The year was 1984. I was fourteen years old and living in a sleepy white-picket-fenced town called Niagara-on-the-Lake, ‘NOTL’ for short.
NOTL was a twenty minute drive from Niagara Falls itself, on the Canadian side of the Niagara River which was also an international border with the US. Below the Falls was a voracious death-maker known as the Whirlpool Rapids, which were so violent, dipping your toe in the water would render you trouserless in a blink. NOTL was “where the bodies used to wash up” we used to joke darkly… but, it did happen occasionally.
Apart from such anomalies, it was a sickly sweet town in which to grow up, to the point where you’d throw up in your own mouth a little. Pestilent flowers and trees were everywhere amongst the grid of wooden mid-nineteenth century clapboard regency and classical revival houses. This idyll bordered on the artificial, a-la Main Street, Disney World. This, I recall, was the reason why my parents decided to eventually leave the town in disgust, the increasingly claustrophobic cuteness becoming unbearable.
Above: My house; some sickeningly quaint scenes
My own relationship with NOTL was always strained. In hindsight, it was an idyllic place, however at the time, that was exactly my problem with it: I absolutely hated how pleased with itself the place was. This was why I spray-painted the words ‘FREE SOUTH AFRICA’ in massive florescent orange letters on the side of the only grocery store in a 99% white town which had no graffiti whatsoever, at the age of fifteen.
NOTL’s simple grid layout was surrounded by wineries and farmland consisting of vineyards, peach, and cherry orchards. Upriver was the Niagara Escarpment, complete with explorable caves and the one end of an odyssey known as the Bruce Trail, a footpath which snaked along its ridge for over 900km through Ontario woodlands and thirteen UNESCO World Biosphere Reserves. The summers were hot and humid, with cicadas buzzing in the tall trees when the mercury climbed above a certain threshold. I used to work in the cherry orchards as a fruit picker alongside migrant workers from Jamaica, one of whom I bizarrely ran into many years later in London (while I was renting a room in Shepherd’s Bush from a born again Christian unfortunately named Marilyn Manson, who moonlighted as Scary Spice for a Spice Girls’ cover band. That, is another story… but really, I’ve just told it).
Above: More sick-making NOTL quaintness
NOTL had once enjoyed the temporary honour of being the tiny capital of the entirety of Upper Canada for a five year period, until it was burned to the ground during a pyromaniacal American expansionist invasion in 1812. The quaint town that had grown up in the ashes of the old had become a hive of commercialism.
The tourists… the fucking tourists.
Their seasonal locust-like invasion was relentless. You couldn’t move for slow walking ice cream lickers on the main street in the summer time. The draw of NOTL was intersectional: the combined magnetism being a stone’s throw from one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World™, the wine country thing, it’s own seductive aesthetics and of course last but not least, The Shaw Festival.
The Shaw Festival was a disproportionately large local stage theatre with a province-wide reputation. It mostly produced stage plays by George B. himself, as well as the odd one by Oscar Wilde or Agatha Christie.
As the year 1983 drew to a close, The Shaw Festival comittee decided to produce a live theatre adaptation of George Orwell’s seminal allegory against the excesses of totalitarianism, Nineteen Eighty-Four, for it’s coming summer season. An adaptation of this dark, dystopian novel would initially seem to be an existential challenge a community that was literally the physical manifestation of what you’d have if you could turn a forced smile into a town. More worryingly, upon further reflection, this was exactly the kind of place where such an exercise in state brutality would flourish.
What set this production apart from any of the festival’s other plays, would be it’s concept: the production would not be limited to a single stage, but would encompass the entire town, turning it into a non-linear totalitarian state experience. Though not the first of its kind, this was radical in 1980s small town Canada. Decades later, in the world-class city of London, Punchdrunk theatre company would officially coin the phrase ‘immersive theatre’, bringing the concept to mainstream consciousness and commercial success.
The town was to be engulfed in simultaneous happenings, events and crises, in various locations, ensuring no two theatre goers’ experiences were the same. Local volunteers would form the backbone of the experience, offering locations and participation to manifest this new world order. There would be rehearsals in improvisation, suggested behaviour and dialogue with which to pepper the local crowds of shuffling, obedient masses. These manipulations would stoke the same fear that ripples through a herd of gazelles when their perimeter is under siege by a stalking lion, creating an electrical atmosphere of adrenalised paranoia for the hapless khaki-wearing tourists comprised of couples with matching fanny packs.
