Existere meets an evolving campus

Social action troupe welcomes class of 2021

Existere performed for incoming first years.
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On Monday and Tuesday, social action theatre troupe Existere kicked off this year’s Frosh Week with six performances for thousands of first-year students in Grant Hall. 

Every year, a cast of 12 second-year students and three third-year directors write, choreograph and perform a 90-minute show of short vignettes that covers everything from sex jokes to diversity issues on campus. The cast brings their own experiences into the creative process, contributing their own challenges and reactions to life as a first year at Queen’s.

This year’s Co-Creative Director Kiana Baker-Sohn explained some of the performances also respond to controversial events like last year’s country-themed party, which this year’s Existere addressed directly in a sketch. 

The skit involved an “old broadcast” blurting out insensitive or bigoted stereotypes directed at the scene’s characters over a stereo. At first, the combination of surprise at the comments and the old-timey accent caused scattered laughter in the audience. 

However, the dialogue got steadily more uncomfortable.

“Where are you really from?” the voice asked cast member Stephanie Fung’s character. “You can speak English really well.”

In addition to individualized comments, the broadcast directly referenced the issue, asking a character from a small town if they took part in last year’s controversial countries party.  

Baker-Sohn said Existere’s unique ability to speak on a peer-to-peer level at the beginning of Frosh week gives its members the responsibility to make students feel accepted at their new university. 

“Even though the first years were not a part of the Queen’s community during the events of last year, they happened right around when they were applying to university,” she said.  

“They think ‘Is this a place where I’ll be accepted? Is this a safe community?’ Apart from the usuals of living in residence and relationships and healthy eating, this is something we had to put in our show.”

The characters eventually turn off the stereo, after a tongue-in-cheek pun about “stereo”types being harmful. At least the pun deflated the tension, winces aside. 

According to Co-Creative Director Maureen Barnes, all commentary within the sketches was based off of perceptions that the cast members encountered during their first year at Queen’s.

This writing process quickly transformed the group dynamic after the troupe’s January auditions. 

“We joked that we were 12 random people thrown into a room,” cast member Paul Smith said. “’Okay share your deepest, darkest secrets. And by the end of the hour and a half, whether it’s crying together or saying if you need me, I’m here.’”

As part of the process, the directors asked the cast to split off into groups and go topic by topic—discussing themes like sex and dating, campus diversity, alcohol consumption—all before bringing their personal experiences into their scenes. 

Afterward, the cast started retooling each other’s scenes, polishing the material for the Frosh Week performanceThe scenes we’ve written become all of our scenes,” troupe member Marlisa Howes said, describing how individually written skits began to include all of the cast’s creative input. This led to a new focus on the experiences of Trans students, First Years Not in Residences (FYNIRs), alongside more content devoted to accepting non-sexually active first-year students. 

The topic of consent played a large role in this year’s show, with the troupe utilizing diverse heterosexual and non-heterosexual pairings of cast members to illustrate its reaching consequences for all communities. 

“People all have [this] capability and your scenario is still valid,” Fung said of the show’s efforts to speak to all members of the incoming class. 

In the past, this socially conscious approach could make the show’s laughs few and far between. Even now, frosh week’s flurry of resources, facts and figures can spill over to Existere. 

That being said, the show is at its best when it manages to successfully weave humour organically into its sometimes serious message. 

But the underlying message, in the wake of campus controversy, is more important than ever. According to Fung, it comes down to reaching every member of the audience and the Queen’s community, regardless of who they are. 

“Queen’s is now your space,” Fung said. “You are a vital part of the community and you do what you need to do for yourself.”

 

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