“Corporations in our Heads”: the human event of the season

Artistic Director David Diamond. Photo credit: Tim Matheson

Artistic Director David Diamond. Photo credit: Tim Matheson

Technically, Theatre for Living (formerly Headlines Theatre) is a “theatre” company and therefore ostensibly makes “art”, but if you are lucky enough to attend one of their four remaining showings of Corporations in our Heads, you will see what I mean when I say it is a primarily “human” event, rather than a traditionally “artistic” one.

What I mean is that the “art” of it (virtuosity, technical wizardry, etc.) is not the point–we are. The event doesn’t happen without the audience because there aren’t any actors, and there isn’t any script. What the show does have is artistic and managing director David Diamond, who facilitates and bookends the various moments in the event as the audience creates it through their reactions and their questions and their stories. (The theatrical techniques used to make this happen are explained very thoroughly on the Corporations in our Heads website and it’s important to know that although participation by the audience is absolutely essential to the event and the evening is the richer for it, absolutely NO ONE will be forced to participate if they don’t want to).

So Corporations in our Head is a human event. And it’s a great one. Because every night will be different, I can really only describe what it’s like by explaining what happened to me, and what I took away from the experience.

The show (which is just finishing a tour through communities in Alberta and BC), is based on the premise that the corporations that produce and control the food we eat, the drugs we take, the clothes we wear, the phones we buy, etc.  have expanded out of the realm occupied by the products they sell and have taken up residence in our heads. As a starting point, the show identifies and explores the ways that, consciously or not, our decisions are affected (often unhealthily) by the corporate messages in our heads. As the show begins to unpack the messages recognized and shared by the audience (they always come from the audience, not the show facilitators) it is startling to see how easy it is to identify certain brands based on the corporate messages being shared, and the ways in which we, as human beings in a western society, relate to these messages and brands as we would relate to a real person who had a real relationship with us (examples uncovered last night include the “Lululemon best friend” who wants you to have the same sexy yoga-tastic booty-short fun she is having, or the “No Name Brand grandma” who can’t understand why you would spend more money on something of higher quality when you can just buy larger quantities of a poor quality product).

I have a feeling that the experience I had is going to continue to unfold and reveal and provide insights and eureka moments in the days and weeks to come, but at this time the idea that really struck a chord with me is the idea that we relate to corporations and corporate messages the way we relate to real people. As an example, many people in attendance last night, David Diamond and myself included, cited their deeply loyal relationship to Apple products, despite knowing what they know about labour conditions in the factories that make the products, and about what their relationship to technology is doing to their own lives (I have similar feelings of loyalty to products like Gmail and Microsoft Word, and WordPress, the platform that hosts my blog).

But relationships with corporations go beyond loyalty to a brand we like. Even those corporations and brands we don’t like have relationships with us, whether we want these relationships or not. At a moment during the show, I decided to “intervene” in a scene between an audience member playing herself in a grocery store, and another audience member playing a “Dove soap therapist”, a slippery character who refused to identify their true message and position and instead kept trying to convince the poor girl to trust that the corporation knew better. After I took the place of the girl in the grocery store, I quickly became frustrated and realized that for me, this slippery corporation was not Dove soap, it was Enbridge and the federal government, refusing to acknowledge the significant damage their pipeline will cause and instead insisting that they know better what I, as a Canadian, need and want. After Diamond told us we couldn’t speak anymore but instead had to move in slow motion, the scene became one in which I (in slow motion) began kicking and punching the corporate message as it continued to move calmly around me, holding and caressing and glomming onto my leg or my fist or my shoulder but not responding to the passion or clarity of my actions in kind.

It was embarrassing and frustrating and all too familiar. Because this is what frustrates me about the way the government and Enbridge are operating: they can’t say that a spill won’t happen, because that isn’t true, but they refuse to say, “Yes, a spill will happen, and we acknowledge the devastation this will cause, and we simply don’t care.” Instead they plan to commit extreme acts of violence against communities and ecosystems while refusing to acknowledge that this violence is occurring.

After I sat back down I suddenly realized that I also have had this kind of relationship with ex-partners, people with whom I was engaged in a toxic relationship of some kind, and who refused to acknowledge that their actions were hurtful or inappropriate and instead left me railing against the air, powerless and hurt and humiliated. This realization was a punch in the gut. Do corporations really treat me the way bad boyfriends did? I never consented to a relationship with the Harper government or Enbridge, what gives them the right? And how can I fight something that refuses to acknowledge that there is a conflict?

Based on facial expressions, gasps of recognition, and comments from people around me, I don’t think I was the only one having these uncomfortable realizations throughout the night. It was very profound to watch a middle-aged man in a sports t-shirt drop his head into his hands because he saw something in this dialogue that resonated with him. Or to watch audience member MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert, a man with extensive experience dealing with uncooperative politicians and situations in conflict, becoming flustered at his inability to turn off the unwanted bubbly messages of the Lululemon best friend (fun fact: Chandra Herbert studied in the same theatre program I did in my undergrad, though he graduated before I enrolled and I did not know him).

Throughout the evening, Diamond shared anecdotes from his experiences touring the show in other communities, anecdotes which informed the conversation we were having. Like the community where Lululemon products are only available at Christmas, increasing their cache as a desirable gift. Or the community where a mining company insists the town has to approve the mine it wants to operate, or the town will never be able to “compete” (with what? with whom? in what league, the Tournament of Towns?).

What I like about Theatre for Living is that their work doesn’t simply point a finger at the problem and leave us to feel shitty about it. That said, their work also doesn’t provide unrealistic, overly simplistic, or “one-size-fits-all” solutions to the problems being examined. Potential solutions are suggested or enacted by audience members, with varying degrees of success, the point being that we can begin to think about our relationships to these problems differently, not that we will necessarily happen upon solutions during the show. This is an attitude I admired during Theatre for Living’s previous show, maladjusted, which examined the mental healthcare system, and an attitude I appreciate even more when watching a show about an issue more intimately and insidiously familiar to me.

Corporate messages affecting our decision-making is a problem that can’t easily be solved by enacting a piece of legislation or by installing ad-blocking software. Diamond makes it clear that, “The impulse for Corporations in our Heads is not one that assumes we can end corporate messaging. [Corporations] are going to communicate with us…We cannot just turn it all off. We can, however, change our relationship to the messaging.”

What does changing this relationship means to you? You’ll have to discover this for yourself, though if you can make it to an evening of Corporations in our Heads I believe you will be in a good place to start figuring it out. This show will not do it for youwe are the ones who are in relationships with the corporations in our heads. Us. And we are the only ones who can change it.

Corporations in our Heads has only four nights remaining in its run:

  • Thursday, December 5 – Gallery Gachet, 88 E. Cordova St.
  • Friday, December 6 – Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre (VAFCS), 1607 E. Hastings St.
  • Saturday, December 7 – SFU Harbour Centre, Terasen Cinema, 515 W. Hastings St.
  • Sunday, December 8 – Café Deux Soleils, 2096 Commercial Drive

All shows begin at 7:00 p.m. Please call 604-871-0508 for information or to reserve a seat.

If you want to read more about Corporations in our Heads, you may want to check out Theatre for Living’s website or this article on rabble.ca.

Artwork design: Daphne Blanco

Barcode butterfly: Daphne Blanco

Disclosure: I was invited to review Corporations in our Heads by Theatre for Living and provided two seats for the show. I was compelled to participate in one of the scenes by my recognition that something in the relationships I was seeing disturbed me (I was not personally asked to participate), and I think this was an enriching part of my overall experience. The content of this review is, as always, my own, and I give it gladly. I really, really, want people to participate in this important conversation.

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