In what way does Concord Floral manifest (its) realness? This is the question that I have been mulling since I saw the Ottawa production at the NAC three weeks ago. (The corollary to that question is the very practical one I cannot help but ask: “Does this play belong in the current research project?”)
I think the word ‘its’ foregrounds an essential premise of my thinking here (and everywhere) about the real on stage. As I say in class, theatre is made of real stuff. It is the only art form where real things pretend to be other real things. Bodies are transformed by theatricality to become other bodies. But the real remains in the background like a heat signature radiating visible/invisible in the infrared from the embodied and ventriloquized fictional character. So it isn’t that some theatre has realness and some doesn’t. The realness is there. The realness is ‘its.’ The question is: “How does it manifest?”
One approach to the real in Concord Floral might be through those bodies. Shot through with echoes of Boccaccio’s The Decameron, the play features a group of suburban teens flirting, playing music, taking selfies, running wild through an abandoned greenhouse, surviving group presentations at school while a “plague” passes through their neighbourhood. Not a plague exactly but a ghostly malaise and a guilt for the bullying of a classmate back in the distant can’t-be-forgotten-too-soon past of grade nine. Defying the usual convention of casting older more experienced actors to play younger roles, the actors of Concord Floral are all teens themselves, cast from local Ottawa schools. They look and sound like teens. Because they are teens.
In various statements that precede Concord Floral in performance, shaping our horizon of expectations, the ten young actors are framed first and foremost as ‘real’ teens. Their bio statements focus on high school achievements and ambitions not on previous acting credits (professional or otherwise). The play is accompanied by a gallery of photos taken by co-creator Erin Brubacher titled “This is my room. Look.” A teenager’s bedroom is an intensely personal curated space. In the photos, the teens pose in their rooms surrounded by their possessions, neutrally facing the camera without expression. The room IS the person as much as the body IS the person. The result is a photography of presence. Images that say “Here I am.” “See.” (http://www.erinbrubacher.ca/this-is-my-room-look-)
The invitation to look is a refrain in Concord Floral. The staging is marked by moments of presence. What do I mean by that? Moments where the teen actors are not doing anything except being. They stand and look out into the audience. Really looking at us. And opening themselves frankly and vulnerably to our gaze. They seem to eschew mimesis. Not being theatrically other, just being. The last image of the play extends this moment of encounter for what feels like many minutes, certainly beyond what is comfortable. Just standing and staring.
As Laura Levin writes in her introduction to the playscript published in Canadian Theatre Review 163 (Summer 2015): “Watching teenagers play themselves — in this case, teens who have not had the rough edges of their acting smoothed out by actor training programs1 — gives the performance an unusual sense of immediacy, a sense of being confronted by a whole section of the population that is all too often spoken for, all too often sheltered from view.” This quality of speaking from the margins, of opening that experience up to view, establishes a parallel between the ‘real’ teens of Concord Floral with the ‘real’ youth in the cast of RARE and to the ‘real’ immigrants in Olivier Choinière’s Polyglotte2. Have they become exotic strangers? (Have to say: my own 14-year old does sometimes feel like an exotic stranger.) Certainly the audience dominated by seniors at the talkback at the NAC seemed to view the teens as exotic and a little perplexing and impressive. (Look! Teens!) It seems to be that an encounter with the stranger (and the stranger the stranger the better) facilitates the activation of the real in presence. And so, by extension, this notion of who I find to be an exotic stranger opens up some tricky ethical ground about who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’ and invites some serious questioning of those boundaries.
Beyond actor bodies and the encounter with a stranger, Concord Floral also generates realness through narrative techniques,3 techniques which might seem familiarly Brechtian (or do we call them postdramatic?). For example, the play is divided into 10 sections. In performance, the characters speak the section headers. “1. IT WAS NIGHT. WE WERE IN A FIELD.” But then the first line of the scene is “It was night. We were in a field.” The obvious repetition of the semantically redundant header reinforces the sense of presentation/presence and pushes away mimesis. Also, the play is written in mostly in presentational third-person fragments. This is storytelling not enactment.
1 You gotta walk through the field to get to the McDonald’s.
5 The worst.
1 But when you’re jonesing for a McFlurry–
2 — you just gotta because otherwise you gotta walk all the way around the highway
6 It’s fine if you cut through in a group
1 It was dark.
5 Except you get covered in burrs.
Section 2 begins with the header “THIS IS A PLAY WE CREATED FOR YOU” explicitly framing the performance as performance. “This is a play.” And it also underscores the gap between “we” and “you” — presenters and receivers. I haven’t yet done a detailed analysis of the whole script (also the Ottawa script is slightly different than the published Toronto script) but I can see the potential for a more extensive cataloguing of how grammar, diction, sequencing, and other expositional techniques can work to support the presentational tone and minimize mimetic opportunities. This is a new avenue to be pursued as I continue to think about how the theatricalizing power of the frame is short-circuited in this kind of work.
1 Regarding the specific aesthetic value of the non-actor or intentionally ‘raw’ actor, see my post about Anne Wessels’ paper on this subject.
2 It occurs to me that I haven’t yet posted my thoughts about Polyglotte here. I gave paper on the subject in October 2015 in Las Vegas at the ACSUS conference and will speak again about the play at the Canadian Association for Theatre Research conference in Calgary at the end of May. So perhaps after that I will summarize for a blog post. Stay tuned.
3 Thank you to Luke Brown who started me thinking about the play this way.