The Crow’s Theatre and Porte Parole have come together again for a new piece of politically charged verbatim theatre, The Assembly. The premise is to take 4 people with opposing viewpoints and experiences, who on the internet would rage at one another, bring them into a room and have them discuss some of the most polarizing subjects of our day. Being verbatim theatre, this is then edited, spliced, and sewn together into a narrative. I’m speaking vaguely in the below, to avoid spoilers for anyone who might see it in the coming days (it runs to Nov 3)
Among verbatim pieces, I feel this works quite well; the premise and the conversations themselves facilitate the editing, which I often find so problematic in this sort of writing. The style, snapping through different times, rewinding at times, is like a live on stage manifestation of scrolling through your Facebook news feed.
The actors shared polished performances, and director Chris Abraham’s choices to juxtapose the hyper-real with the non-naturalistic (at times) movement helped amplify this feeling of a disjointed digital world. The use of cameras to zoom in or out underlined, at times, the responses (or lack thereof) of the other 3 participants. One touch I really enjoyed was that the curtains were open to the street on some windows, so when we heard a bus or truck drive by (impossible to avoid in this space), we could also see them not only in the changing light, but also in the camera picking them up behind actors….an ever-present reminder of the real world that this play is situated in.
All of that said, I couldn’t help but wonder about what was missing; there was only one person of colour represented (the character Hope), which meant that during in-depth discussions of “Muslim immigration”, the voice of Muslims in North America was starkly absent. Similarly, there was no reference to indigenous issues (notably, there was no land acknowledgement in advance of the show) and although positioned with Canadians, the discussion was highly US-Centric (perhaps a bit tellingly truthful of our own lives and thoughts). But most importantly, I worry that despite efforts to remind us that theatre does not exist in a vaccuum (through the open window, etc) the play, at least in the audience I saw it with, did actually; the audience felt inherently against the Alt-Right character Valerie, laughing at her responses in a manner that they did not laugh at other characters. I think that efforts to show Valerie and Shayne (the self-identifying queer, Jewish, anarchist) as foils to one another fell down in the presence of an audience who (based on their responses at least) seemed quite liberal. I would love to see this play amongst an audience who wouldn’t normally see this kind of play; people like Valerie, or even James, who as the other conservative character gets lots in the scuffle between Valerie and Shayne.
A lot to keep thinking about here, for sure, and in many ways some of the most effective use of verbatim theatre I have seen…however if we keep telling these stories into an echo chamber, are we really changing anything?