Yesterday I caught up with the production Do You Want What I Have Got: A Craigslist Cantata with lyrics by Bill Richardson and music by Veda Hille. Premiering at the PuSh Festival in Vancouver, the show is enjoying a run at the Factory Theatre in Toronto. The premise of the show is that all the lyrics to the songs are lifted verbatim from actual Craigslist adverts. The effect of this material is a fun, quirky, smirky performance that both embraced the weird innocent intensity these ads (“300 stuffed penguins free to a deserving child” or “child size guillotine, only used-once”) and simultaneously commenting knowingly on their sad futility. Many of the songs present ads that are not selling objects but fall into the category of ICQ (I Seek You), reporting sightings and strangers seeking connections. (“To the boy on the bus who smelled so nice…”) Out of the arrangement of these various texts, Richardson and Hille make the connection to Noah’s dove that seeks dry land. (Several times, the actors repeat the gesture of launching a dove from their hands). Isolated in our urban environment, we are desperately seeking connection. For all our social media, we fail to really be social in ways that matter.
Talking to composer Hille after the show she pointed out to me that as Craigslist became more and more popular, and the quirky ads gained attention not for their wares but for their writing and for their humour, people started to post fake ads. A Craigslist ad in this context, then, is itself a performance. Losing its actuality it becomes a venue for fictive creation.
Even the ‘really real’ verbatim passages here in the play also show the marks of creative intervention, of course. (Of course.) In the transposition to lyrics, the original ad words have been reshaped for rhyme and pattern. Repetition of the key line was a popular technique, as was repeating some lines out of context. Phrases are picked up from earlier in the ad and included later or in another ad entirely, creating a verbal counterpoint. Music gives the words an added dimension; layers of meaning which also increase the ‘fictive’ or constructedness quotient.
Two questions then: 1) What does the show want from me? (Always a good question) Even for someone whose usual attitudinal orientation is not loneliness or urban malaise, …(With three children, three hundred students, husband, family, colleagues and friends, I usually feel just the opposite — yearning to be alone rather)…the show is a reminder about the value of connection. About how we seek, but also nurture connection. Are we all seeking connection like this? Yes. We want to be seen by those around us, to be part of something larger than ourselves.
And 2) Why does it matter that this is real? Part of the real-appeal of the Craigslist Cantata is that the ads themselves are stranger than fiction. My principal reaction and I assume a consistent reaction of others, especially given the ironic, too-wise tone of the performance, was amazement that people actually write this. We are amused by the oddity. I am not like those people? Is the performance positioned so as to make me feel superior? People showcased are not ordinary. People here are too weird, too intense, too desperate? (Any character here that seemed like me? Maybe the grammar lady — maybe.)
Is the play a kind of anthropological observation to say, “Yes, individuals are like that”? But also to say, “Yes, we are all collectively like that.” Even if we are not all as extreme as the people depicted here, we all want that connection at some level and have experience with urban loneliness — like now, I find myself stalling in a Chapters’ Starbucks (classic!) alone with my technology. I’m not on Craigslist but am posting/replying on Twitter and texting with my daughter in Kingston. So yes, those people do feel like us. That generalized sense of ‘feels like me’ or is connected to my life is naturally heightened by theatre of the real. A film or play that is “based on a true story” seems more relevant than a fiction. The story lands closer to home. It is Diderot who says that drama should tell the stories of real people: “Then shall we see those natural situations portrayed upon the stage that propriety, ever the enemy of genius and sublime effects has outlawed from it…Real clothes, real speech, and a simple and natural plot. Our taste would be quite corrupt if such a spectacle did not affect us more than that of a richly dressed man, tricked out in finery…” (Conversations on The Natural Son)
Sidebar: Before the show I saw Antoni Cimolino but didn’t get a chance to say hello before we all sat down. So I tweeted that he was “spotted” at Factory Theatre. Then when the performers sang a song entirely on this idea of seeing/being seen in public, of noticing/wanting to be noticed in one’s everyday life, I was highly amused that I had just done exactly that.