When I was little – maybe seven or eight – my mother told me an old Jewish proverb.
She said to me: “in each pocket, you should carry a slip of paper. On one should be written ‘for me the world was created,’ and on the other, ‘I am but dust and ashes,’ so that at any moment you may reach into either pocket when you need a reminder of who you are.”
(I’m paraphrasing, as I’m sure she was at the time.)
As I’ve come to the different stages of my life, this duality of great and small, internal and external, ego and humility have provided a venn diagram of sorts through which I could view the world, and consequently view theatre. The proverb appears twice in The Hands of Hypatia (and Other Stories) and provides the unifying philosophy for the play. We follow our hero, Adamah Borealis, the final human being, and her cyborg companion Shem as they travel the universe in search of the Hands of Hypatia, the last remnants of the cosmic giant that destroyed Earth two centuries ago. Drawing on works of classic sci-fi, Old Testament stories, and environmental literature, the play takes us on a journey through the stars, to answer fundamental questions about power, faith, and what it means to be human.
As the story grew from a one act play, to a full five acts, to a two-and-a-half-hour audio workshop, it became clear that this proverb wasn’t merely the unifying theme of the production. I realized in writing it that this was also the manner in which the play must be consumed: both as an all-powerful observer, and as a player equally subject to the wonder and risk of the world as the characters themselves.
Initially, that was how I began considering this cosmic world: not as its writer, but as someone who inhabited it. Ever since I was young, when I’ve felt overwhelmed by the perils of day-to-day life, I’ve imagined myself as a spaceman in my own ship. I drift through the cosmos and land on a bioluminescent planet whose only source of light comes from the natural vegetation. There I sit and look up at the stars.
There I am able to be someone other than Max.
That’s how the character of Adam (later called Adamah) was born, the first human being in a brave new world. As I grew, Adam grew, and this world I’d created for myself had to grow as well. New planets emerged from the shadows, and a new character named Shem was born that could give me advice and guidance. I started to write about what I found, and it was in this way that the first notes for the first draft of The Hands of Hypatia came to be.
Ever since I was young, when I’ve felt overwhelmed by the perils of day-to-day life, I’ve imagined myself as a spaceman in my own ship. I drift through the cosmos and land on a bioluminescent planet whose only source of light comes from the natural vegetation. There I sit and look up at the stars.
I’ve always been a student of science fiction, from the early works of Mary Shelley and Isaac Asimov to Ridley Scott, Moebius, and the revolutionary talents of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. In their respective mediums, these artists were able to realize complex and layered structures and hierarchies which remain astonishing to me to this day. It was from them (among others) that I began to derive the history and structure of the world that Adam (my avatar) and subsequently Shem (my guide) inhabited.
In 2017, I was in my second year at the University of Toronto, experiencing a great deal of personal upheaval, and I found myself visiting my own little world more and more. This was the year I finally put pen to paper and gave my characters their first words, stepping for the first time out of the role of observer and into the role of creator. In addition to pouring over my old novels (both graphic and otherwise) and watching those classic science fiction films, I found myself invested more than I had ever been in the stories of my heritage, both in the stories of the Tanakh (the Hebrew scripture) and in the wealth of folklore that comes from the Jewish culture. Stories sprung to mind like that of Lot’s wife, who couldn’t bear to see her home go up in flames and so perished with her native land in sight; of Moses, the lonely traveller, finding salvation in a miraculous bush, burning, but not consumed; of a God who appears only as a pair of hands. Marvel comics and Jewish spirituality have something interesting in common: both posit that if creation is infinite, then power must also be infinite, and therefore there must be something more powerful than me, something more powerful than that, and so on.
That philosophy leaves an interesting question: if there’s something so much exponentially more powerful than I am, what’s the point of my life and my own power?
A reasonable question, to which I would respond: “look in your other pocket.”
A play is, of course, meant to be heard – not just workshopped in private.
This talk of power and self is all well and good, but does it work as a play? In my fourth and final year of schooling, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to find out. One of the things that bothers me most about our current theatrical culture (at least in Canada) is how little anyone actually seems to think about the audience anymore. A play is, of course, meant to be heard – not just workshopped in private.
It’s a scary thing to give your words to someone else, especially when they’re tied to such personal stories and experiences. I operate by a theory that the “fourth wall” – the concrete barrier that separated the reality of the play and the reality of the audience – is no longer useful or relevant.
