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FREE FALL ’12 a festival of international, boundary-pushing works (Theatre Centre). Various locations. Opens Saturday (March 24) and runs to March 31. Pwyc-$25, festival pass $23-$45. 416-538-0988, freefall12.eventbrite.ca. More info at theatrecentre.org/freefall.
Don't look for a safety net during Free Fall, the Theatre Centre's biennial festival of outside-the-box performances.
The fest offers companies a chance to try out new ideas and see how they work, giving audiences an opportunity to be in at the start of some potentially fascinating, non-traditional presentations.
"Free Fall is the place you can see works in their earliest stages of germination," says Michael Wheeler, who curates the festival along with the Theatre Centre's Franco Boni. "Many of this year's shows have an online component and explore the relationship between individual/private and collective/public experiences."
Looked at from a different perspective, a significant part of this year's festival plays with, in theatrical terms, the idea of the social network in both a technological and a dramatic sense.
Wheeler's fascinated by the idea of theatre as a form of social network. His company, Praxis Theatre, created an online project called Variations On Theatre, which involved individual presentations comprised of an image, a piece of text and a sound.
"That wasn't quite theatre," he explains, "since there was no live audience present in the same place as the event. But it highlighted the differences and similarities between social media and live performance. The connection is there, though: you can't have theatre without being connected to other human beings, just as social networks like Twitter and Facebook require the interaction among a group of people."
You can see the influence of social networking in Weetube 5400, a piece by Vancouver's Theatre Replacement.
"The Theatre Centre has presented the company several times already," notes Boni, referring to Bioboxes and Clark And I Somewhere In Connecticut. "Here Theatre Replacement's artistic directors, James Long and Maiko Bae Yamamoto, ask the audience to choose some of the most notorious YouTube videos; as they're played, the pair provides commentary.
"It's a casual evening, kind of like a licensed bar evening, with two dynamic performer/creators."
Then there's Jonathan Goldsbie's Route 501 Revisited, in which the audience takes a tour on the Queen streetcar with the interaction happening totally on Twitter.
"We're hoping to see the connection between exploring something with a live audience and online simultaneously," says Wheeler. "There will actually be two streetcar trips: a private journey with people who are part of the festival and a later trip with the general public, who possibly will have no idea that a performance is happening around and including them."
We couldn't have made this three-way interview much more electronic/social media. Wheeler, who's one of this year's Neil Munro Intern Directors at the Shaw Festival, is on his cellphone from Niagara-on-the-Like, while Boni and I sit in his office at the Theatre Centre listening to him on speakerphone. I'm typing on my MacBook and audio-taping on an MP3, while Boni tweets the fact that we're all talking about the upcoming festival.
Radix Theatre from Vancouver presents Babylonia, which asks the tantalizing and disturbing question, "What if you could upload your consciousness to the internet and live forever?" The show begins online and unfolds in real time, leading up to a live performance.
"We're curious about whether an audience member's experience is enhanced by going to the website before the show and engaging with it, not just reading what's on the site. Does that online experience affect how someone sees the show?"
That mix of live theatre and online content has already been used in Out The Window, Liza Balkan's show that began last week as part of Free Fall and has a final performance on Sunday (March 25).
The performance has an ancillary feature in The Brain, created by Praxis Theatre's Aislinn Rose to provide multifaceted online information about Out The Window.
"Originally The Brain was created as a stand-alone tool that provided audience members with background information or context," recalls Wheeler. "But by the time of the first performance, it was incorporated into the show.
"As people become more familiar with technology and how it can be used in new ways, we've seen in the past few years that it's move from the marketing departments of companies into the hands of artists. There's more integration now; what's online and what's performance is more gray than black-and-white."
Among the shows that Boni is looking forward to are Falen Johnson's Invisible Toronto: Ossington Edition and Invisibility, created by the Theatre Centre's Youth Program.
Johnson's show is up close and personal, a variation on the walking tour she led at SummerWorks a few years ago. Here she takes her audience on a journey through the Queen and Ossington area and talks about it from an indigenous perspective, asking what and who were here before today's residents and visitors.
"I invited her to do a version of the SummerWorks show in this neighbourhood," says Boni. "I was also thinking about commissioning a series of essays about invisibility, based on a comment by former Native Earth artistic director Yvette Nolan, who once noted that she felt both great and invisible. I thought that a strange comment from someone as passionate and connected to the community as Yvette, and asked her to write about that invisibility, not knowing where it would lead.
"Later I mentioned it to Naomi Savage, a Central Tech teacher who runs a co-op drama program, and she in turn used invisibility as the theme for a show by her class, many of whom are First Nations kids.
"So almost accidentally, both shows about invisibility grew up organically: Falen's live performance and a youth digital video project in collaboration with the TDSB and Charles Street Video."
Free Fall has an international component, too. In 2010, Dublin was part of the festival's performances and discussions, and in the fall of that year, the Free Fall production of Frank Cox-O'Connell and Evan Webber's Little Iliad travelled to the Dublin Fringe.
This year Chicago artists are part of the Free Fall mix.
"There are lots of vibrant companies in Chicago, companies doing some of the most inventive work in the country," explains Boni. "And it's not just in theatre. I've been invited to see the work of the graduate students of the Art Institute of Chicago. Think of it: a theatre artistic director invited to an art institute.
"That's a sign that Free Fall is cross-disciplinary; we're involving not just the heads of Chicago theatre companies but people from artist-run and community cultural centres."
The Chicago component of the festival includes The Palimpsest Project 1.3 by Re[public] In/decency, a time-based performance/lecture by Toronto's Coman Poon and Chicago's Erica Mott "that examine how reified boundaries and palimpsested landscapes affect our embodied sense of self and place." (A palimpsest, by the way, is a manuscript which has been erased in some fashion to make way for other writing but traces of which remain on the page.)
You can also check out the Windy City's Doggiewoggiez! Poochiewoochiez! By Everything is Terrible, which involves a movie composed entirely of dog-related, found footage; it's also a remake of Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1973 film The Holy Mountain.
Finally, Free Fall offers a Chicago/Toronto Performance Summit that has as its theme cultural ecosystems.
Ecosystems might seem a strange topic for an arts festival, but Boni and Wheeler think it's crucial. They've invited Alanna Mitchell, author of Sea Sick: The Hidden Crisis In The Global Ocean, to be the summit's keynote speaker; the keynote speech is free.
"The idea of ecosystems is a good analogy for what's going on culturally and a good means of talking to our peers from Chicago," offers Wheeler. "It speaks to general issues about humanity and also provides a framework for our discussion about art."