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Acting out on activism

by Archives November 6, 2002

Hark back to your high school days and you may recall your grade ten English teacher uttering the phrase ‘All the world’s a stage’ in the midst of her lecture on the metaphoric constructions of whichever Shakespeare play you happened to be studying.

Well, apparently the folks at the Optative Theatrical Laboratories (OTL) were taking notes when these words were spoken and have used this idea to carve out their own, revolutionary brand of theatre.

Founded a few years back by Concordia grad Donovan King, the OTL is a politically motivated theatre company that seeks to blur the line between performer and spectator, theatre and reality. King argues his case using the example of stealth marketing (be wary of the guy who approaches you on the street and asks you to take his picture using a Sony digital camera he hands you), explaining that corporations have begun using the streets as a medium to sell their products. “When you start thinking of that sort of stuff going on, it doesn’t seem so unusual to think of [the streets] as a performance space, because it is for them,” says King.

The OTL is intent on tearing down what King refers to as the hierarchical and patriarchal structures that marginalize yet define conventional theatre today. Historically, the theatre reflected society; it kept a skeptical eye on government and was first in line to inform the public when it was being screwed with.

Nowadays, argues King, theatre has been moulded to fit neatly into the capitalist system as merely another product to be consumed, and while the few are contented by it, the many remain disaffected.

“We’re trying to re-define the theatre, how it works and to basically return it to its proper place, through experimental theory and practice,” King says.

The OTL’s most successful endeavour to date has been the meta-play Car Stories: What Have You Heard? Kicked out of the Fringe Festival last year after sponsors took offence to its anti-corporate agenda, it is a highly experimental project where the audience (only three per performance) is led through four cars situated at random locations throughout the city where different stories, with plenty of room for improvisation, are being enacted in each. The audience, of course, is encouraged to participate – ‘play’ – and are fully integrated into the performance.

To the OTL’s supreme shock Car Stories was recently nominated for the Elinore & Lou Siminovitch Prize in Playwriting. With a pay out of $100,000, this is Canada’s most prestigious theatre award. Although the irony was not lost on King and his associates (the prize is sponsored by the Bank of Montreal), he nevertheless sees this as a step in the right direction.

“The fact that the country’s leading minds are reading the meta-play is causing a profound reflection on the theatre,” he says, noting that it may be a sign that those in the corporate ranks are starting to think more seriously about global socialism.

Last Thursday, the OTL was out in force for the anti-FTAA protests. Workshops were held, costumes were made, and activists dressed as zombies and armed with video cameras could be seen weaving through the crowd, recording their ‘living theatre’ as they interacted with fellow protesters.

King encourages people to create their own characters and act them out in public, to wear their ‘optative glasses’ and see the world through a different perspective. After all, society is a spectacle and we are merely its performers.

“The overall purpose is kind of just to get people to play or to theatricalize a bit,” says King. “It’s such a good experience just to do it, just to play something for once. If people did that on a daily basis, this would be a very different world, I think.”

For more info on the OTL check out their website at www.otl.20m.com or email optatif@excite.com.

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