Monique Grbec investigates The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries, an immersive audio work from Canada that crafts a new story for every participant
There’s a 1970s black and white photo of Mum and me that can put me right back in that glorious age of innocence where she was my everything, the most perfect human in the universe.
It was a kindergarten portrait with me standing in front of Mum. We’re both smiling big and wide. My trousers have large snail appliqués on the side of a huge flare and I’m somehow trying to stand taller by tugging up the belt of my trousers. I’m bursting with pride and happiness, so filled with love for my mum. It’s the photo that should sit with my Growing up Indigenous in Australia story, published online by AusLit, but I’ve looked everywhere and just can’t find it.
The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries is a remote immersive auditory experience from Canadian theatre company Outside the March, presented by Summerworks. The Ministry offers to solve personal mysteries, including finding lost items. My hopes are high and my fingers are crossed. Finding the photo is not exactly a mundane feat: but surely there’s a chance that they can help?
The Case of the Lost Photo
Inspector Cavanagh from The Ministry of the Mundane calls from Toronto, Canada. Over 10 minutes he asks me questions about the photo: what it looks like and where it might be. Describing the photo is easy. Speculating about how I’ve lost it blurs into dreamscapes. I think that I remember putting it in a photo frame behind another photo so that it would be safe during a house move. I fear it’s at the house of the ugliest human I’ve ever dated. I don’t want to go there.
Inspector Cavanagh assures me that he has a 100 per cent success rate. I’m thrilled. He asks me what music I’m listening to at the moment. Beck for dancing and Classic FM on the radio.
I recoil at the breathy voice of a dirty phone caller introducing himself. It’s 9am so surely this is a call from The Ministry. I resist hanging up. Glen Something, from Toronto, tentatively reveals that he has lost a photo from the ’70s or ’80s. It’s a picture of him and his dad. He explains that he got my number from a cousin who works at The Ministry’s office. His cousin thought the connections in our cases were remarkable and that maybe we could help one another. I promise to never reveal his source.
Like me, Glen is a theatre reviewer. He suggests that we are part of a performance art piece. No thank you: the idea that an artist would sneak into our homes and rifle through our stuff doesn’t work for me. Art is nurture and rejuvenation. Art is here to save me, not just find the photo. Please don’t let my life be nothing.
“Maybe it was an alien?” I suggest, visualising the rise of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim staircase filled with thousands of black and white parent and kid kindergarten portraits.
Glen isn’t interested in aliens and suggests that maybe it was the establishment that took the photos, to throw us off our game. There’s a feeling that I’m not playing properly, that I’m flat, boring tap water compared to the sparkling effervescence of this game.
I feel a sense of guilt: they asked for a “mundane” mystery and I gave them something overloaded with personal meaning.
I wake feeling so sick that I book in for a coronavirus test. Anticky Ticky Tocky from Anticky Tocky Antiques calls. She is an Australian living in Melbourne with a high-pitched American accent drenched in Southern saccharine. She has many unclaimed photos: “maybe we have yours?”
I describe the photo and add: “maybe I could find some of the others in the set and find out what studio took it?” I reaffirm that I probably put it “safely” behind another photo when I moved house, waiting to get a new frame for it.
Surprise!? From behind the persona of Anticky Ticky Tocky emerges a man called Sam First Place Brodie. He hid his identity to discover my motives around the lost photo. He suspects that I’ve been spreading rumours about the patriarchy. If I stop, he says, he’ll give me a seat at the table.
There’s a smash of glass from the next room and my boy scurries past the bedroom door. Five minutes earlier he had walked into that room with a wooden golf club slung over his shoulder like a rifle. “My kid’s just broken the window,” I tell Sam.
We talk about the unAustralian accent of Ticky Tocky and Brodie shows that he can recreate a perfectly nasal Australian “no”. His “avo” sounds like “Abo”. I wonder why they don’t computer-generate different accents. Surely a robot could be fun, and it mightn’t be so fake.
There is a satisfying fullness to the merging of theatre, suspended reality, real-time and a touch of my own life. Since the sickness I’ve taken to answering The Ministry calls from bed. I tell Sam that I’m super sick and my voice is not usually this deep.
