This is local government filtered through the lens of art.
Why is that a good thing?
We hope seeing governance as a performance of power, rather than an application of it, can be liberating.
No one is pretending to be someone else.
You can volunteer to read the words of another actual person.
We’d like you to think about other people.
How are you different on one side of the table versus the other?
We don’t know how to make something without being uncomfortable first.
Do you have a problem with that?
Recently, Mallory Catlett and I were in Tempe, Arizona, with ASU/Gammage, our awesome local presenter, working on our project City Council Meeting. We are creating the piece in four cities (and counting), in collaboration with local groups of artists, nonartists and other citizens, through multiple residency visits.
City Council Meeting is performed by the audience, with the help of “staffers,” in all kinds of spaces—meeting rooms, council chambers, schools, museums. It’s divided into three sections: Orientation, Meeting, and Magic. In the Orientation, staffers help frame the piece, and lead viewers through how to perform the meeting (perhaps some of the lines above are part of this). The Meeting itself looks a lot like an actual city council meeting: the audience enacts a text drawn from several cities’ local government sessions, with testimonies, budgets, and debate. There are cameras and monitors like on cable access. The Magic section, created locally with a group of collaborators, will be some kind of beautiful, sophisticated expression that we all realize together.
In Tempe, we spoke with homeless young adults, MFA students in acting, a Public Practice workgroup, and finally with members of the Tempe Board of Tourism and the Chamber of Commerce. We went from the people that own the buildings to the people who work and study in them, to the ones who sleep outside.
With each group, the moments that seemed the most resonant were when the expected performance broke down, even for just a second: when someone accidentally called the tourism board chair “Mayor;” or when a homeless young mom named Smiles had finished her very well-rehearsed life’s story (involving hardship I found hard to comprehend), one that she had likely told many times, and we asked her whether she’d be part of our working group. That is when Smiles actually broke character.
These are what we are looking for in the piece, too: when things seem to rupture for a minute and something real happens, reminding us that nobody here knows what we are doing. We’re following a script, or a set of instructions. There is a problem to solve.
At one point with Tempe’s MFA group, a heated discussion came up. One student asked us what our intended outcome was. “Because you are doing this piece about politics, it sounds like you want people to have more dialogue.” I said I thought that would be great, but I didn’t want to pin the work down to that. We discussed Boal, founder of the Theater of the Oppressed, whom we like very much. I fumbled for a response as to why that work does something different than what we are after.
“But this is about empowering people, and that is so necessary,” he insisted. He was right, of course. That is something the country needs, desperately. But that’s not why we’re doing this.
After a bit more back and forth, I said that in City Council Meeting, we want you to have a private reckoning within a roomful of people. We want you to take on the words and decisions of others, react to them, and see your reaction at the same time as you have it. We’d like you to be responsive and empathic, at once.
City Council Meeting wants to know how you are part of the city we describe together. What happens when our real selves and civic selves collide? How does what side of the table you’re on affect how you feel and what you see? The piece is meant to put you into a formal situation with the expressions of all kinds of people: from those you love, to those you don’t know, to the ones you can’t stand or don’t care to spend time with. There may be some discomfort.
Here’s an analogy.
For ten years I studied Tai Chi and Kung Fu with Carolyn Campora, a wonderful teacher and sixth degree black belt at Nabi Su Martial Arts in New York. Her teacher had arrived from Hong Kong in the 1950s, and developed his own complex style, drawing on Wing Chun Kung Fu, Tai Kwan Do, and long form tai chi.
Master Pai did this without speaking much English. According to Master Carolyn, one of Pai’s few American expressions was something he learned on the street: “What’s happenin’, Momma?” It meant “be here now.” He was apparently fond of saying it after you’d been punched in the face. Wham! “What’s happenin’ Momma?” Wake up. You are here. It’s 70s street slang as Zen meditation in action.
One of Master Carolyn’s expressions is “Just do what I do. Forget being original.” By that she means, if you try to move like she does, you’ll get as close as you can be to being a master. If you try to be unique, you’ll screw it up. By trying to learn the body of another person, you’ll understand your own better, and learn kick-ass fighting skills in the process.
It’s not a comfortable practice. Carolyn and the other teachers at Nabi Su (one of whom, Arny Lippin, has incidentally become part of our City Council Meeting work group) were a lot more accomplished than me. They are experts; to try and be any of them brought me flat up against my own shortcomings, my failings.
City Council Meeting is a performance of What’s Happenin’ Momma, where seeing the room more clearly might help you grasp your own role in things. It’s the performance of Do What I Do, where speaking from the perspective of someone else might evolve you.
We sometimes get asked why we’re not providing more of an open forum for people to express their views. But I think you can, and should, do that at actual city council meetings. Here, we are asking you to follow the form of someone else’s words, to put yourself into another’s experience, unmediated, unrehearsed, undiscussed. We hope it will help us wake up.
In politics these days, factions embellish or invent behaviors or morals and attach them to their opponents. And as consumers of these politics, we play into each those schemes beautifully: we become outraged, incensed; we counter with our own hyperbole.
This is advertising in place of debate. It takes us out of the present into an imagined future or a longed-for past. This, for me, is the Politics of Should. Sometimes the left is as guilty as the right.
Theater and other art forms can fall into these kinds of patterns, too. We have a goal in mind, or a behavioral or moral dictate to get across, and we address it through the playing out of those behaviors, perhaps positing an alternative. Some politically-engaged work can get people to express themselves publicly, for the first time, in a supportive way. Some can become delightful farce, a way to give agency. I cannot overstate the value of this. And I’m excited about all the work that is and has been going deeper and broader right now into the realm of the interactive, the complication, the disjuncture.
But for me, work that deems itself political often feels like the theater of should, theater as position statement. We should be more compassionate; we should not allow people to make so much money; we should all live in the right neighborhoods. Art should have a goal other than expression or beauty.
Perhaps it happens because theater has traditionally sought a unified response from viewers. Performances in the visual art world may not sustain time as well, may be made from a single gesture, but they are often after a multiplicity of engagements and responses.
I also think it’s because when working with people who are new to our work, new to art-making—and maybe because the issues themselves are charged—artists try very hard to make people feel okay. Or we feel a need to see results beyond a simple act of illumination.
Life doesn’t feel okay to me. It’s upsetting and ecstatic and tedious. Once I acknowledge that and stop trying to get comfortable, I get more curious. We can thrive in the discomfort of our multiplicity and complexity.
So, if we make people we work with uncomfortable, kind of on purpose, are we exploiting them? Can we do it in a way so that we can embrace the unease, and then see each other more clearly? Can we hold everyone in the process to the same standards of surprise, beauty and discovery, perception and intelligence, to which we hold ourselves?
City Council Meeting is taking a form we think we know and asking you to see it differently. Our live event asks you to momentarily own even the most problematic, mundane, “crazy” or sincere views of our fellow citizens, and ask how simply looking each other in the eye can be the beginning of a creative act.
What happens next is up to you.