Outside-In explores urbanity and wilderness as Swallow-a-Bicycle Theatre’s Discomfort Lab invites us to get uncomfortable

If you have ever experienced a performance by Swallow-a-Bicycle Theatre, you know that the company is all about presenting unconventional and provocative theatre, often in an unconventional and provocative setting. Their latest production is no exception, and goes one step further inviting audience members to get uncomfortable with Discomfort Lab — four performances reflecting and interrogating the world around us and challenging our expectations.

Artists Audrey Lane Cockett and Geneviève Paré are excited to be a part of Discomfort Lab, and after intense and sometimes exhausting research and preparation for their show, they are ready to bring us Outside-In. According to Cockett, the work is “about urban places and wild spaces, and navigating the disconnect and the connection (between the two), and what brings us together, what dislocates us, and navigating that in an honest way.”

Creating a performance that invites both the audience and the performers to be uncomfortable is no small feat, either physically or emotionally. The seeds of this collaboration were planted a couple of years ago when Cockett participated in the Canadian Wilderness Artist Residency — an organization that Paré helps run, and which sees artists of all disciplines having outdoor adventures, including travelling remote Canadian rivers. According to Paré, two weeks floating down the river with a broad spectrum of artists often leads to creativity.

“We try to emphasize that the river trip is research and there will be space for creation,” she says. “The intention is not to come out with a body of work, but that experience has led to the creation of a lot of bodies of work.”

When it came to Discomfort Lab, specifically, Paré was excited and thoughtful about the opportunity to bring people into her world. “Navigating what it is that I had to say or what I had to offer to this greater dialogue, this challenging dialogue around social norms and power structures and all of these things, what do I have to contribute to that? I think the foundation of who I am and what excites me and challenges me is my connection to nature and as a city dweller, and my wanting or craving for the rest of the world to understand what I know and how it’s impacted me and how it could impact the universe.”

When contemplating the potential work and thinking about who to collaborate with, Cockett was top of the list. “Audrey Lane was the first person that came to mind because she’s local, she is exciting, she’s a great artist and she also has that parallel experience as a performer.”

“Our piece is about urban spaces and wild places and some of the connection between those and between humans in those contexts,” explains Cockett.

The preparation for this piece was in two parts, the first involving the pair snowshoeing in and out of a remote alpine hut in the mountains to test themselves. “We had all these parameters for our walk-out, like walking in silence, noticing our body and our mind and the uncomfortability of being silent and trying to be immersed in space, which is sometimes really hard to do. And then also talking a lot and noticing how much work it takes to be outside all the time (in the cold) for three days.”

The second part of the research involved them taking to a more urban locale, renting a noisy, gritty and cheap Airbnb apartment right downtown for two days and hitting the streets. “We developed some questions and went around to lots of different bars and coffee shops over those two days and talked to people about why they love Calgary, why they leave Calgary, what about Calgary maybe feels disconnected, what feels connected, and just threw a lot of lists in it, trying to talk to different people” explains Cockett.

Paré explains that there was discomfort in that part of research as well. “I think the most uncomfortable part of that for us was just approaching people and finding a way – an access point – because people aren’t out to serve our purposes, like, ‘I’m just here to have a good night with my pals, I don’t need to invest.’ ”

Not surprisingly, there were people who were happy to talk, according to Cockett. “Once we started they had a lot to say and they had a lot of opinions about it. That was an interesting discovery, that there is that discomfort to begin with. It was like a buffer that we had this project.”

Outside-In will begin performances on Thursday, but Paré still sees the piece evolving over the course of Discomfort Lab. “The fun thing about the process we’re in is that we’re in a state of creation, and the piece is revealing itself to us as we go, and what is revealing itself is the balance in the piece between sincerity and satire. We are discovering that sometimes we feel like we’re full of shit and so we take the opportunity to make fun of ourselves quite a bit and make fun of the environmental propaganda and the movement. Part of the piece really embraces the satirical, making fun of ourselves, and then we go into a really sincere place as well about our narratives, and what drew us to these conclusions or questions, and that earnest desire to share that with people because we think there is actually a very strong benefit in developing a relationship to natural and wild space.”

“(It’s about a) culture that is fabricated around a certain set of values that we believe in,” continues Cockett, “but then the culture that’s around, it’s how it morphs and twists and goes into this odd and satirical place. It’s satire and being sincere, and telling stories and exploring those connections and disconnections, but also exploring how they morph, the different and some of the ugly sides of that, and how that translates into community.”

The whole concept of the Discomfort Lab is fascinating, they say – challenging the audience from the outset, knowing that they are in for moments being uncomfortable. “As a project, the content itself is tackling uncomfortable subjects that are creating dissonance in our community and our society and in our world,” explains Cockett. “The four shows touch on different aspects of that and personal experience, and then also the discomfort in the presentation format, and doing it in a very stark way, not trying to hide and try to come at it at an angle and bring people in, just starkly going there and not trying to make it palatable.”

All this is not to say that the audience is in for an evening of squirming in their seats. According to Paré, Swallow-a-Bicycle is aiming for a level of “productive discomfort,” and explains “an unproductive discomfort would be like bringing people back into their traumas and not having a way of processing them, that would be very unproductive. But going into enough discomfort where you are challenged to rethink and come out the other side improved in some capacity is more the intention.”

Discomfort Lab runs Nov. 23 – 26 at Warehouse 534, with shows nightly at 8 p.m., and a Nov. 26 matinee at 2 p.m.

Kari Watson is a writer and former Listings Editor of FFWD Weekly, and has continued to bring event listings to Calgary through theYYSCENE and her event listings page, The Culture Cycle. Contact her at