Inspector Cavanagh is on a stakeout, whispering from inside a closet in the official office of the patriarchy. He’s seen the table. An anonymous tip has sent him there. I’m getting a bit confused between characters and tell him that I wouldn’t be welcome at the table. “Maybe,” I suggest, “it’s a cardboard cutout of me.”
Cavanagh reveals he’s just a couple of more questions from solving my mystery. Once again my hopes are raised. He asks about any unusual phone calls I might have had. I mention Anticky Tocky and decide to expose Glen and his cousin. Maybe Glen is fake too, and maybe he took my photo.
Next, Cavanagh asks about my last holiday. It was a mini-break to Werribee mansion. He asks about holidays as a kid at kinder. “No, we weren’t really a holiday family. And I don’t remember much. I remember it took ages to walk to the supermarket. And Mum didn’t really like answering my questions. I remember, I think it was real, that we went to the kindergarten teacher’s house and I sat in a bean bag for the first time.”
Cavanagh tells me, with a sense of urgency, that this bean bag memory is the turning point. He warns me of great danger and there is a struggle and…the call ends. The line is dead. Disconnected.
A wavering, aged voice introduces herself as Dr Frances Time. She’s a Doctor of time, she tells me. She talks about lost time. If I were to find myself sitting on a relaxing chair like a Lazyboy or bean bag, she says, the time I spent there would forget me right back. “Time is its own consciousness… A video cuts and time ceases to exist.” A few minutes in and the phone line is cut as though the disconnection confirms the idea that time is a power all to itself.
“Be wary of sitting in bean bag chairs.” The message that follows is broken as if Dr Time is driving through a tunnel: “suggest that… time suggests… that… cut out…” The phone line goes dead again. From the repetition there are moments of sparkling lucidity but…
“The third time’s the charm” she assures me in a sing-song way. But the only charm I can imagine is a dark mass of tangles, and the only song flowing through my being is a dreary dirge to all the time I’m losing listening to a theory in which I have no interest in investing. I see time spent relaxing as time rejuvenating, time to revise, remember and rejoice in calmness. Time to give me strength and teach me the pleasure of patience.
Inspector Cavanagh is back to explain that he was dragged “out of the closet” and “ejected from the office”. From the subterfuge of a gay stereotype he reveals he’s a CIS white male. How disappointing, he’s not even the man on the brochure.
He reveals that Doctor Time was also working for the patriarchy. Then, he says, I had “better get a hat cause I’m going to blow your mind”. The mystery is solved: Glen Something was “deceiving and misleading”, he stole my photo from behind the picture frame because he is a “sick rival writer who is jealous of my word smithiness… He wanted to break my spirit and change my heart as a writer”.
Dr Time was really Karen, Glen’s cousin, who has since lost her job at The Ministry for leaking information. “So, the patriarchy is blameless”.
Inspector Cavanagh plays some Beck and remarks that he’s happy to discover it.
“Can I get the photo back?”
A feeling of disappointment infects the lethargy of sickness. As much as I want to be grateful for the respite from isolation, and for the treat of being visited by a group of eccentric characters who create a story just for me, somehow the aftertaste of the adventure feels a bit empty, like sugary calories in flavoured sodas.
Maybe it’s my illness, but I don’t feel nourished in the same way as going to the theatre and witnessing the human heart and soul of a production, the place where individuals dreams are realised. Somehow over six days, the commitment of 10 minutes every day stopped being a novelty and started feeling like the responsibility of routine. In the end, I can’t help wondering who the The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries is really for.
The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries created by Nick Blais, Katherine Cullen, Mitchel Cushman, Anahita Dehbonehie, Colin Doyle, Sebastien Heins, Amy Keating, Griffin McInnes. Performed by Christy Bruce, Jamie Cavanagh, Katherine Cullen, Shannon Currie, Colin Doyle, Sheri Godda, Sebastien Heins, Toby Highs, Liz Johnston, Thurga Kanagasekarampillai, Amy Keating, Connor Low, Francis Melling, Anand Rajaram, Jonathan Shaboo, Jillian Welsh and Connor Yuzewenko-Martin. A CAEA production produced by Outside the March and presented by Summerworks.
Submit your own mundane mystery adventure at mundanemysteries.com