Finally! I got to see another production in Toronto. This time it was the sort of new work that I want to dive into (well, maybe) and I came ready with my critic’s hat–though the first week of graduate school had left me a little less awake than usual. And of course, it almost directly related to some of my readings for The Spectacular City, one of my York Theatre/Performance Studies courses. Life . . . always perfectly contextualizing experiences to link up to every text I read.
YouTopia was written, directed, and produced by University of Toronto professor Bruce Barton and his company Vertical City. The original concept came out of working with aerial artists and trying to work with them in more of a theatrical context. That being said, the show had a lot of movement, but otherwise focused more on the connections to behavioral science, 2001: A Space Odyssey, childhood songs and books, and especially the effects of technology on the way humans live and adapt to our surroundings.
While I was very taken in by the narrative and the structure of a very specific routine that the computer artificial intelligence, “Al” (voiced by Matthew Tapscott), and his human partner, Kiran (played by Kiran Friesen), ran through every day, the talkback after the show really focused more on the literal interplay between the movement of the two actors and the technology embedded within the set. Not all the technology ideas could be played out exactly as planned (budgetary concerns in some cases, but mostly practical staging concerns and aesthetics of how the group wanted to present the piece), but there were ten different sensors placed around the cage-like set so that the lights to signify “Al” faded on and off as Kiran moved through the space. The best part: the show centered on a technological experiment gone wrong and in some ways, the actual system of these sensors could not be controlled. For the performance I saw, the lighting designer (Laird MacDonald) confided that there was some “noise” in the system. Noise that made the lighting do some off-book effects. Noise that they could not control but had to wait out.
The show further employed sound technology by having the audience all wear headphones. It warped the actor’s voices, making them louder in ways that aren’t normal in the theater. This device also allowed for the playing of extra clips of sound: an imaginary discussion between the behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner and Noam Chomsky, which further expressed the themes of the production without explicating too much. Once again, the sensors–and by that, the actors’ movements–affected how loud these voices came through the headphones. Their bodies making the lighting and sound and nuanced as any other interaction.
Sometimes focusing on the technology seems draining to me. There’s a reason so many amateur reviews forget to mention all the set, costume, sound, lighting, etc design elements of a production–there’s so much to focus on the human element and most of the time it seems to be the focus. But here, it made sense to focus on both at the same time. None of the moments that Kiran or the Engineer (played by Adam Paolozza) created could have occurred without the express effects of the structure and devices surrounding them. While they were “free” to experiment throughout the process, to play around with what these different lighting, movement, and sound structures meant to the final product, these bodies were still trapped in these systems. Alone, they could not have developed this script or the emotions they drew out of it.
It felt long. It felt trapped in routine. It was nostalgic. And yet it only ran 90 minutes and left me with questions I’d like to continue considering, but not to have answered by cast, crew, or anyone. In that respect, I believe YouTopia was successful. But I feel like it’s the type of show that will never be a finished product. Since its core theme is about adaptation, I feel as if the director and the crew surrounding the project will never be able to sit with it. It’s scary to think of a creative project going on forever but at the same time, it’s exciting. For me, it means I witnessed something unique. And that’s what makes it worth performing.