Headlines Theater presents an inspiring anxiety-inducing production

// Claire McGillivray

“The silence in an audience reflects the silence out there,” muses David Diamond, Headlines Theatre Artistic Director. He says this when faced with the glaringly anxious expressions of audience members during the initial tentative minutes of their requested participation in Us and Them. His guilt-driven persuasion eventually convinces a number of audience members to raise their voices and come forward to participate in the production.

Headline’s Us and Them,’ co-directed by David Diamond and Kevin Finnan, is a play that encourages the audience to participate through improvisation when they “understand the struggles that any character is engaged in,” says Diamond. Here they can take the place of the actors and offer up their own solutions to the struggles represented on stage. This play marks the celebration of Headlines Theatre’s 30th Anniversary.

The play digs into delicate and emotionally charged themes of identity, oppression and human interaction. The cast is made up of six diverse community members who were part of a 20-person discussion team and play-building workshop in the summer of 2011. Diamond explains the choice of having six community members take the role of actors as “[they try] to put characters on the stage who have the complexity of real life, who aren’t caricatures.” This brings the honest truth of everyday oppression to the foreground.

Diamond explains his understanding of the audience’s struggle, as well as his theatre’s passion to overcome the internal and external silence. “It’s really challenging to enter a space of real dialogue, in which we’re suspending judgment about things that we think we know, things that we live in certainty about. Just like in nature, the challenge is for all of us to live in uncertainty and the idea of forum theatre compels us to do that.”

Directors Diamond and Finnan demonstrate creative use of production elements to emphasize upfront feelings of unease, even before the aspect of audience interaction is introduced. Owen Belton, the music and sound designer, as well as live acoustic guitarist for the show, reflected the tensions of the piece with his musical choices. The audio carried a haunting feeling into the audience, especially during the scene changes where the actors enacted an escalating riot matched to actual recorded visuals of the Vancouver Riot in spring of 2011.

Diamond explains how in this day and age “multi-media plays aren’t extraordinary anymore, but this play is combining traditional narrative and visual images in a way that’s very unusual in theatre here in Vancouver.” Other artistic production elements that have a lasting impact include the use of overlapping dialogue delivered by the entire chorus of actors. This dialogue elevates from hurtful whispers to fullon attacks, heightening the audience’s emotions in tandem.

“Inside the forum funny things happen. There’s a lot of laughter because it’s improv. Profound things happen because it’s about us and we are reflected back to ourselves in the theatre,” says Diamond. This aspect of forum theatre can take the play in many different directions, depending on the night. One audacious audience participant actually asked Diamond if there was anyone else able to facilitate the dialogue, “in the spirit of the play.” Her feelings, as she described to the rest of the audience, were that Diamond was asking his questions, but expecting specific ‘right’ answers, limiting the conversation. He took the comment with grace and comedy but the tsunami of colliding thoughts has been effectively unleashed. Maybe forum theatre is a little more dangerous than it seems or, at the very least, volatile and surprising.

Diamond briefly mentions the inspiration and origins of forum theatre. He links it back to his close friend and professional colleague, Augusto Boal, a contemporary Brazilian thespian and politician. Boal created the concept of forum theatre and founded the Theatre for the Oppressed using art as a vehicle for social change. Headlines Theatre and Diamond’s Theatre for Living reflects the structure of Boal’s aims but opens up the audience participation. Theatre for Living allows audience members to jump from scene to scene, anywhere they find connections with the characters.

The production is an off-kilter meeting of art and life that is clearly asking people to take a risk; to expose themselves to the discomfort of a raw, uneasy dialogue. Whether this discomfort is effective in breaking boundaries is still uncertain. The loss of the fourth wall, however, gives the audience more of an urgent sense of responsibility. As Diamond reiterates, “It’s easy to sit in an audience and go ‘oh, they should have done that!’ It’s very different to step into a situation.”

Us and Them runs almost daily at 8:00 pm from October 21st to November 12th at the Vancouver Eastside Cultural Center, 1895 Venables St. in Vancouver, BC. Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for students/seniors and $10 for matinees.

// Claire McGillivray, Writer
// Illustration by Lydia Fu

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