Review: Walk the Talk at the Fringe Festival

Before attending Walk the Talk, I can count on one hand the times I talked to strangers last week (three). For the most part I move through the city in a half-daze, immersed in either my own thoughts or else the opiating world of my iPhone, a proverbial fourth wall between me and everyone else vying for space (and averting eye-contact) on an evening Waterfront-bound skytrain. But if Bon Dos, Tina Wang and Yukari Komatsu, the creators behind ARC Work’s Walk the Talk, know of this fourth wall, they certainly seek to dismantle it -- alongside many other theatrical and conversational conventions. All the better – this Fringe production, held outdoors in the park just adjacent to Cat’s Social House on Granville Island, is one of the most eccentric pieces of immersive theatre attendees may have the chance to partake in. Each performance demands almost as much effort from its audience as it does from its actors.

Walk the Talk draws its inspiration from Thomas C. Knox’s experiment-turned-viral-YouTube-sensation, Date While You Wait. Departing from the premise that strangers too hurriedly pass each other without ever truly engaging with one another, Knox set out to find a simple means to inspire conversation: he set up a small booth in New York City subway stations and asked strangers to play a two-player strategy game, Connect Four. The ensuing spectacle is part street-theatre, part conversation – but much like oft-hated icebreaker games, the process may be slightly unnatural, but the results are genuine, connective moments.

Walk the Talk operates with a similar logic. In small groups or alone, attendees receive a customized ‘path’ through a series of outdoor tents that each feature a different multidisciplinary artist. Drawing on prompts and stories, each artist creates a customized performance tailored by the energy, words and engagement of their attendees. Some are more theatrical than others - at risk of giving any surprises away, my performances included an emotive monologue from Singaporean actor Zachary Ibrahim, two live songs by Japanese actor/singer Yukari Komatsu, and a story and interactive dance by Vietnamese contemporary dancer Ha Viet Nguyen. That said, no two experiences are the same – on the other side of the encampment, I saw a group watching a live painting performance, and yet another tent featured a ‘samurai soul’ dancer.

Sure, the melodramatic introduction felt a tad gimmicky, but overall what compelled me throughout was the lack of performativity – the hosts and actors treated us more like their treasured guests than their audience. While whimsical costumes and animated sound effects added a degree of silliness to the whole production, the conversation between the actors and audience felt consistently sincere. If anything was on display here, it was our own levels of (dis)comfort in immediately opening up, letting down guards, and engaging with people (and art) not immediately familiar to us. The most affective interaction for me was hearing Ha Viet’s talk candidly of a personal crisis of confidence he experienced in his twenties, that any young artist could easily relate to regardless of their craft. While this story culminated in an interactive dance (that me and my blushing friend both butchered, giggling throughout as Ha Viet patiently instructed us), by the end I felt that ‘feel good’ glow you get after an unexpectedly authentic exchange out in the world.

In talking to Thomas afterwards (he was invited by artist-creator Bos Dos to come see the show he inspired in action, squeezing two days in Vancouver into his busy agenda), I realized this was indeed the guiding intention at the heart of the production. Thomas reiterated: “We can all find something to relate to one another about, no matter where we’re from.” Walk the Talk may require a level of participation atypical of most Fringe shows. But it will undoubtedly propel its audience towards feelings of alertness, empathy and connection that put our own comfort levels on display just enough to have us questioning how many walls we really need up in the first place.