vivoboard August 9, 2018

This is the third instalment of On Location, a series about art that thrives in creative spaces.

People picnic, play games or music, create art, nap or chat, and pursue any number of other activities there, all drawing on their own life experiences.

The prime people-watching to be had in the Toronto park — its status as a gathering point — and the diversity of businesses and homes in the surrounding neighbourhood are what inspired Natalie Feheregyhazi to use it as a setting for Overhear Toronto, which is part of this year’s SummerWorks Performance Festival.

“When I walk through the city, I see art and drama everywhere,” says Feheregyhazi. “A couple having an argument or kissing and cuddling on a bench; there’s a whole story there, one I don’t know, but it’s fascinating. I love being able to bring people into that for a moment.”

The spectators at Overhear will not only encounter performances in the park and in businesses in the Trinity Bellwoods neighbourhood, they will hear personal stories via an iPhone app.

The theme of the stories is migration and cultural displacement. So, for instance, Kocou Dansou talks about being a native of Benin, West Africa, who settled in Toronto and the challenges he encountered here not having English as his first language. Sue Croweagle, a Siksika and Saulteaux woman from Piikani First Nation, talks about why she left the Prairies for Toronto and her struggles to stay connected to her Indigenous languages.

Dansou says he’s still feeling the culture shock of living in Toronto, even though he finds the city very welcoming. For instance, “I feel the people here are very friendly at first, but it doesn’t go farther. I meet someone, we’ll have a good talk and then that’s it.

“Where I’m from, if you have a good chat it means we like each other and we’d like to see each other again.”

He hopes participants in Overhear “leave being aware that an immigrant has a story, something to share … The fact we don’t speak the language very well, the fact we look different at first shouldn’t stop them from trying to discover who we are.”

Not all of the stories in Overhear can be heard; some must be read.

Chantal Deguire and Christian Arellanos are deaf artists who live in Toronto but whom Feheregyhazi encountered by chance in a cafe in Saskatoon last year, where they were making a documentary on the accessibility of deaf culture in Saskatchewan.

“They are displaced in some ways because of their culture,” Feheregyhazi says. “They have had to learn so many other languages and ways of communicating in order to adapt to their environments.”

Toronto, for instance, doesn’t have interpreters who specialize in Deguire’s first language, LSQ or Quebec Sign Language, Feheregyhazi was told.

“That, to me, was a shock in the biggest city in Canada … She doesn’t have access to her native language.”

(Given Deguire’s and Arellanos’ participation, Feheregyhazi is considering changing the name Overhear for future versions to something more inclusive.)

Through the company she founded in 2010, Apuka Theatre, Feheregyhazi specializes in site-specific work and what she calls “cross-cultural pieces that try to get dialogue going back and forth between people from varying vantage points.”

She loves producing theatre in public spaces because it invites the audience “to re-experience their own environment.”

It’s usually less expensive to produce than traditional theatre although there are costs for things like insurance or, in the case of Overhear Toronto, sign-language interpreters.

The Overhear concept was created by Torien Cafferata, co-artistic director of It’s Not a Box Theatre in Saskatoon, as a way to listen to underheard or marginalized voices, Feheregyhazi says. It has had several runs in that Saskatchewan city, where Feheregyhazi grew up, and one in Paris, France.

Cafferata developed the app with Toronto choreographer and filmmaker Jacob Niedzwiecki, with the idea that the project is transferable to any city.

For Overhear Toronto, participants meet at a designated location — the Lucky Penny Marketplace at Artscape Youngplace on Shaw St. — and are given smartphones with the app already loaded, although they can use their own iPhones if they prefer. The app provides audio and visual stories as well as a map of physical locations.

There’s a certain irony to the fact that people are using devices that normally isolate them to connect to a live world, Feheregyhazi says.

“With all the stuff happening right now, the shootings in Toronto, the violence that seems to be ongoing, we as human beings, we have much more in common than we have differences.

“Finding those bridging points as opposed to the pieces that separate us, that’s what I hope this piece will touch on.”

The SummerWorks festival is on Aug. 9 to 19. Overhear Toronto takes place Aug. 11, 12 and 18. See summerworks.ca for details.

Debra Yeo is a deputy entertainment editor and a contributor to the Star’s Entertainment section. She is based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @realityeo

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Credit: At Overhear Toronto, an iPhone app lets spectators listen in on other people’s thoughts

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