I almost don’t want to write this. I don’t want to spoil it. Because the thrill of the Electric Company’s Initiation Trilogy, which coincides with the Vancouver Writers Fest, is the not knowing: the travelling around Granville Island, blindly following a flashlight-wielding volunteer to three “secret locations” to experience a night of intimate performance.
So I am going to sacrifice some specifics here, to save those who can attend the surprise.
This trio of theatrical installations, as it is being called, is inspired by three poetry collections: Elizabeth Bachinsky’s God of Missed Connections; Marita Dachsel’s Glossolalia; and Jennica Harper’s What It Feels Like for a Girl. The thread is feminism, identity, personal transformation. And in the theatrical pieces they inform, there is a looming feeling that something big is about to happen. Probably something terrible.
At the beginning of the night, we are divided into three groups, and initiated with a coloured piece of string tied around our wrist. Before and after each segment, which we take in with our own group, we all meet in “the lobby,” a space adjacent to a parking lot, transformed into a social area with strung-up lights, space heaters and a bar. We are encouraged to sit down at a long table and do some Glossolalia-inspired embroidery. We can also have a read through the books. Then we are shepherded to three micro-performances, each inspired by one of the works.
Glossolalia is a series of poetic monologues spoken by the 34 wives of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. It is a sad, beautiful collection that offers a glimpse so intimate into these lives that you want to shield your eyes as you read. This performance provides the most intimate encounter of the night, with private spaces so cleverly animated that you want to stop and take it all in (this is not possible), and you can almost ignore the unfortunate sound-bleed, which distracts from your moments with these women.
What It Feels Like for a Girl tells the story, in a series of poems, of an intense 1980s friendship between two teenage girls: the hot-stuff Madonna freak (Emma Lindsay) and her thinky, but more sexually naive, best friend (Jennifer Paterson). The set, in particular how the audience interacts with it, is cheeky and innovative (if somewhat uncomfortable for the audience), but the performances were lukewarm, and this was the weakest of the three instalments. At the same time, there was a strong topical resonance to this piece – with its high-school student who is shunned for being too sexual – as people in this city (and far beyond) remain gripped and horrified by the story of Amanda Todd, whose suicide last week followed intense bullying.
The standout piece is the one inspired by Bachinsky’s collection, which begins with a toast to Ukraine (“Where pornography is a popular career. … Where irradiated wolves populate abandoned cities …”), and continues through poems pithy and profound, such as I Hate Working at the Supermarket and Goddess of Blissful Ignorance. Here we have excellent performances, especially from Colleen Wheeler, as the angry, cancer-struck Ukrainian Canadian, and Haig Sutherland, as her brother. We stumble out of this eerie secret location and into the night, feeling a bit stunned. Which is good.
The format of Initiation Trilogy is reminiscent of Vancouver’s remarkable Hive shows, which saw theatre companies create brief intimate performance pieces in private spaces inside one large venue. Audiences would go from performance to performance, and meet in the middle over drinks to discuss what they had seen, and make vehement recommendations. It is some of the most exciting theatre I have experienced, anywhere.
That same buzz was not generated by Initiation Trilogy, at least not on opening night. The conversation, as far as I could (over)hear, did not appear to be revolving around the theatre we were there to see, but tended to drift back to real life.
The work is not as engaging as we might hope or expect from the Electric Company. Still, the innovation, the provocation, the ingenuity of the endeavour must be applauded and, I hope, continue to be pursued by these artists and emulated by others.