In North America, we don't share tables with strangers in public places. We'd sooner give up our spot right away, decline the request to share, or begrudgingly agree, only to rush our dinner, beer or coffee, and get gone. Even families are reportedly spending less time at the dinner table together.
These social realities run in the background when considering the central proposition of 2b theatre's Revisited: 28 audience members gather around a table to listen to Tom (played by actor and co-creator Steven McCarthy) share the story of his life, the place he grew up, the love for and loss of Lucy (Michelle Monteith) and the sensuous details of living.
Christian Barry, artistic co-director of 2b, conceived the play, directed it and designed the lighting, but developed it in collaboration with the two actors, McCarthy and Monteith, who in "real life" are a couple, now engaged.
The idea came to Barry when he was 24 years old (he's now 28), once again back at the National Theatre School in Montreal studying directing, after already studying and performing as an actor. "I was really asking myself some hard questions," he says on the line from Toronto, where the Halifax native divides his time. Barry sought an answer to the questions so many of us ask at one time or another: Why bother? What's this all about? He realized that theatre is storytelling, a part of that basic human need to recount and remember stories as a path to communion.
Originally the creators drew on the ideas of Thornton Wilder, who wrote the three-act play Our Town, but soon moved on to other earlier American writers such as Walt Whitman and Willa Cather, who Barry quotes: "There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before."
Given the theme, calling the audience to the table made sense too. "It is the space that connects the audience and performers. It's a shared space. We're all at the same table...putting ideas on the table. But though we tell each other stories every day, in a theatre it can be daunting.
"There are probably going to be people who are intimidated by the situation," Barry says, adding, "When the storyteller first speaks to the audience, I think it's really important that he senses how individuals around the table are feeling."
Sitting at the table numerous times during the show's tour, Barry remains awed with his co-creators' ability to adapt to every audience. McCarthy, says Barry, makes people feel "welcome and safe. It's important that they feel safe enough so that they can be really present—really be listening.
A show becomes more successful when you feel the engagement of the listener...that they're going there with you. You can feel the listener responding—even if they're just watching you or nodding."
The lack of an "us and them" circumstance continues to excite Steven McCarthy, four years after first putting on the play at the National Theatre School in Montreal. "In the usual theatre space the actors are there, a ways away, and you come into the theatre and sit in the dark and can kind of be in your own world," says McCarthy. "In our show there is a togetherness. It's not togetherness in a strange way. It's just, here I am. I am going to sit with you at this table and tell a story. There's no barrier."
Through this act, McCarthy and Monteith share their real-life intimacy with the audience.
"The process of creating this play, working together every day, trying to do a play about simple things—about love, about commitment, about what's important: great lessons to learn as you start your life together," McCarthy says. "Not to mention she is one of the best actors I've ever worked with. She also gives me really good notes to keep me in line."
Produced by 2b theatre, Revisited has toured Canada, hitting Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria, and across the pond in June for Hannover, Germany's Theaterformen Festival, where there were carefully placed monitors screening subtitles. Barry says, with relief (he first worried they'd divert attention from the others seated at the table), that the subtitles reminded the audience of the "meter" of the play, its rhythm as a story. In fact, the performance reaffirmed the universals at the heart of humanity.
"To see react in the same way, in the same moments—the little nods, reaching to hold their partner's hands, laughter or tears—was really incredible and surprisingly moving," Barry recalls.
The show is the first to be presented at Citadel High's as yet incomplete auditorium. But the incompleteness works for Barry.
"It's a reminder of that agreement to believe in something for an hour or so—whatever that thing is—when we sit down in a chair for an hour with a group of strangers."
Revisited, November 14-25, Citadel High, times and prices TBD, 453-6267 or 2btheatre.com
Sean Flinn is a freelance journalist and, occasionally, not a bad old storyteller.