In Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th century collection of novellas called The Decameron, seven young women and three young men entertain each other with stories for 10 days inside a secluded villa near Florence as they tried to escape the Black Death.
More than 650 years later, Toronto playwright and multidisciplinary theatre maker Jordan Tannahill found himself at a party inside a massive abandoned greenhouse in city of Vaughan, a suburban community just north of Toronto.
The former Concord Floral greenhouse, says Tannahill, was “a kind of congregation site, a kind of refuge” for local teens and young adults to hang out, hook up, party, and experiment with drugs, among other things.
About the same time, Tannahill started reading The Decameron after seeing Pier Paulo Pasolini’s 1971 film version of the Italian classic, which Tannahill describes as one of the first Western texts to view adolescents as a separate demographic.
“It struck me that there was an interesting comparison,” he says.
“The narrative of youth using this abandoned villa as a kind of refuge felt like an interesting point of resonance with the contemporary phenomenon of adolescents finding an abandoned place for themselves.”
What emerged was the play, Concord Floral, which Tannahill wrote and co-created with Erin Brubacher, his partner at Suburban Beast theatre company, and Cara Spooner, a movement specialist.
Since its debut performance in October, 2014 in a Why Not Theatre production at the Theatre Centre in Toronto, it has received widespread acclaim and earned the prolific playwright the Dora Mavor Moore outstanding play award in 2015.
Described by a Globe and Mail reviewer as “The Decameron meets Degrassi,” the play echoes Boccaccio’s structure by having seven females and three males – all played by teenagers rather than trained older actors – each tell their stories.
The Italian characters were threatened by an actual plague, but what their Canadian counterparts face is something different.
“It is a kind of existential plague. It’s a feeling of malaise, or unease, or guilt, even. A feeling of a buried sense of collective guilt, in a way, a kind of bottled-up eruption that haunts them until they deal with it.”
And while the Florentine villa was a place of refuge, Tannahill says the abandoned greenhouse is “less of a refuge and more a site of reckoning. It’s a place where the youth have to return to by way of contending with an act that they’ve all been implicated in.”
The pivotal event in Concord Floral takes place when two girls are hanging out in the greenhouse and one of them accidentally drops her mobile phone down a hole. In their search for it, they discover the body of a girl who has been missing for a year.
If there are echoes of the teen horror genre of American films such as I Know What You Did Last Summer, Tannahill admits it’s not a coincidence. The greenhouse site is “a place where anything can happen, even the sinister.”
As with many of Tannahill’s plays, Concord Floral contains elements of the fantastical, or supernatural. Inanimate objects such as a couch and the warehouse itself have their stories to tell, as do such creatures as a fox and a bobolink.
“The fantastic and the mythic play upon our daily lives all the time. I think in each generation, mythic archetypes play upon our lives,” Tannahill says. “I find the tension, the collision between the fantastic and the surreal with the sort of pedestrian – and mundane, even – I find that quite exquisite.”
For both the playwright and his co-creators, using teenagers onstage and having them provide input into the play’s development is integral to the message.
“We know the difference. We feel the difference when actual teens are on stage, communicating to us. It feels resonant when you watch it,” Tannahill says.
Spooner picks up the same theme.
“In plays, as well as TV and movies, when you see people in their late 20s playing teenagers, it gives you a skewed sense of where people are in their lives at that point. So it’s imperative for us that we work with young people,” she says.
“Because we care about the process so much, it’s a chance for them to learn about themselves and the piece. And in terms of the audience, they’re seeing young people, seeing these bodies, hearing these voices.”
To reinforce the awareness that the performers actually belong to the demographic they represent, Brubacher took photos of each of them in their own home spaces, which are displayed in the lobbies of the performance venues.
Fresh from an appearance at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Concord Floral will be in Whitehorse next week as part of the Magnetic North Theatre Festival.
The 80-minute show will be presented at Wood Street School, located at 411 Wood Street, on Monday, June 13 at 8 p.m., on June 14 and 15 at 7:30 p.m. and a final performance on Friday, June 17 at 10 p.m.
For more information, go to www.MagneticNorthFestival.ca.