Contributed by Alicia Neptune, Communications Specialist

If someone has never heard of a relaxed performance, they might think that it would lessen the energy of a show. Someone who’s never experienced live theatre with captions might think they would be distracting. But neither was the case with Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story at the PuSh Performing Arts Festival.

The show’s relaxed performance on January 26th also included captions projected above the stage. Before the show, Anika Verveken, the Accessible PuSh Coordinator, explained what to expect from a relaxed performance. Meanwhile, we got our first look at the captions, which were projected above the stage and warned us that her speech had not been rehearsed.

Like with many relaxed performances, the house lights remained on throughout the show so the theatre was never fully dark. The audience was allowed make noise and react. People were also welcome to move around or step out to the chill-out zone in the lobby. There was a television in the lobby so anyone who stepped out could still follow the show and then come back in when they were ready. The usual unspoken rules of theatre—that you should sit still and be quiet—didn’t apply. There was one rule: that we couldn’t shush anyone else. The introduction made it very clear that everyone was welcome and should make themselves comfortable.

Old Stock is part play, part concert. It’s a love story about two Jewish refugees, Chaim and Chaya, who meet in Canada in the early 20th century. They have both fled Romania and the anti-Jewish violence there, only to face prejudices in Canada as they work to build a new life together. Despite the seriousness of the subject, the show expertly weaves between tragedy and comedy, quiet moments and high-energy musical numbers.

Ben Caplan as The Wanderer shouts into a megaphone while the rest of the cast plays their instruments behind him.

Image credit: Fadi Acra

The show begins in the dark. The only thing on stage is a shipping container. Then, from a hatch in the top springs forth the Wanderer, our narrator, singing the first song of the show. The walls of the container unfold to reveal the actors and musicians. Chaim and Chaya never leave the shipping container. We watch them as if through a window to the past. Our narrator, the Wanderer, roams freely and tells their story through words and music. The show combines modern folk music with Jewish klezmer music and the lyrics offer a present-day perspective on the events of the past.

Old Stock may be about Jewish refugees a hundred years ago, but it was inspired by the stories of refugees of the Syrian Civil War coming to Canada in the last several years. The title of the show is a reference to Stephen Harper’s mention of “old stock Canadians” in contrast to new immigrants. The Wanderer uses songs and stories to question what are “Canadian values” and who deserves to be welcomed into a country. The show asks the audience to reflect on their own perceptions and to empathize with people considered outsiders.

Adapting Old Stock to be as accessible as possible fits beautifully with the theme of the show. Offering a relaxed performance and captions made it more accessible to people who might otherwise be excluded from a traditional theatre environment. It was my first time attending a relaxed performance and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Throughout the show, I could hear a few audience members make noise and noticed the theatre doors open as people came in and out, but it wasn’t distracting. Since the Wanderer speaks directly to the audience, having the lights partially on allowed the audience and performers to see one another and feel more connected. It was all just part of the relaxed atmosphere. I also found the captions particularly helpful in this show—I could catch every clever lyric as it happened.

Part of the joy of live theatre is getting to experience a performance with an audience. Relaxed performances and captions, as well as ASL-interpretation, live description and other offerings help to ensure everyone has the opportunity to experience the performing arts in an inclusive environment. The PuSh Festival’s continued commitment to inclusion pushes the Vancouver theatre scene forward toward an accessible future.