Upintheair Theatre, The Only Animal, and the PuSh Festival are each known for creating or presenting engaging, sometimes interactive theatre to Vancouver audiences, and The City and The City is no different—except that it’s totally different (check out the trailer!).
From January 24 to February 5, the Russian Hall in East Vancouver will be transformed into Bezel and Ul Qoma—the two cities in The City and The City—and you’ll become the residents of those cities.
We sat down with Jason Rothery, the playwright who’s adapted China Miéville’s novel for this coproduction from Upintheair Theatre and The Only Animal, which will be presented at the 2017 PuSh Festival, as well as being part of the 2016/2017 Theatre Wire Subscription Series.
Tell us about your script. What’s the gist of the story?
The story concerns two cities—Bezel and Ul Qoma—that were, at some point in the distant past (at least a millennium ago) one city. Somehow the one city split into two—and the author of the book never makes it explicit whether this was accomplished through some sort of advanced technology, or whether it is purely social conditioning—and the residents of either city actively unsee one another. There are further overlaps between the two cities called crosshatching, and these blurred boundaries are watched by a secret police force called Breach. If you transgress the boundary, even by accident, Breach may very well swoop in and disappear you.
There is a murder, and the detective put in charge of the investigation—Borlu—gradually comes to realize that while the body was discovered in his city (Bezel), the murder itself likely occurred in the other city. So now Borlu must try to sort out how to navigate between the two cities in order to find the killer.
What inspired you to write this show? What was the creation process like?
The book was recommended to me by Upintheair Co-Artistic Director Daniel Martin, a big fan of this particular novel and the novelist (China Mieville). Dan had always been interested in attempting to adapt the book for the stage.
We conducted several workshops and readings. We were fortunate to be invited to attend the Banff Playwrights Colony in 2015, and held a staged reading with their acting ensemble. This was an especially informative read-through. The world of the novel is unique, but also very complex. Throughout the writing process, it had always been tricky to strike the right balance between action and exposition. This was especially true as our “active audience” concept took shape. Because so many characters are played by audience members in situ, and require feeding these patrons lines through infrared transmitters, there were extreme constraints imposed on certain exchanges of dialogue.
How difficult is it to hand over your script to directors and actors? Have you ever been shocked or surprised by someone’s interpretation?
I’m not sure that “shocked” is necessarily the right word, but I’ve never not been surprised by the production of a play that I’ve written. This is mostly, I think, because a playwright lives with a particular “production” in their head as they write, but the performance is that same script filtered through the prism of many minds. While certainly some of the productions of my work have been more or less successful, it is one of the true glories of the craft: that it is inherently collaborative, and the staged play is only ever the product of an alchemical intermingling of minds.
What’s the best thing about being a playwright?
I think that the best thing about being a playwright, and what drew me to this craft over, say, writing a novel, is what I mentioned earlier—that alchemical intermingling of minds. That a play is always, to some degree, a collaborative endeavor, and collaboration, that process of negotiating, always results in art that no one person could have conceived or created alone. I think that says something quite remarkable about our capacity, as human beings, to work and create together; maybe an extension of “collective intelligence” into “collective creativity”?
Jason Rothery is a writer, producer, academic, and educator. His produced work (as playwright and collaborative-creator) includes: (Re)Birth: EE Cummings in song (Soulpepper Theatre), Inside the Seed (Upintheair Theatre), POLITIkO (Ghost River Theatre), and more. After two cross-Canada Fringe tours, Jason served as resident dramaturge at Playwrights Theatre Centre, as resident playwright of the second Soulpepper Academy, was the co-founder and Festival Director of the Calgary International Fringe Festival, and was Artistic Director of Ghost River Theatre. Inside the Seed, produced by Upintheair and The Cultch, won Outstanding Original Script at the 2014 Jessie Richardson Awards, and was recently published by Talonbooks. Jason holds a BFA in Creative Writing from UBC, an MA in Humanities from York, and is currently an SSHRC-funded PhD candidate in communication studies at Carleton. He studies the discursive construction of agency in video game advertising.