They say Canadians make great comedians, as we have a keen sense of irony. They also say that we are unfailingly polite. Last night, I saw irony and politeness meet in absurdly Canadian fashion.
I’m sitting third row centre, watching some colleagues in a great production of Michael Healey’s play “Proud” at the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver. The play is a clever satire on our current PM Stephen Harper and a meditation on our national identity as a whole. Check this piece out if you’re in the city, it’s fantastic.
It’s about halfway in when I notice an older woman’s head in the front row starting to slowly timber to one side. It’s commonplace in theatre for seniors to nod off or to ask their companion in full voice, “WHAT DID HE JUST SAY?”. This demographic represents the majority of some companies’ subscription bases.
But no big deal, other than the actors having a slumped over patron in their eye line.
Cue the snoring. The kind that leaves spouses sleeping on the couch. The vibrations bouncing off the walls of the theatre and filling every pause in the dialogue. Front. Row. Centre.
Heads turning. Gasps of frustration. Heated whispers. By now the audience is a bunch of French mimes, gesturing, grimacing and strangling on their indignation but paralyzed by indecision.
My girlfriend and I are feeling our jaws drop slowly to the floor in amazement that nobody, including her seatmates, is tapping her! The whole time I’m searching my pockets for objects heavy enough to reach the lady’s head but light enough to do no harm. I’m calculating how big a disturbance I’ll make by stumbling through my row, down the stairs and across the front of the stage to alert this woman that she’s unwittingly producing a piece of Canadian performance art behind her. Somebody should have filmed it as a documentary for the national archives: “The Canadian Identity: A History of Silent Frustration.”
Finally, the penny drops and the man sitting directly behind her was encouraged/ordered by his wife to lean forward and commit the unthinkably cruel and invasive act of tapping the woman’s shoulder. Her head popped up, she rubbed her eyes and sat up with the renewed energy that only a power nap can bring. Shoulders and anuses relaxed in a collective moment of Canuck catharsis.
We’re watching a play satirizing Canada while we the Canadians watching act out a farce of our own. Does irony get any stronger?
I live and work in both the USA and Canada. Say what you will about Americans being abrasive, but for the love of a healthy heart, at least they are unafraid to take action. Canadians, and Vancouverites more specifically, are so notoriously petrified of rocking the proverbial boat that we’d rather have the experience of the collective ruined than create a moment of discomfort for the individual. What did those people within reaching distance of the lady think was going to happen if they “politely” tapped her? She’d awake and scream out with nightmares of childhood? Launch a sexual harassment lawsuit?
The tyranny of this fear, this terror at offending makes us unreadable and disconnected from our ability to balance reason and instinct in the moment. We’re much more comfortable expressing our discontent on a Facebook thread than we are about letting ourselves be known in the flesh.
This dichotomy of placid exterior and boiling interior makes us polite, trigger happy with apology and yet creepy as those kids in the “Children of the Corn” movies.
I couldn’t count the number of times that newbies to the city comment on this and this awkward local vibe has become a running cliche in the Vancouver dating scene, hasn’t it? For a city that craves authenticity via yoga and connection with the earth, we sure seem to be hiding ourselves in strange ways.
I’m a born and raised Vancouverite, a flag waving Canadian and a bleeding heart liberal.
But sometimes I just want to scream out against the sea of complacency.
I guess that’s what hockey riots are for.