Most theatre shows don’t come with the warning:
“This show involves audience participation and requires audience members to move through the space as part of the performance. Audience members will be seated in unconventional seating (i.e. not chairs).”
But The City and The City does come with that warning—that’s because the creators had a challenge on their hands—how do you adapt a novel that questions the nature of reality? The answer was to get creative and work with Kendra Fanconi, the Artistic Director of the premier site-specific theatre company, The Only Animal, two-time winner of the Jessie Richardson Theatre Award for Significant Artistic Achievement (Other Freds, 2005 and Nothing But Sky, 2014), and the winner of the Vancouver’s Critic’s Choice Award for Innovation (NiX, 2010).
Daniel Martin (Producer, Upintheair):
China Miéville is one of my favourite authors; I’ve been reading his work since his first novel, Perdido Street Station. He combines deep thinking about our world, in particular the lived experience of the modern urban environment, with a startling and original take on science fiction and fantasy. I have wanted to stage The City and The City since the first time I read it, when it was published in 2009. It is almost impossible to talk about the book without spoiling much of what makes it such a great story; suffice to say, it creates a world that is both deeply familiar and very, very strange; it sets up questions about the nature of reality that resonate at an ontological level;
it never stoops to explaining itself with too much clarity, allowing the reader to sit in and feel the strangeness, to have time with their questions about the world created; and it does all this in the manner of the best page-turning whodunit detective noirs.
I sat with the idea for a while before giving the book to Jason Rothery and Dave Mott. The three of us started working on adapting it with input from some other fabulous artists including Paulo Ribiero and Maiko Bae Yamamoto. Through two workshops we created a straight “literary” adaptation, but it became clear that placing the audience outside of the world would undermine all the juiciness of Miéville’s themes, and the work demanded a deeper engagement from our audience than a proscenium play would make.
Enter Kendra Fanconi, whose willingness to say yes to the impossible seemed a perfect fit for what we were trying to achieve; followed by the longest development process in our company’s history. We’ve been working on the piece for over four years. I have no hesitation in saying that the piece we have created is unique. In my 20 years of attending and making theatre, I have never seen anything like The City and The City.
Kendra Fanconi (Director, The Only Animal):
A couple of years ago I mentored Darren Boquist in the creation of a sound piece called How To Love. It was a theatre show with no actors. The audience was fed individuated instructions through an earbud that allowed them to become characters of the story. I remember standing in the circle of audience as it became clear that the story was ours and the giddy, strange power that came with that.
I’ve always been interested in activated audience, always resisted the passive state of proscenium staging. I’ve met that challenge in a number of ways over the years, sited work, immersive work, including a human-scale board game that had no actors. And I kept bugging Darren to come out to our retreat centre and do more work on his concept and see if we could advance the form. Then my old buddies from Upintheair Theatre came calling about a novel they were adapting, a murder mystery—a form that I had been investigating for a while with Brian Quirt of nightswimming and Craig Hall of Vertigo. The murder mystery is an activated form for an audience, right? You gotta figure out who done it. Unsolved murders shake up communities, who need to restore the order by solving the whodunit. The particular world of Miéville’s novel has even more to say about civic life: how “us” and “them” can become the “seen” and the “unseen.”
So I brought back to Upintheair the idea of adapting Darren’s concept—I wanted to see an audience encounter that same giddy, strange responsibility of telling this story, of discovering the murder mystery inside the mystery of the world of the play and the mystery of our own humanness—who we are as a people, and as a city. I also have to add the caveat that I hate audience interaction in the crass way that it is sometimes done. This ain’t that. This has nothing to do with embarrassing people and it’s not about performing, it’s about being human with your other humans. “Acting” here just means “being in action” together to work through the chaos and restore order. It’s often choral in word and movement, it’s always held, and it’s always fun. I have my hand over my mouth, cause I don’t want to tell you too much. But I look forward to seeing you in the theatre, and we can take it from there…