Teen Sleuth and the Freed Cyborg Choir: Uncanny valley girls

Uncanny valley girls

An ex-Girl Guide joins forces with cyborgs and post-mammals to save us all
Photo: Jocelyn Michel

Technology meets the good, bad, beautiful and ugly sides of human nature in Teen Sleuth and the Freed Cyborg Choir

Teen Sleuth and the Freed Cyborg Choir wants a revolution. Or a new world order. Or just for everyone to get on with the business of getting along in a faster-than-fast-changing world. Tall orders for Fringe Fest fare, but the high-concept, high-art "ope-raw" with a heart of gold, head in the storm clouds, one foot in the future and the other on terra firma might just make you want to join the revolution.

The 45-minute multidisciplinary, multisensory experience takes us on an eight-song ride through "the excavation and colonization of the mind, body, spirit, land," where an ex-Girl Guide wanders through a forest, meeting up with the evil Company of Men and the animals (called post-mammals), humans and ghosts they’ve enslaved. Through flashbacks and collective song they delve into the past to find a way to future freedom.

Not an easy story to tell, but the show’s 12 performers, in roles human, cyborg, post-mammal and, well, miscellaneous, are ready to sing, dance and play their hearts out for it.

Grown-up high-tech

The Teen Sleuth story began back in 2004, when Ellen Smallwood, creative director, writer, songwriter, artist and much more, underwent brain surgery for a benign tumour. Time spent in hospital hooked up to monitors and later recovering in her Nova Scotia County childhood home, where a nearby open-pit lead mine had been installed, saw Smallwood drawing together thematic threads: technological intervention, our fallible (though amazingly capable) minds and bodies, capitalist interests, environmental impact.

"It’s a coming-of-age story like any coming of age story," says Smallwood. "It’s about huge changes in people’s lives – some problems are massive and some are personal. Do I want to forget about this experience or go through it again and see how it changed me? Nobody ever said coming of age was going to be easy."

Once back in Montreal, having graduated from Concordia’s fine arts program and working as a graphic designer, Smallwood found her own creativity, as that of many of her friends, mined for profit. As she was hand-drawing a bird for a work project, she went to hit "undo" and saw "real" and technological worlds collide.

"I developed the story’s concept of the cyborgs along those lines. I saw that the common theme was excavation in various forms – from the ravaging of the land to the excavation of my brain, plus excavation of the soul, emotional excavation."

Carnival of chaos

The Teen Sleuth triple-threat of Smallwood, choreographer and dancer Heather Keiller (who brings out the creepy in the Company of Men) and artist and art director Frances Adair McKenzie (responsible for the show’s intricate papier-mâché creatures) is a force to be reckoned with – the three have been hard at work together on the show for over a year, bringing in co-conspirator musicians, puppeteers, make-up artists and hairdressers (Moog Audio even leant them headset microphones) to flesh out the original story and songs.

"The whole show is done through songs and images," says Smallwood. "I sometimes compare it to a GWAR show – ‘GWAR-lite’- because it’s music-based. The story and the illustration, dance, puppets, projections, came out of the songs, and much of it connects on an emotional level."

Though Smallwood and crew don’t expect everyone in the audience to be familiar with cyborg theory (or the graphic, blood-strewn stage performances of American metal band GWAR, for that matter), they’re genuine in wanting everyone in the audience to come away with something.

"We don’t really assume that people will really get it," says Adair McKenzie, prompting Smallwood to expand on the GWAR hypothesis: "The thing about GWAR is that it is this whole intricate world, everything has a story to it, or you can go to a GWAR show and rock out. That’s kind of how our show works too – you can investigate and get more into it if you want, but you don’t need to."

We are the robots

While Teen Sleuth and the Freed Cyborg Choir is free of blood splatter, its story stemmed from some fairly gruesome facts: from what Smallwood calls her own "flirtation with cyborgism," wherein a machine probed her mind for errors, to the tearing down of homes and forests to mine the land for lead.

"We’re not anti-technology," says Smallwood, who acknowledges that though concepts of the cyborg can be disturbing (the unsettling familiarity of technology acting as human), they also speak to everyday truths. "In one scene, the ex-Girl Guide in the lead mine is looking at a cyborg intently because she’s looking at her future cyborg self, asking, Do we want cyborgism in our lives? Will we embrace it?"

"With any art piece the viewer is bringing their own experiences and perspectives," says Smallwood. "The crazy thing about this is that people might think it’s far out, but it’s all based on true stories, everything in it is derived from some sense of truth."

"We’re translating your reality," adds Adair McKenzie. "It’s hard to make art these days that isn’t ironic, but that’s the beautiful and exciting thing about Ellen’s story – we’re so happy about being able to give a positive message. There’s a lot of stuff out there that’s full of shock value, but it seems to be a fad, and it’s everywhere, in art and in commerce – it shouldn’t have to be like that all the time."

In a sea of spectacle for its own sake, Teen Sleuth and the Freed Cyborg Choir emerges as the real, honest deal. Its creators admit that they’re wearing their hearts on their sleeves, but they’re so clearly doing what they should be doing – mixing the dark parts of life with the light and coming out shining.

Teen Sleuth and the Freed Cyborg Choir
June 13-15 and 18-20

At Just For Laughs Cabaret (2111 St-Laurent Blvd.)
See montrealfringe.ca or teensleuthfreedcyborgchoir.com
for showtimes and tickets

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