Sophie Darling is a brilliant young scientist who longs for true human connection.

In a world overloaded with communication technology and evolving notions of community, she wonders if true human connection is even possible. If it is, what might it be like?

Using patterns of precise sounds and frequencies, she develops a new technology that gives humans access to a higher conscious state, one that transcends life and death. As she tries to keep her technology hidden from an increasingly oppressive police state, Sophie struggles to understand the magnitude of her discovery.

One thing seems certain: Time and space are not how we’ve understood them to be.

As Sophie’s story merges with those of three others, she finds herself in the world of the ‘dial space’, the form of collective consciousness accessed by her own technology.

Things get weird, but ‘Walkmann’, the debut production from Burning CircleCompany, addresses some fundamental questions of what it means to be human and to be alive. It is the brainchild and passion of four of the country’s most promising young actors, three of them recent graduates of Montreal’s prestigious National Theatre School acting program, the other from Sheridan College in Southern Ontario.

The Independent recently met up with the Burning Circle crew—Justin Madol, June Budgell, Krystina Bojanowski and Conor Fanning—at their Arts and Culture Centre rehearsal space for a chat about their new company and first production.

As a point of interest, Madol and Budgell hail from St. John’s and, in their first year at the National Theatre School, worked with acclaimed Newfoundland theatrical artist Jillian Keiley. Keiley founded St. John’s theatre company Artistic Fraud and was recently appointed artistic director at the National Arts Centre English Theatre in Ottawa.

What was it like studying at the National Theatre School? Was it pretty hands-on right away?

Connor: Our first project was with Jillian Keiley, and we produced Grease in 24 hours. They announced the musical to us—the first and second year production and acting (students) were sitting around in a circle—and we drew our parts out of a hat and we put off the show.

Justin: If you survive that you could survive anything. There’s something about going through that severe trauma with people that brings them closer. (They all laugh).

How did the idea for Burning Circle come together?

Justin: It started at the end of my first year there. I started becoming really interested in integrating communication technology into performance situations. I wanted to link a bunch of found spaces and have live video feeds feeding in, so an audience member here wouldn’t really be getting the full story but they’d be getting pieces of it. It’s much like how our lives function — you don’t ever see anybody’s full story, you just get these little windows into it. So I’m really interested in exploring those things and bringing them into performance.

The mandate of the company is to create work in experimental and unconventional ways. – Justin Madol

Then, at the end of my second year I got a small grant and approached these guys and said let’s try to workshop some of this stuff and start experimenting with some of these things. So we went to Vancouver (Fanning’s hometown) and started developing (‘Walkmann’). We went up there and used a bunch of techniques that we had gleaned from the school and started tossing around ideas, and that’s really where the company started. The mandate of the company is to create work in experimental and unconventional ways. I’m not really pleased with the way that theatre is generally produced, which is like a writer presents you with a script and then the director takes that script and filters it through the actors, and there’s all these glitches along the way. I’m much more interested in something that’s developed collectively and that is written on its feet. And then we look at it and try to figure out where it’s going to go.

So how did the play come to fruition?

Justin: We showed up for that first rehearsal and I said, write down five things that you think of when you think ‘communication technology’, and that’s literally how this started. A lot of these ideas came back — thoughts about isolation and loneliness, which is funny because I feel like all these things that are meant to bring us together actually also serve to emphasize those things that are on the other side of it. And then from that, more found material — bring in images and music that remind you of this (and) write a small piece about this thing. And all of a sudden these characters start to appear and, you know, we just kept discussing and trying things. Through that you kind of get this foggy world, and then you just keep going in there and you’re like, oh, I saw something — what was that? And then you step out and go back in again, and eventually we came up with this extremely complex idea, an analogy for what we feel these things are doing.

What communication is doing with our consciousness, you mean?

Justin: Yeah, our relationship to communication technology and how it affects our relationships with other people. Pushing anything to its extreme. I think it’s like any kind of good math equation — when you start plugging extreme numbers into the variables you start to test the limits of that equation. So that’s what we started to do with this piece, is say, what if it just went that far? What does that expose about what we’re doing now? What does it expose about just wearing your iPod or plugging into Facebook?

What was the collaboration process like in developing these ideas?

Connor: We kind of amassed some material from texts based on the themes we were playing with. From that first workshop last summer…we’d meet periodically through the school year, and it took that full year to untangle the three characters in three different times. We had to find out how their stories intertwined.

How did you determine your roles, like who was going to act, who was going to direct, who was going to play what characters?

Connor: We’re kind of experimenting with collective leadership too. If Justin is playing his part in a scene and I’m not on stage for that scene, then I’ll be the one sitting out and watching it, having the director’s eye. And we all edit each other’s writing. It really has been a collective endeavour and, as they tend to be, there are bumpy patches and you have to be sensitive when you’re editing someone else’s work or directing someone.

The Burning Circle crew (L-R): June Budgell, Krystina Bojanowski, Conor Fanning and Justin Madol.

Justin: It kind of just happens. That’s the beauty of the group that we have and I think that’s the power we have as this company — we’re all creators in a broad sense of the word. We have wide skill sets, all of us. So I feel we all at times rise to that leadership role and we all trust and respect each other, so that’s the grounds for creating.

Can you explain how you moved from communication technology to exploring consciousness?

Justin: It’s interesting because, for me, it’s the oldest story. It’s the same story we continuously tell. As a species I think we continuously search for it, some form of meaning and connection in life. I think our species is driven by these deep instincts to be social and to come together, and I think that’s what spurs on these types of technology and why they’re so successful, why someone like Mark Zuckerberg can step in and make Facebook and all of a sudden there’s a billion users. Well, what is it about the human psyche that causes that type of phenomenon?

