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THEATRUM, March 1990

Drifting Towards Sense in the Nation’s Capital

par Eleanor Crowder

Ottawa’s best kept theatrical secret may well be le Théâtre Dérives Urbaines. In fact, until the performance in English of Black Market (Marché Noir) at the National Arts Centre’s Atelier in 1988, the company’s existence went unsuspected by most of the region’s English speaking theatregoers. Not known as theatrical trendsetters, Ottawa audience have settled for a cultural life split for the most part along language lines and the interprovincial boundary of the Ottawa River. Based in Hull, Dérives Urbaines remained an Outaouais company serving West Quebec. However, their recent productions,Marché Noir/Black Market, Congrès/Convention have redrawn the cultural map in ways that can only benefit local theatregoers.

Dérives Urbaines specializes in the "jeu-spectacle", a participatory form where the idiom of each play depends on a game open to all comers. Black Market set in the wartime stock market of 1944 greeted audience with $1,000 in play money and a folio of stock certificates in a variety of commodities at their entrance to the show. The action allowed each spectator to gamble on board his/her funds, guided by the Wheel of Fortune spun by Mrs. Dow Jones. "Winners" were selected at the end of the evening from those whose assets beat the $7,000 mark, but the real game lay in the personal discovery of the roller coaster joy of market capitalism. Offset by a series of staged events among the acted characters, individual experience of the show depended on the degree of engagement chosen by each spectator.

Congrès which was presented locally in French but may be seen in Toronto this spring as Convention, explores the lobbying and deals of a leadership election. Five candidates are in the race for President of the International Poldavian Alliance. The audience enters the hall as members of the Association on the convention floor. Following introductory speeches by the candidates, spectators are free to play along to whatever level suits them during the four knockout ballots. The action is paced by both the formal ballotting structure and a series of television interviews with candidates and the public. Spectators can choose simply to watch and vote, or to scramble in a race for promises distributed by the candidates. The vagaries of the ballot allow a wide open structure - any candidate can win, and individual players from the audience may take on a role equal with the actors in determining the outcome.

But a "jeu-spectacle" is not only a game. In Convention, audiences manipulated by the political stereotypes acted out by the candidates themselves manipulate the action in a series of back room deals, only to have their reality played back and distorted by the media. The play becomes a powerful commentary on our stage-managed political process. Its exposure of the chicaneries of power becomes even more topical set beside current reality. At the NDP leadership convention in Winnipeg last December, media exploitation of forgotten lapel microphones became as much the focus of national attention as the event itself.

Dérives Urbaines’ jeu-spectacle challenges the traditionally passive role of the audience. However, unlike environmental theatre where the spectator though surrounded by the physical world of the play, remains an observer (e.g. Tamara), the game play format achieves a collaboration between audience and actors in creating the dramatic event. This is participational theatre where the audience role is not preset. Actors approach the show with a fully developed characterization, a basic plot and a set of rules to play by. Introductory speeches and some interventions are scripted, but the rythm of each piece is controlled both by a central Master of Ceremonies and by a Game Master present in a stage management capacity. The intricacies of the action, the final outcome of the game, are in the hands of the audience, who thus become self-conscious players in the event as surely as the actors.

Writing in a company manifesto published in 1976, founder and Artistic Director André Rousseau speaks of abolishing theratre in favour of a new reality, where meaning is created by actor (dériveur) and spectator (dérivé) bound together by the rules of the play. Rousseau and his cocreators began the company in 1972. They are remarkable as much for remaining faithful to their initial impulse as for the forms they have created along the way.

In Convention, Rousseau scripts a full hour of the action of the piece; paradoxically, the scope for intervention by the audience becomes broader as the play is more theatrically structured thenBlack Market. Playing by Dérive’s own rules, audience participation remains a matter of choice, but the extended theatricality ofConvention seems to evoke an answering theatricality from the audience. More and more, Dérives Urbaines is becoming not participatory theatre, but in André Rousseau’s preferred term, interactive theatre.