Liza Balkan’s “Out the Window” prompts questions about policing, perspectives and the implications of othering

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Image Courtesy of LuminatoFestival.com

For many, the view from a window conjures notions of the picturesque. Consider how a window seat can enhance travel, a meal, or even a coffee break.

But what happens when a look out the window imprints itself so deeply on the memory that – impossible to be un-seen – it must instead be re-seen, re-examined, anatomized, interrogated and contextualized . . . continuously?

On an August evening in 2000, actor-playwright Liza Balkan returned home from a play opening. Hearing noise from the street outside her window, she looked out to see four Toronto police officers encircling and then subduing a man, by beating and kicking him. She later learned that the man was Otto Vass. He had a long history of mental illness, and he died of the injuries sustained during her look out the window. The officers were charged with manslaughter, and Ms Balkan was called to testify as a witness for the prosecution. After a lengthy trial, the officers were acquitted of all charges.

Since that fateful look out her window, she has been so haunted by these events and their aftermath that she has climbed bodily inside them. She has felt compelled to research, unpack the broader story of Vass’ life and its intersection with the continuing narrative of police interactions with the mentally ill and other othered communities. Over 18 years and in various stages, she has channeled her experience, her memories and her convictions, and has parlayed them, along with verbatim court transcripts from interviews with the lawyers from both sides of the case, into the multimedia documentary theatre work, Out the Window. The piece explores the intersection of perspectives on Vass’ death, policing, use of force and the justice system. It also invites questions about memory. Whose memory and which memory is seen as reliable and useful? Does the reliability of memory depend on the purpose it is being called to serve? Are memories static or elastic? How does memory fare, when it is bombarded by questions designed to discredit it?  

After a successful run at The Theatre Centre in 2012, the 2018 version of Out the Window is part of this year’s Luminato Festival, following an intensive residency in New York City last November at 3 Legged Dog, a production facility specializing in digital performance interface. There, the creative team leveraged advanced technology to look into approaches to presenting the information that Ms Balkan has collected, and relating it to current issues and situations. The main characters in the play are portrayed by actors, including Sarah Kitz, who portrays “Liza.” Vass is represented through a drawing created in real time by artist and activist Syrus Marcus Ware. Ware also draws other people, who have lost their lives to police violence, such as 18-year old Sammy Yatim, killed by police in 2013.

The show traverses a remarkable and cathartic distance in its 3-act structure. The scripted, choreographed and technologically-enabled performance comprises the first act, while the second and third acts transform the space into a focused forum for unscripted, convivial community conversation and song, where actors and audience grope after meaning and healing.    

18 years on, the show continues to touch a raw nerve in audiences for at least two reasons. First, while Vass’ life ended in 2000, it is just one chapter in a long story of police encounters with otherness that, sadly, continues to unfold each year. Second, because of the generative magic created on stage in the second and third acts from these complex and disturbing source materials. SesayArts had the opportunity to speak with Liza Balkan about this unique  work.

SesayArts: You’ve lived with Otto Vass’ story since 2000 and Out the Window since 2007, through several stages of development. At what point did you think that your experience of witnessing police brutality against a mentally ill man and being a witness for the prosecution could be turned into a work of art, and how did you begin?

LB: Out the Window found its initial theatrical expression as an installation in 2007 at Toronto’s Lab Cab Festival. This was an opportunity for me to take the confusion and shock of not only witnessing Mr. Vass’ death but also the experience of testifying at the assorted trials and the inquest during the 6 years that followed. Lab Cab offered me a chance to try to make sense out of impossible senselessness. I imagined that this installation and its culling, recording and hanging of hundreds of pages transcripts, its action figures, and its short performance piece, would offer some kind of what? Closure? Possibly. Was this just a form of self-created art/drama therapy? Possibly.

All I knew was: it was something I had to do, and I was offered the space in which to do it. The audience could wander through the area, read transcripts from my time on the stand at the preliminary hearing in ’02, the trial in ’03 (the 4 officers were charged with manslaughter) and the inquest in ’06. They could also play with action figures and listen to a few recorded selections. The “dialogue” in these transcripts were, to my mind, outrageous and compelling and better than anything I could imagine writing. I gave a handful of 10-minute performances inside this installation over the course of 2 days. This Lab Cab event was a deeply personal way for me to investigate the facts and feelings around this horrific event in 2000 and what followed. I thought this would be a “one time only.” This turned out not to be the case. The piece seemed to resonate with the audience who engaged in it. To my surprise, it then received artistic and financial support.  

SesayArts: The more I read about Out the Window, the more I think about the recent Yonge Street tragedy in my neighbourhood, in which Officer Ken Lam did not use force against Alek Minassian. Instead, he relied on the techniques of de-escalation that he had been trained in. Did this make you draw any parallels between what you witnessed and the ideas about police tactics against the mentally ill that Out the Windows invites us to consider.

LB: It was heartening to see the footage of the arrest that day and celebrate an outcome that did not end in a death. I have no doubt that this is NOT a singular occurrence. There are good news stories all the time that do not make the news. The officer has been deservedly praised for his handling of the situation. If this outcome were the norm when it comes to interactions between the police and the mentally ill, and persons of colour, then the training and practice of de-escalation techniques would be fully applauded. However, as we have seen, this is not the case. Still, that particular incident was a hugely hopeful sign of what is possible.

