Monday 26 February 2018

The Code examines teen angst via social media
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  Social media bullying is so prominent a topic it seems almost trite. But with Pink Shirt Day this Wednesday, now is a perfect time to consider its effects yet again. Forty-plus years doing plays for schools, Green Thumb Theatre continues its mandate. This time it is assistant artistic director Rachel Aberle's world premiere of The Code

Her communication cum integrity messages are currently on a chautaqua around BC high schools. Aimed mostly at Grade 8-9's, the show plays to senior highs too. A one-nite-only outing + talkback for the general public was presented at The Cultch tonight.

Aberle's script demonstrates admirably various applications of a favourite Boomer quip : "I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am afraid what you heard is not what I meant."  

On its face it's an old storyline : "the suits" in school admin want to dictate a dress code for the girls for the upcoming school dance. Along the way the dance organizer is mocked and pilloried on social media and a key friendship crashes and burns as a result.

Best buds Connor (Mason Temple) and Simon (Nathan Kay) snigger over some share or other on Simon's phone. Later a cut-&-paste photo-patch of their friend Moira turns out to be a fake news mock-up with costly consequences.
Photo Credit : Leah Gair

How it's all put together : In response to the dress code threat, dance organizer Moira (Elizabeth Barrett) and friends Connor (Mason Temple) and Simon (Nathan Kay) decide, fatefully, to stage a rally in protest. Their catchy tag-line is "Our bodies, our clothes, stand up, break the code!" The rally is a huge success with their classmates whose smartphones buzz their Huzzah!s at Moira's defiant stand @ #breakthecode. Until the dance is canceled by way of school admin's response to / revenge for the students' protest rally. In the result the expression for Moira surely must be "Keep your friends close but keep your enemies closer!" Never truer nor more apt.

Dance organizer Moira (Elizabeth Barrett) uses an old-tech / analogue bullhorn to spur the student body into righteous indignation over the school administration's dance dress code for girls while her ostensible friend Simon (Nathan Kay) captures it on on his smartphone.
Photo Credit : Leah Gair
Ideas & social values at play : The prominence -- physically as well as emotionally -- of smartphone devices and their manipulative messages is timely. The latest brain research shows how '+' messages such as Twitter like's release euphoric dopamine that pumps followers with an instant nearly addictive high. 

But when '-' messages are decoded by the user instead, dysphoric secretions known as dynorphins flood the brain equally quickly : feelings of social rejection, isolation and even depression instantly snap to attention, alas. (Of all addicts, gamblers perhaps best know -- intuitively -- the bipolar seductions of this paradoxical plus/minus algorithm.)

Add to all this device-driven amygdala activity the customary hormonal urges & desires & constant messaging that occur within teens that they act out. Hoo-boy! that kind of cocktail mix can be not just volatile and stupefying but can cause permanent damage quickly, research tells us.

Production hi-lites that add to the script : Ruth Bruhn's brick high school outdoor playground wall as backdrop coupled with Elizabeth Wellwood's various contemporary costumes and her oh-so-clever sound design embrace one another symbiotically. Together they generate the proper gestalt for all the suspicion and angst and instantly-changing emotions that run riot in this script. Eminently capable cast blocking, voice-work and emotive highlights are elicited well from the actors by 30-year GTT artistic director Patrick McDonald. The dramatic result evinced by the trio is haunting and unsettling. Just as designed.

Acting pin-spots : Together the three 20-something actors pull off being 16-year-olds with fetching and winning allure. (During the talk-back they confessed this was the toughest part of their assignment.) As Moira, Elizabeth Barrett had the most challenging emotional role. Her becoming "woke" to women's victimization -- worst of all at the hands of one of her BFF's -- was commanding and potent. "Why when men behave badly do women get blamed?" she asks more than once. 

Nathan Kay's Simon was one-part nerd, one-part naif, one-part typical male chauvinist. He revealed an almost too-easy access to ego-driven retaliation and payback. His falsely thinking that friend Moira was starting to hot-up to him -- instead of theirs being a strictly platonic friendship -- was the result of myriad texts, selfies, emoji's and offhand teen lingo : the prospect of their agreeing to go on a "date" completely threw him over.

