SummerWorks Review: The Middle Place [Project: Humanity]

The Middle Place Alternate Program Image

Festival buzz is a funny thing. You get to this point, a week or so into the fest, a lot of reviews have been written, and you wonder sometimes: is the buzz that some shows are getting really deserved? Are they really the best ones out there, or are they just the ones that’ve done the best job getting known?

I wonder. Because it seems like the two consensus “buzz” pieces of SummerWorks right now are Greenland and The Middle Place. I’m seeing Greenland on Saturday, their last show, and I’m fortunate to have tickets. I saw The Middle Place yesterday in a packed house at the Passe Muraille mainspace. Did I like it? Sure. But I’ve seen three plays since then, and definitely enjoyed two of them more and the third is close, and none of them are getting the same kind of buzz.

I guess The Middle Place is a show that speaks to a lot of people. For a couple of years now, Project: Humanity has been teaching theatre workshops at a homeless shelter in the GTA. Playwright Andrew Kushnir (who’s name I know from something I saw in Edmonton but can’t remember what it was and it’s REALLY bugging me) sat down with various youths from the shelter and filmed interviews with them. The Middle Place is a presentation of some of those stories, with four actors onstage and one offstage, asking questions and prompting the homeless kids.

It’s all quite technically good. The stories are, as you might imagine, all kinds of sad, and in some cases inspiring and sweet. The onstage actors are all quite talented, and easily portray the youths of all different backgrounds and the shelter’s caseworkers too. Going from one story to the next is seamless, and each actor does a nice job making characters and voices distinct enough that it’s easy enough to recall them when they come up again, even though the four actors never leave the stage and there are no costume changes or anything.

But it all comes across as very clinical to me. If you like the sound of seeing a documentary film that has kids from a homeless shelter telling their stories, you’ll probably like this. And it’s not that I don’t like that kind of thing, it’s more that…well, this is theatre, not film. If Kushnir had done a documentary movie instead of a play it would look and sound and feel very similar, just with more faces. This play feels like a direct translation from that nonexistent movie, presenting the interviews as close to how they look on film as possible, even with the limitation of using just four actors. It’s like The Middle Place is a show stripped of a lot of things you can do on film and not on stage, but because it’s trying to ape documentary so closely it doesn’t really take advantage of things you can do on stage that you can’t on film.

And while in a lot of ways it’s a technical accomplishment (I wouldn’t have imagined it was possible to approximate documentary film onstage so precisely before seeing this show), The Middle Place is just an ok piece of theatre.

The Middle Place has one show left at SummerWorks: August 15 (Saturday) at 10:30. See the SummerWorks website for schedule and ticket details.

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Posted on by Brian in Everything, Summerworks, Theatre

3 Responses to SummerWorks Review: The Middle Place [Project: Humanity]

  1. Damien Atkins

    Brian, I’m afraid you are missing the point. The first part of your review essentially is a review of the buzz that the show is getting, which is wildly unfair. The show, and the buzz that it has generated are two different things. The creators of the show are not responsible for the buzz, and not responsible for hyping your expectations. You could have managed those before you came in. Also, it is ridiculous to make comparisons between what a film of the transcripts would have been like, and what the play is like. First of all, the play is a play because Andrew is a playwright, not a filmmaker. He told the stories in the only way he knew how. Secondly, it could ONLY have been a play because it affords the shelter youth the anonymity that they desire and deserve. They would not have agreed to having their faces on film, and they would not have been so candid if they didn’t know their identities would be safely concealed. Thirdly, to suggest that the play does not take advantage of the things you can do onstage is uninformed. One of the very things you commended – the actors’ ability to shift between characters, is patently something that can only be achieved onstage, and this is more than a stage trick. The act of switching from character to character helps to reinforce the notion of compassion, that we all are near to these youth, that we have more in common with them than we think. (The ability to move seamless from scene to scene is also a strength that people erroneously attribute to film, when in fact it is easier to do this sort of thing onstage – see some of Brad Fraser’s plays – because you don’t need establishing shots, etc. ) Lastly, it is irresponsible to say that the play is trying to ape a documentary. It takes skill to distill a design and a set of stage conventions into something as crystalline as you see in “The Middle Place”, and it was conceived that way so that the verbatim voicing of the shelter youth is front and center (and not concealed behind a barrage of arrogant “look at me” visual and theatrical ticks) and also so that they can tour the show through shelters and high schools.

  2. Brian

    Damien, first of all I’d like to say thanks for posting the well presented comment. Writing theatre for this blog, I occasionally feel like I’m writing into a vacuum, and it’s nice to get some feedback.

    Is it entirely possible I missed the point? Absolutely. I’m not a professional reviewer, and I don’t work in theatre. But it’s because I’m a blogger that I talk about things like the buzz a show is getting. Like it or not, the expectations I bring in are part of the experience. You’re right, I could’ve managed my expectations, and it’s not the creator’s fault they exist. But I don’t think, in a blog setting, that it’s invalid to comment on them.

    The anonymity point is well-taken. But I’m really not trying at all to say that Andrew should’ve made a movie instead of a play. Obviously theatre is his medium, and he does it very well. But that’s not the purpose of making the comparison. I can appreciate the point of reinforcing that we’re all closer to these youth than we might think, but I don’t think the actors switching between the characters is the most effective way of doing so. I would say I felt that point most keenly through the stories, particularly when one of the caseworkers was discussing that very notion of being a few choices shy of being homeless herself.

    Lastly, I did say that The Middle Place is quite a technical accomplishment. I didn’t know the show was going to tour through shelters and high schools; that’s very admirable, but not something that has a lot of bearing on my opinion. I thought it was a good show, not a great one. I’m happy to have you disagree, and more than willing to grant I might be missing something. But I don’t think it’s uninformed or irresponsible to make the documentary film analogy when the show has exactly that kind of look and feel to me.

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