Existere pushes boundaries

Queen’s social action theatre group reinvents itself to reflect diversity of incoming class

The cast of Existere XXI onstage, all facing the audience.
The cast of Existere XXI onstage.
Credit: 
Timothy Hutama (Studio Q)
The cast members of Existere XXI stand onstage during one of the last scenes of the play, as an audience of first-year students watch.
The cast of Existere XXI line up onstage during one of the last scenes of the play, as a group of first-year students watch during Orientation Week.
Credit: 
Timothy Hutama (Studio Q)

Existere XXI evoked laughter and solemn nods amongst over 2,000 incoming first-years, as the troupe acted out skits on gender-neutral washrooms and the prevalence of mental health issues on campus.

Every year, Queen’s social action theatre group Existere performs a 90-minute show for the incoming class. The show is written and choreographed by second-year students from various faculties and programs.

This year’s show included a focal scene on Queen’s stereotypes, where a cast member stood in center stage as other performers walked by and stuck labels on his body.

As they did this, each performer turned to the audience and made statements about different Queen’s stereotypes.

Some challenged assumptions that Queen’s students  are rich and white, while others tackled gender-related stereotypes, including the ideas that young women are vain and that men are obsessed with physical strength.

The Journal spoke with three of this year’s Existere members: Director Jake Blum and performers Jeff McGilton and Lizzie Moffat. Together, they gave us a behind-the-scenes scoop on everything Existere XXI.  

Why did each of you choose to audition and become part of this year’s Existere?

Jeff: I choose to audition the moment after I saw Existere XX last year. It’s social action theatre and I thought it was so essential that we should be exposed to the messages that were packaged in the show.

Immediately after I saw it, I approached last year’s members and asked them how I could get involved.

Lizzie: I was very nervous during Frosh Week. I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t know where I fit in. Seeing Existere was the first time I felt like I could come to love Queen’s.

Jake: I was actually part of the show last year as a performer. When you do it the first time as a cast member, it’s such a fun experience to meet all the new people. You meet each other in January, you work with them over the summer and finally you come together and create this show.

I wanted to be a director because I wanted to help 12 more cast members find their own way to help out first-years in a way they never knew they could.

Every year, the cast members come together and change the play to suit their own experiences during first year. What was it like coming together and coming up with this year’s play based on your own time at Queen’s?

Jeff: We’ll have a specific idea in mind. It could be anything from mental health to sex to dating and relationships. We’ll all just kind of talk about experiences and how they impacted us.

From that, we come up with these scenes. The directors will pick out one idea that can be projected in the play and ask us to try writing a scene on that. I think it’s really cool that some of these scenes are actually coming from our lives.

What was the most difficult part of rehearsals and creating this year’s play?

Lizzie: Making sure that we were being as genuine and relatable as possible. It was a big concern that the audience wouldn't connect with what was going on onstage.

It was sometimes a struggle to always be conscientious of what we put on stage and how the first-years would perceive it.

Jake: One thing I definitely noticed this summer during rehearsals was how important it was for everyone’s relationships in the cast to be comfortable and strong.

A big focus of creating this year’s play was becoming comfortable with each other, because if you can’t open up with 12 other people, how can you do that with a whole incoming class?

Was there any topic this year that you guys sat down and decided on definitely having in this year’s play that you never had before?

Jake: We have a scene this year about gender-neutral washrooms that we’ve never had in 20 previous shows. That was just something that we as a school is currently having a big conversation on, so we decided to reflect that in the show and help realize it as an issue that means a lot to students.

That’s the nice thing about having a fresh cast every year and new people in the show. They never feel restricted to including new things that have become newly relevant during the past year.

A really unique aspect of Existere’s process every year is the fact that having performance and theatre experience isn’t a requirement. Tell me about that.

Jake: When we audition people, we’re not looking for performers. We’re just looking for people. People who are passionate about sending a good message to first-years and who can handle an intense two-week rehearsal period where the show literally comes together.

Because of the nature of the show, there’s no star of Existere. There’s no one person that shines above another person.

What’s your favourite part about being in Existere?

Jeff: For me, it was the community. When I found out I was in it, I felt like I was immediately part of the Existere family.

Jake: I like being able to help these 12 amazing people go out and help a group of first-years. I’ve seen the show a dozen times now but I still laugh when they perform certain scenes because I remember the moments they wrote those scenes. I love watching the show.

Lizzie: Having people laugh at your jokes, or having them come up to you afterwards and say that a scene we performed really meant a lot them. Knowing we reached out to them and connected with them was an amazing feeling.

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