And then imagining a world where we have the resources to be able to develop something that can push aside all those other attempts at doing it, like religion and like all these other things, and just press the button and now you go to that enlightened place. I feel like it’s kind of the same story, the same story, and (with social media) just another filter in front of it right now, a filter that our generation is really familiar with.

I feel like as much as it is about that story and about the plot, a lot of what we’re trying to accomplish now is in the presentation of what we’re doing. – Justin Madol

And where we’re left with this piece is, it’s just a call to be aware, to listen to those things and not just press that button and go fully into it. I feel like as much as it is about that story and about the plot, a lot of what we’re trying to accomplish now is in the presentation of what we’re doing. If you think about the way people write a novel or a film script, it’s often a kind of linear trajectory of a story and there’s a plot and you can make sense of it. There’s a whole other side of art that is much more abstract … it’s a much more viscerally experienced kind of thing and you don’t really have the answers right away. In the way we present this show we hope to accomplish that too, to not just have this linear talking. We use different elements that I think you can only find in live performance that, juxtaposed, expose these poetic truths. And again, that’s just that thing of where people just—it’s like reading a poem. I’ll have a different idea than you have, because it is that abstraction — it’s placing things next to each other and saying, what do you think? That’s really how we’ve approached this piece the whole time … and how much can we do without saying anything? Can we explore through physicality or visual imagery or sound, and not make any value judgement on that but just present it as accurately and clearly as we can?

June: Something that’s important to me, too, is not just live performance — we’re a theatre group and musicians. We put off live shows, but it’s also live connections in real life. And these communication technologies that are supposed to be bringing in mass amounts of people into your life that you can connect with on the click of a button — is there truth in that connection? There’s this ironic thing about being able to tell everyone about this show that we’re putting off, but like how many people are showing up? Or how many people are paying attention to your invitation that you’re sending out? So what’s important to me is that what we are doing is real life, and exploring that is something that I think about all the time because it’s so interesting to me how hard it is to get people to come out in real life.

Why is it that’s so hard?

June: I think technology plays a huge part in that as well because we’re so over-stimulated and everything is instant gratification. You can get something at the click of a button — you can watch that clip or tag somebody. So the energy it takes to go out and see something is maybe too daunting.

Justin: I think about Jill Keiley’s work and why it is successful, and I think it’s because she accomplishes that thing where people go to see it and they’re moved. And then it’s not about the click of a button anymore, but it’s about, ‘Oh my god, I saw this show and I was fuckin’ changed man,’ you know? And that excitement — those mirror neurons fill you and you go, ‘Whoa, I should go out there and see what’s going on.’ And I think that doesn’t come through the computer screen — it comes from face-to-face (interactions) with people telling you, ‘I just had an experience and you should check it out.’

I think what’s at the heart and the hope of communication technology … comes from contact with another person.. – Krystina Bojanowski

Krystina: I think communication technology can be such a red herring because there’s that hope for real connection. And, you know, love is isolating but I can connect with someone that I wouldn’t normally, over Facebook, that I’m not actually that intimate with in real life. And it’s completely not even about them. Baby June could be across the country (and) release something on Facebook. I listen to her song and something in me is changed, part of my day is changed. And so that sort of connection, even if it is not in person—I think what’s at the heart and the hope of communication technology, and the change that occurs in me, comes from contact with another person.

If that can happen on an every day level, then it makes sense to me that there is that connection between these interactions and the next thing, and an even more elevated form of communication and experiencing another person, their message and their expression of what it is to be them. So coming into contact with that I think serves to elevate in the best of cases.

So in all of this, in the play, is there an attempt to reconcile the authenticity of the person-to-person connection with our use of technology to try to do the same thing? Or are they already reconciled, and you’re trying to pick them apart and explore how you can separate them?

Justin: We had another interview recently and it came up again, that quality and quantity type of thing. I don’t know, but I get this suspicion that people feel connected on these things, but is that a real connection? What is real connection? Is that just an image we’re producing of what connection is, or is it actually connection? So to think this technology could be pushed to the point where we want to share this transcendent collective consciousness, it’s like, well, how many steps did we skip to get there? And is that really what we’re driving toward? I’m not really sure.

Connor: The question you asked of reconciling these two things — that’s kind of what the technology that’s at the centre of our story is about. That’s what Krystina’s character (Sophie) wants the most. She’s a brilliant scientist with no social skills and beyond anything she wants to be able to use technology to fulfill that basic need of coming into contact with someone, because she doesn’t know how to do that. And her attempts (to) reconcile those two things are taken out of her hands and become the catalyst for…

We’ll end the interview there before Fanning says too much. For the full theatrical experience, head on down to LSPU Hall Friday, Saturday or Sunday, high-five the box office person when you buy your ticket, and open your mind to Burning Circle’s creative exploration of the newest and oldest ideas imagination and curiosity can spur. Tickets are also available online here or by calling the LSPU Hal box office at (709) 753-4531, ext. 200.

‘Walkmann’ runs Friday, June 29 thru Sunday, July 1 at LSPU Hall. Showtime each night is 8 p.m. and tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for students and seniors. A fundraiser party for the theatre group will follow Sunday evening’s show and will feature a performance by Budgell and Fanning’s musical duo, ‘Moon Moon’.

Justin Brake is an independent journalist from Elmastukwek, Ktaqmkuk (Bay of Islands, Newfoundland) who currently lives and works on unceded Algonquin territory in Ottawa. He is of mixed settler and Mi'kmaq descent and focuses much of his attention on Indigenous rights and liberation, social justice, climate action and decolonization. He has worked in various capacities for CBC, The Telegram, APTN News and The Independent, and is actively exploring new forms and styles of journalistic storytelling through emerging frameworks like movement journalism and systems journalism.