Montreal-based theatre company, Beautiful City Theatre, uses empathy to better understand interpersonal relationships, bullying, and school violence in their latest production.

“How can we bring more empathy back into the world? How can we have that be a part of our lives in a way that actually makes a difference and can prevent violence?” These are the questions Calli Armstrong raises with the Canadian Premiere of Simon Stephens’ beautiful and haunting play, Punk Rock, which is hitting the stage at Centaur Theatre this Friday, May 6th. Armstrong, who is directing the production, is the Artistic Director of Montreal’s Beautiful City Theatre (BCT), a not-for-profit group dedicating to creating and celebrating community through theatre performance. QDF spoke with Armstrong about her journey directing this play, which is inspired by the Columbine shooting in 1999.

“The show focuses on a group of high school aged students that are preparing for their exams,” describes Armstrong, “It starts with a new student coming into the school, into a group of students that already has an established relationship. And so what powers are upset by a new person joining? And who is threatened by that?” The play is an intimate and dark examination of the interpersonal relationships between these students as they wrestle for power. Resulting from these power struggles are moments of bullying and its violent consequences. Armstrong warns that this bullying emerges not only through what is said between the characters, but also through what is not said. The play is about that moment when empathy fails; when two people have the opportunity to see each other, to connect, but they miss it. These moments are heightened onstage through the use of movement and mask work, which is completely unique to BCT’s production.

Themes of bullying and school violence resonate deeply with Montreal’s past, but this play offers audiences the opportunity to reflect on this history and contemplate how to move forward. Armstrong has also taken great care to acknowledge the complex factors that lead to such horrific events. “It’s not as simple as saying, ‘This is the solution to school violence,’” says Armstrong, “[Punk Rock] is not a lesson, but it does illustrate what happens in relationships and in groups when there is not a deep empathy and understanding for one another.” As part of their process the entire BCT company, including the cast and the creative team, have been partaking in workshops on empathy in order to understand how it relates to bullying.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on that word: empathy. Armstrong describes empathy as a process which recognizes that people are always participating in systems and structures of power and oppression. So, in talking about empathy, we are never talking about simply resonating with an individual’s experience, but instead we must expand to include, reflect, and check-in on all those involved when an experience is shared: the speaker, the listener, and the witnesses. “Empathy, in terms of turning something into action, is not meaningful unless you have a cycle of empathy,” describes Armstrong, whose insightful definition is no doubt informed by her role as a professor in Concordia University’s Creative Arts Therapies Department.

“Every person has a pair of glasses that they view the world in.” explains Armstrong, “My pair of glasses is informed by my family experiences, my ethnicity, my culture, my gender, etc. When I try to engage in empathy, what I try to do is take off my glasses, put them aside, and see if I can understand what someone else is going through with their lived experiences, by putting their glasses on.” But, she reminds us, “That is imperfect, I’m never able to fully understand what another person is experiencing.”

While the original UK production of Punk Rock drew inspiration from hit songs across the spectrum of punk music, BCT has tapped deeply into the well of Montreal talent by featuring music from four local punk bands: The Costanza’s, Irish Nails, Mental Fix, and Mooch. “Punk, for me, is a unique form,” explains Armstrong, “It can be an expression of the raw sexuality, aggression, anger, and vulnerability all at the same time in this very intense, in your face, uncontainable form.” This play continues punk’s emotional examination of entrapped youth, grappling with adolescent angst, repressed feelings, and unrequited love. It demonstrates what can happen when we fail to connect with one another and this is something that we can bring to all of our relationships, whether with our families, friends, or even that stranger at whom you smile on the metro. “Audiences can expect to think a little bit more, to be challenged about their own experiences of relationships,” says Armstrong, “This is not a gentle show.”

Punk Rock runs May 6-7 & 10-14 at 7:30pm at Centaur Theatre (453 rue St-François-Xavier) with a preview performance on May 5th. Tickets are available online here or by calling 514-288-3161. More information about Beautiful City Theatre can be found on their website.

Pictured above (left to right): Victoria Hall, Madeline Harvey, Nicholas LePage, Patrick Park, Rebecca Bauer. Photo credit: Tam Lan Truong.

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