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Embedded Critic: How to Survive an Apocalypse

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How to Survive an Apocalypse by Jordan Hall is the winner of the 2016 Flying Start Program, a collaboration between PTC, Touchstone Theatre and the Firehall Arts Centre. The 18-month development process for a new play culminates in a first production at a PACT theatre. The play opens June 2 at the Firehall and plays through June 11. We have thought for some time that it’s unfortunate to wait until the excitement and adrenaline of opening night to open up the development process for commentary. So, as an experiment, we invited Kelsey Blair to drop in and out and write about some of the questions we’re addressing in the development of How to Survive an Apocalypse. This is the first of a series of posts we’re calling Embedded Critic.

Kelsey Blair is currently pursuing a PhD in English with an emphasis in performance studies at Simon Fraser University. She’s also the author of three sport fiction novels for 10-13 year olds, the co-leader of a local senior’s writing collective, and a community sport leader: thekelseyblair.com

 

Claire Hesselgrave and Sebastien Archibald rehearsing "How to Survive an Apocalypse" in studio

Claire Hesselgrave and Sebastien Archibald rehearsing “How to Survive an Apocalypse” in PTC Test Kitchen

The main character of Jordan Hall’s new play How to Survive an Apocalypse is Jen Green, a late-twenties magazine editor in Vancouver. In an early scene, Jen laments her editorial board chair’s decision to bring in a consultant to help the publication find its “target identity.” She paraphrases her boss, explaining, “Our target identity … should be a hipster – but not some retro-loser hipster.” She continues, “Our magazine is the kind of hipster who has a collection of $700 sneakers and an all-white penthouse in Gastown.” The lines are funny (and the description incredibly clear), in part, because the target identity Jen describes draws from specific and highly recognizable references.

There is an interesting parallel between the magazine’s target identity in the fictional world of the play and the target audience of the play itself. Like the magazine, the play – particularly as a new play in development – has to imagine its audience. How to Survive an Apocalypse’s dialogue is snappy and bursting with references to everything from current pop culture trends (hipsters, zombies, all-white apartments) to past and contemporary intellectuals (Thomas Hobbes, David Auerback, and John Rawls). This has generated several conversations for the production team around the following question: how many references does an audience need to understand in order to remain engaged?

On the one hand, specific references in dialogue can be risky. While the intellectual references in Hall’s play are likely to stand the test of time, pop-culture and political references tend to have a limited shelf life. For example, the Broadway musical theatre show Avenue Q – which was written during the George W. Bush presidential administration – had the line, “George Bush is only for now.” When Obama was elected to office, the show, which was still running on Broadway, was forced to change the line. After much hullabaloo, the line only featured a minor change (“George Bush was only for now), but it seems likely that the lyric will lose relevance, and by extension, comedic effect, over time.

More importantly, specific references risk making the audience feel alienated or excluded. This is particularly true in comedy. In his book Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters, Humor theorist Ted Cohen argues that most jokes require the audience to know something in order for the joke to work. He writes, “That something is the condition on which the success of the joke depends. It is a vital feature of much joking that only a suitably qualified audience –one that can meet the condition – can receive the joke, and the audience often derives an additional satisfaction from knowing this about itself.” In other words, jokes are only funny when there is a relationship between teller and listener, based on shared knowledge. Since the references in How to Survive an Apocalypse often gesture to the play’s larger themes of identity crisis and maturation, the risk is not only that funny lines will fall flat when performed live but also that the play’s core ideas won’t be fully understood by the audience.

On the other hand, the language and references in the play reflect the characters, who are well-educated, affluent, young adults. If Mamet characters swear every second line, isn’t it appropriate that these characters should casually drop references to Ayn Rand? Moreover, in a theatre and media landscape where plays, television, and movies are sometimes accused of “dumbing down” their dialogue in order to appeal to the widest possible audience, refusing to do so is a political position which both respects the knowledge the audience brings to the theatre and resists a particular kind of artistic production.

Not unlike the play’s protagonist, who is forced to consider how different magazine titles will resonate with potential readers, the creative team of How to Survive an Apocalypse has been deeply invested in language, images, and how to strike the fine balance between too many references and too few.

Of course, the answer of whether they found the balance, will only truly be revealed in production.