When Theatre Conspiracy artistic director Tim Carlson was developing his idea to make a work of theatre that dealt with cybersurveillance, he thought in the early stages that it could be perceived in the mainstream as a work inspired by paranoia. Governments spying on their citizens? In North America?
"And then [a few] months later, the Snowden thing happened and it's been front-page news ever since," Carlson says during a break in rehearsals for Foreign Radical in Vancouver.
"What would have been paranoid is now something that … every lawyer, I think, except for government lawyers, [is] worried about."
With Snowden's revelations, the piece in its infancy became fuelled by the larger debate about domestic surveillance and how that connects to anti-terror policy, as well as implications around racial profiling and watch-listing.
While Bill C-51 emerged fairly late in the process of creating the work, Carlson managed to work it in as well.
Foreign Radical, which has its world premiere Friday (with a preview Thursday), is a work of participatory theatre. Groups of 20 enter the black-box space at the Cultch in Vancouver, which has been divided into four quadrants, and move around based on their answers to various questions posed by a game-show-host-type character (Milton Lim).
Would you be willing to be fingerprinted so you can travel? Submit to a retina scan? A body-cavity search? Would you rather be free to associate with anyone you like or have the freedom to travel internationally? Some questions are posed in Farsi or Arabic – without translation.
Depending on your answer, you will be grouped with different people or moved to a different quadrant altogether.
It's a multimedia experience, and actual news coverage – for example, a TV story about suspected terrorist activities in Canada – complements the fiction.
The piece is hugely interactive. Audience members get to know one another – collaborating, competing, spying on one another. Individual decisions ultimately affect the group.
"For Jeremy [Waller, the director], it's like directing four possible plays with two different outcomes," Carlson says. The show in some ways is like a live TV event, with a stage manager in a roped-off control room watching the action on a four-channel surveillance camera and calling the show live, depending on what transpires. Video designer Cande Andrade will also have to react live, launching videos and projections in reaction to events playing out in real time.
"No two shows will be really the same, because the audience dynamic will influence the outcome each night," Carlson says.
The answers given by the participants will affect not only themselves and the other audience members, but also Foreign Radical's fictional suspect, Hesam (Aryo Khakpour). The game will determine whether Hesam gets named to the watch list.
"I used to love airports. Board a plane and fly away," Hesam says during one scene.
During a partial run-through I experienced, Hesam reminded me so much of Maher Arar – both in appearance and what seemed to be a terrifying circumstance – that I was surprised when Khakpour told me he didn't know anything about the case; he didn't even know who Arar was.
"I try to stay away from research, because my part is a visceral part," says Khakpour, 32, who moved to Canada from Iran about 10 years ago. "Of course I read stuff and I am Iranian-Canadian so I have some idea what's happening; I hear stories."
Carlson, however, told me that for about eight years, he himself had a "huge, ongoing border-hassle experience" because he shared personal details, including a name and birthdate, with someone "who has been in a fair amount of trouble."
That experience was "hugely influential" in writing this piece.
"This began around the time that the Arar story was breaking," Carlson says. "And I imagined how it would have been far worse if I had a common Arabic name."
Foreign Radical is at the Culture Lab at the Cultch in Vancouver April 16-25 (thecultch.com).