The announcement of the ambitious production in the local newspaper set sent the town’s chattering classes chattering. The Cold War wouldn’t be over for another five years, and these terrible things were happening now, in other countries. Many debates raged about the appropriateness of the whole thing. Predictably, there were cautionary objections from certain local graph paperbrained civic leaders and derision from all those who, for some strange reason, preferred entertainment and amusement to trauma and challenge. Why would people want to willingly succumb to a simulation of submission and domination, let alone PAY for the experience? ‘Simply AWFUL!’ tsked the the thin lipped curtain-twitchers and pearl-clutchers. No market for professional dominatrix services in the this town then, if exactly the kind of people who usually use them were to be believed.
Along with those members of society whose inner fascist bubbled a bit too close to the surface, were our participation to be later psychoanalised by a second-rate high school history teacher, my nine-year-old sister and myself were instantly enrolled into the production by my mother. Our roles in the glorious dystopian future of NOTL were to be that of crooning members of the Junior Spies. On the day itself, Junior Spies would be everywhere, hiding in bushes, spying through windows, shouting down thought criminals. We were the surrogate power of the state against the individual, brainwashed from birth by INGSOC, the official ideology of Big Brother, The Party, and Oceania.
Left: Twinkle twinkle little spy
Our calling was to be the arm of official authority, extended into the living rooms of the social unit known hitherto known as ‘family’, willing to grass up our parents at the slightest infraction. Rehearsing for weeks prior, we filled our minds and lungs with lyrics for the foreboding throb of the witch hunt…
(Sung to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star) ***
When I was a little tiny spy
My parents didn’t double think, why oh why? So I did my duty to the junior spies
and sent them away to be vapourised.
Thought crime, thought crime, my oh my. Thought crime, thought crime, see them die.
Down with Goldstein, down with the sheep, down with Goldstein, bleat bleat bleat
Kick him in the knees, kick him in the craw, pull out his eyeballs, break his jaw.
There may have been more, of course, perhaps soon to be remembered in some future therapy session.
Above: 1984 welcomes careful drivers
The branding of the production was stark and minimal. A suitably bland face was selected from amongst the Shaw Festival’s staff to be the face of the omnipotent, omnipresent Big Brother. His staring poker face was emblazoned with the now infamous words ‘BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU’ and featured in a modest agitprop campaign rolled out in the back pages of newspapers and magazines across the country, as well as in local media on just the other side of the border. My mother had done a series of multimedia art works based on Nineteen Eighty-Four, completely coincidental to the production. These were displayed, pride of place, in the foyer of the main theatre.
On the day, the town was completely transformed in ways none of the participants could have even expected. Black and white posters featuring Big Brother’s blank, staring face and those words we ubiquitous throughout the town, plastered on every available surface. T-shirts and badges were distributed amongst the party faithful and local volunteers were dressed in charmless Tyvek boiler suits. Those who not only volunteered for this abuse, but actually paid for it, were fed delicious meals of spam and peas splotched into a pressed aluminium TV dinner trays, followed by a dessert of unsweetened cooking chocolate (Victory Chocolate) and washed down with own-brand gin labelled with a biro (Victory Gin). The Mennonite Community stayed away that day, old world religious persecution in their DNAs collective memory, they had no interest in reliving it through simulation. Life under Big Brother may not have been glamorous, but hey, ‘he got the trains running on time.’
NOTL’s main street was normally comprised of a happy collection of tiny multicoloured, tasteful Victorian wooden buildings. These housed such things as a post office (useful), a grocery store (useful), an apothecary (not useful), as well as numerous shops selling all manner of mostly useless things such as fudge, ice cream, year-round Christmas decor, and formulaic watercolours of local scenes and mantlepiece-destined objects of various charming brass things (profoundly not useful).
Above: Even The Viking Shop in NOLT was rendered briefly useless by the totalitarian regime.
This normally vibrant main street was transformed into an absolutely featureless beige retail wasteland. Shop windows from one end to the other, as far as the eye could see, were covered in brown wrapping paper, and those same, staring eyes, on that same staring poster and INGSOC slogans …
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
WAR IS PEACE
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
DEATH TO GENERAL CUTENESS (Not Orwell’s, I made that one up)
Set dressers, the worker ants of the Shaw Festival’s Art Department, had draped the town clock, a centrepiece of this main street, with banners bearing these shouty finger-pointy slogans. The only problem was that in real life, the town clock was also a war memorial monument, and no one had bothered to clear this with the local branch of The Royal Canadian Legion, under whose jurisdiction the monument fell. The Legion’s President soon swooped into town and he tore down all the banners in a frenzied fit of purple-faced rage, ripping them into little pieces. This was a monument to soldiers who had fallen fighting regimes not unlike the one now besieging NOTL, and the juxtaposition of the symbolism was unbearable to many. In the set dressers’ defence, they were ‘just following orders.’
