Site-specific theatre exploded in Vancouver about twenty years ago, with artists doing shows in laundromats, parks, warehouses, parking garages, and hotel rooms.
This trend came about for two main reasons: to make the theatre going experience more exciting and challenging for theatregoers, and to help to save money on the often high rents of local playhouses.
The latest entrant into the site-specific genre is unladylike co., a new Vancouver theatre company founded by Jessica Hood and Rachelle Miguel. Wanting to create female driven theatre that challenges audiences both in subject matter and staging, their first mainstage show is The [Organization], which takes place inside a real office environment.
Written by Miguel, the play follows Wren, a young Asian-Canadian, as she tries to meet deadlines while being bombarded with prejudice and toxic masculinity from co-workers and management. As she navigates her way through an office culture filled with racial slurs, sexualization of women, and aggressive competition, Wren struggles between maintaining her sense of right and wrong, and in toeing the company line.
In this Q&A, we find out more from actor Grace Le, director Gavan Cheema, and playwright Rachelle Miguel.
This interview has been edited.
Actor Grace Le
Tell us about your character, Wren.
Le: Wren is an incredibly diligent, and hopeful young woman. Like many other headstrong women, she has a strong moral compass that motivates her through her life and career.
Based on the show description, is Wren a ‘victim’ trying to navigate a rough world, or are there other qualities to her?
Le: I don’t believe anyone is ever just a victim of their circumstances. Wren is loyal, empathetic and incredibly giving; she is constantly trying to teach and engage in an open dialogue with her colleagues to offer different views and appeal to their hearts and it’s that unwilling compassion and sense of justice that gets her into trouble.
What is it like performing in this site-specific play? What is the fun part and what makes you nervous?
Le: It’s very exciting to be in a site specific space. A big shout out to Urban Ink for allowing us to share our show in their space. It’s fun to be in a working office and bring audiences right into the space with us, where they are at times sitting right next or right behind one of us. This definitely keeps us on our toes, but it also allows audiences to join the journey these characters take in a very intimate and inclusive way. We as a cast and company have had many discussions and played out various scenarios of navigating audiences, but that still makes me tickle with nerves when it comes to doing a site specific show.
Director Gavan Cheema
What is important to you as a director when developing a production?
Cheema: Creating a team that is generous and connected to the work is always my first priority when developing a production. I love working collaboratively with the creative team so developing a sense of community and connection is important to me when directing.
What are the challenges in creating a site-specific play?
Cheema: Working with an existing architecture that can’t be altered in the same way as a set is an exciting challenge. You have to treat the architecture as a part of the piece and try to think of creative ways in which it can help enhance certain aspects of the story. How can the architecture help tell the story and how do you navigate audience members through it? One of the biggest challenges in this piece in particular was figuring out how to have scenes without certain characters, when the office is an open concept and everyone is “on stage” the whole time.
What do you hope audience takes away from the show?
Cheema: I hope the audience can connect with the characters and space and think critically about their own workplace culture and whether it is toxic or inclusive. I also hope that coming to a site-specific show will allow to audience to think about the different ways you can go about storytelling and how having a site-specific show can add different layers or dimensions.
Playwright Rachelle Miguel
What compelled you to write The [Organization]?
Miguel: While I was on a writing retreat with several other people, I decided to put to paper a collection of anecdotes from my time working in offices. Eventually those progressed into an exploration on the types of toxicity that plague a working environment. I was sick and tired of being in a place that was toxic, and I wanted to try and find the source of that toxicity.
Who are some writers/playwrights that you admire?
Miguel: I absolutely enjoy reading Terry Pratchett’s Disc World series; his humour, wit and social commentary are such a great combination of subtlety and boldness that I would love to be able to write humour and a fantastical world in a similar fashion.
As for playwrights, Carmen Aguirre and Wajdi Mouawad, specifically his play Incendies. Their ability to take real life events and experiences and create stories that present the world as horrifying, beautiful and full of compassion is inspiring.
What was the development process like for your script?
Miguel: The first draft of the play was written during a writing retreat and after a series of events I was able to find an ending for the piece. Initially it was written as a small ten-minute piece for submission to the Pull Festival. Soon after, Jessica Hood became the dramaturg for this piece and we held a table reading. From there we received feedback and questions from the readers and because of this the play began to take off into its current direction.
Did you know The [Organization] would be a site-specific theatre piece, or did it become one as the production became a reality?
Miguel: The play was originally written to be set in a traditional theatre setting, but Jessica proposed that it take place in an office. I had recently finished reading Lungs by Duncan Macmillan and Bull by Mike Bartlett and the layout of their script intrigued me. There were no stage directions except for the symbols that indicated pauses or characters speaking at the same time. My own script for The [Organization] had a fair amount of stage directions, so once we decided to stage the show as site-specific, I decided to follow in the same vein as Lungs and Bull by taking out the stage directions and just indicating pauses, simultaneously speaking, and interruptions. The text itself began to appear like stanzas in a poem, forcing the reader to slow down or speed up depending on the physical length of the line. I did this so that the play would be easily malleable to adapt to any site.
The [Organization] continues at the Urban Ink Office (#220 – 111 W Hastings St, Vancouver) until November 24. Tickets are available online at Brown Paper Tickets.