Friday June 14th was the premiere of the experimental play You Are Very Star, created by Kevin Kerr and Craig Erickson, and directed by David Hudgins. It took place at the HR MacMillan Space Centre, and they offered Northern Voice Attendees half off on their tickets. Deal!
It’s an odd mindfuck of a play, with themes of change, progress, faith and transcendance. It wasn’t perfect (the interactive elements needed some work) but made for an enjoyable and mind-expanding evening. This review is going to be a little incomplete because it’s been two weeks and I can’t find the program anymore, so I can’t actually name the characters. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some other details.
The play is divided in 3 loosely connected acts, taking place in 1968, 2013 and 2048.
The first act, “Orbiting the Cusp of Greatness,” begins/ends in the Space Centre (yes, where we physically are) on December 21st, 1968, the night Apollo 8 went up. It was a time of turmoil and change, a time when people questioned everything. It follows backwards (interesting choice there!) a UBC Literature professor as he loses his mind, reinvents himself as a cult leader and attempts to achieve apotheosis with his small group of ex-student followers. And fails, because an ex-colleague pulls the plug on the TV so they miss the Apollo launch.
The second act does not take place on stage with actors; the audience are the actors. To prime us for the future and transcendence, we have to go through ten stations scattered around the Space Centre and participate in specific activities. One of the stations is a laptop running a Skype conversation with a sweet older lady. You sit down in front of it, tell her your age, and she gives you a brief story about what her life was like at that age. It invited us to look back and look forward: what kind of changes will we see when we’re her age?
Unfortunately, with a couple of exceptions this second act didn’t work so well. There were just too many people and even though everybody got a map with a different order for the stations, in practice there were usually long lines at every one. Too bad: it was a bold experiment in immersive theatre.
In the third act, “Transcendance,” a small group of Augmented humans—mentally connected through an advanced network, able to multitask like you wouldn’t believe and interface directly with technology—are anxiously waiting for “Neil”, their creator (played by Michael Rinaldi, who played the cult leader professor in the first act) to wake up and take them all to the next level, a perfect transcendental machine state that will usher in a brand new age for them. Too bad for the rest of the Earth, which is suffering from terrible climate change and widespread extinction. The story is partly narrated through one Augment, a young woman who’s decided to dictate a journal the old-fashioned way, with words one after the other.
Things heat up when Neil’s ex-lover (a baseline human) decides to visit him after many, many years. Wacky intercultural hijinks ensue with the young woman narrator—though they both speak in English words, they live in totally different worlds and can’t really relate to each other. She meets Neil, speaks to him briefly, and leaves. He wakes up, and in doing so disconnects himself from the worldwide Augment network, crashing it and bringing all his creatures down to normal.
The action eventually moves to the Space Centre again where… things happen. Sorry, I can’t be any more specific than that. My memories are a too hazy, and I don’t think I could do the scenes justice. Suffice to say, I think the Augments achieve transcendance, though not quite in the way they expect. And the audience gets to leave with their minds nicely scrambled.
So… my first thought was, this is the first time I’ve ever seen the Singularity and transhumanism explored on the stage! These are big sci-fi topics about the future of humankind and what it means to be human, and boy was it a trip!
The neatest twist about these Augments is that they’re not really that evolved. They’re mostly portrayed as scattered time-wasters, using their vast fractured minds to play games and live in mental simulations. For all their powers, they’re still immature and weird and creepy and idolise their creator, desiring transcendance though they don’t even understand what it means. They’re still human, and I don’t know if that’s depressing or hilarious. I guess it all depends on how you look at it. The Augments’ lives are determined by their choices, as ours are, after all.
The choice to have the 1968 segment unroll backwards is an intriguing one. Here’s how I read it: the past and future are symmetrical, both centered on the present, which just moves forward moment by moment. It’s in the present that we remember the past and create the future. And it’s up to us to be present, to learn the right lessons and create the right things.
Lastly, it’s a given that transcendental events are by definition impossible to explain or even show. I’ve complained about that before but this time it didn’t feel like a copout. I feel like I’ve been touched by something weird and wonderful. Kudos to The Electric Company for putting together a unique and brilliant experience!