subDevision: Through The Looking Glass with a Skeleton Key

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from Stephanie, our beloved editor in chief, and Greggory Clark, one of Ottawa’s prominent cultural fixtures, in regards to an experimental, participatory theatre event called subDevision. The event was set to take over the Enriched Bread Artists studio on Gladstone Avenue for three days (March 19-21), of which the opening night I was invited to. I gladly took the assignment and got down to my researching, but when I arrived at the subDevision website I hit a bit of a wall. Any information you find on subDevision is all contextualized by the past, and when it comes to a site-specific, experimental, experiential theatrical event with an ever-changing roster of participants the information you can find isn’t much help. However, this is exactly the type of mystery and anticipation the people of subDevision are trying to create.

Now, I like adventure and spontaneity just as much as the next person, but I must admit to being a little Type A, and not the biggest fan of surprises, so walking blindly into participatory live-theatre was a bit outside of my comfort zone. However, armed with my trusty camera, a stubborn sense of purpose, and more than enough pride (no one likes a failure) I set course for EBA and the strange world of subDevision.

skeleton key_yarn
Skeleton keys and balls of yarn with memory tags were found throughout subDevision, like Xs on a treasure map.
From the love monologue in SPLIT.

I approached the main door of EBA a little after 8:30 having prepared myself with the mindset, and great words of Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge, “Come what may” only to find the door was locked. Immediately, thoughts of stupidity raced through my mind – Is this the wrong day? Am I actually supposed to be at EBA? What time is it? Damn it, Sandra, you WOULD get it wrong. But as I craned my neck to see through some of the old bread factory windows I caught glimpses of neon yellow and pink wigs under diffused blue light. I awkwardly tapped on the door hoping someone would hear me and allow me entrance. Luckily one of the volunteers saw my sorry self and laughed as he opened the door, “I guess we should get this unlocked, eh?”

I chuckled and said thank you as I scooted past towards the admissions table. Sitting there were two women in the neon bob-cut wigs. Miss Yellow greeted me with a large, theatrical smile, “Welcome! Are you here for subDevision?”

“Uh, yes. I am. I have a ticket on Eventbrite, uh just give me a second I’ll find it…”

Miss Pink joined in, “What’s your name dear?”

“Oh, uh, Sandra. Mannila.”

Quickly Miss Yellow scanned the list of names and promptly found mine, “Ah! Here you are. You have two tickets.”

“Oh, I didn’t think to bring anyone with me,” I said, “Sorry.”

“Don’t worry dear, may I have your wrist?” said Miss Pink holding up a green stamp.

I pulled up my coat sleeve for her and handed up my bare wrist, to which she pressed a very inky, very green stamp.

“May I take your coat?” asked Miss Yellow. Somehow I had missed her getting up and moving towards the two coat racks to my right.

The Lost and Found.


I hurriedly removed my leather coat and handed it to her with a thank you, which she responded to with another large smile. At that point a tall, thin man with little hair, circular glasses, and a white, button-up shirt emerged from the doorway to the right of the admissions table beckoning me to follow him before disappearing again through the doorway. At this point I had made my commitment, had been marked, and given away my coat – my only option was to cross the threshold and join this blue lit, alternate world of subDevision. I smiled and waved goodbye to Miss Yellow and Miss Pink before following the tall, thin man.

“Hello!” said the tall man.

“And welcome to the Lost and Found! Have you lost something?” said a short, petite woman wearing a black blazer. She seemed to have come from thin air, or from the Lost and Found’s black walls themselves.

“Hah, my mind…”

“OH, well many of us here have lost that, but let me explain what we do here.” She went on to explain the workings of the strange lost and found while I looked around at the odd little room.

The walls were separated into three sections: the first was compiled of declarations of lost objects (minds, objects, people); the second a large collection of photographs of other inhabitants of subDevision presumably lost; and the third a much smaller collection (three) of the found. In the middle of the room sat a bench in front of a large white dot.

“So, may I take your photograph?”

The petite woman in the black blazer was holding a camera and looking up at me eagerly. Apparently I had failed to notice the tall, thin man leaving and what exactly she had said about being lost. I agreed and was ushered to the bench in the middle of room where a bright light blinded me from seeing anything but a faint shadow of the woman with the camera.

Through those headphones the voices of many a discarded paper document will be heard.


“I will need you to fill out a form as well of what you have lost,” she said as she snapped my photograph. Again I agreed and found myself being ushered again to a small desk where a blank form and a pen lay in wait. “You may write whatever it is you please, but be warned, if your Finder finds you you must tell them your story.”

I wasn’t sure if her words were foreboding or not, but wrote nonetheless: I have lost all my grandparents. She looked pleased as I tapped my claim to the wall and applied a sticker label to my shirt. It was official. I was LOST.

Thus was my first of many strange experiences in the alternate world of subDevision.

As the petite woman waved me goodbye I continued on my journey through the winding halls of EBA falling into many a strange and hilarious situations. I witnessed a sad yet relatable love monologue in SPLIT; had my tarot cards read by a manic “psychic” whose only card in a 100+ card deck was the Hanged Man; joined a wine-filled meeting with The Department of Collective Trauma; listened to the thrown-out voices of countless, discarded documents; and helped save a man’s life who was on trial for high treason against a cycling-obsessed king from a distant, car-free, oddly dystopian future fashioned after the teachings of Lance Armstrong (pre-drug admission).

A podium fit for a megalomaniacal king.
collective trauma
A jury meeting for The Department of Collective Trauma.

Like any world, subDevision was home to many of all shapes, sizes, and levels of sanity. It was built on a foundation of hope and revolution, and graffitied with a healthy dose of satire.

Needless to say, the longer I stayed in this disjointed pocket of multiple realities the more I felt at ease and the less I felt like an Alice who had stumbled through a looking glass. But perhaps that is one of the dangers of walking into a hall of mirrors.

Written by Sandra Mannila

Sandra Mannila is a visual artist, creative writer, and blog contributor with a background in Fine Arts (BFA uOttawa). In her spare time she crafts, writes, and weaves in her at-home studio typically in the sweet company of bourbon, Leonard Cohen, and her cat Samson. Apart from Herd, she writes and photographs for The Big Eat Ontario, as well as her own food blog, The Crumby Trail. Sandra has been involved in publication for several years ranging from production and design, to photography and writing. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.