Outside the March seems to be Toronto’s favourite indie theatre company. Director Mitchell Cushman built up quite a buzz after consecutive hits Mr. Marmalade and Terminus, both of which were praised for their unconventional use of space (the former was set in a kindergarten classroom, the latter placed both the actors and the audience on the stage of the Royal Alexandra Theatre), so his next project had been highly anticipated. Vitals, written by Rosamund Small, was the first script for Outside the March developed specifically for a site-specific space, and its original run had to be extended even before opening night. Then, only a few days into the run, it was extended again to June 1. And though Vitals isn’t the best show in Outside the March’s history, there’s a reason that tickets have been flying.
One reason for the show’s popularity is its intimate and unusual setting, which certainly appeals to anyone who is tired of, or uninterested in, the more formal playgoing experience. Another is the script from 23-year-old playwright Small (age is just a number, yes, but it’s still impressive that this work was created by a young writer), who interviewed several paramedics to convey the psychological toll taken by their work.
Audience members meet on Roncesvalles Avenue and are initiated into the workforce, receiving headphones, a map, and their first case. They then move to a nearby home, which belongs to paramedic Anna (Katherine Cullen). Her performance begins outside, but the story continues through a series of sequences staged inside the house—some guided by ghost-like paramedic ushers (who, as becomes increasingly evident, reflect different aspects of Anna’s trauma), others conducted by the audience members themselves, as they explore the home and its various emergency scenes on their own.
Anyone who has experienced the immersive mega-hits Sleep No More in New York City and The Drowned Man in London (both by the British theatre company Punchdrunk, which has pioneered this style of self-directed theatre) knows how exciting this form can be on a large scale, and Outside the March does an excellent job translating it into a smaller venue. The atmosphere is intense, especially in the certain spaces—a plastic-wrapped hotel room, a teenage girl’s bathroom, and an area with clotheslines full of soaking wet baby clothes, for example.
What ties all these scenes and stories together is Anna herself. When we meet her, or rather, the shell of the person she once was, she is already showing signs of distress. Consumed by her job, she reveals very little about herself and even less about the people she’s met and the things she’s seen on the job. She’s a worst-case scenario—the definition of PTSD.
Her story becomes even clearer and more nuanced after you’ve had a chance to let it sink in. The structure of the show, which involves moving the audience from inside to outside, from room to room, and up and down stairs a little too frequently, can make it difficult to develop a sense of continuity. Every time the audience is instructed to go somewhere or do something, one’s tempted to think things like “WHY are we moving so slowly?!” (When it comes to immersive theatre, it’s not just the show itself that can end up irritating the audience: fellow audience members can also create their fair share of frustrations.)
Because this is Cushman’s first time acting out such site-specific desires, though, the fact that he’s gone a bit overboard is forgivable—and Vitals gives the immersive theatre trend in Toronto a much-appreciated boost.