Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sunday Feature: Nathalie Mathieson on Show and Tell Alexander Bell (SummerWorks)

Communication Takes Centre Stage
Show and Tell Alexander Bell is a lively, somewhat strange version of the story of Bell’s invention of the telephone.
by Nathalie Mathieson

Natalie Mathieson is a core member and co-founder of Ars Mechanica, a Toronto-based theatre company dedicated to exploring history, technology and magic. She is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies and Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. She is currently writing her dissertation on Holocaust representation, and has been supported by a Joseph Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship. Ms Mathieson has taught at the Department of Drama and Speech Communication at the University of Waterloo, the Cinema Studies Institute at the University of Toronto, and is a part-time child and youth worker at a shelter for women and children.

On April 20th, 1877, Benjamin Peirce and 15 other people signed a petition addressed to Alexander Graham Bell. They weren’t petitioning against his contested telephone patent, or his controversial beliefs, such as those written in “Memoir upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race.” Only a year after the invention of Bell’s telephone, the Bostonians requested that the inventor publicly demonstrate his fascinating invention in their city. 

In the letter, Peirce and the others—all men—pleaded not to be able to use the telephone themselves. They wished to hear the telephone…and to see it. It is likely that these men understood that time and other practical factors would have prohibited a more participatory interaction with the telephone. It is also likely that they knew that Bell made a habit of personally demonstrating his invention.

In our own era of burgeoning invention, we hope to create an experience that will enchant rather than edify.

But, perhaps it was the spectacle of the telephone, a machine that lets sound, not image, travel, that instigated the petition. What, exactly, did they desire to see? The sight of the charismatic inventor? Did they want to see the telephone “happen?” To witness a moment in history—to watch sound arrive, and while minding that invisible magic, observe a leap forward in the way people could communicate? 

With the help of this document—a hand-written letter—we can imagine that the petitioners wanted to see how technology transformed the way people could relate to one another. We can imagine how they wished to see, in a telephone call, a shift in what the word “present” meant. 

These dynamics of seeing and hearing figure prominently in Show and Tell Alexander Bell, which plays at the SummerWorks theatre festival in Toronto until August 18th, 2013. Show and Tell Alexander Bell was devised by the core members of Ars Mechanica, an experimental theatre company based in Toronto. Vojin Vasovic, Sasha Kovacs, Joe Culpepper and I, along with a team of wonderful collaborators, have tried to experiment on a piece of Canadian history, particularly by seeking ways to make it relevant to an audience today. Show and Tell Alexander Bell is a lively, somewhat strange version of the story of Bell’s invention of the telephone. 

It seems obvious that spectacle alone couldn’t have been the primary draw for the petitioners. In the late 19th century, the telephone, of course, shifted the way people were able to talk and hear. During an era dominated by print and visual media, the telephone’s mystique resided in a kind of a fractured liveness. Detaching voice from body, the machine enabled people to connect with absent others, like a letter could do, but with a more animate index of the communicator.  

Spectacle seems more germane to the telephone of techno-savvy, Western, middle/upperclass 21st century culture. The new telephone—the smartphone—relies more on eyes and hands than it does on ears and mouths. The smartphone shifts the way people can see and be seen. The mystique of the smartphone lies in its ability to detach us from our current surroundings. The smartphone draws our faces down to stare at tiny screens that, despite their size, let us enter a world that is broader and shinier than our own, often causing us to ignore those around us. Still, the smartphone calls us to forge and maintain relationships like Bell’s phone. It also lets us transform our identities and communities with the help of voice, text, photo, video, and the Internet. 

With Show and Tell Alexander Bell, Ars Mechanica invites the audience to experience, contemplate, and counter these kinds of ideas. Communication takes centre stage. We present a story of the difficulty Bell had communicating with his loved ones, based on our historical research and our imaginations. We make a spectacle of Bell’s zeal for improving communication through invention, and his passion for research of deafness (his mother Eliza and wife Mabel both lost their hearing). 

But we aim to theatricalize more abstract processes of communication, too. We use a variety of old and new technologies like video projection, stage illusions and cell phones to augment the presence of live actors dramatizing an old-fashioned story of love and alienation. So Show and Tell Alexander Bell is a smorgasbord of odd songs and slow articulations, jet-fast graphics, lo-fi tricks and…some personal interaction. Because Ars Mechanica draws from the likes of Dave St-Pierre, Edgar Bergen, George Bernard Shaw and Robert LePage, we needed an Operator character, Mary Moore, to help the audience navigate the surreal scenes about “Alec,” Mabel, and Eliza Bell. Mary Moore is there for the audience, in case of, say, power outage. 

We hope that Show and Tell Alexander Bell will offer the audience a chance to participate in a piece of theatre rooted in our fascination with communication and technology, perhaps the same kind of fascination that instigated Peirce and the others to petition Bell. When Bell was called upon to demonstrate his device, he functioned as a performer who played to instruct during an era of technological revolution. In our own era of burgeoning invention, we hope to create an experience that will enchant rather than edify. This week at the Lower Ossington Theatre we play not to instruct, but to share in the delights and challenges of communicating, especially with technology.

Ars Mechanica is grateful to the SummerWorks theatre festival, the Ontario Arts Council, Toronto Arts Council, and Theatre Gargantua for their support of this project. 

Show and Tell Alexander Bell is at SummerWorks

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