As I walk into the somewhat secretly situated theatre space at 1422 William St., which also houses the offices of other prominent Vancouver theatre companies such as Rumble Productions and Electric Theatre Company, I realize I am actually walking into the reception room of a mental institution, more specifically, The Emotional Receptivity Institute or ERI. I am greeted with the serious and professional faces of the security team, wearing bright white space-age jumpsuits and ushering me through to the main hall. As the audience waits to go into the theatre, we are forced to interact with our strange surroundings. Guards are pushing past us while dragging prisoners from one room to another and loudly discussing whether the subjects are under control or not. As we enter the main room where a large screen projects videos and surround sound of these employees welcoming us to the ERI. Their detached and robotic faces tell us not to interact with the inmates, as it may lead to the removal of limbs. They tell us to let them know if we start to feel an emotion, and they will escort us to the appropriate isolation chamber for suggested decontamination. This is definitely unlike any theatre experience I’ve had before, and I’m liking it very much.
24 theatre students from around the world have embarked on and now completed this brand new and unique experience entitled the Bachelor of Performing Arts program. It is a “cross-disciplinary performing arts degree that has, at its heart, a commitment to collaboration and self-generation”. It is offered jointly by Capilano College, Douglas Collage, Langara and VCC, and this PuSh Festival performance is their final project. In other words, these students, (ranging in age from early 20’s to 65 and in training from flutist to animator) have written, produced, lit, costumed, built, filmed, and choreographed the entire show.
The audience or ‘invest-mates’ (potential investors in the institute), as we are referred to, is divided into groups based and we are sent on tours of the facility. We are led through a series of improvised and scripted interactions, such as sitting in on a revealing therapy session, a humorous and voyeuristic video-tour of a drugged individual’s brain, and a historical display of artifacts once used to evoke ‘inappropriate emotions’, such as candy, perfume, and sex toys. On the main stage we are shown a dream-like puppetry projection that becomes a haunting live performance with mask, song, and live music. Along the way there is always something to discover or stumble upon; so everyone is guaranteed to have their own specific experience. I, for example, had one of the patients, throw a handful of candy at my feet, arousing the suspicions of the guards who accused me of creating a disturbance! I was so jarred, that for a moment I felt really guilty and scared. Conversely, peaking through a mysterious curtain, revealed a group of musically inclined patients singing and playing instruments in a booth, which we could listen to with the use of headphones.
I was extremely impressed by the quality of performance and dedication to the portrayal of this futuristic take on society. Without giving too much away, the end of the show brings together our shared experiences by arousing an emotional look at freedom and beauty in society. Instructors David Bloom and Marguerite Witvoet project a clear vision of pain and progress in our world, and subtly lead the viewer to reflect on our own judgments and boundaries. I sincerely hope this excellent piece of theatre finds another chance to be performed, and I send big congratulations to this graduating class! The program is sure to be a huge success while still keeping true to the experimental and freethinking ideals of great theatre.
For more information on the BPA Program, click here.