The Café takes people-watching to another level

The unconventional theatre experience highlights the diverse stories that can be found in a Vancouver coffee shop

Two paper coffee cups being held by two individuals facing each other.
PHOTO: Kriti Monga, The Peak

By: C Icart, staff writer

The Café is a play with a unique concept that appeals to those of us that like people-watching. The event took place last week as part of this year’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. Directed by Fay Nass and Chelsea Haberlin, it was not only set in a coffee shop, but performed in a coffee shop. Mimicking a real café experience, multiple plays took place simultaneously at different tables. The audience was invited to grab a drink and wander the café, deciding what conversations to listen in on, each of which consists of a mini-play. This means everyone experienced the café differently based on the order in which they explored the seven acts.

Fay Nass thought about the concept of The Café when they were completing their MFA in interdisciplinary arts at SFU. They were spending a lot of time in coffee shops while writing their thesis and they thought: “What if there are plays happening in the coffeeshop simultaneously, but this time the audience are given the permission to get close, to eavesdrop, and be voyeurs?”

On top of the in-person immersive performances, where masks were required, there were also digital immersive performances. This was a great COVID-19 safe option, especially given the limited capacity in the coffee shop. I saw The Café virtually. 

Each of the seven plays explores a different kind of relationship between two people. It was set inside of a Kafka’s café in East Van. In the digital version, audiences were able to wander the space and click on characters to listen to their conversation like a choose your own adventure experience. It felt a bit like a first-person video game. I watched all seven pieces one after the other.

Initially, I thought the digital experience would undoubtedly feel less immersive than the live performance. There are some aspects of experiencing a play like this in-person which cannot be recreated. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see characters from the different plays interacting with each other. For instance, when there was a loud argument at one table, the other characters in the café turned their attention towards them.

The stories highlight how multicultural Vancouver is. All seven plays included, The Café features lines in English, French, Spanish, Polish, and Japanese. No translation is provided, so knowing the language gives you slightly more insight, reflecting the real world. I definitely felt pretty cool when I could understand what the francophone father was saying to his anglophone son as they were having their first conversation in years in Father’s Day. 

Another play, Submission, also relied on a language barrier between two women who were clearly interviewing each other about two very different things. Some stories are more lighthearted and others dive into serious topics. The line that stuck out to me the most was in Przyjaciółki, a piece where a Canadian woman comes to terms with the fact that her Polish partner will likely never come out of the closet. She says: “There will never be an archive of us. Not openly.” 

According to the directors’ notes, “The Café is about our relationship to each other.” And while the actors did not break the fourth wall and I wasn’t even in the same room as them, I still felt very connected to the diverse stories and the diversity of emotions in The Café. This experience will likely change the way I view my next coffee shop study session. As Nass points out: “There are so many neutral spaces, that they don’t pretend to be political spaces but often hold so much diversity and they contain so many stories.”

The Café was produced by Aphotic Theatre and ITSAZOO Productions in partnership with RE/PLAY, The Cultch’s Digital Playground.

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