Studies of elevator behaviour are well-known: everyone faces the doors, looking up at the floor indicator or the side panel buttons. People pull in their elbows or clasp their hands in front of them, talking little, if at all. If you were an undergraduate sociology student, you may have been asked to interrupt those behavioral norms, and then report on people’s responses.
As a part of the Canoe Theatre Festival, Edmonton’s Theatre Yes has taken elevator experiments 17 floors further up by staging plays in working downtown elevators, inviting audiences along for the ride. We are told only to arrive at the Tix on the Square lobby to collect a map that will direct us to the designated buildings where the plays will occur. The rest will unfold once we get there.
Heather Inglis, the company’s founder, artistic director and the creative genius behind the National Elevator Project, commissioned eight top-drawer Canadian playwrights to write an elevator story of under five minutes. This afternoon, we will see half of these plays, leaving the others for another day. As we mingle in the CN Tower lobby with other people clutching maps, some laughing nervously, others looking around expectantly, ushers organize us into small groups in front of three signs: Dear Mr. Keith, Rite of Passage, and #Abandon Hope.
(Spoiler alert: These plays run until February 2. If you plan to see them and want to be totally surprised by the experience, please back out of this post now, or forever hold your peace. Don’t read the Edmonton Journal’s review either, which I know is imminent, because their theatre critic was in our audience group.)
A quiet bearded man guides us onto the first elevator. We squash together in the back, exchanging glances. When the door opens, our guide gets off, and a woman in an engulfing beige parka rushes on, cheerfully apologizing for taking up so much room with her belongings, exclaiming over the height of the buildings in Edmonton. Her accent has the Celtic lilt of the Canadian East Coast, and she asks the woman next to me to hold the box of lobsters she’s bringing to surprise her husband Mike, who is working in Alberta, and whom she hasn’t seen in three months.
Just as the elevator doors are about to close, a young woman in butt-hugging jeans and a low-cut shirt staggers on, insults the fashion sense of the woman in the parka, and holds the doors, yelling “Hey, Mike, hurry up, will ya?” There is a collective inhale as the wife,and all of us, realize who is about to get on the elevator. The wife disappears into her parka hood; we shrink against the back of the elevator. Mike gets on, holding a beer can, leering drunkenly at the woman in the tight jeans.
I don’t know where to look. I want to shove the wife off the elevator, or put my hands over her ears, anything to protect her from what she is about to hear. At the same time, I want her to land a right hook to the jaw of the woman in the low-cut blouse, and an upper cut to the chin of her surprised and supposed husband. When the wife finally rips down her hood to confront Mike, I wish the elevator were bigger. The other woman stalks away, and Mike suggests to his wife that the rest of us might like to leave as well. “Nobody moves,” she says, spread-eagling herself in the doorway.
In the next three minutes, we witness not only the wife’s shock and pain, but, surprise, the husband’s as well. She reclaims the box of lobsters and hands it to him together with a cloth sack of Keith’s beer she’s picked up at a local liquor store. Issuing him a final ultimatum, she leaves the elevator, and he rushes after her. Our silent, bearded guide reappears, and we ride down to the main floor in silence.
Our next guide drops us off without further direction at a bank of elevators on the other side of the CN lobby. A loudly arguing young couple comes up the stairs behind us. They are disagreeing about the woman’s choice of gynecologist. The husband is offended that the wife’s family has already decided that their unborn son will be circumcised. When the elevator arrives, and none of us moves, he says to us, “Well, are you getting on or not?” I’m thinking not, but we climb aboard with them anyway.
Within seconds, their escalating argument is interrupted when the wife clutches her stomach, doubles over and crumples to the floor. The husband swiftly kneels next to her. “I’ve lost him,” the wife says, her face terrified. “You don’t know that for sure,” the husband says. “Yes, I do. It feels just like last time. He’s gone.”
The husband asks one of us to get them down to the main floor, fast. He helps his wife to her feet and she sobs in his arms, her shoulders shaking. “Why does this always happen to us?” I feel my tears welling, and I want to be anywhere but two feet away from them. When we get to the main floor, most of us hang back, looking at our feet. But one woman in our audience group follows the couple out of the elevator, and watches their slow, anguished retreat down the stairs. “You ghoulish bitch,” I think, “give them some privacy.”
It’s a good thing that we need to wait a few minutes before there’s an empty elevator to take us to the final CN Tower play. My anguish for the couples whose pain I’ve witnessed is overriding the part of my brain that’s saying, “Hey, these are only actors.” I’m still feeling dazed when we ride up to the top floor of the tower, and are told to wait there for the next guide. When the elevator doors open again, a young man sweeps off, his cream, three-piece leisure suit and grandiose welcome an odd contrast to the many open sores on his face.
With ringmaster high drama and devil-may-care humor, he narrates the darkly lit scenes we observe as the elevator doors open on various floors during our descent: an investment banker being punished for cheating seniors out of their life savings; a sneering hip hop artist in chains; and the “heretics” level, where John Lennon is being knocked around by a white-robed, bearded man in sandals. “That’s what he gets for saying his little group was bigger than you-know-who,” the guide sniffs.
Finally, the guide prepares us for the level where we’ll see the worst offenders of all, those who bury themselves in oblivion with Starbucks coffee and copies of the National Enquirer. He makes us hold hands so he doesn’t lose any of us. The doors open onto a brightly lit floor, he steps off and disappears. We peer out – and suddenly realize we’re back to the ground floor, and our own coffee-swilling, movie mag reality. With the laughter of an audience that knows it’s been had, we spill off the elevator. I notice Heather Inglis grinning as we pass. She knows her bold, sociological theatre experiment has worked, and that we’ll never experience the rise and fall of elevators in quite the same way again.