Review: What Happened to the Seeker/Intimacy With A Thousand Things (STO Union)

What Happened to the Seeker, photo by Eric FruhaufThe Theatre Centre, where I just returned from STO/Union‘s “What Happened To The Seeker/Intimacy With A Thousand Things”  (and where I also enjoyed “Monday Nights”) seems to be conducive to dynamic, engaging, and unique experiences.

The “performance triptych” about a middle-aged, middle class woman – the child of 60’s era “seekers” (what some might call hippies) – on her own spiritual quest was part exhibit, part theatre, part performance art, and part film. Unfortunately, I also found it part problematic. More on that later.

Being a triptych, it was divided into three different parts – all of which our group (one of three, separated upon entering the space), would experience.

Part one – the audio – was funny and gave us some background on The Seeker (Nadia Ross). Part two, the film – featuring a stellar cast of delightfully crude (possibly papier maché?) puppets – was hilarious and came with delicious popcorn and foreshadowing.

Part three – the exhibit – was whimsical, interactive, and very engaging. Due to the size of our group, we missed quite a lot of it, but it nonetheless took us on a journey through The Seeker’s life. It was my favourite part of the experience.

My companion Caryhn and I both agreed that our favourite aspect overall was the triptych. It was an incredibly creative way – needing a lot of very talented and well-timed hands – to tell this story. Kudos to the cast/team.

After intermission came a fourth, communal performance which most prominently featured a film. And this is where things went from promising-but-maybe-culturally-appropriative to – and I hesitate to use this word – a bit exploitative.

I have a bias here: I do a lot of reading and activism around white supremacy, anti-racism, and anti-oppression in general. I view the world through this lens much of the time, including when I go to the theatre. I’d wager that most of the audience in attendance – white like me – had very different reactions.

The film portion was shot almost entirely in popular tourist spots in India – specifically the “infamous hippie trail“. I’ve never been to India, and enjoyed seeing it through this lens, but it was also very uncomfortable. It was full of white people in resorts. Indians were mostly in the background, whereas the white tourists and “hippies” in Goa were interviewed at length. They even drank and danced and played guitar by the ocean at night, which I found so obviously clichéd.

There is one aspect in particular which I found simultaneously fascinating and very troubling, and which Caryhn – who is actually Indian – found maddening: the filming, seemingly without consent, certainly without context or understanding, of various religious rituals (Buddhist and Hindu specifically).

The narrator’s centring of herself in these settings – especially when she insisted that this wasn’t “about her” earlier on – only exacerbated this. Delving deeper into these scenes would have added needed depth and context, and frankly, respect.

In one particular scene, she talks about how she paid a boat owner the equivalent of three Canadian dollars to row her over two kilometres along the shore – all the while using his candid conversation to make a point about the loss of God in favour of money. We were both shocked by this. Surely his labour was worth at least the cost of one ticket?

I could have done without the film entirely. It added nothing positive that I could see  besides a setting for the finale which felt self-indulgent and somewhat pretentious. In fact, it took so much away from the rather tender, emotional aspects of the last scene. It really overshadowed the many wonderful things about this event for me.

I was hoping, waiting for the moment when The Seeker realized and acknowledged that privilege alluded to early on: that allows folks like her to travel to India on a whim, in search of exotic “enlightenment”. I was waiting for the critique of whiteness, of how we play out colonialism in our individual lives, of how we steal culture, and bring it home for our own profit. It never came.

I’m happy to have had this experience, in part for the conversation with my companion which followed it. I learned a lot at that performance.


Photo of “What Happened To The Seeker” by Eric Fruhauf

2 thoughts on “Review: What Happened to the Seeker/Intimacy With A Thousand Things (STO Union)”

  1. Hi! Nadia Ross here – I’m soo sorry you read the video that way! It was actually meant as a comment on exactly what you are criticizing. The Seeker is TOTALLY exploitative – that’s been her problem all along. Many hippies were exploiting the religions like they were different plates laid out in a cafeteria as well. The exhibit is set up as a kind of ‘store’ – you feel like you could buy some of the objects. There is a papier mache statue of a Buddha where you stick I.O.U. labels on it… many references to how spiritual seeking can be very exploitative and that seeking may be the problem in itself. Seeker is presented as a ‘tourist’ in the intro, and throughout the film (she’s a ‘tourist’ in life – that’s her problem). She pays 3 dollars to the man rowing her up stream and that is THE act that represents the exploitation in it’s entirety, for me. Maybe I should have made this much more clear, but, artistically, I felt it was just clear enough: making it more clear would leave me looking like a ‘good’ person/so ‘aware’ of these issues that I have somehow transcended them. That belief IS a problem, so I didn’t want to go there. In this project, The Seeker is totally implicated in the issues she criticizes. That was one of the main underlying lines in this show. Hope this helps! And as a final note – nobody gets to make it through the exhibit part in it’s entirety – it’s designed to be just a bit too much. Just like life, you have to choose what you will look at, and what you will pass by. And just like life, we all read things in our way. As an ‘open’ experience, Seeker also has room for how everyone sees things differently… and room to discuss afterwards! Thanks for coming out to see it!

  2. And, as a side note, Shaista Latif agreed to be in the exhibit as part of the live art experience in the Toronto version of the show. She was giving people the choice between getting a massage from a machine, or she could give them a ‘real’ massage. She was wearing a large name tag that said: “Hi! My name is Shaista. I’m a queer-indentified Afghan-Canadian. This is the only job they could find for me.”

    We were trying to find a totally exploitative action that was disguised as an act of love and self-help. We will be writing about that experience in a separate project.

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