What is theatre without a stage?
Well, in the case of David McIntosh’s latest creation Lives Were Around Me, it’s a one-of-a-kind guided exploration of history and storytelling in Vancouver’s historic city centre. Every Tuesday until the end of February, three audience members at a time are invited to reconsider their understanding of the Downtown Eastside and beyond.
The show is hosted by Battery Opera, inspired by James Kelman‘s novel Translated Accounts, and performed by Adrienne Wong, Paul Ternes, Aleister Murphy, and (of course) the city itself. I asked McIntosh a few questions about his sold-out show.
Here is what he had to say:
What do you think Lives Were Around Me is about?
The artist is the last person you should ask that question.
I can tell you [Lives Were Around Me] is framed as a guided tour. That’s what it is. It’s an invitation to come on a tour (of a kind) through specific areas of the city.
This guided tour is a truly innovative idea; I’ve personally never heard anything like it. What inspired you put this together?
The piece comes out of several obsessions of mine. One of the obsessions is about history and how we create history for ourselves, in the present. We re-frame fragments from the past in a way that justifies our present existence. I’ve always been interested in that. It’s present through any kind of history.
So that’s one thing.
As well, I’m often interested in exploring agendas behind narratives. Whenever somebody tells you a story there’s a translation of an event. You only get a fragment of the experience.
This piece in particular started when I read a book called Translated Accounts. It’s a series of unrelated (or possibly related) accounts or reports that had been collected and translated. [Scottish novelist James Kelman] usually writes in a dialect, but this one is not. Through these translations of these events he ends up creating an obscure kind of grammar.
The narrative in it is very hard to follow. There is no relation from one chapter to another. It’s really hard to figure out what the event is, so what comes to the forefront is the agenda of the person telling the story.
I was fascinated by that in this book.
Then it just so happened I popped into the police museum, and I was struck by a similar sense of agenda. It permeated through the entire space. All the displays were attempts at justification of themselves and what they did.
Right away I saw a similarity there.
That block is at the centre of the city. And the whole creation of the city is an attempt to force narrative (through government, churches, art organizations and so on). They all enforce and create narrative while lives hang in the balance.
Of course none of our lives actually fit into systems or histories. So there’s discord there.
Artistically, those were my ideas. What I wanted to do was create of layering those things and invite people to consider how they make sense of where they are and how they got here.
My agenda is to invite you to question how narratives are created, how evidence is framed and how history is also framed.
Is it a consistent show, or more improvised?
It’s a consistent show every Tuesday night and leaves hourly from 6 until 10 pm. But it’s not always the same. There’s different performers and the audience changes everything. How they react and how they move (or choose not to move) has an impact.
When moving through the Downtown Eastside, is it ever difficult for people to take in?
The Downtown Eastside is not difficult, but it’s sometimes challenging for an audience. I find this especially if they’re from Vancouver, they often bring in a lot of assumptions.
People interject (as they will) but it’s not disruptive.
Have any audience members ever reacted poorly?
Poorly? I don’t know.
I think the piece is very emotional, so I think people often have a very emotional reaction. One of the things we ask is to sign a waiver. The piece takes place out in the world. I am not in control of whether you step off the street in front of a car, or get assaulted or trip over a grate and break your ankle.
You agree to step into the world. That world is downtown Vancouver.
When you consider the idea of being in the Downtown Eastside and you have a lot of assumptions about the neighbourhood and how people view you, I find that’s really fascinating.
It’s always good to actually be there and see what it really is like.
Is there ever an issue of voyeurism?
That is an issue that people bring with them.
The piece invites them to consider whether they’re being a voyeur.
How do you feel about theatre and the creative community within the Downtown Eastside?
Well, I’m not an arts advocate. I find the word community really repulsive [in that context]. We’re surrounded by individual people. ‘Arts community’ has a lot of condescension in it. I’m not interested in representing groups of people. I’m interested in art and my experience. And inviting people to explore that.
I live very close to the Downtown Eastside and I’ve always worked in the Downtown Eastside, so for me there’s a personal narrative of those blocks. I have a specific narrative for that area so I don’t feel the need to represent it in a different way, if that makes sense.
I’m doing the piece there because of it’s centrality. I’m not trying to explain the Downtown Eastside. I’m not trying to represent any part of the city or a part of the social spectrum.
Are tickets still available?
No, it’s completely sold out.
We might do it again next year. We’ll see.