Maria Worton is a an editor with Serai, an activist and maker of short, curious films here in Montreal.
Optative Theatrical Laboratories is theatre activism at its best. OTL dreams up clever ways of engaging Montrealers and audiences elsewhere in thought provoking spectacle in unexpected places, sites of struggle and citadels of power. OTL are also architects of the Infringement Festival that’s spreading far and wide.
Montreal Serai recently did an e-mail interview on the fly with Donovan King, OTL’s Artistic Facilitator.
What is Optative Theatrical Laboratories?
DK: Optative Theatrical Laboratories is a non-hierarchal dramatic collective based in Montreal (see http://optative.net for more details)
What is your mission?
DK: To theatrically challenge hegemonic thinking and oppressive systems. (see http://optative.net - mandate for more details)
How has the issue of violence informed or effected what OTL does?
DK: OTL, as a challenger of oppression, is opposed to violence of all sorts. Violence is the result of oppression, and as such informs and effects a lot of our projects. We have dealt with issues such as war, police brutality, the violence of capitalism & monoculture, violence against women, First Nations, etc.
Could you describe some of your dramatic actions, a couple of your personal favorites perhaps or one or two that were particularly effective?
DK: Our actions merge drama with reality, and this is a recipe for reflection. One recent example that comes to mind is SINKING NEPTUNE, which you can read about/listen to here:
DK: I found this one particularly effective because it got to the root of racism in the land we inhabit, garnered a lot of attention and debate, and helped point the theatre in a new direction - a direction that is more inclusive, activist, and anti-oppressive. Another project I felt had a strong impact was BUY NOTHING DAY 2005:
“Buy Nothing Day is an annual global celebration against rampant consumerism and consumer culture that happens the day after American Thanksgiving, traditionally the first day of the Christmas shopping season.
Anyone can participate in Buy Nothing Day by not participating in consumerism for 24 hours.
Founded by Adbusters Magazine, BND has spread virally around the world in just a few years, with various groups holding events such as Barter Markets and Corporate Jeopardy and others performing anti-consumer jams and protests.”
DK: I thought this (BND 2005) was especially interesting because our actor (JC McLean) was playing corporate scumbag Dov Charney (American Apparel), and he got to meet Dov's actual father Maurice Charney. The scene that unfolded was telling, with Maurice yelling "You are a Liar" at "Dov", essentially telling the truth through our performance. You can see the whole story on our video.
Why did you target American Apparel for Buy Nothing Day 2005? People generally associate them with better practices.
DK: See: http://optative.net/bnd/aa.html
“ American Apparel is not as friendly as you might think they are. While they might not use sweatshop labour in their production, which should be a given instead of a sellpoint, they have created a different kind of sweatshop in Downtown LA and around the world.
|Performance outside American Apparel|
Their ads, touted as empowering and liberating, are actually playing on an old advertising standard that victimizes women. These attitudes are mirrored by CEO Dov Charney, who has been accused of sexual harassment at the workplace more than once and likes to masturbate in front of reporters.
Meanwhile, American Apparel has vigourously fought attempts to unionize it’s production faclility in downtown LA, even visiting workers at home and forcing them to attend anti-union rallies.
There can be no doubt that American Apparel is a product of Montreal. As proud Montrealers, it is our duty to let everyone know that this city does not stand for the exploitation of women, union busting or cloaking business-as-usual garment-industry capitalism with activist chic.”
Do I remember rightly that for Starbucks you staged something like a die-in? How did that go down?
Great!! See: http://optative.net/bnd/06story.html
“Next up was Starbucks and our version of Death by Latté by Bill Talen (aka Reverend Billy). In this play, actors enter in small groups a minute apart, each one talking about one of the problems with Starbucks such as clusterbombing, use of unfairly traded coffee and milk that may contain an unsafe hormone (more details can be found here).
"Believers" (believing there's something wrong with Starbucks) in the group aren't drinking a "Starbucks latté" (actually water in a Starbucks cup) and "non-believers" are. When the last group enters, the volume of conversations escalate until all the "non-believers" start dying in an over-the-top manner. Then we get up, bow, explain what we did and leave.
Guerilla performance in Starbucks: Scenes from Death by Latté
OTL had already performed this jam before on Buy Nothing Day (2004) and this year we decided to perform it twice. The first version in a Starbucks on Guy drew confused reactions from the crowd and the second, at the Starbucks in Chapters bookstore got a favorable (though still somewhat confused) reaction and security at the end of the performance.”
Performing in the Starbucks inside Chapters bookstore:
|Guerilla performance:||Buy Nothing Day at Starbucks|
DK: Another thing we created that did well is the infringement festival, which we started after getting kicked out of the Fringe! See inFRINGEment Festival (http://www.infringementfestival.com)
What is Sinking Neptune about exactly?
