Suburban surveillance

Eavesdop plugs into alternative venue

In contrast to the majority of performing arts events in Calgary which mostly occur in and around the downtown core Swallow-a-Bicycle Theatre will present its latest creation in Bridlewood a suburb on the southern outskirts of the city. Eavesdrop: The Coffee Shop Show is a site-specific performance that opens this week at Caffe Crema a coffee shop known for its library open mic nights and other cultural events.

For the show audiences will enter the space and don a pair of headphones; actors will be seated and sipping their coffee alongside other customers and the audience will listen in on the dialogue. The characters include a troubled writer a trio of friends an uninspired architect and others. The event will mimic the experience of eavesdropping on conversations hence the show’s title.

The use of headphones is becoming more common in performing arts events with the growth of pod-plays — recorded plays that listeners download and consume while sitting riding or walking through the setting tied to the piece. Some pod-plays involve live performers while others do not. Still Swallow-a-Bicycle co-artistic director Mark Hopkins acknowledges that it is unusual to mount a professional production in a such a setting.

“We have a community mandate and part of that mandate is to bring people together” says Hopkins. “These days there aren’t very many community gathering places left. There are libraries and parks but that’s about it. Coffee shops are one of the only remaining community gathering places that we almost universally turn to. And we wondered why. Why coffee shops? Why do people choose to hang out and hold meetings and job interviews in coffee shops? Why are they so adaptable to so many purposes?”

Hopkins and co-artistic director Charles Netto spent many months researching their subject. They visited almost every independent coffee shop in Calgary where they noted things the establishments had in common watched the patrons and observed patterns of behaviour. They watched movies with key scenes in coffee shops. And they read numerous books on the culture and history of these places including how the seeds of the French revolution were sown in java huts and how before the Internet communities obtained their news and gossip while buying a cup of joe.

From there they began writing a script and the development process began.

One of the ongoing struggles facing theatre companies in Calgary has been finding a way to coax potential audiences to brave the journey from their suburbs to the theatres downtown. The fact that Swallow-a-Bicycle is turning that challenge on its head is what Netto enjoys most about Eavesdrop .

“I love that it takes place… way down in Bridlewood” Netto says. “To me that’s such a unique experience that can’t be replicated…. I love that it takes place in [Caffe Crema]. It’s such a great community place for the suburbs and it’s the perfect place to host this event.”

Hopkins agrees. He learned to appreciate the challenge facing many Calgarians when he had to drive over an hour from his home near the downtown core to Caffe Crema. “That was a healthy reminder of how hard it is for someone in the suburbs to attend a show downtown. I think it’s great to bring a production to Calgarians who might not otherwise hear about our company or experience our work.”

Netto is quick to point out that Caffe Crema’s regular patrons are not obligated to attend the performance. “If you don’t want to see the show you don’t have to put the headphones on…. That’s one of the cool things about the show. I love that it’s covertly dropped into a public place.”