We’ve successfully knocked that sucker down.
What remains in its place is the “fourth curtain,” the barrier through which the audience and actors view each other not as figures in their respective worlds, but as playful ghosts, there but…not really. Part of what keeps this curtain in place is an unfamiliarity with the words of a play; when an actor speaks another person’s words, it’s easy to get lost in the language of that character, and the performance becomes about the actor navigating that language’s landscape, a personal journey rather than a performance. This, of course, is largely unavoidable with established plays by dead writers, but in this particular case I have the privilege of being director and writer. By allowing the actors to tweak their lines to suit their own colloquialisms, to speak these words in their own accents, it starts to sound more and more like they are telling their own story, as opposed to trying to recreate someone else’s. The story becomes lived, the fourth curtain is lifted, and you as the audience see flesh and blood instead of ghosts.
But I digress.
I can say beyond a shred of doubt that this play and this world would not be what they are today without Alyssa Featherstone and Saskia Muller, the original Adamah and Shem, respectively. With them the world shifted from a page to a physical space, Adam became Adamah, and the play went from being “mine” to being “ours.”
Every rehearsal I came in, and Alyssa and Saskia would have something brand new to offer and add to their characters and the world they lived in. Together, we worked out timelines, travel patterns, interpersonal grievances, and all the things that turn characters into real people – the things that turn a capital-p “Play” into a proper story.
Knowing that my actors had their characters so well handled, I was able to experiment with projection and lighting design, building spaces out of light and creating atmospheres with the trinkets that Adamah had collected on her travels. We wanted to create an experience that made audiences feel profound comfort, almost existential comfort, that would show how special and artistic one life, any life can be. We wanted audiences to see themselves not just in the characters, but in the colours and the music, in every facet of the production.
It was all but ready to hit the stage.
And then it wasn’t. The pandemic hit and we were forced to close.
I’ve always said that slow times are good for fast people. However, being a fast person myself, when things slowed down, I felt like Wile E. Coyote running full speed into a painted tunnel. Locked down, I was feeling stressed, depressed, and generally pressed. All that time alone with nothing but my thoughts was daunting, to say the least.
So where else should I turn?
To my other pocket.
Armed with all of the incredible details uncovered in our first attempt, I dove back in and found myself even deeper than I had been before. I wrote feverishly for that time. My world was created for me, in the real world I was dust. I met Aurora, Iver, Wadeesay, Ranagade, Caspian – all these new characters and avenues to explore. I learned their stories, their folklore, their traditions, and before long, I had more than a play: I had a history. It only took me about three months to finish the first draft of the version of the play that exists today, but from its first inception until now spans almost three years of work.
After a few drafts, I pitched the show to our team at Dandelion Theatre (for which I serve as Artistic Director). I knew that I had to find a way to put this show on. It meant too much to me not to. To have my wonderful and discerning colleagues throw themselves behind this project equally enthusiastically was a blessing I could never have anticipated and I am eternally grateful for their support. We were lucky enough to find more phenomenal collaborators in Alicia Barban and her company The Artfolk Collective, and we both agreed that trying to accomplish a workshop of this show over Zoom would be futile. So, allied and armed with a finished script and a ragtag cast of close friends, we decided upon an audio workshop, boiling down the play to its most essential element: the word.
I want you to feel like I do when I visit my world.
With the audio format, we knew we could give people an exciting immersive experience while recognizing that this was just the first step in a long journey for The Hands of Hypatia. It also gave me, as a creator, an opportunity to pay homage to the ways in which both sci-fi and immersive art were introduced to the North American public, with particular eye to Orson Wells’ timeless War of The Worlds.
In its fully realized form, of course, The Hands of Hypatia (and Other Stories) should be a holistic theatre experience, stimulating to all of the five senses. We refer to our recording as an “audio workshop” because it should give you the feeling of being there and hearing the play with your eyes closed. The difference is that in its fully realized version, The Hands of Hypatia should not feel like a play. My goal is to create an environment and experience so immersive that an audience member may fuse their very soul with the story. Seated in the round, with the scene projected onto your body, I want you to feel like a blade of grass narrowly missed by a pirate’s boot or a glowing flower in a bioluminescent garden.
I want you to feel like I do when I visit my world.
I want you to feel like you are merely a speck in the vast vacuum of space.
I want you to feel like this world was created for you.
Because it was.
The Hands of Hypatia is available for listening on Spotify here.