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small metal objects: magic micro culture clash

alex ferguson

Alex Lazaridis Ferguson is a theatre artist based in Vancouver. He writes plays, acts, and occasionally directs. He's also a founding member of the performing poetry ensembles, AWOL Love-Vibe and VERBOMOTORHEAD. His writings on theatre have appeared in publications such as Canadian Theatre Review, The Boards, Transmissions.

Small Metal Objects Small Metal Objects
photo Jeff Busby
It’s hard to describe the sense of freedom you get watching this show. To start with, there’s the freedom of being outside the usual theatre box. Small Metal Objects (performed by Australia's Back to Back Theatre) takes place in the atrium of the Vancouver Public Library, a crescent shaped concourse with a glass ceiling many stories above. On one side of the concourse is the library itself, also fronted with glass, all the way up, it’s insides open to view. On the other side are the cafes, flower shops and pizza parlors. We’re sitting on a narrow bank of seats somewhere in the middle. Crowds flow in and out of the main library entrance. People sip lattes, read newspapers or eat snacks at the shop tables. Each person in the audience stall is wearing a set of headphones. To the passersby, we may look a little odd. To us, they just look like normal people doing normal things. ‘Normal’ is a concept that will be unpacked in a most ingenious and surreptitious manner over the next 50 minutes. When it’s done, we may never feel normal again. But we may feel a lot freer.

We’re sitting on a narrow bank of seats somewhere in the middle. Crowds flow in and out of the main library entrance. People sip lattes, read newspapers or eat snacks at the shop tables. Each person in the audience stall is wearing a set of headphones. To the passersby, we may look a little odd. To us, they just look like normal people doing normal things. ‘Normal’ is a concept that will be unpacked in a most ingenious and surreptitious manner over the next 50 minutes. When it’s done, we may never feel normal again. But we may feel a lot freer.

A conversation begins in the headphones. Voice One (male): “Cooked a roast last night. Think it was chicken.” Voice Two (male): “I love chicken.” Space. A couple of spare piano chords. Voice One: “Celebrated my 15th wedding anniversary.” Space. Piano. Voice 1 again: “If a guy with a gun came at my wife and my kids I’d take the bullet for them.” The conversation continues like this for some time. It’s affectionate, honest, witty. It may be pre-recorded, we don’t know yet. Voice Two talks about how much he wants “to give,” to help, that he’s worried he’s gay because he doesn’t have a girlfriend, that if he were famous he would give every needy person in the world 825 grams of food a day. Voice One has great ideas too: he wants to get into the self-storage business because these days people don’t throw things away. In the same breath he mentions childcare as another good bet, presumably because people don’t throw children away either. The general movement of the crowd continues. Suddenly I see the source of the voices: at the far end of the atrium two men are slowly moving in our direction. They both have headsets on. One of them is a skinny, medium height brunette; the other is short and heavy-set with a blonde buzz cut. It turns out Voice Two belongs to the brunette, who’s name is Steve (Simon Laherty), while Voice One belongs to the blond, Gary (Sonia Teuben).

As they get closer, we can see by Steve’s movement, and by the performers’ physical appearance that the actors are mentally/physically ‘challenged’—a concept that is already beginning to be stripped of the logic of prejudice. After all, they were having a conversation that might be attributed to any two ‘normal’ guys, one who’s been married for 15 years, the other who is lonely and confused about his sexual orientation. The gentle pace of the performance, supported by a hypnotic sound score, is at odds with the usual rhythm of the concourse. Gary and Steve seem to inhabit a parallel world; the people who sit at neighbouring tables haven’t taken notice of them. The actors are almost like spirits. They take their time with every exchange. The crowd speeds past. We are witnessing a genuine clash of cultures: one is slow and considered, one is madly goal-oriented. We know which one we usually live in.

By the time the next character appears we’ve been well massaged into the culture of Steve and Gary, and judging by the grinning faces around me the audience is grateful for the experience. Allan (Jim Russell) is a speedy big time realtor. He’s putting on a major function and needs to furnish his clients with drugs. And here’s another challenge to our expectations: Gary and Steve are dealers. Allan doesn’t have much time. Gary is happy to furnish him with the goods, but things have to proceed at a pace that doesn’t suit Allan’s pressing agenda. To complicate matters, Steve has become immobile. He’s “deep in thought” and refuses to go to the lockers to get the stash. As much as Gary would like to accommodate Allan, he won’t abandon Steve, so the deal’s off. Allan phones for support from his psychologist, Caroline (Caroline Lee). Lee, who is a motivational consultant for large corporate clients, arrives, and the two ‘normals’ get to work, soothing and cajoling Steve—Caroline offers everything from free consultations to (when she gets most desperate) a blowjob. Most significantly, she appeals to Steve’s desire to improve himself, to become a happier, productive, more efficient person. This is the dialectic that has been playing throughout: Steve and Gary’s culture is based on personal bonds, on trust and human compassion; Caroline’s and Allan’s is utilitarian. As Steve and Gary say, “Everything has a value.” Caroline and Allan would agree with this statement, but in their world value is equated with productivity.

Small Metal Objects doesn’t present a utopia. It simply defines the ethos of two contrasting cultures. In the current paradigm, we demand that Gary and Steve play by our rules. We reward them inasmuch as they are able to conform to our standards of successful behavior. Small Metal Objects reverses the paradigm. Allan can’t adjust to the values that supercede getting what you want when you want it. He and Caroline simply cannot speak the language of the minority culture they are confronting. The performance raises a whole host of concerns about ‘otherness’ and difference that can be applied to so many aspects of our fractured world, whether we’re looking at issues like racism, poverty and other forms of exclusion on a community level, or whether we’re facing macro issues like global military conflicts. That sounds heavy-handed, something this show is resolutely not. The superb ensemble playing of the cast, the deft direction of Bruce Gladwin, and the mesmerising sound design of Hugh Covill reconfigure the atrium, removing density from the space between passersby, unlocking new ways of seeing—no, of being—for those of us consciously taking it in.

It’s appropriate that this happens at a library, because we are getting a first class education here. This is what great art can do. It can re-organise your bones, re-wire your brain, and perform open-heart surgery all at the same time. Far from the confines of a theatre box and from the spatial concerns that accompany conventional scripts and conventional acting, we get to re-imagine how the conflicting cultures of our world might fit together a little easier, what little adjustments it might take for us to approach each other and make contact with difference. It’s a very moving exercise in the art of the possible, and it left me with a surprisingly untainted sense of hope.


Back to Back Theatre, Small Metal Objects, devisers Bruce Gladwin, Simon Laherty, Sonia Teuben, Genevieve Morris, Jim Russell, director Bruce Gladwin, performers Simon Laherty, Sonia Teuben, Caroline Lee, Jim Russell, sound design & composition Hugh Covill; Vancouver Public Library, Central Branch Promenade, Jan 30-Feb 2

Alex Lazaridis Ferguson is a theatre artist based in Vancouver. He writes plays, acts, and occasionally directs. He's also a founding member of the performing poetry ensembles, AWOL Love-Vibe and VERBOMOTORHEAD. His writings on theatre have appeared in publications such as Canadian Theatre Review, The Boards, Transmissions.

RealTime issue #83 Feb-March 2008 pg. 10

© Alex Ferguson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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