DK: Sinking Neptune is a dramaturgical analysis and critical deconstruction of the "first play" ever written and produced in the so-called "New World": Marc Lescarcot's The Theatre of Neptune in New France. Written in 1606, and originally scheduled for re-enactment on November 14th, 2006, this play is extremely racist against First Nations Peoples.This project is a call to action to challenge the play and 400th anniversary by deconstructing and re-performing The Theatre of Neptune in New France from a critical and postcolonial perspective. It is called "Sinking Neptune" because it attempts to deep-six the first play ever written in the so-called " New World".
I noticed on the site you didn’t say how Sinking Neptune is racist against First Nations Peoples, nor what the story is. The fact it was racist comes as no surprise but you don’t say, and I’m curious about, the way in which it’s insidiously racist in the context of this dramatization.
DK: The racism is described in this dramaturgical analysis of the play: http://www.optative.net/neptune/sinkingneptune.pdf
Just to say that this is an interview not an article so if you could give me two or three lines in your voice by way of an idea of the ways in which it is racist.
It takes no great stretch of the imagination to see that The Theatre of Neptune in New France is an extremely racist play directed against First Nations (especially the Mi'kmaq people). When put under the critical microscope of postcolonial dramaturgy , it becomes increasingly clear that The Theatre of Neptune in New France was designed to subjugate First Nations through the appropriation of their identities, collective voice, and lands. Anton Wagner, editor of Canada’s Lost Plays, believes that from a political point of view, Theatre de Neptune claims the new world for France and announces the submission of its indigenous people to the rule of white man (Nationalism 23; see also Wagner, Colonial Quebec). In an act of cultural appropriaton, Lescarbot recast Mikmaq lands as New France, co-opted the chief’s title (Sagamaos) for the French explorer Sieur de Poutrincourt, and penned four savages who all happily welcome and accept European domination. In fact, these “savages” are positively obsequious to the French colonial masters, offering their devotion, servitude, lands, and women. Furthermore, in a similar vein to racist American “blackface” shows, it is assumed that white French sailors played all the roles enacted - including the “savage” characters. Finally, this derogatory spectacle was deliberately presented to a Mi’kmaq audience including Membertou, their leader . It was almost like an instructional play on how the Europeans expected them to behave. As the "first" piece of European theatre & literature in the so-called " New World", it can also be credited as the starting point of an ongoing cultural genocide against First Nations people.
Thanks. And who are these people now who want to re-enact it and why do they imagine they can?
DK: The people wishing to re-enact the racist play include Ken Pinto of Theatre 400 and Phil Roberts of Musique 400, both Nova Scotia theatre troupes. Indeed their whole existence is based on the play! Musique 400 actually did do a traditional re-enactment on Nov 12, 2 days before we got there to mark the anniversary on the 14th with SINKING NEPTUNE. Many of them were in attendance at our show, and a big argument ensued in the talk-back. We still do not understand why they insist on re-enacting it - they have not given a satisfactory explanation. You can hear about it on the radio interview with Irkar at the top here: http://www.optative.net/neptune/media.html
I was also curious as to the kinds of response you get from joe public?
DK: Good question! The responses always vary, and it depends on whether they are "in" on the project, or merely witnessing it. In general, it is the store managers, security guards, and other oppressive and violent types that are most upset by us. A lot of the public supports what we do.
Does OTL have any projects in the works right now?
DK: Yes, the OTL is always at work on various projects. Some things we are currently working on include:
- the infringement festival 2007 (infringementfestival.com)
- where to go next with Sinking Neptune
- trying to open an Arts Club/performance space on the Plateau
- working with Guerilla Videos on various projects
- conducting our workshop to various groups
- planning a RECLAIM THE MAIN campaign
- working with artists in Denmark on theatricaly helping the Free City of Christiania
Cheers for all of that. Just two more little questions and then we’re done:
Have you guys ever been arrested?
DK: Yes, I have personally! I was arrested for "standing still" during a protest against the corporate FringeTM festival in 2001. Needless to say, the cop botched the arrest in a big way, and I pointed his errors out to him (I used to arrange actors to help train cops - see attachment). Eventually it got to court and I won the case easily. Our members are used to dealing with security forces of all types. We ctually got detained by the FBI etc. in NYC during the Republican national Convention: http://www.mcgilldaily.com/view.php?aid=2828
Do you get funded?
DK: Rarely, although we are trying to find ways to get more. People who have funded us include the Canada Council (project & travel grants occasionally) and the Adbusters Media Foundation.
Thanks very much Donovan and Optative Theatrical Labratories!
PS. Dear MS reader, if you’re the least bit curious about the group’s name you can always visit their website.