I’m not one to look for patterns in the things that happen to me, but every once in a while one emerges as I’m going about my life. This has been the case this year with the Fringe Fest here in Winnipeg. My usual mechanism for choosing Fringe plays is first and foremost to attend plays that involve people that I know and have some sort of connection with. So last night, I went to see the play CLINIC, because one of the bloggers I connect to here in town, Graham Hnatiuk, is involved in putting the show together.
The play itself, written and performed by a group of Winnipeg teenagers, is set in the waiting room of a Clinic where the teens come, voluntarily or not, to find someone with whom they can discuss the issues that are facing them. The characters are stock teenager characters, a young man in the closet, a young girl who thinks she is worthless and wishes to die, another who is pregnant, a third young woman who is struggling with mental health issues, a drug using athlete, and the teen prostitute. With such a cast of characters such a show could easily slip into an after-school special mode.
This is not the case and there a couple of reasons for it. One of the reasons is that the play is set almost entirely in the waiting room of the clinic, with a couple of outside scenes thrown in to give a glimpse into the lives of the people who are waiting. As a result, the clinic is never seen as the place where all your questions get answered and all your problems solved. Instead the play is as much about getting the courage up to seek help for your problems as it is about the problems getting solved. This helps avoid a phony happy endings sense to the play.
Another reason is the actors themselves. Given the stock nature of the characters, it would be easy to play them in such away that they veer over into caricature. Instead the young actors in the company give measured performances, giving a general sense of authenticity to the subject matter. While a drama, there are several nice touches of humour throughout to ease some of the weight of the show. One nice touch was having a couple of the actors arrive on stage a few minutes before the show actually started, thereby adding to the sense of being in a waiting foom.
The only disappointing note to the show was that there were only 30 people in a room that seats around 160. The company is hoping to take the show around to schools in the fall, and the more tickets they sell the more likely that will be to happen. This is show worth taking the time to see. Both for the sake of a good show, and for helping them to take it on the road in the fall.
So, that’s the play itself, but the pattern that has been emerging for me in watching these shows over the last three days can be summed up in one word: “isolation.” In It’s Yes, the theme of isolation is found in the way we build up walls around ourselves, and go from one place to the next as quickly as possible without having to interact with others. In Autobohn, there is a sense of people living in isolation from the people who are right next to them. They are sharing a car, but not a life. Both It’s Yes and Autobohn give some sense that the automobile itself may result it greater isolation, but that is another post for another time. Finally, in CLINIC, we have a group of people, who in one way or another feel isolated from everyone around them, even if there are specific individuals that trigger those feelings of isolation more strongly than others.
I think that one of the reasons I liked CLINIC not providing answers and a happy ending, is that doing so brings more focus on the idea of isolation. Life is an experience to be lived and not a problem to be solved. More importantly, we aren’t made to live in isolation from each other, but instead we are made to live together in community. The problem with life as a series of problems, is that it encourages only to come together when we have problems and once some, even temporary, solution is achieved we go back to our own private lives keeping separate from each other as much as possible.
In CLINIC, the decision to go in and speak to the counselor, a conversation we never see, represents a willingness to let someone else into our lives, to see us as we truly are. Ideally, this happens between parents and children, but we don’t live in anything like and ideal world. Parents aren’t always the easiest people to talk to, perhaps because they’re children’s struggles remind them, in one way or another, of their own. Perhaps because their children’s struggles also remind them that the time is coming when they can no longer provide the safety and security for their children that they were once able to.
Whatever the reasons, and I’m sure many could be added to the two I gave, the lack of ability for children and parents to speak to each other is a significant cause of isolation. Of course, it’s easy to watch a play like CLINIC and think that this is only an issue for parents with teenage children, but parents and children often have trouble talking to each other at all stages of life, something anybody who has had to dealt with care issues for an elderly parent will be able to tell you about.
So, is moving from isolation to community simply a matter of having someone to talk to? No, but it is a starting place. Something more is needed, and I think that the bridge that will help us move from isolation to community is hospitality. By hospitality, I’m referring to that recognizing of the “other or alien,” among us. This does not need only apply to people who are from different cultural background from us, but anybody that happens to be a stranger to us.
I also am not referring to what has become known as the hospitality business. That is the hotels and associated dining facilities that pop up all around us. In many ways these so called “hospitality” centers actually work against the concept of hospitality in that they are designed to provide us with comfort and familiarity and to protect us from having to deal with the stranger and alien in our midst and vice-versa. One thing that came through in CLINIC was how isolated the people were even in a room filled with other people, all of whom, in one way or another were in the same boat.
Fear of the strange and the unknown is what keeps us in isolation from each other. Hospitality involves recognizing and embracing the unknown and welcoming it into our midst. This is admittedly hard, as well, it is something that requires a constant commitment. Which is really how we end up moving from isolation to community, by living with each other and learning to talk with each other, day after day, in good time and bad, and allowing, over time, people to see who we truly are, good, bad and ugly, in that context of daily living together.