads to, and the work that has to go into educating others. Young people told Methot about how tiring it was to explain themselves to other people, when they just wanted to get on and live their lives.
“It’s exhausting, because it’s personal. Identity [has] so much emotional connection attached to it, so that comes into play as well,” she says. “We as humans get stuck in our patterns, and it’s just a matter of being open to change. I think that identity is so fluid, right? We’re all constantly evolving, whether we like it or not. And it’s a matter of being open-minded to that.”
The cast and characters reflect the diversity of the youth participants, with a range of genders, sexuality, cultural heritage, influences, preferences and neurotypes being represented.
“There’s quite a mix, and the Bureau would prefer that things were more black and white and simple, instead of such diversity,” Methot says.
But just as the characters come together to figure out what to do about the Kafka-esque bureaucracy ruling their lives, Methot hopes that the audience will come together, too. After all, you don’t have to completely understand someone’s identity to respect them.
“We’re promoting the importance of respecting each other and all of our diversity, and that we share this world together.”
The Identity Bureau plays at Roundhouse Performance Centre from April 28 to May 2. Tickets are free and available here.