Blasting backwards (1968) and forwards (2048) in time, the You Are Very Star immersive, transmedia experience offered by Vancouver’s Electric Company Theatre is an exciting experiment as I discovered on opening night, June 15, 2013.
Don’t expect to sit passively in a theatre seat. We trotted around the building to visit or remember 1968 in one theatre, then zipped out to a 20 minute 2013 intermission where we played a game (they gave us maps with our programmes, which you are invited to return at the end of the intermission), and, finally, were escorted to the planetarium theatre to encounter 2048.
I’m not sure about the artistic intention for the 1968 portion of the show. It was one of those situations where my tiny bit of knowledge and considerable fund of ignorance combined to create confusion. For example, one of the characters, Earle Birney, a poet, writer, and titan of Canadian literature, did found the creative writing programme at the University of British Columbia as they note in the show but by 1968 he’d left Vancouver for Toronto. One of the other characters in this segment is called Esther, a black feminist and more, with whom Birney’s character appears to establish a liaison. Birney was married to an Esther whom I met some years ago. She was a white Englishwoman and a feminist but of a somewhat different character than the Esther of the play.
In addition, the clothing wasn’t quite right. No tie dye, no macrame, no beads, no granny dresses, and not enough fringe. Plus, I can’t recall seeing any bell bottom pants, mini dresses and skirts, and/or go go boots.
There were some interesting tonal changes in this section ranging from humour, political angst and anger, and pathos. The depiction of the professor who’s decided to let people grade themselves and who takes an hallucinogenic drug in front of his class seemed pretty typical of a few of the crackpot professors of the time.
Unexpectedly, the professor decides to get high on ayahuasca. LSD, magic mushrooms, marijuana and hashish would have been more typical. I can understand clothing and some of the dialogue not being typical of the period but getting the preferred drugs wrong seems odd, which is why I questioned *whether the artists introduced these incongruencies intentionally.
The actors all shone at one time or another as they delivered some pretty snappy dialogue . I’m hoping they tighten this section up so there’s less waiting for the snappy stuff and perhaps they could find some device other than xx hours/days earlier to signify a change in the timeframe. I lost count of how often they flashed a slide onscreen notifying us that the next scene had taken place at an earlier time. Finally, I loved the shadow puppets but they were on for a brief time only, never to return.
Our intermission was pretty active. There were lots of places on the map, given with the programme, where one was meant to discover things. I never did figure out what was happening with the stuffed toys that were being given out but I’m ok with those kinds of mysteries.
The last stop was the planetarium theatre for 2048. Very interesting costuming, especially the head gear. Still, I have to ask why do people in the future, in the more ‘optimistic’ versions of it, tend to wear white?
I found 2048 the most interesting part but that may be due to the references to human enhancement (a topic I’ve covered here a number of times). The playwrights also seem to have spent some time studying Ray Kurzweil and the singularity he’s predicting. From the Technological singularity essay on Wikipedia (Note: Links and footnotes have been removed),
The technological singularity is the theoretical emergence of superintelligence through technological means. Since the capabilities of such intelligence would be difficult for an unaided human mind to comprehend, the technological singularity is seen as an occurrence beyond which events cannot be predicted.
The first use of the term “singularity” in this context was by mathematician John von Neumann. Neumann in the mid-1950s spoke of “ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue”. The term was popularized by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, who argues that artificial intelligence, human biological enhancement, or brain-computer interfaces could be possible causes of the singularity. Futurist Ray Kurzweil cited von Neumann’s use of the term in a foreword to von Neumann’s classic The Computer and the Brain.
Proponents of the singularity typically postulate an “intelligence explosion”, where superintelligences design successive generations of increasingly powerful minds, that might occur very quickly and might not stop until the agent’s cognitive abilities greatly surpass that of any human.
Kurzweil predicts the singularity to occur around 2045 whereas Vinge predicts some time before 2030. At the 2012 Singularity Summit, Stuart Armstrong did a study of artificial generalized intelligence (AGI) predictions by experts and found a wide range of predicted dates, with a median value of 2040. His own prediction on reviewing the data is that there’s an 80% probability that the singularity will occur in a range of 5 to 100 years. An alternative view, the “mitochondrial singularity,” proposed by microbiologist Joan Slonczewski, holds that the singularity is a gradual process that began centuries ago, as humans have outsourced our intelligence to machines, and that we may become reduced to vestigial power providers analogous to the mitochondria of living cells.
I thank the playwrights for introducing some of the more difficult aspects of the science and technology discussion that are taking place into this piece. For example, those who are enhanced and moving towards the singularity and those who are not enhanced are both represented here and so the playwrights have introduced some ideas about the social implications of employing new and emerging technologies.
You Are Very Star is not a perfect production but it is as I noted earlier very exciting both for the ways the company is trying to immerse audiences in an experience and for the ideas and dialogue they are attempting to stimulate.
The show goes on until June 29, 2013 and tickets are $30,
This production is being held at,
H.R. MacMillan Space Centre
1100 Chestnut Street, in Vanier Park
8:00pm Tues – Sun
12:00pm Thurs June 20
* Correction June 19,2013: ‘where’ changed to ‘whether’
ETA June 24, 2013: I noticed that where I use the word ‘enhancement’ other reviewers such as Colin Thomas in his June 17, 2013 review for the Georgia Straight are using ‘augment’