Arts

Headphones
undercurrents remains a favourite Ottawa festival, despite being offered in a new digital format. Image: undercurrents/REMIXED
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Festival reiterates the importance of reliable internet during these times — and the frustration which follows when that connection cuts out

You live in a really old building in Centretown.

This is an odd way to begin a theatre review (a practice you’ve missed terribly, and a skill that’s grown rusty since theatres closed last year). 

But it’s relevant.

Because when you live in a really old building in Centretown during a pandemic, you realize just how frustratingly volatile your Internet connection has become. 

And because it’s a pandemic, and Fido techs won’t enter your home (which barely matters, as there’s not much that can be done anyway), there’s not much you can do about it.

In the before-times, that might not have mattered. You could mooch WiFi off the University of Ottawa, or a Starbucks, or, hell, even the Fulcrum office. Better yet, you might not need WiFi to engage with theatre at all — you’d just take the short walk over to Arts Court for a pre-show cider. You’d sit in Arts Court and take it in, masklessly breathing stale air and not wondering how many germs you were welcoming into your body. 

You’d hug your friends. 

You’d take selfies in the undercurrents bathtub. 

You’d relish in the joy of criticism.

But you live in a really old building in Centretown. 

Meaning you also work, socialize, go to school, and watch theatre in a really old building in Centretown. Which requires a fast and flawless Internet connection, which you do not and cannot have. (And your rent is kind of a steal, so you’re reluctant to move, but you think about it every time your Zoom calls sputter to a maddening crash.)

You are almost certainly not alone in this predicament.

And your favourite theatre festival in the city, one which has delighted you since 2019, has not taken that into consideration for its all-digital, 2021 festival.

You’re frustrated. You’re tired. You’re trying, trying, trying to engage with the artists before you. You’re a little confused — you recognize every single name in this year’s festival, a festival which once boasted a smorgasbord of national and international content and yet has platformed only Ottawa artists during this year’s production — but you’re trying.


Your descent into lack-of-Internet-madness starts with Remixed.

Remixed utilizes the power of your phone: it’s a slick app designed to make its audience question the notion of change. You answer questions about your personality: what music do you like? What sounds make you feel peaceful? What does change mean to you, and do you handle it well?

It’s a neat concept, and you’re so excited for it. What’s more, the kind folks over at undercurrents have dropped off a tiny little package at your apartment on the morning of the performance, with strict instructions not to open the parcel before showtime. You rattle it, and the little box solicits your curiosity for the rest of the day, showtime creeping closer and closer while your tiny treasure stands squat on your bedroom desk.

A stranger with a Calgary phone number texts you. 

Hi, Calgary phone number. 

And then it’s showtime. 

It almost feels like those before-times at Arts Court.

You’re answering questions on the app, and you’re listening to polished, evidently diverse voices recount tales of change. There’s an obvious care that’s been put into this project. There are a couple of typos in the app, which you’re willing to overlook, since the overall aesthetic conceit is, honestly, pretty gorgeous. Production company Trophy has done a great job. 

It’s ten minutes in.

Bye, internet.

Sigh.

You text the mysterious Calgary number, asking if you can refresh the page. Yes, you can, but you’ll have to fill in a few of the app’s questions again. You keep refreshing. You keep answering the same questions. It isn’t their fault. It isn’t even undercurrents’ fault.

But surely, you’re not alone in this experience.

You limp through the rest of the experience, each webpage taking several minutes to load. You slowly figure out what your package contains — a cardboard pot, a puck of packed dirt, a sachet of radish seeds.

Your connection cut out while the metaphor was explained to you, but you have a good sense of the seeds’ meaning. Remixed is a performance about change — an experience meant to make you reflect on the changes that have happened to you, as well as the changes you yourself have effected. The seeds have changed you, and you, guided by Remixed, will change them into full-blown radishes.

The app asks you to share a word of affirmation, and like magic, yours and your fellow spectators’ words appear on your screen, soundtracked by Billie Eilish.

The dramaturgy of the production is, in truth, excellent. DJ AL Connors has made you a great playlist based on your answers to the questions. The marriage of tactile and digital elements makes sense — there’s a strangely logical convergence between radishes and the suffering Safari page on your phone. You know it’s a solid piece of festival programming, likely the strongest of this year’s offerings.

But the fact remains: you’ve experienced maybe half of the intended performance, if that.

And there lies the reality of digital theatre — the lapse in accessibility festivals en masse seem unable to parse.


The next play, Ethel, goes a little better. 

The connection makes it through the hour-or-so of streamed theatre.

You breathe a sigh of relief.

Ottawa’s favourite theatre company Aplombusrhombus has always been a dark horse of professionalism and whimsical poise, capable of creating enchanting performances about the most unlikely of subject matters. 

Ethel follows Aplombusrhombus’ Madeleine Hall into the echoing memory of her dying grandmother — Hall was her primary caretaker during the final few weeks of her life — and makes us consider the intricacies of death (and, sentimentally, of life).

Hall’s writing is exquisite, her storytelling flowing effortlessly from moment to moment. She has a knack for generating oft-quotable maxims: “dying is the ultimate act of littering,” Hall tells us, a turn of phrase which rattles around your brain for days to follow.

Hall explains, too, the sadness of families, the sadness which transcends generations and defines a family line.

“Families,” says Hall, “are occupied by their own distinct brands of sadness.”

Hall and her grandmother, never especially close before Hall stepped in as a caretaker, were “two dots on a direct sadness lineage.” Hall, in direct-to-camera addresses, remembers the final weeks of her grandmother’s life, the melancholy of inevitable death. 

In one especially moving motif, Hall shares her grandmother’s thoughts on beautiful things, trinkets: “you see them, you smile, and you get back to work.” To Ethel, even knickknacks have a purpose — they allow the work to continue.

Hall is impishly charismatic in her small space at Arts Court, a space populated by mismatched chairs and small objects. She plays with her surroundings as a child might a sandbox, following the story as a cat might a piece of string. 

Cats, it turns out, play a big part in reconstructing the memory of Ethel: old people, per Hall, are almost no different from cats, worried not at all about their existential framework, but simply about existing in the ever-developing moment.

Hall is accompanied by lovely instrumental music — you find yourself wishing for more of it, but what you do get is warm and just the right vibe for this sort of performance — and the play is just the right length, too. You wish it were a little longer, but you’re content as the final image fades from your screen.

You miss this, this excellence of writing and performing and feeling. You wish you’d seen Ethel in its earlier runs a few years back. You wish you could reach through the screen and give Hall a hug, or a cup of tea, or a small sweet. Hall tells you (with not a moment of whining) about the intersection of grief and bureaucracy she encountered in the aftermath of her grandmother’s death — the paperwork no one warns you about, the difficulty of cleaning out a loved one’s room. 

You think about Ethel for a long time, remembering your own grandmother.

And, as Hall has implored, in the afterglow of witnessing this beautiful thing, this solo show of love and tenderheartedness, you smile, and you get back to work.

Ethel’s legacy has lived on.


undercurrents this year admittedly showcased some of the best that Ottawa theatre has to offer, but you find yourself still a little empty at its conclusion. You’re tired. 

You’re excited for a version of undercurrents that’s either in-person or that finds other, creative ways to engage its audience outside the clutches of the Internet. Remixed came close — the radish plant captured your imagination in ways you’d forgotten since early 2020 — but still, for the most part, relied on a solid connection, one you don’t have.

You are privileged. And you know that. But you’ve fallen in a gap of accessibility.

undercurrents ends and you go back to work, and school, and life in the digital void.

The warmth of Ethel and the almost-warmth of Remixed stays with you.

You get back to work.