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Friday, June 14, 2024

The Competition is Fierce moves the gladiator from the arena to the corporate boardroom

Returning to its roots of presenting original scripts with a sociopolitical message, Vancouver’s ITSAZOO Productions presents The Competition is Fierce, a new work by playwright-in-residence Sebastien Archibald.

[pullquote]“If really volatile people can get to positions of power and hold them, it is quite frightening. And it makes you wonder if it is true in the corporate world, is it also true in our legal and political systems as well?” – playwright Sebastien Archibald[/pullquote]“It takes place in dystopian future where high profile jobs are won or loss in a gladitorial battle,” explains Archibald.  “The only way to move up the ladder for this sweet but nebbish guy is to fight for his life.”

Inspired by Archibald’s own turn in the corporate world as a telemarketer one summer during university, he describes his experience as surreal.

“It was almost like a satire of Glengarry Glen Ross,” he says. “The absurdity was lost on everyone else except me. Your job was literally at stake on a weekly or bi-weekly basis; if you weren’t making enough sales you were fired.”

Archibald also took inspiration from a psychological study that was conducted in the 1980s that demonstrated that many traits of sociopaths – manipulation, lack of empathy, charisma, ego – also exist in the boardrooms of corporate America.

“I found the study so fascinating, and it actually started to explain to me some of the problems we have in the world,” he says.  “If really volatile people can get to positions of power and hold them, it is quite frightening. And it makes you wonder if it is true in the corporate world, is it also true in our legal and political systems as well?”

For Archibald, that fascination also comes from being relentlessly inundated with corporate messages on a daily basis.

“The corporation is a symbol of our first world society; that bastion of the free market where the wealth and power is thrust upon us in our day-to-day lives,” he says.  “All the advertising we are inundated with, the media and entertainment.  All of these things are so intertwined within our lives and so embedded in our culture and society.  And to think that the people that are excelling in that environment are the most malicious, abusive and that those traits allow them to get higher up is very frightening, and the implications are even more frightening.”

Producing site-specific shows since 2004 in both Victoria and Vancouver, much of ITSAZOO Productions’ early work comes courtesy of Archibald. And while more recent years have seen the company produce works by other playwrights, including critically acclaimed productions of Mojo in 2012, and last year’s Killer Joe, they have come full-circle with this latest offering.

“At one point I was churning out a lot of plays and we were producing them every year. Some were good, some were okay and some were just plain bad,” laughs Archibald.

Claiming a new found maturity, Archibald made a conscious decision to take a step back with a more considered approach to The Competition is Fierce, a play that has been four years in the making.

“I settled into a real incubation phase with this piece and I wanted to ensure that it was the best it could be for this world premiere,” he says. “You very rarely get a shot to do a new play in Vancouver and there is so much pressure to get it right the first time. Of course, we still wanted to keep programming and that is when we tapped into other people’s writing.  Besides, it was a hell of a lot easier to do other people’s stuff.”

But once a writer, always a writer and giving himself permission to take his time with The Competition is Fierce, he thinks the wait has, to use a corporate phase, paid dividends.

“It is such a rewarding process when it works, and miserable when it doesn’t; it is such a double edged sword,” he laughs again. “But when you are able to create something from scratch, and it works, there is absolutely nothing like it.”

It also helps, he says, for ITSAZOO to have garnered experience, some critical acclaim and the audience to support this new work.

“We didn’t have the resources to do a show this size for a long time, but after Killer Joe we set the bar pretty damn high, and achieved that bar, and now we can finally afford to tackle this beast.”

For Archibald and the team at ITSAZOO, having the funds to produce a show like this means they are able to once again build an immersive environment for both actors and audience, much like last year’s production of Killer Joe, which took place inside a mobile home.

Playwright Sebastien Archibald
Playwright Sebastien Archibald

“We would have loved to have been able to do this inside a real corporate office downtown, but we quickly realized that wouldn’t work,” he says.  “So we’ve created this two story cube with the audience in the round. The design will put the audience right in close proximity of the action.”

Along with the company’s trademark site-specific style, it is also a theatre company not afraid of a little sex and violence, a fact again proven again by its two most recent productions.

“In this show the sexuality hits on a number of levels. There is genuinely beautiful intimacy in a sex positive way, something you don’t see very often in contemporary drama,” he says. “In a lot of theatre when sex is brought up it is almost always sex negative. It’s all rape and manipulation. And while there is still an element of that in this show, I also wanted to have a positive impact where sexuality is a source of power and humanity.”

Of course, mixing sex with violence comes with its own taboos, but Archibald is clear in how the violence is portrayed.

“The show takes this idea of competition in the contemporary urban world to the extreme,” he says.  “I hope that it resonates with audiences on a symbolic level about the horrors of what people can do and the ramifications that it can have. The violence isn’t simply there for its shock value.”

The Competition is Fierce plays The Shop Theatre (125 East 2nd Ave, Vancouver) Mar 3-22. Visit for tickets and information.

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