As he did in Satellite(s) last fall, Mason Temple once more showed growing emotional capacity as a young actor. Gotta say his rage attack at close chum Moira when the dance was canceled was a shock due to its suprising over-the-top vehemence. But it was scripted thus and he was directed so.

Who gonna like :  On a continent where wee tots and high schoolers alike are wantonly slaughtered en masse, a play about the broad topic "communication" & cyberbullying may seem slightly tardy. But Porgy sang "It ain't necessarily so." Because violence begins with words. And communication is neither an abstract nor a toy. Not a toy despite how our myriad devices might have us believe so given all their playful-seeming apps. But once out there in cyberspace it's all for real and forever no matter how contrived or fake. How perverse.

So. Rachel Aberle's script asks, implicitly, how to get people to understand that every nanosecond they choose their very thoughts and emotions. Choose. An active verb. Choice. The results. It always comes down to that. 

Plus, Aberle warns, the fact the old adage "Actions speak louder than words" is not true. Because our words now are so instantly permanent out in cyberspace. Words and the images we so whimsically and gleefully and cheekishly append to them now are actions. 

Ms. Aberle's reflections on how one achieves personal agency and integrity in such a world will never likely be delinquent or untimely or irrelevant. Her script The Code is a powerful reminder of this.

Particulars :  Written by Rachel Aberle.  Produced by Green Thumb Theatre.  On tour performances at various mainland and Vancouver Island high schools this spring.

Production team : Director Patrick McDonald.  Assistant Director Bronwyn Carradine.  Stage Manager Tessa Gunn.  Set Designer Ruth Bruhn.  Costume/Sound Designer Elizabeth Wellwood. Interim Tour & Education Manager Amy Lynn Strilchuk.

Performers :  Elizabeth Barrett (Moira).  Nathan Kay (Simon).  Mason Temple (Connor).  

Addendum : A Note from the Playwright by Rachel Aberle

It feels to me that we are in the middle of a global conversation about consent. About what it is, how you define it, how one obtains it, and the intense and dire ramifications of what can happen when things happen without it.  think this is good -- it's an important conversation, especially for young women and men to have as they begin to engage in their own relationships -- romantic or otherwise.

What strikes me about the current conversation however, is that it feels reactionary. It feels like something we talk about after something bad has already happened -- like a report of harassment or assault. With The Code, I wanted to roll that conversation back earlier in a relationship, to before anything irreversible has taken place. Specifically, I wanted to look at how seemingly healthy and positive relationships can fall apart when communication breaks down.

So I wrote a show about friendship, and about what happens when people have different ideas about the nature of their friendship. Our main characters, Simon and Moira, are best friends -- but Simon has been secretly hoping that they will become more. When Simon suggests that he and Moira go to the Spring Dance together and she says 'yes', Simon is over-the-moon to be going on his first official date with Moira. But when it becomes clear that she thought he meant they'd go as friends, their friendship starts to break down. The two of them fight over whether she misled him or he misinterpreted her, and it becomes clear that everything he's put into their friendship, the energy and care, has been -- in his mind -- an investment. When de doesn't receive a return on that investment, he feels like it's all been a waste of time.

I can't tell you the number of times in my life I've heard someone complain about feeling like they've been stuck in the "friend-zone". But is romance ever a fair thing to feel entitled to. How do we deal with rejection when it comes? In a situation where one person feels led on, but the other feels misinterpreted, who is right?

It's important to note that I don't think Simon is wrong to feel hurt. Handling rejection is really hard, and finding out that someone you like doesn't feel the same way about you is painful. The question is -- what do we do with that pain? How do we navigate the bumps in a relationship without doing things we regret?

The questions this play prompts are tricky. There is no easy answer tony of them, but I think that's the point. It's only having these complex and sometimes uncomfortable conversations that we can begin to move forward.


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