Meet Olivier Choinière, theatre hacker.
You could call the Québécois artist, whose play Bliss had its professional English-Canadian premiere last week in Toronto, by any number of titles – playwright, director, performance podcaster.
But recently, Choinière has gained a new level of notoriety at home thanks to an audacious "hacking" he carried out on the opening show of the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde's 60th-anniversary season.
"The idea of this type of hacking is to enter, to penetrate another cultural event without necessarily bothering or breaking or destroying," explains Choinière, speaking in French, over the phone from Montreal.
Projet blanc, as the inaugural hacking was called, has led to an ongoing debate over whether Choinière has invented a new theatrical art form, was taking part in a long tradition of theatrical protest – or if he went too far and, as TNM artistic director Lorraine Pintal told him, perpetrated an artistic "rape."
Since 2003, with his company L'Activité, Choinière has been producing what he calls déambulatoire théâtrals – promenade plays during which audience members wander around the city while listening to an audio guide on an MP3 player.
"Everything becomes a kind of vast mise en scène," explains Choinière, "and the spectator is always uncertain whether, say, the little girl with the red balloon is part of the show or not."
While Choinière is not the only theatre artist playing around with "podplays" (as Vancouver's Neworld Theatre calls them), Projet blanc took this nascent art form somewhere new and subversive.
The audience that showed up for his one-off déambulatoire théâtral last Nov. 3 was surprised to be led by Choinière's recorded voice to a traditional theatrical space: the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde at the heart of Montreal's Quartier des spectacles.
L'Activité had bought the entire second balcony of the theatre for the final performance of director Yves Desgagnés's production of L'École des femmes by Molière, and each of the Projet blanc spectators was given a ticket to the show. They were instructed to hide their headphones (and their intentions) until the house lights went down – and then put them back on and press play.
What the audience within a larger audience was then treated to was Choinière's indignant but humorous real-time commentary, in which he questioned whether the metatheatrical production lived up to the claims, in the promotional material, that the director had found "terrible resonances with our society" (for instance, regarding pornography and pedophilia) in Molière's 1662 play about a misogynist named Arnolphe who raises a young girl to be the perfect wife.
As a critic, I happen to agree with Choinière's take on the show, if not the TNM in general. In my review of L'École des femmes, I wrote that Desgagnés "seems happy to only superficially address these themes and delivers a neutered, somewhat nebulous production. His emphasis is, dispiritingly, on the play as a play."
Choinière's larger point, however, was that the TNM and other public theatres are not separate from the capitalistic "society of spectacle" that surrounds them. "We often have the impression that we're making art, and that we've escaped commercialization and the invasion of marketing in our artistic practice – and I think that's false," he says.
When Pintal found out about the hacking of her theatre a few days later, she was shocked and angry at the subterfuge involved and what seemed to her a breach of the "sacred link" between audience and actors.
"Even if it was very discreet on the second balcony, there were 80 spectators that were listening to the voice of Olivier Choinière telling them what they should think of the theatre, think of the production," says Pintal (also speaking to The Globe in French). "For me, that's an aggressive act."
Pintal defends her company's openness to emerging artists and embrace of new approaches to old plays. "Who is Olivier Choinière to decide how we mount classics?" she asks. "I don't think [ Projet blanc]is an audacious creation – I think it's a parasitical one."
Pintal and Choinière have discussed the issue at a public forum and also during a telephone call where, Choinière revealed to The Globe and Mail, Pintal described Projet blanc as a " viol" – a rape. (Pintal confirms she said this, but is astonished that Choinière shared their private conversation.)
Although things have since calmed down, the debate simmers – indeed, the Quebec theatre magazine Jeu is devoting much of its upcoming June issue to the subject, with contributions from Choinière, Pintal and others.
Choinière argues that Projet blanc was in no way disruptive, particularly compared to previous generations of theatrical protest.
Indeed, while there are definitely ethical issues to consider when attaching yourself to someone else's artistic work, L'École des femmes was in many ways a very appropriate show to do so with, given the action all took place among a set of nested proscenium arches and red curtains. Choinière just added an extra picture frame to look at the production through.
The future of theatrical hacking seems full of possibilities, actually, particularly if theatres chose to embrace the idea of outside interventions and consented to make certain productions "open source." What if you could go see The Taming of the Shrew at Vancouver's Bard on the Beach next summer once on its own, then the second time with running commentary from the director Meg Roe or a choice of creative layerings from local independent theatre companies like neworld? Theoretically, it could be as successful an innovation as the addition of audio commentaries to DVDs – and good for repeat business.
In any case, Projet blanc won't be the last unauthorized hacking for Choinière. Although he continues to write more traditional pieces – such as Bliss, and his all-sung satire Chante avec moi, which is being revived at this summer's Festival TransAmériques – he has a new one planned for next year (though, for obvious reasons, he is not saying what it will consist of).
"The idea is not necessarily to return to the theatre," he says, "but to hook onto and bring a real-time reflection to another event that could be cultural, sports, political or economic."