SesayArts: The production stills from the 2012 production of Out the Window show an interesting positioning of characters on stage…four males actors in the front, the one female playing “Liza” behind them…. Is this staging part of a deliberate attempt to engage the audience in considering gender dynamics and the relationship of gender to perspective, power, politics and influence?

LB: What a great question. This may indeed have been a subconscious choice of mine. In truth, the decisions made for the staging were predicated on ideas around “perspective.” There was a desire to change the dynamics through changing up the “views” for the audience, for every scene.

SesayArts: How has this version of Out the Window changed since it was produced in 2012 as a Resident Artist Project at The Theatre Centre?

Photo by Kyle Purcell

LB: This is a highly malleable project. Each time this project has seen an audience, it has been different in size and scope and storytelling. In 2012, the overall vision of the piece was grounded in the actual reading of the transcripts and interviews. It employed a good bit of video and storytelling as part of its scenography and the use of hard copy paper was an important and repeated element. There were extended moments of audience participation. This included a second act wherein 6 volunteers sat down with the actors and ate a meal. There was also an online archive created by producer Aislinn Rose. It provided a warehouse for all of the research, interviews and transcripts that had been a part of its development over the years. This online “Brain” was also used during the performance.   

My vision for the piece offered various perspectives about the specific event itself as well as issues around policing, use of force and the justice system. It was not meant to be a polemic but rather an engine for a more informed conversation outside theatre walls. We included a series of panels that involved lawyers, activists, mental health experts and the Deputy Chief of Police.

For this new version being produced by The Theatre Centre and Luminato, director Sarah Garton Stanley has taken a different and highly exciting approach to the material, one that vibrantly slams it right down into the world of 2018, where policing, mental illness and race tragically intersect over and over again. She has brought on new collaborators: visual artist and activist, Syrus Marcus Ware and musicians Rosina Kazi and Nick Murray of LAL. These artists are right in the centre of the action, with Syrus doing live drawings of those who have lost their lives during altercations with the police, including Mr. Vass.

The show is divided into two parts. Part 1 uses a new version comprised of the original verbatim material. Part 2 has been created by the company and investigates questions around use of force, madness, race, and community.  There is food. There is a choir. There is an invitation to join together and ask: “What now?”.

SesayArts: In the description on your website, you state, “this project changed my perspective and practice both as an artist and as a citizen.” Would you like to elaborate more on this, as Out the Window prepares to return as a part of Luminato next week?

LB: Being invited into Residency at the Theatre Centre in order to develop the project opened the door to my understanding of the words “practice” and “collaboration.”  Theatre Centre AD Franco Boni was actually the first person to ever say to me something along the lines of: “Here is time and space in which to explore and create. Think only process – not product.”   So much of my prior work in the theatre was predicated on the idea of the target of opening.  The residency invited a different paradigm in which to create.  I brought collaborators into the process, and we all began to investigate the material together.  The encouragement to work and play as an artist, without an ever-present “due date,” was a revelation for me.

This project is linked to citizenry.  It was inspired by the act of coming forward as a witness to a horrific event in our city and then delving deeper and deeper into the investigation of its layers.  Its purpose, through creating what I hope is compelling theatre, is to extend the conversation about a highly challenging and violent subject that demands full attention and action.  

SesayArts: The final word is yours. What would you like to add that I haven’t asked?

LB: I am awed by the artistry, commitment and bravery of the company of artists and producers who have taken on this production. And I am forever grateful that the Theatre Centre first offered me a home in which to nurture, support, develop and produce Out the Window.

Same As It Ever Was by Syrus Marcus Ware

News You Can Use

What: Out the Window by Liza Balkan; Directed by Sarah Garton Stanley; produced by Aislinn Rose; A Luminato commission in partnership with The Theatre Centre (The inaugural Residents Project); Presented in association with Harbourfront Centre
Featuring: Sarah Kitz (Liza), David Ferry (Lawyer 1), R H Thomson (Lawyer 2), Peyson Rock (Officer A), Brett Donahue (Officer B), Richard Lee (Officer C), James Graham (Officer D)
Live Visual Artist: Syrus Marcus Ware;  Live Music and Composition by LAL: Rosina Kazi and Nicholas Murray
Associate Director:Tanisha Taitt; Sceneographer: Trevor Schwellnus; Costume Design: Ming Wong; Sound Design and Composition: Nicholas Murray; Design Coordinator: Frank Donato; Networking Consultant: Montgomery Martin; Production Manager: Seán Baker; Stage Manager: Sandy Plunkett; Production Assistant: Jen Cooper 

Audience Advisory: loud noises, flashing lights, mature themes, police violence

When: On stage until June 24, 2018; run time: 135 minutes (including intermission)

Where: Harbourfront Centre Theatre, 231 Queens Quay West, Toronto, ON M5J 2G8

Info and Tickets: LuminatoFestival.com

©2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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