"We are all affected by war, whether we realize it or not," says Shahin Sayadi, artistic director of Halifax's OneLight Theatre. "It influences so much, from the price of food and gas, to our connections with soldiers who go and come back, or who go and don't.
"And since 9/11, we are all forced to live with the fact that Fox [TV] tells us that there is terror around every corner."
Sayadi's impassioned belief that it's necessary for more people to become aware and vocal about the effect of seemingly far-away wars on everyday existence led to the creation of The Civilian Project: two plays that explore the impact of war on ordinary people.
The first play, The Toxic Bus Incident, commissioned by OneLight from Montreal-based playwright Greg MacArthur, opens April 7 at Neptune Studio Theatre. It is loosely based on an actual incident that happened in 2004 in Vancouver, when passengers on a city bus became ill after they came to believe that they had been poisoned by an unidentified Middle Eastern man. Factions were (and still are) divided as to whether the incident was a terrorist attack or an example of mass psychogenic illness.
"As far as I can discover, the case was still open in 2007," says Toxic Bus' set and costume designer D'Arcy Morris-Poultney. "This play basically offers one possible conclusion to the story." Morris-Poultney describes Toxic Bus as an "environmental piece" in the sense that audience is intended to become part of the play.
"It may seem counter-intuitive, but we're transforming the stage from its open, thrust design into a kind of box by using a proscenium," he explains as he points out the features on the tiny model in OneLight's Argyle Street office.
The set places the play's characters in a room without doors and windows, a room that will look a lot like a television set from the audience's point of view. Piped-in images of war flash on the walls; intrusions into a supposedly peaceful world of a polite Vancouver suburb.
Original music combining classical, hip-hop, eastern and electric influences composed by Dinuk Wijeratne and innovative sound design by Jeremy Parker are intended to surround and trap the audience in a box of sound.
"In this production, lights, set and sound become very important," explains Sayadi. "The house becomes part of the design, and so does the music. You don't see it, but you will certainly feel it!"
The second play, which Sayadi is in the process of writing and which is scheduled to hit the stage in November 2009, is called Return Ticket: Halifax-Abadan-Halifax. It tells the story of a playwright/director who travels to his hometown of Abadan, Iran, to research the story of his cousin who has chosen to remain in his hometown throughout eight years of war. It explores the impact of both decisions---staying and leaving---on the people who make them.
"The Civilian Project is a way to stimulate talk about subject matter that isn't talked about enough," says Sayadi. "People may feel geographically removed from war, but the war on terror is a global war.
In fact, the project has already inspired participation from Canada's west coast. Vancouver's Boca del Lupo Theatre Society has decided mount a play under The Civilian Project banner. An Imaginary Look at the Uncompromising Life of Thomas Smith will explore the internal conflict felt by a fictitious photojournalist in the final moments of his life, as he considers his role and culpability as a chronicler of war. The play will premiere in Toronto in the fall of 2010 as part of World Stage at the Harbourfront Centre.
For Sayadi, Boca del Lupo's involvement is proof that The Civilian Project is already on its way to doing what it was designed to do---generate discussion and awareness of the devastating impact of war.
"More people, groups, and artists need to raise their voices, and maybe by calling people 'civilians' and naming them in a way they've never been named before, that will happen."
OneLight Theatre's The Toxic Bus Incident, April 7-24 at Neptune Studio Theatre, 1593 Argyle, 8pm w/weekend matinees, $17 w/PWYC April 7-9, 425-6812, onelighttheatre.com.