A group of people are crowded around a suitcase belonging to a young man who is being detained, digging through its contents for anything suspicious. No, this isn’t a TSA security checkpoint; it's what you might be doing in UBC MFA Creative Writing alumnus Tim Carlson’s new play Foreign Radical, an interactive show exploring issues of cyber surveillance, human rights and anti-terrorism policy.
There are two actors: the host, played by Milton Lim -- the show’s game master -- and Hesam, played by Aryo Khakpour, who carries the play’s narrative aspect.
Hesam is a young Canadian man who, through his personal connections, has come under scrutiny and is in danger of being put on the terror watch list. His fate is up to the audience to debate and decide at the end of the show.
While the play takes the form of a high-energy game, the themes behind it are no laughing matter. Its premiere came at the time when the debate over Canada’s proposed Bill C-51 was at an all-time high.
“It’s just bizarre that we happen to be opening right when Bill C-51 is such a heated debate right now,” said Carlson, who had experienced ongoing border hassles for eight years after being mistaken for another Tim Carlson, who has a restraining order against him.
“I thought to myself, you know, if I had a Middle Eastern name and a different physical profile, this might be a lot more dangerous,” said Carlson.
The story of Hesam is eerily similar to the tragic case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen of Muslim descent who was wrongfully detained at an airport, suspected of being a member of Al Qaeda and deported to Syria where he was tortured and kept until he was found innocent.
More of an interactive game than a traditional play, Foreign Radical invites an audience of 20 to share, answer questions, debate, compete, collaborate and even spy on one other, all while moving around the stage. The questions and tasks they are asked to preform range from questionable to invasive.
“There are a lot of questions that the audience reacts to by moving into different quadrants of the theatre,” said writer Tim Carlson, who is also the artistic director for Theatre Conspiracy, the company behind the play. “The participants and their opinions, prejudices and reactions to each other are an important part of the play.”
Throughout the play, Hesam performs monologues -- part of which are in Farsi -- meaning those who speak the language can pick up information that others can't, which they can then choose whether to share with the rest. How the audience is divided up and which quadrant they end up in depends on how they answer certain questions.
“They’ll see the same scene but from different perspectives. So different people will have picked up different information when they get to the debate and they might be on the side that they don’t want to argue,” said Carlson.
The final outcome of the show ultimately depends on how the audience plays. At the end of the play, with the information they have gathered, the audience debates whether to put Hesam on the watch list or not.
“The ending is widely different every night and it feels like a different show,” said Carlson.
With a thoroughly unconventional style, Foreign Radical invites its audience to participate in the world of privacy and security in the modern age. It’s one thing to hear about tragedies like Mahur Arar, it’s another to watch it unfold on a stage, especially when you might be the one searching through the person’s suitcase.
Foreign Radical is playing at the Cultch until April 25.