When the Audience Performs the Play

At Qwiklit, one of our missions has always been to explore new ways of both creating and appreciating the literary arts. Last, I got the chance to enjoy a rather unique experience in the intimate setting of Toronto’s Theatre Centre during last year’s SummerWorks’ Festival.

Soliloquy in English, a book also performed as a work of narrative theatre, interrogates the role of English in the 21st century as a homogenous language accessible to everybody. By seating a small group in a circle, the play subverts the traditional paradigm most theatre is beholden to. But by doing so, the audience becomes the performing cast and is both relaying and digesting the play at the same time. 

Blenkarn, the author of the work, has continued the play’s run across Canada and recently performed at rEvolver Fest in Vancouver. 

Understanding how language influences the world became a hot topic in 20th century literary circles. Nations fragmented by European influence through the form of colonialism sought to defy the imposition of European storytelling, performance and language structures upon their culture.

Soliloquy in English is a rather grounded exploration of a topic pored over ad nauseum in academic circles. Instead of making bold statements about the state of the world or the place of the English language in a globalized world, Soliloquy lets the audience determine the pace and the tone of the play itself. Consider it this way: How can we believe that a global language can be owned, in any circumstance, by a certain group of people?

Blenkarn crafted the play out of several dozen interviews conducted in various countries where English simply plays a different role in society. For some, English was a passport for sharing knowledge and being able to travel around the world. For others, the practical application of English meant more opportunity in the educational and tourism sectors of the country. 

One comparison I can think of is Svetlana Alexievich’s literature, itself a hybrid of real voices combining to produce a literary whole. Famous for her books on Afghanistan, Chernobyl and Russia, the Nobel Prize-Winning Belorussian journalist told stories through the eyes of others while rarely, if ever, inserting herself into her narratives. While theatre and nonfiction have gone hand in hand, rarely has this been done in an interactive manner, where the audience doesn’t simply listen to the narratives, but performs them as well. 

The play’s form draws on one very particular conceit that guarantees that every reading, no matter who attends, will mean a different experience. After each passage—the majority of which are quoted accounts from Blenkarn’s interviewees—the reader is forced to pass the book to their right, to their left or across the circle.

At first, the act seems like a strange gimmick, but soon, you begin to understand that the passing is in essence a trust-building exercise, and each reading a character-building exercise. Each reading, be it a syllable or a long passage, requires that you have faith in both the person reading and the ability to concatenate disparate voices into a cogent whole. 

But Blenkarn is evasive about pigeonholing the work into a genre or medium. “I’m actively trying to not create a concept for ‘what it is’”, he said. 

What I personally found most interesting about the play was its ability to address many of the intuitive challenges of understanding the English language. For theatre to engage the next generation of readers, we need to rethink the relationship between telling and listening. Those who subvert the traditional dynamic of “viewing from afar” will help us better understand how language can both liberate and constrict us. Instead, it might be better to top enjoying art from afar and join the circle. 

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