Torontonians can get lots of exercise with their art in "experiential" theatre shows like It Comes in Waves and Monday Nights.
This summer, there’s lots of opportunities for culturally savvy Torontonians to mix seeing performance art with getting some exercise by getting involved in shows. These events aren’t just sitting quietly in a darkened theatre. We’ve already reviewed the Panamania-commissioned The Postman, where audiences walk along part of the delivery route followed by Toronto’s first black letter carrier, pausing at porches along the way for scenes and songs. At last summer’s SummerWorks festival, audiences for The Stranger chased performers down alleyways and across the city’s core (the experience is being remounted as part of Summerworks’ 25th anniversary edition this August). Basketball storytelling and playing experience Monday Nights has audience members lacing up cross trainers again for their currently playing remount, and in Bluemouth Inc. and Necessary Angel’s Panamania show It Comes in Waves, the activity level is even higher, with audience members crewing a war canoe out to the Toronto Islands, hiking through the wilder parts, and eventually arranging a feast and party for a mystery guest.
Shows that break the traditional fourth wall between audience and stage, and sometimes take place outside of a traditional theatre, are often referred to as “experiential” theatre. The producers anticipate that audience members will do more than just spectate: they’ll actively partake in the experience. It’s a performance style that Toronto-based company Bluemouth Inc. has been doing with great success since 1998, earning international acclaim, with shows involving such diverse aspects as dance marathons and rickshaw rides, usually in non-traditional performance spaces.
For It Comes in Waves, audience members started their journey by meeting guides at Harbourfront Centre Canoe and Kayak. They divided us into groups to power the paddles of traditional war canoes, each holding up to 20 people. The boat we were in had a mix of novice paddlers and experienced ones, including canoeing instructors and former competitive paddlers (like ourselves). Our boat quickly overtook the ones that launched before us, and made it to the Toronto Islands ahead of the rest of the mini flotilla, waving at pleasure cruise partiers along the way, and pausing for brief spells in the middle of the Inner Harbour and by a bird sanctuary tucked into a quiet section of the island.
Upon disembarking, we were greeted by musicians both seen and unseen (this continued at intervals throughout the evening). We paused to slather on mosquito repellent (a gesture that proved ultimately futile) before being led from the historic lighthouse into fields and woods, along curiously lit beaches and through forest groves, and ultimately to a banquet hall, by a man (Bluemouth’s artistic director and performer Stephen O’Connell-the cast all used their own names throughout the experience) who briefly interacted with other strangers along the way.
It was in this banquet hall, after we’d all taken part in preparing for a party, that what some might consider “the show proper” got underway. It was, in comparison with the enchanting experience that preceded it, somewhat disappointing. We want to avoid any specific spoilers for attendees, but the seams showed vis-à-vis collaborative input between the company, director Jennifer Tarver, and playwright Jordan Tannahill. This most passive part of the overall experience felt at times clichéd, and in contrast to the magic realism of the show’s initial experience, though it did include some fluid and engrossing dance sequences.
Perhaps it was that contrast that left that particular section lacking. In comparison to the remount of the 6th Man Collective’s Monday Nights, which we took part in the following day (it had us both up and playing three-on-three basketball, and cheering on our fellow audience members cum teammates), the balance between observing and participating in It Comes In Waves‘ dance hall sequence was off, as well as in comparison to the rest of the evening’s experience.
You can read our full review of Monday Nights here; the current remount features all the same cast and “team captains”, and is as fun as it was the first time around. Monday Nights was an indie co-production with the Theatre Centre.
The most obvious question to ask when it comes to experiential shows like It Comes In Waves and Monday Nights is this: could audiences enjoy a similar experience without the art involved? Could the best parts of the experience be replicated by, say, hiring a guide to take you and your friends across to the island in a war canoe and show you around the more interesting spots, without weaving It Comes In Waves‘ dramatic themes of friendship, death, and communal grief and recovery into the mix? Or simply by getting some pals together to play pick-up basketball, in Monday Nights‘ case?
We’re inclined to say no, not least because the myriad aspects of an experience like It Comes In Waves are a feat of logistical planning and creativity, even down to seemingly small details like the lighting along the journey. In Monday Nights, the personal stories and interactions with the audience elevate that experience far beyond one of simply playing a game or running a series of exercises, though we have no doubt many (if not most) audience members left that show wanting to shoot hoops again soon.
With both shows, the companies undoubtedly want to inspire their audiences to weave some of the magic, excitement, and camaraderie that the experiences engender into their everyday lives. Both shows succeed admirably in that respect (and it’s worth noting that Monday Nights‘ remount has been fine-tuned over several productions, whereas Bluemouth Inc. and their partners are trying many challenging things for the first time). We suggest you do both: take in these unique experiences and replicate them (in part) on a small scale, and explore even more of what the city has to offer during this busy and exciting season, with grand events like Panamania and the Pan Am Games. Just make sure you wear the appropriate footwear!