This review is part of a critical writing mentorship program developed by SummerWorks with NOW Magazine. SummerWorks has not put any parameters or limitations on the writers’ responses.

If you’re yearning to feel connected and rediscover the city, including live theatre, then put on your walking shoes and attend these two SummerWorks shows.

Sorrel Muggridge and Laura Nanni’s Connected As We Are and Alison Wong’s nowhen are ideal first steps, offering the perfect paths to re-enter live theatre spaces and rethink performances.

Both experiences are site-specific shows where audience members are active participants, encouraging us to examine how we interact with others. What is your relationship to this place? How do you connect? These are some of the questions you might ponder while participating.

Beginning at the Theatre Centre, under the guidance of co-writer Laura Nanni for Connected As We Are, participants in Toronto share a journey, while simultaneously engaging with another group across the ocean in Norwich, UK, guided by Sorrel Muggridge.

As an anxious introvert, I’m hesitant about a group experience with strangers during a pandemic. Will I engage? Will I feel comfortable?

We begin by introducing ourselves to one another in Toronto and also to the group in Norwich, taking turns using Laura’s speakerphone. With each step representing one kilometre, we walk approximately 5,700 km to Norwich. I worry about my long legs and fast pace, so I quietly linger near the back as the other participants lead the walk and chat along the way.

We arrive at our destination (somewhere on Lisgar) and call the Norwich group using Laura’s phone again, each of us taking turns describing our surroundings to one another. Remarkably, the group across the pond describes a similar landscape including bushes of purple and pink flowers. From there, Laura and Sorrel give each group the same fill-in-the-blank sentences, encouraging us to work together in our groups to fill in the blanks. These become instructions given to the other group across the ocean to follow to their next destination.

Creative thinking

The instructions prompt creative thinking, as one person from the Norwich group asks us to find a circus. After wondering “Is it the current state of the city?” we walk down the sidewalk and stop in front of a red house with a disco ball hanging on the front porch, power lines criss-crossing above our heads, and a front yard of another house full of bags of gravel and pieces of 2 x 4 wood. As a group, we determine this is our circus.

Connected As We Are is an exercise in communication and relating. Hesitant about the logistics in the beginning, I end up feeling like I played a role, and met some lovely folks in the group. Part of the SummerWorks Lab programming, this work is still in development and the next destination is definitely something to look forward to.

Photo by Elinor Whidden (CAWA)

Immersive storytelling

I stand on Bloor Street near the western part of High Park – one of seven entry points for Alison Wong’s nowhen. The thought of entering a crowded public space on a beautiful Saturday afternoon is unsettling, but my headphones distract me from the crowd, similar to entering the TTC during rush hour listening to your favourite playlist.

The other participants and myself listen to one of seven stories featured in Living Hyphen Magazine on an audio track downloaded on our phones from an app called Echoes while following a choreographed performance by an actor through High Park.

Completely captivated by the actor, I am immersed in the narrated story of a person navigating family dynamics, language barriers, immigration and colonialism. A lion’s roar surprises me and I wonder if I should follow the actor to safety and hide behind a tree. We receive some confused looks from strangers in the park, but our surroundings become insignificant as I grow more present and curious about this individual’s story.

We unite with the larger group at the amphitheatre and sit socially distanced. Each actor greets one another in a different language – Anishinaabemowin, Spanish, Patois, to name a few. The calming soundscapes and actors’ gentle movements feel like a guided meditation. They instruct us to lay on the grass, while asking us repeatedly, “Where are you at?”

As the blades of grass tickle my body and I watch the tree branches sway above me, I focus on my breathing. With each deep breath, I reflect on my place in this world and my responsibilities to this land. The audience can exit the amphitheatre whenever they feel ready.

As I leave and return to the busy park, I feel calm, even without my headphones. I leave reflecting on the story, and wish I could have learned more about the other six stories.

Throughout the pandemic, many of us have questioned our place in the world. Experiencing these artists’ work in new, dynamic ways reminds us that human interaction is necessary, even if you enjoy the isolation, and especially if you feel awkward. After a year-and-a-half, we’re all feeling a bit awkward.

Written by Jennifer Murrin

Top Photo by John Lauener

Check out the other Performance Criticism articles! burn, burned, LEGacy Circus, A New Black Poet