Disruption and reconstruction: That’s the experience of regular immigrants and refugees alike as their lives are first scrambled and then rebuilt in a new land. It’s also to some extent what those in the host country experience as the existence they’ve always known is challenged by people with different perspectives, beliefs and languages.
Now disruption and reconstruction come to the Ottawa Public Library’s main branch thanks to How iRan, a site-specific iPod play – well, actually three plays – by Calgary-based playwright Ken Cameron. The Ottawa Fringe Festival is presenting the production.
Based on interviews with new Canadians and a prisoner of conscience, Cameron’s text is about an Iranian man named Ramin who leaves behind his wife and son when he comes to Canada. Once here, he lands a job as a security guard in a library where he meets the librarian Emily. Complications, some serious and some humorous, ensue including the eventual arrival of his son Hossein and Ramin’s wife.
Cameron, who also directs, has made an audio recording of the narrative, which is played out in 25 scenes. He’s put the play on three differently coloured iPods, each containing about one-third of the entire piece. Audience members get an iPod with the narrative order shuffled and then, prompted by the recording, go to different stations in the library to listen to scenes in a random order. In effect, each audience member hears a customized play.
Because you hear only parts of the whole, and in a non-linear fashion, the effect is at first confusing. Finding the stations, which are spread out over the library’s three floors, is also initially baffling. In both cases, you’re living something of the new immigrant’s experience but, like that new immigrant, you do catch on to the storyline and the structure.
What you hear could be funny, sad, disquieting depending on which stations you are directed to and which segments you hear (two audience members have been known to stand at the same station, one laughing and one crying in response to different scenes, says Cameron). The characters talk, fight, dissemble, strive for happiness and connection, try to hold on to who they are in the face of massive personal and cultural change. You’re drawn into the characters, maddened and cheered by their relationships, confounded by the fraught nature of cross-cultural relations – all while trooping about a library, a space where multiple narratives, whether those of library users, staff or those in the books on the shelves, already intersect.
When you’ve finished the play, you gather with Cameron and other audience members to talk about what you’ve heard and felt. You fill in the narrative blanks for each other, although some pieces are left dangling in a tantalizing fashion thanks to Cameron’s narrative. You also reflect on the structure and rationale of this evocative piece of unconventional theatre including the way that an iPod isolates you from the rest of the world, creating a vivid experience inside your head while the external world takes on a slightly distant quality – presumably a partial replication of what new immigrants and refugees, who carry in their heads a past life fully lived, experience while moving through their new country.
Disruption and reconstruction have long been the bailiwick of theatre, indeed of all art. How iRan shifts that bailiwick a little further down the road of technology in thoughtful and intriguing fashion.
How iRan continues at the Ottawa Public Library’s main branch to October 1.
Produced by Productive Obsession (Calgary, AB)
Creator, writer, director: Ken Cameron
Production design: Anton de Groot
Sound design: Richard McDowell
Voices: Mani Soleymanlou, Catherine Fitch, Niaz Salimi, Ravi Jain and others
Free admission: firstname.lastname@example.org