Traditional theatre is usually a linear process: playwright writes play. Director picks it up. Director casts actors. Actors learn lines. Actors perform lines. Cue standing ovation. Rinse and repeat.
“Who is the actor?” isn’t a question the audience is even supposed to ask until the end. The whole point is for the performer to disappear into their character.
Here’s the thing: Who/Nani/Qui is not traditional theatre. In fact, the play, a collaboration between Concordia’s theatre department and members of the Collectif MOYO, turns the very notion on its head. “We started with nothing,” said Junior Padingani, who acts in and helped choreograph the piece. That meant no parts to rehearse, no lines to learn &- all they had was the title. From that, the actors developed their own characters, based on their interactions with each other. Some end up performing their perception of one of their colleagues; others perform an aspect of themselves. In either case, the actors are center stage.
For actor Rio Mitchell, part of the appeal of the play was its lack of definition. “When we started the play it wasn’t a play at all,” she said. “It wasn’t just taking the same old script and remounting Romeo and Juliet.”
Mitchell and Padingani met at Concordia in “Performing and Other,” an experimental class taught by Rachael Van Fossen. In the play, they share a storyline. In reality, this meant they spent hours getting to know one another in order to develop it. “A large chunk of show, not just our storyline […] is based on the sharing of personal stories,” Mitchell explained.
They leaned towards each other as they spoke about their experiences. Sitting one next to the other, the actors seemed like yin and yang: Mitchell is a blonde, curly-haired Calgarian with a wide smile. Padingani is from the Democratic Republic of Congo. French is his first language. Consequently, he weighs each word spoken in English. He has two small scars, one on each side of his face: soccer accidents, he explained.
For Mitchell, Who/Nani/Qui is very much about dichotomy. “It’s a story of a microcosm of a group of people that tell this story of their interactions and their relationships around these hot button subjections, like: you’re black. I’m white. I’m a woman, you’re a man. I’m gay, you’re straight.” she explained. It’s about their “different abilities, different gender associations, all of these differences, really fleshing it out and talking about it.”
“Talking about it” allowed both parties to overcome personal struggles. For Padingani, it was his dislike of gay people; for Mitchell, her understanding of herself as a gay woman.
Padingani explained that the difficulty was a lack of understanding. He looked Mitchell in the eyes as he said to her, “You help me a lot. That love that I have from you helped me to understand a group of people. There is no more wall.”
In their second scene together, one of Padingani’s lines is “faking, faking, faking.” Mitchell replies, “yeah.” She said the line nearly brought her to tears. “It’s kind of hard, knowing that I faked so much for so long,” she said. “I thought, “I’m a girl. I should be with a boy.'”
All this evolved under the supervision of Van Fossen; the play is her brainchild. The idea came from her collaboration with Ally Ntumba, of the Collectif MOYO, on a previous play. Both the writing and the direction of the play are credited to her. However, as she explained, the ensemble “has collective ownership of the piece that we’re putting out.”
Collaborative theatre has been the focus of her work since the 1990s. “As an audience member, there’s something about knowing that the performers in a piece have some kind of direct relationship to the material. That makes it a very powerful experience for me,” she said about her decision. “As an artist and as a person, I am drawn to creating theatre that builds relationships.”
Who/Nani/Qui runs Nov. 25-28 in room 7-720, on the seventh floor of the MB building. For box office information call 514-848-2424 ext. 4742.