published by Canadian Theatre Review Issue 134
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Theatre, À La Carte!

I am sitting at a table in a popular North End diner, looking at a menu for Café DaPoPo, a theatre event created by Garry Williams, when an actress comes up to me and asks me if I am ready to order my performance. “Just to let you know the specials are listed on the back of the menu,” she says, “and we have no one act play tonight.” As a regular theatergoer, I feel rather confused. On the one hand, I have never ordered my theatre before, so I cannot pretend to know how to do it. However, the menu clearly lists the scenes as starters, mains, and deserts, and I must confess that I am a big fan of food. The fact is, I have never had to make this kind of choice. Not only am I taken out of my normal, comfortable position of audience member, I already sense an emerging theme to the evening- the role of the spectator in the hybrid performance space- to which I am going to be involved. Suddenly, another actor begins intimately reciting a Shakespearean sonnet for a couple seated at a table in the corner. He is whispering into their ears, and it looks rather enticing. “I’ll have one of those to start”, I say. The actress replies, “Would you like to add a German hand puppet to that for an extra dollar?”

Conceptual Frameworks

Garry Williams, a Canadian born director and son of prominent artists Ann and Emit Williams, grew up in Berlin surrounded by the performance art of the 1980’s when the country was still divided into East and West, though it was already undergoing a rapid movement toward unification. As far as the arts were concerned, it was an innovative, and energetic period in which the city saw a great influx of migrant artists. Against the backdrop of a collapsing communist structure, the intention of some of these new artists was to explore ideas surrounding the changing social space and changing political role of the individual. Equally influential was the surge of conceptual work, which embraced an anti-art, anti-commercialism framework. These artists worked with the everyday materials and space they found at hand, and challenged the traditional role of the spectator. It was a strategy to confront people’s expectations, and, while it often took aim at art, it allowed art to be taken simply for itself. After moving back to Canada in the late 1990’s to attend Mount Allison University, Williams began his own theatre exploration. The influence Berlin was striking, and immediately apparent.

Garry Williams, too, based his new performance grammar on a conceptual framework to redefine the expectations of social space. For example, the first project that he made after moving to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Four Actors In Search of A Nation (2004), was first staged in a casual atmosphere at the BusStop Theatre in which the actors served soup and drinks around the performance and audience members were invited to stay and chat. The informal space collapsed the boundaries between performer and audience, and functioned as a platform to demystify the illusions created by popular entertainment. From the start, Williams blurs the boundaries between the spectator and the performer, having the actors share the intimate space with the audience, so that the idea of a ‘stage’ is out of place. Williams, then, further confronts his audience’s popular expectations. He has the performers make use of chairs from the space, little toques, and other found objects in the scenes themselves. The conventional aspects of production, like the lights, the props, and the blocking all fall by the wayside, allowing the performance to appear rough, and loose. In his view, downplaying these exterior layers of production are strategies to make the performance more accessible, and get at the core of the theatrical experience. Williams’ productions confront the audience with playfully disguised political questions. That is to say, the conceptual foundation on which he builds his performance always rests firmly on making the spectator an active participant. What is so fascinating about this work is that he succeeds in creatively enlisting his audience to become more actively responsible for creating their own experience.

Williams’ performances are not only experiences one needs to go through, they are also constructed commentaries on the state of theatre. For example, his production 13 Ways of Looking At A Madman (2006) was a compilation of thirteen small plays each written by a different author. The performance began when spectators entered a loft space containing only a clothesline, and a pile of numbered cards. Each number corresponded to a scene. Once assembled in the room, spectators were asked to hang the numbers on a clothesline in any particular order they wanted. The order that was created determined the organization of the play. For some audiences, the resulting sequence leads them in a logical way around the space, and through the narrative. For others, the experience was much more random. But did the audience get a complete performance? Isn’t the role of the director or artist collaborators to carefully construct the play? How much of the event is the very experience of the unpredictability itself? Williams makes us conscious of the formalities, and informalities of the event- not in order to make them apart of the action, nor to oppose them, but so he can play with them, and turn them into a meaningful experience. For Williams, the spectator must be an active player and willing participant. Those who embrace the randomness, or can make sense of it win. What is even more interesting is that the performance fails to adhere to any singular style. At moments it is a musical. At other moments it is absurdist comedy. And, still, at other moments it is a naturalist drama. The changing styles further generate unpredictability in the performance. The result is a new, unusual, and intimate context in which theatre is performed.

