All the cafe’s a stage

By Stephanie Tang

These days, coffee shop patrons are likely to get more than a frothy cappuccino and a pastry with their visit. Coffee shops offer snapshots of people’s lives, from the mundane to the bizarre. That’s what Swallow-A-Bicycle Theatre strives to portray with Eavesdrop: The Coffee Shop Show.

“They could have massively dramatic stories happening, whether it’s inside their own heads or in their whispered conversations and you never know. It just looks like a normal day in a coffee shop,” says co-artistic director and playwright Mark Hopkins. “We really wanted to explore that and see what it would be like if you could really listen in, be a fly on the wall for some of these sometimes life-changing encounters and conversations that take place in a coffee shop.”

Audience members can come into the shop, grab a drink and put on a pair of wireless headphones. The headphones play an immersive soundscape by Ryan Von Hagen and Brock Geiger, along with pre-recorded dialogue. Listeners then have to try and identify the actors mixed in among the shop’s patrons as they move through the narrative arc. The wireless headphones allow the audience to listen in on the play, while other patrons who are not part of the audience will not be disturbed during the cafe’s regular business hours.

Eavesdrop first ran at Caffe Crema in 2012, but the soundscape has been redone and Shari Wattling of Theatre Calgary helped to revise the script.

“We didn’t really understand what was going on with [the characters],” Hopkins admitted. “There wasn’t the depth of character understanding that we would like to see in the show. So in reworking it, we really focused on each of the characters’ stories, their relationships with one another and trying to get a deeper understanding of what makes them tick.”

Wil Knoll, Ian McFarlane and Geneviève Paré reprised roles from the original run. Each actor plays two different characters in two plot arcs. One arc revolves around the interactions of three strangers. The second involves a group of college friends who are reunited after spending years apart.

The show explores the complexities of a coffee shop, such as what happens when norms and socially acceptable behaviours are broken. The writing team and actors focused on those thematic questions to develop characters.

“We would try to figure out, what is the language of the coffee shop? What is unacceptable in a coffee shop? How big can you repeat one gesture until people start noticing it?” Knoll says. “All those different things, we did those in live coffee shops.”

These elements and the body language of the characters are woven into the narrative and take advantage of patrons’ observations, who may not be aware of what is happening.

Physicality plays a crucial role in the portrayal of the characters and their interactions with each other. The actors draw on small gestures to point to a deeper subtext. The result is small gestures — such as the way a cup is lifted — that are just as significant as the soundtrack and dialogue.

Finding the magic in the mundane is another thematic viewpoint: looking at someone who appears ordinary and getting inside of a more complex psyche or situation.

“We asked ourselves, when does the mundane become remarkable? When does the ordinary become extraordinary?” Hopkins says. “These incredible moments happen everyday in the most inauspicious places, so we’re really trying to highlight that.”

Aside from supporting locally owned businesses, Eavesdrop hopes to provide a surprising cultural experience to its audience that goes beyond traditional theatre venues. Coffee shops are backdrops to intriguing experiences that aren’t always immediately evident, but it’s the accessibility and welcoming environment that Eavesdrop strives for.

“We hope that we’ve created a show that is also quite accessible,” Knoll says. “That anybody could bring their family members, their mother, their father, or anybody, down to see this show. If you are close enough to hang out in a coffee shop, then hopefully this show is accessible to you.”

Eavesdrop will play at Weeds Café, Caffe Beano and Vendome Café from April 15 to May 2. Tickets are $15 each, or $12.50 for groups of four or more. They can be bought at Swallow-A-Bicycle’s website or at the door.

Proceeds from the show on April 16 will be donated to the Calgary Counselling Centre.

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