Critic in residence Nicholas Leno writes,

In a world where smartphones, tablets, and computers provide constant connection to others and to a variety of media platforms, the simplicity of pen and paper often gets lost. So, shut off your phones and leave your computers at home because Rituals of The Unfamiliar doesn’t need them – and proves that you don’t either.

Yesterday Hayley and I entered Oddfellows Temple – an appropriate place for a “ritual” – and were met by a large baby blue wooden door. “Go ahead and knock,” a Festival volunteer says. A small peep hole in the door reveals a shadowy eyeball. The door swings open. We enter, and it slams shut behind us. In front of us, two identically dressed women announce mysteriously, “Welcome to the lodge, the new social network experience.” Hayley and I are instructed to walk to the end of a large gymnasium, its floor covered with long strips of masking tape. After moving behind two microphone stands we share a puzzled gaze and know we are in store for a unique experience.

Participatory events seem to be taking In The Soil by storm this year. This theatrical encounter is for, about, and even partially written by the spectator. Participants are paired with a complete stranger and asked to share their initial thoughts of this person. Co-creator Patrick Dillon records these thoughts to form the cover of your “book”; inside this book is personal information – everything from your first crush to your biggest fears – that you are asked to record throughout the experience. But don’t worry, you only go as deep as you wish; what you write is ultimately up to you. At the end of the experience you are asked to exchange books with the stranger you just met, whose initial thoughts of you are recorded on the cover of their book.

Maybe I’m just narcissistic, but there seems to be something therapeutic about engaging through actual writing with personal questions. The experience forces you to think about your past; I wrote about my grade school crush and the image of her long blonde hair and unusual smile came rushing back to me; I could see tears swelling in the eyes of the woman across from me, who chose to write about her mother. Engaging in actual writing is something that rarely happens in our age of technology, let alone sharing this writing with someone else. ‘The lodge’ aims to give you a real social experience with someone; rather than the superficial Facebook status about what you had for lunch, it allows you to share something about yourself with a complete stranger in a safe, “analog” environment.

The theatrical element of this experiment comes from the identically dressed co-creators’ expositional dialog. After inviting you in, Sarah Conn and Sara Duplancic perform a short skit that involves two friends unable to hold a face-to-face conversation because of their distracting iPhones; it is the thesis for their theatrical experiment. Conn and Duplancic are amusing, and make the point of their event incredibly clear, but I question whether this moment was needed. The experience itself says more than can be expressed through words, and I think the creative team need to remember this.

Play; experiment; an exchange; whatever you want to call it, Rituals of The Unfamiliar was an experience I was glad to be part of. The best part? You might even make a new friend. I did.

For more information on STO Union – Theatre, and Rituals of the Unfamiliar please visit

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