Footnote Number 12: experimental theatre as social discourse

Photo by Matt Reznek

Transforming a non-linear written essay into an interesting theatre performance with relevance, humour and meaning may seem like mission impossible, but Footnote Number 12, a recent experimental theatre piece created by Andrea Spreafico in Norway and further co-created with Theatre Replacement in Vancouver, attempted just that, and through it hoped to raise interesting questions on how we understand, use and experience language in different social contexts.

Debuted in Norway last year, the play is currently on tour in Canada, premiering in Vancouver from Feb. 6–8 at Performance Works as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.

Experiencing an essay in theatre format

The theatre piece is based on a 2006 New York Times sports essay Roger Federer as Religious Experience, written by the late writer David Foster Wallace, who is famous for fusing complex ideas with loose conversational-style prose. He also had a penchant for footnotes, hence the title Footnote Number 12.

“The piece came about when Andrea, the director who is based in Norway, asked the question of how to take an essay and put it on stage in an interesting way,” says James Long, main performer and artistic director of Theatre Replacement. “We are interested in exploring the relationship with the reader. Reading is such a solitary experience – it is an experience that allows you to take things in slowly. Performance is the exact opposite of that. Trying to collide these two genres is a real challenge. We tried a lot of experiments till we started to deconstruct the essay and try to find ways to reflect on it and that is when it started becoming really interesting.”

According to Long, certain elements of the play, such as performing simple sports and singing, echo the theme of the essay, which praises the beauty and the virtuosity of the human body, as well as pondering the precarity and mortality of it.

As a theatre piece that came out of experimental performances, the play was created over a span of three years. It is still changing and hasn’t reached a final version.

“Contemporary performance is what we would like to call it. It doesn’t fit the normal mode of theatre: it plays with narratives, it plays with character, it plays with audience relationship,” Long says.

The play as part of the public discourse

In this play, the performers mainly dissect and play around with the language used by David Foster Wallace, such as his choices of words and particularly his footnote number 12, which was ambiguous and somewhat confusing.

“How did it get into the essay? How did it get past the editor? Was it the privilege of David Foster Wallace, or was it a joke by him? Do we take the time any more to consider these fragments of texts that are broken? Is there still value to take it apart or should we just experience the writing as a whole – we don’t come up with a clear answer, we just came up with the question,” says Long.

The creation of the play was also concurrent with the Me Too movement.

“How do we represent a white cis male establishment writer from 2006 and negotiate the texts in light of the new social movement, as things have changed dramatically from that era,” Long adds.

Contemporary performance is what we would like to call it, says James Long. | Photo by Laimonas Puisys

Coming from a place of privilege as a white cisgender male himself, just like David Foster Wallace, Long says he feels the responsibility to explore the space to critique the language in the essay that could be construed as old-fashioned or problematic.

“I didn’t feel that responsibility in 2006 but I certainly feel that responsibility now, and that is absolutely a good thing. This conversation about equity and access had to happen, and it is certainly happening within the theatre community. This piece allowed me to represent my desire to participate in this conversation in a comedic way,” he says.

On stage, Long’s voice is cleverly manipulated into different voices by sound designer and performer Nancy Tam, which, aside from being more entertaining, adds a deeper layer to the context of the play.

“It allows Nancy to be an equal partner inside of this performance to mediate my voice; she controls how I convey every sound to those speakers. That is really important, just as I represent the white cis male, the everyday average man, she represents a traditionally marginalized individual: young, Chinese Canadian, queer, etc,” Long says. “She represents a different generation, a different understanding of the social discourse. It is her opportunity to be present constantly and control how my voice is heard – this implies the power dynamic is shifting.”

Just like the experimental performance itself that is constantly evolving, Long believes there are also no clear answers in our current interesting and complicated time of public discourse.

“We have to stay open to the various viewpoints and that is what this piece is trying to do; it is to sit in this place of curiosity instead of determination, it is constantly asking questions, about every single element of what David Foster Wallace said, of what I am saying on stage and what people are saying in the world,” Long adds.

The co-creator of the play, Theatre Replacement, has produced a number of notable theatre pieces and toured around the world since its inception in 2003. The two artistic directors, Long and Maiko Yamamoto, won the country’s largest theatre prize, the Siminovitch Prize, last year.

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