Three years of dinner parties lead to Stem
Created and performed by Erika Hennebury, Greg MacArthur, Ruth Madoc-Jones, Clinton Walker. Lighting design by JP Robichaud. Set design by Steve Lucas. May 15-June 1. Tue-Sat 8pm; Sun 2:30. $18-$25. Tue, Sun PWYC. Buddies in Bad Times, 12 Alexander. 416-975-8555.

An interview with the cast of Stem is derailed repeatedly by giddy digressions into the minutiae of urban life — in one instance, a statement about the organic nature of the play leads to a discussion of fennel, patchouli oil and pot. “Welcome to the play,” says Erika Hennebury, for Stem is indeed a collection of conversational detours generated by three years of dinner parties.

I feel immersed in the play not only because I’m seated around the oversized, lit-up table at Buddies in Bad Times that serves as the set while the cast chats much the way they do in the script. And not only because the lighting designer has turned the house lights down and is playing with the spotlights, making the interview feel staged. But also because our situation — me sitting with my tape recorder, the cast bantering over a meal — is remarkably close to how the play came to be written.

In the late 1990s, Hennebury and Ruth Madoc-Jones were operating Les Vaches theatre company (the ecstatics, Jekyll) and Greg MacArthur and Clinton Walker were performing as House of Slacks (The Millennium Project). The two companies wanted to work together on something, but were unsure where to start.

“Basically we got together and started having dinner parties,” Walker says. “We started tape-recording them rather than any of us taking notes, and when we started playing back the tapes we realized there were interesting patterns of conversation that might make interesting material for the show.”

The resulting play, Stem, was first performed at the 2001 Rhubarb! Festival and opens again at Buddies in Bad Times on May 15. The script is a sort of fun-house mirror version of dozens of real dinner parties. Four characters (who share first names with the cast) chat after a meal, circling around questions of emotional weight and intimacy while checking for messages and obsessing over topics such as whether to put on coffee or open more wine and why tacos make a good meal.

“What’s interesting is that the content of the script is what we call the banal conversation,” says Madoc-Jones. “What we realized about ourselves is that our conversations are relatively banal and what was interesting was the dynamic: whether people were feeling particularly allied or antagonistic, what was being said or not being said, the rhythm of the speech itself, the strange, stilted nature of conversation, all that stuff.”

Like other dramas set around that most theatrical of social situations, the dinner party — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or the movie The Celebration — the subtextual tensions among characters build through recurring themes in the conversation. But in Stem, these tensions lead to no discernible catharsis. Hennebury says the lack of climactic moments was intended to break free of conventional narrative and more closely mimic life. “The fact is nobody has an abortion, nobody dies, nobody sleeps with somebody else,” says Hennebury. “It’s all subtext. The whole play is about internal psychological breakdowns that never really happen.”

These unresolved internal tensions may be the leading source of ennui throughout the modern world: the inability of human beings — even close friends — to connect with one another on more than a superficial level. Hence the mind-numbing menial digressions.

“They are patterns of behaviour or patterns of decorum that we all have,” says MacArthur. “I think they’re safe places we can go to avoid having real confrontations or any point of emotional connection with one another … those recurring things that come up at dinner parties or social situations allow us to not get too close, to not leave us vulnerable.”

Hennebury puts it more bluntly. “We’re alone and we’re terrified to be alone. We’re terrified to be with people. It’s a constant struggle.”

As if afraid of scaring off theatregoers, she adds, “I hope people come and have a really good time.”

“I think people will be surprised,” MacArthur says.

“And they will go home and make passionate love to their wives,” Walker says.

“And husbands…” Hennebury adds.

“Husbands, yes,” says MacArthur.

“I don’t approve of the word ‘husbands’ or the word ‘wives’…” Madoc-Jones says, and they’re off again, digressing ad infinitum.


Featuring Sean MacMahon, Kate Alton. Directed by Cathy Gordon. Conceived by Steve Marsh. Lighting by Steve Lucas. Video by Nick Greenland. Sound by Richard Feren and Steve Marsh. Presented by DNA Theatre. May 15-25. Tue-Sat 8pm; Sun 2:30pm. $9-$12; Sun PWYC. 376 Dufferin. 416-504-5099.

While Stem shows what happens when artists play with the conventions of creating theatre, DNA Theatre’s latest effort, Fusion, goes further, deconstructing the entire process of building, presenting and tearing down a production.

Built around a nine-minute piece of choreography, the show has the audience enter an empty warehouse and watch as the lighting, video, seating risers and set are constructed. Following the performance of the dance piece, the entire thing is taken down. During the 72-minute presentation, the 10 members of the design and technical team are always onstage.

“It’s theatre about the creation of theatre and about the flow of energy that goes into creating something that’s collaborative,” says Steve Marsh, who conceived the show while working as house technician at Theatre Passe Muraille in the early ’90s. “There’s 12 people onstage, and we’re all doing something pretty much all the time. So it’s kind of a choreography but it’s not about the movement but about accomplishing things, accomplishing real tasks that actually need to be accomplished for the choreography to work.”

The project was workshopped in 1995 at Theatre Centre East, where it centred around an improvised monologue by Clinton Walker (who’s now unavailable because he’s in Stem). “But we decided it had to be a real performance,” says Marsh, “so we created the choreography first and then took it all apart. I wanted to give everything equal weight. So we’re not diminishing the performance aspect of it, but now the other elements are brought into focus, too.”

Originally published in Eye Weekly on May 15, 2003.