Most of the time I don’t know what I am doing, until it’s living in the room. Except that most of the things I have done – as a maker, performer or viewer – I have done within the genre of experimental theater. And I’ve been doing these things for long enough that what I make inevitably ends up sharing a lot of its DNA with that form.
But ultimately, I don’t really care whether you think what I made for you is theater, performance art, social practice or something on the border of art and non-art. What difference does it make? Can you take in the experience on the experience’s terms, without predetermining what it is supposed to be? I’d love it if you could.
I know that making my current project City Council Meeting - which, depending on the day, has felt like a bold step forward, a failed social experiment, a devised documentary theater work with audience participation, or a case of Emperor’s New Clothes – has transformed me as an artist in some way. It has become less important how what I do fits or doesn’t into a particular genre. Is that innovative of me? Or just careless.
Created in collaboration with director Mallory Catlett, and designer Jim Findlay, City Council Meeting involves found and original text, a set of instructions and prompts, and live and recorded video. The project is about the forms through which we govern ourselves locally. It’s performed by the audience with the help of staffers, some of whom are actors, and some are not. It is a combination of a touring production and a community work we build locally in each city where it’s presented. Depending on who you talk to, it’s either difficult to get through, or entirely accessible, even fun. It is procedural and non-narrative. It is meant to be able to exist almost anywhere but a black-box. Is it theater? I don’t know.
Maybe it helps to anchor this nebulous term ‘innovation’ by thinking about craft and technique. As an actor, I am a huge fan of the cliché that says that in order to be in the moment onstage, we have to leave technique backstage. We have to learn something well enough to forget it. Whether I am in a naturalistic scene that calls for particular, scripted emotional highs and lows, in a clown piece where I am supposed to embody immense guilelessness, or in an ensemble work that is about just listening to the other human beings with whom I am onstage, I know the common thread is that I need to have honed what I know well enough to abandon it.
Is there an equivalent for authors? Meaning, as a writer, what do I gain by worrying about whether or not what I am making is theater while in the act of writing? What does that worry inhibit me from doing? Is it possible to trust the long years of working and watching, teaching and listening, to let the process determine the form? And if so, where do you locate the rigor? Is it possible to let the motivation or form remain a mystery until the last possible moment, trusting that the hundred other projects you’ve worked on, the failures and successes alike, are all feeding into the possibilities of the current process?
When I think about form and craft, I also can’t help but think of how the work gets produced, because certain ways of producing yield certain kinds of work.
We made City Council Meeting through a three-year residency at HERE, in New York. We developed the piece through additional residencies in two other cities, through NPN support at DiverseWorks in Houston, and through a community residency with ASU Gammage. Those three years allowed us to build a piece through multiple, fully-produced work-in-progress showings, lots of trial and (lots of) error, and concurrent efforts at fundraising and presenter cultivation.
HERE took on the project when it was nothing more than an idea on a page. Gammage committed to it in order to spark a longer conversation among its audience and among performing artists in Phoenix/Tempe, about form of theater and the form of politics; before the curtain went up on City Council Meeting there this February, they had already decided to continue that conversation with me through new projects. DiverseWorks drew on our several-year history of working together to expand a conversation that already existed there.
All three of these producing partners embedded themselves in something ongoing and put resources toward the unknown. Whether that is innovative or not, its certainly not an easy sell for presenters. Though HERE sometimes raised objections to how we wanted the project to evolve, we managed to stick together and make something, albeit quite different than what I proposed to them. It was performed in different spaces than we expected, performed by different people.
At our best, we all balanced ourselves among the needs of the project, the evolving process and the visions of all the partners. It felt less hierarchical than many processes I’ve been involved in, regardless of the fact that, technically speaking, I was the artist, and they were the institution, giving me an opportunity I could not really have without them. In practice the piece became something much wilder and more unruly than it could have been if it had been mapped out on paper and achieved according to plan.
When people say “theater is a collaborative art form” they usually mean what happens onstage is created collaboratively, among artists. I want to talk about the collaboration between artists and audiences. How are we inviting people into the room with us, into the conversation? How does the audience’s presence impact the work? How are we dependent on viewers, not just to buy tickets, but to enter our spaces and projects in a well-articulated, well-lived way? How can we make better invitations?
One sure thing I came away with from the recent run of City Council Meeting in New York was that the piece is not for everyone. Just as certain, you’d be more likely to get it if you were brought into it in a way that made you feel like you belonged there. Maybe we walked you around Jim’s set and showed you a bit of the video for a few minutes, along with your classmates; maybe you heard or read an interview beforehand; maybe you came with a group, or with someone who’d seen it before. What if the project includes school performances, introductions, roundtable conversations, multiple viewings and orientations? When does the “performance” start?
This is tricky because we don’t want our show to be beholden to program notes or ancillary activities. But for some work, maybe it’s necessary to think the performance begins at the moment of invitation, and that it’s incumbent on us to curate how everyone gets in the room, just like we dramaturg what happens onstage.
Does this mean we should assume that our work is only for a select audience, who must be prepared in advance? Well, no and yes.
No, because anyone who wants to come should be able to, and some people can just dive right in. But yes because don’t we inadvertently curate our audiences already? We do it by the prices we charge for tickets, by who sees people like them on stage, in a range of possible roles, or with them in the audience, and therefore feels welcomed. We do it by who we ask to run our institutions. We do it by our choice of material, and by the gradual inculcation (or not) of people into our forms and behaviors. There are already such class, racial and cultural biases embedded in the way theater is presented, packaged and sold, so I’d like to advocate we open up that conversation as we talk about innovation.
I am an avid formal experimentalist. I believe in trying something simply because it appeals to you, because you want to challenge common assumptions about what is possible or not possible. I think it’s totally awesome and necessary to make work for a very small viewership, as well as for a large one.
I also know that everything we do carries a politics with it, and a message. Form is content, to some degree. The postcard is content. The website is content. Who is in the room with us is content. They are inextricably linked.
I think what I am advocating here is that we engage some basic questions: What are we doing and why? Who is in the room and how did we all get here? If we answer them broadly and deeply, and also specifically enough, can we innovate from inside the work itself?
LINK to: http://www.citycouncilmeeting.org
Aaron Landsman is a playwright and actor based in Brooklyn, NY and Urbana, IL. His current project City Council Meeting has been presented in three cities, with more on the way. Previous works include Open House, commissioned and produced by The Foundry Theatre in 24 NYC apartments, Appointment, a series of one-on-one performances in small offices and waiting rooms, What You’ve Done, a play in a Houston row house, as well as various stage works. He has performed with Elevator Repair Service, Richard Maxwell, Julia Jarcho, Tory Vazquez and others. He teaches workshops and classes, too.