Town Choir: translating text messages to song

Theatre Replacement’s Town Choir will open on Jan. 22 at the Woodward’s Atrium as part of the 2017 PuSh Festival. Town Choir is the newest iteration of the group’s Town Criers project, where everyday or potentially mundane observations are presented as newsworthy, with the writers potentially hundreds of kilometers away from the performance.

Town Criers has been a Theatre Replacement project for two years, with shows across Canada and overseas. It pairs a writer–who is somewhere far away from where the performance is taking place–with a crier, who is on stage. The writer records observations about their immediate environment and sends them to the crier via text message, whereupon the crier relays these observations to the public. Town Choir is a furthering of this idea, with four writers across Canada and a full choir, Vancouver Youth Choir, translating their texts into song.

The show

Maiko Yamamoto.| Photo by Tim Matheson.

Town Choir doesn’t have a specific script, as the point of the show is spontaneity and reflection. Rather, the writers work within a structure, an outline that is fed to them from the stage.

“The structure that we give to them is fairly simple and broad,” says Maiko Yamamoto, Artistic Director of Theatre Replacement. “For example, we ask them to write ten observations about the place that they’re in, ten statements that start with ‘one day,’ something that gave them pause.”

Yamamoto says guiding a thought process for someone who is alone far away from the stage is the challenge. He says keeping the messages simple but meaningful so can be funnelled through text and then filtered to a public is the key.

“We ask them to write lists about themselves, a paragraph about their everyday expertise, ten fears, a story of something that happened to them earlier,” says Yamamoto. “They’re meant to be both thoughtful and personal.”

The messages are only part of the performance, however. Once the messages are received, someone backstage will filter through all the text and send some to the choir onstage, who then figure out exactly how they’re going to perform it.

“It’s quite immediate,” says Yamamoto. “The choir will take one thread or thought or story and they sing it. They have their own structure as well, with each section of the performance having its own flavour.”

Yamamoto says given the number of writers and the amount of text it would be impossible for the choir to sing all of it. But the audience will get to absorb all of the messages received via the four TV screens facing them, each constantly rolling with the threads the writers send in.

“At Theatre Replacement we have been really investigating biographical and autobiographical stories,” says Yamamoto. “I think the everyday observations of people and turning that into performance – it feels like a really important thing to do. It’s about reflecting the lives of everyday people.”

A writer’s perspective

Kim Barlow.| Photo by Ruth Borgfjord.

Kim Barlow, a musician and songwriter based in Nova Scotia, is one of the four writers for Town Choir. She wrote for a previous performance of Town Criers, and will again be sending messages across the country to the West Coast.

“Some of the stuff, like the longer stories, I write beforehand, but most of it is all pretty spontaneous,” says Barlow. “There’s a lot of descriptions of the place around me, what it looks like, what it smells like; it gives me a sense of place and physical context and the whole thing evolves from there.”

While Barlow might have some idea of what the show looks like she’ll never see the end product, and doesn’t have contact with any of the other writers while the show is taking place.

“It’s fascinating to me because I can’t see what it looks like,” says Barlow. “It’s a strange idea, but it’s been really fun.”

And while she’ll be writing about places and objects hundreds of kilometers away from the audience, Barlow knows there are plenty of things that bind people together.

“There’s a lot of things people are worried about in the world, and a lot of mundane things that people think about. Some of my thoughts and fears are fairly universal – I hope that I can relate to some people.”


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