Above: Merrily following orders
The dark day came and the busloads of detainees arrived and were loosely herded through their rehearsed channels, following the major plot points of the known story, if they so happened to be present. Otherwise they were allowed to roam the streets of the town beyond, gathering in shuffling curious hordes. These throngs were infiltrated by the townspeople, in character. Conversations were started, and soon, it was hard to remember who was local and who was a visitor. We were all one. Whispering and conversing in rehearsed dialogue peppered with hearsay and suspicion was the final camouflage which completed the immersive illusion. The icy stares of following eyes and pointing fingers of suspicious neighbours seeking out treasonous plots. Fear of ‘the other’ became the word on the street and the obsession of the hive mind reigned.
A Victory Parade marched down the main street with a brass band, singing songs. My parents, whom my sister had threatened with the charge of thought crime, punishable by death, marched along as a part of it. My father recalled being buzzed at a VERY low altitude by a twoseater light aircraft, along the length of the entire main street. Too low for comfort and so low their hair moved.
The central characters of Orwell’s cautionary tale were of course played by professional actors. Winston Smith himself was amongst the crowd, and collectively attention was expertly steered towards his narrative, as it threaded through this weird alternate reality. The meeting of Winston and Julia, their affair, arrest, detainment, torture and ‘redemption, all played out amongst the living breathing all-encompassing backdrop of our totalitarian microcosm.
Somewhere along the way, a dissident broke rank with business as usual, and dared to shout out a poem he had written in the street. Curiosity in this cracking hegemony caused a crowd to gather around him, not sure what to make of his words and sentiments. Once the poem has run its course, with its forbidden words and concepts, the crowd angrily swarmed him, hostile to this non-consensual lifting of the veil. Later that evening, his detainment and prosecution would culminate in execution. Death by hanging in the little park in the middle of town. My sister, being only nine, began to get tired as the fatal hour drew near. Along with other ebbing children, she was quickly plied with fizzy drink and sweets by the theatre staff, so that their eyes would sparkle and their smiles would beam when the rope noose yanked tight around his oesophagus, his eyes bulged and his fingers twitched. A vested harness with a thin cable down the back of the neck bore the actual load of his body weight, as the noose on display around the front of his neck tightened and his body twitched and danced on the end of the rope, bathed in powerful spotlights on the gallows, while we all cheered merrily.
We all watched and celebrated his death, of course. None more so than one local fervent backyard horticulturist, who had earlier that week deduced that the actor playing this criminal poet had stolen his entire exotic melon collection from his garden. The scheme was foiled when the local green thumb spotted someone eating a rare Cranshaw Melon at a town function. Knowing that his Cranshaws were the only ones for miles around, there was a confrontation as to where the offender had acquired the suspicious fruit. ‘Tom the actor gave it to me. He’s got loads of them,’ he confessed, through a mouthful of melon. Tom was then confronted in the post office. Hissed furiously into Tom’s ear was the charge that he had betrayed the creative class by stealing exotic melons. Tom fled the queue in protest with accusations of ‘Liar!’ and ‘Thief!’ ringing in his ears. Now, as Tom danced on the end of the rope of justice, his accuser stood front row centre, eyes gleaming, relishing his mock justice. Capital punishment for exotic melon theft was thankfully realised that day.
Left: Tough justice for exotic melon theft
As my sister and I fell asleep after a long day of work for the glorious Big Brother, the dull pounding of a helicopter approached, and an invasive spotlight combed the streets and gardens around our house, looking for any signs of disobedience.
Did the people of NOTL enjoy this just a little too much? Did they transition too easily into the small-minded hegemony and obedience, willing to turn against each other at the slightest provocation, in order to spare being turned on themselves? The individualist horror of trial by groupthink? Did the theatre staff, thespians and service alike, get off on being social dominators? Everyone was now an asshole, and really, REALLY enjoying it. Was this whole thing actually just a government experiment, continuing on from the infamous Stanford Prison Experiments? Volunteers divided into two groups of guards and prisoners, each turning on each other in sadistic provocation and torment, forgetting they were role playing? Would NOTL endure this shameful period of history? Would there be a UN endorsed Truth and Reconciliation Committee to heal the scars left behind? Were we all monsters, a maddening crowd, driven by primal fear towards mutual self destruction, forever changed in this now experiential knowledge?
Apparently not, because NOTL won the ‘Communities in Bloom’s Prettiest Town in Canada award in 1996. Ice cream sales have never been better, and there are now twice as many unsightly flowers carpeting the town.
Well, we tried.
Many thanks to my parents and sister Amanda for helping me to recall some of the memories lurking under the surface. Thanks also to Morgan Lewington and Roddy Heading for the same.