The performance is part and parcel of the expectations people have for their entertainment. When William’s strategies are functioning, the performance challenges the audience’s comfortable role of passive viewer and has them become a part of the action. A key idea implicit in this is therefore responsibility. Williams refuses to dominate the experience of the spectator. Instead, allowing them to share responsibility in the creation of their own experience. The outcome is a social space that makes the audience member feel special, and unique. One could say that Williams takes on Augusto Boal’s concept of the SpectActor, but he is not so much concerned with members of the audience taking over the actor’s position, while on the other hand he does amplify such direct implications to the their role as viewer, that the active responsibility he gives them turns them into collaborators.

The Theatre of Café DaPoPo

Likewise, in Café DaPoPo (2007) the collaborative role of the spectator is very central. But, unlike in 13 Ways Of Looking At A Madman, the concepts surrounding the spectator and the performance space Williams starts now become a set of principles underlying and guiding the work; they are translated into a format of choices in a menu. Staged as a monthly event, Café DaPoPo, which stands for Da*ring Po*pular Po*etic takes place in a North End restaurant. On entering, spectators are given a theatre menu along with the regular food menu. The theatre menu contains the scenes, songs, monologues, performance art, poetry, and one-act plays available that evening. The spectator must make a choice: What am I interested in? How much theatre do I want to order? What are other people ordering? It is only if, or when, the spectator chooses will some theatre occur. However, as long as one spectator orders everyone will get a performance, as the room is divided in a narrow L-shaped dinning space by a series of tables and a bar so that one can make out what is happening at either end. Williams likes to play with the act of volition by an individual in a public space. He mixes this theme with popular entertainment by making available selections traditionally relegated to big production houses. The performance, thus, implicitly addresses the artistic merit of theatre with broad appeal to the audience. In his view, popular forms of entertainment, like the musical, have been marginalized, and dismissed by many practitioners and critics. Yet, when these popular forms are placed in new contexts they are allowed a new set of possibilities. For Williams, the realization of those possibilities is, again, up to his audience. The tastes of each unique group of audience members determine the kind of show to be performed. As the performances started, there was an unpredictable mixture of traditional Broadway songs, poetry, and Shakespearean sonnets. At one point, the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet was performed cross-dressed accompanied by a German speaking hand puppet.

The audience willingly participates in the performance. It was fascinating to see how willing audience members were to move around, and watch the scenes ordered by other people. Or, how readily spectators allowed themselves to become scene partners for the actors. One spectator’s song and dance number becomes the whole room’s entertainment. Except maybe for the people in the corner who were already enjoying a poetry reading. The performance is an intersection between the physical possibilities of intimate exchange, and how individual experience is shaped by a shared space.

The essence of the live performance depends on the actors communicating directly with the audience, and the spectators indirectly sharing their personal encounters with each other. The outcome is poetic. When the scenes end, the space continues to function as a restaurant normally would. The transition is powerful, and it is at the same time frustrating: ‘Is that it?’ ‘Why isn’t there more?’ ‘Why not have the entire plays available instead of just a scene?’ Perhaps it is this hunger for a complete experience that Williams invites, and encourages his audience to think about. Perhaps it is the very notion of the full consumer that he is trying to confront. When it is working, Williams’ strategy “enlivens its audience, not by lulling them into ignorant bliss, but by awakening them into knowledgeable discontent.”(1) The intention is a kind of beauty rarely found in most entertainment.

What Theatre Did You Order?

The permission of choice is a suggestive power to hand over to your audience, and a strong metaphor for the unveiling of the individual in social space. It is an image of a world shaped by the desires of the people who inhabit it, a theme that lies at the heart of Williams’ latest performances. For that reason, Williams mixes into his performative space equal parts spectator and performance. He allows the show to be intruded on by the public, much like how the content of web pages such as Youtube, MySpace, or Facebook can be changed depending on who is visiting them. He confronts the audience’s expectations by asking them surprising questions, such as, “Would you like to add a German puppet to that?” or “Would you like to make the scene cross-dressed?” These interactive parts are alternated with purely choreographed sections that do not change, in which the performers seem to return to a more normal theatrical setting: a division between the spectator and the performance space. However, the problem of what exactly is the performance is left for the participant to decide.

The appeal on the spectator’s desires, mixed with today’s prevailing notion of a culturally preconditioned expectation for entertainment is the framework within Williams operates. Café DaPoPo is an interactive game where the players determine the performance. And, subsequently, you only paid for what you ordered. This emerging director, and art maker seems to combine an activity of choice with the energetic experience of a performer in a social game, and he amplifies this by virtue of incorporating the spectator as the link through having theatre done their way. DH

Garry Williams, Rae Brown, and Donald Wood.

Works Cited:
1 Williams, Garry August 12th, 2007.