A few months ago my friend and I were hanging out in Trinity-Bellwoods. She was telling me a dramatic story about a tough family situation, when I noticed a middle-aged man, about an arm’s length away from us, listening intently. I shot him a few disapproving looks but he didn’t even try to mask his curiosity. Finally we moved to another spot. On my way home, thoroughly appalled at his shameless creeping, I was suddenly distracted by a couple walking ahead of me, clearly having an argument of some sort. I upped my pace to hear what the problem was, and then it hit me: I had just become that man! And I do it all the time, everybody does. It’s the reason why reality TV exists.
A testament to the intriguing nature of strangers’ dialogues is the Toronto Standard column Creepin’, “a series of mini-dramas based on public conversations, as overheard and rewritten by local playwright/director Aurora Stewart de Peña.” A Stratford native, Stewart de Peña runs the theatre company Birdtown & Swanville with her friend Nika Mistruzzi. They went to theatre school together and began putting on their own plays in 2006. “I have tried acting but it’s not really my thing,” she says. “Writing is where I’m most comfortable.” The idea for Creepin’ came after the company put on a bunch of short plays that made her more aware of the short time span in which stories can happen.
For about a year now, Stewart de Peña has entertainingly captured the kinds of mundane exchanges we hear all the time living in a big city. They take place on the subway, at Ideal Coffee on Ossington, the Metro at College and Crawford, or in the entertainment district: places all over the city that most of the Standard’s readership frequent or would at least have visited. She says her mini-dramas are half direct transcription and half made up. “Sometimes I won’t be able to be near people or hear all of what they’re saying, so I’ll hear four lines and have to extrapolate something from that. But the craziest ones are those that are pretty much verbatim.”
Nonetheless, Stewart de Peña maintains that they are rewritten because “there are times when somebody will say something really interesting and then they’ll talk about what they had for lunch for five hours. You have to make little tweaks.” When she does have to add something, she tries to stay away from drawing on personal experience or people she knows. Instead she tries to turn an attribute of that person into a sort of character development. “I don’t want to impose a story or my own values on it,” she says.
What makes Creepin’ so enjoyable is how relatable the strangers’ dialogues are. It’s almost as if by glimpsing into their lives we can take a broader look at ourselves and what it means to live in Toronto. Following the places she writes from week after week creates a trajectory through the city’s many distinct neighbourhoods, tracing the set conversations and emerging “types” that are very much tied to the character of each area. However, Stewart de Peña stays away from generalizing the people she observes. “People come in types I guess, but at the same time I’m always surprised to realize how wrong sometimes you are about someone. You think you know them from one instant, but you don’t.”
A personal favourite of mine is the installment of Creepin’ “Doom of Cyclists,” in which two women sit on a porch at the corner of Dufferin and Davenport and watch cyclists repeatedly get off their bikes and look around in shame because of the steep incline there. I have cursed that hill many times and bonded over this with various people; it’s a Toronto thing.
When Stewart de Peña started Creepin’, she would try to write as she overheard a conversation, but creepees always caught on. “People look out for girls with notebooks, I swear. I had to modify [my approach] and I think it actually resulted in better stuff, just keeping my ears open all the time while trying to listen for a tidbit. It’s made me a better listener for sure,” she says. What makes her “creep” are moments where something switches, when an individual has some kind of realization during a conversation, whether internal or external, and noticing how quickly that can happen. She says “it’s neat to see those turning points that happen so frequently all over the city.”
After consciously listening in on Torontonians exchanging words and stares for a year, what are some things she has noticed about how we interact? “It’s hard to make generalizations but something that I’ve noticed about Torontonians is that they’re very careful with each other.” This isn’t surprising, given that Toronto is always portrayed as being the least friendly city in Canada. “I also think that people lie a lot. I don’t know them, so I can’t be sure, but people aren’t, in public anyway, really speaking from the heart.”
You would think Stewart de Peña hears from people who recognize themselves in her articles all the time, but this has yet to happen. She awaits her discovery in dread; observing and fictionalizing those around her has made her more aware of her own image in public. “I live in fear that people are going to recognize me from the column and then say ‘she’s really dumb, she shouldn’t be a writer. No wonder she’s just an empty vessel, filled up with other people’s words.’” However, it’s undeniable that Stewart de Peña has created something unique from the material the city presents her.