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Asking Everyone To Act

For the last ten years my shows have been presented in places where people perform their daily lives. This has so far included offices, homes, the sidewalk, and barrooms. I’m most excited by situations that are inherently performative: a real estate sales pitch, a therapy session, Happy Hour. Some recent pieces include: Open House, commissioned and produced by The Foundry Theatre in 24 New York City apartments; What You’ve Done, in a Houston row house; Desk, in an office atrium; and Appointment, a series of one-on-one performances in offices in five cities and counting. Now I am taking what I’ve learned by working outside of traditional performance spaces and using it to bring a specific kind of interaction and participation into a theater. My new project City Council Meeting is a provocation to the form, a way to engage audiences differently, an invitation to sort through and question the ways we govern ourselves. I call it “Performed Participatory Democracy.”

Where To Start
For every piece I make, the starting point is the same: I see something that amazes me or makes me uncomfortable, I can’t explain why and I need to find out. Usually it is some awkward, ungainly moment I can’t take my eyes away from: someone bawling out a shelf of cookies at a deli; a desperate real estate sales pitch; a little gesture between two people. At a certain point I find myself saying “I have to make that.” When someone tries to talk me out of it or asks me why, and I still can’t shake the idea, I know I have a point of entry.

In April of 2009 I was in Portland, Oregon, on a visit that took me, roundabout, to City Hall. Portland Center Stage had brought me out to discuss doing a remount of my 2008 play Open House. As we went around town, trying to make partnerships with local community organizations, Tim Duroche, then Community Programs Manager at PCS, took me to meet an arts-friendly City Council member. The Council member told us we might want to stick around, because the city council meeting coming up in a few minutes was “going to be a hot one.” Which in this case meant there was a big zoning issue to be discussed. I chuckled to myself, condescendingly, but agreed to watch.

Two actors, a man and a woman, act in a small theater.
Open House

It turned out to be some of the best live art I’d seen in a long time. First of all, the set up was innately theatrical: council members sat on a raised platform facing the gallery; citizens testified facing upstage, with their image projected on a big overhead screen. We watched their backs as they spoke and saw their faces writ large above us. We sat behind our cohorts and faced the powerbrokers. There was a palpable charge in the room that only happens when everyone plays a role they care about deeply. People were at their strongest, their angriest, their most trusting. At one point, a sort of off-kilter Jimmy Stewart-like man dumped a pile of refuse—drug works, dirty diapers, used condoms—onto the table in front of the council and said, “I found these at the playground by the daycare across the street from me. What are we going to do to clean up the city?” A council member stood up and told him he’d created a public health hazard. As the entire chamber of 200-plus people was cleared, the old man thanked the council member, “for making my point better than I ever could.”

Outrage, comedy, solidarity, power, intrigue. The room crackled with what might happen next. I thought, “I should make a show about this.” Early last year, I got a three-year residency at HERE to develop City Council Meeting. I was excited to be making something for a theater again and engage that space as a specific site. I was also thrilled that the residency is long enough to allow for big, messy risks. Initially I figured I would see a lot of meetings, transcribe my favorite material, and stage it. As I visited more cities (I’m up to eight now), it became clear that, at these events, the whole room is alive. People are coming and going, there are several scenes taking place at once, everyone has an agenda. How could a fourth-wall production really manifest that?

Luckily, I have found productive ways to complicate things. First, I started working with the brilliant director and dramaturg Mallory Catlett. She is fluent in so many of the possible languages of live performance, from Shakespeare to Sonic Youth, and together we are evolving something fresh and complex. I also started finding out about other live artwork—everything from Josef Beuys’ social sculptures to Hannah Hurtzig’s Blackmarket Academies to LAPD to Sojourn—that is both interactive and rigorous. We read an ethnographic study of one city’s government meetings, in which the author uses dramaturgical terms to describe how the structure of the meetings themselves creates and disrupts real access. Mallory says she is interested in actual communication more than representation onstage right now.

I would like us to make something revolutionary—where the viewer becomes the maker and the makers are just along for the ride.

I want to both have control of our material and give up something real to the viewer. We are both looking for moments of what we refer to as “theater magic” that can evolve organically in a piece that is less about virtuosity or technical feats, more about radical empathy and a few good questions: why do we elect to lead ourselves this way? How much agency do any of us have? Could we have more? One of the things we have figured out is that common terms have different meanings here: “Scripting” can include a series of procedures and instructions. “Dramatic action” can mean having a few key performers know when to move the process along or slow it down. “Dramaturgy” becomes about setting up interruptions and moments over which we don’t have control, framed by interactions that are tightly constructed—the tension between the two carries us forward. The more we provoke ourselves formally, the more there emerges something to say.

This fall, we did some test rehearsals with five to ten invited guests and a team of wonderful actors, and tried out versions of a structure. People were very helpful in letting us know how much we could put viewers on the spot (enough to be uncomfortable but not so much as to feel exploited), and how much procedural language they could tolerate. But when we did two workshop performances of about forty-five minutes for the first time last month at HERE—with more than sixty people a night—we had no idea if anything would hold together.

What Happens
In the lobby of City Council Meeting you are given a choice: do you want to be a Council Member, a Participant who may give a piece of pre-written testimony, a Respondent who’s given a set of physical instructions, or a Bystander, whose only role is to watch. The goal of these divisions is to activate everyone, to ask everyone to consider their roles in a performance, even if they’re “doing nothing.” (And partly, allowing the role of Bystander acknowledges the fact that some nights you just want to sit and watch a show.) Council Members and Participants are oriented by actors playing the Secretary and a staffer; Participants are given a piece of testimony, usually something from a meeting I’ve been to, and told they may be called on to read it during the show. Respondents’ instructions include things like “get up and leave when someone says something you don’t agree with; come back in five minutes,” or, “when you hear a certain testimony, stand up in solidarity with that person.” Bystanders are asked to go back to the bar and wait.

When everyone else has been oriented, and received their text, this last group is called downstairs and everyone is seated. Once the “meeting” begins, audience members and a couple of actors perform from pieces culled from meetings I have been to, somewhere in the country, as well as from my own writing that is designed to locate us all in the room together. Votes are cast. Citizens make their cases. At certain points, a few Respondents stand up when someone makes an important point. Events accumulate until an actor disrupts the proceedings and the room is cleared out. This is what happens so far. We think it’s about a third of the piece.

What Next
What was exciting in January was that everyone, having been given a role to perform or not perform, was engaged with everyone else differently than in a traditional play. People seemed to forget that the things we talked about were not actually at stake. And if the guy who volunteered to be Mayor for that night stumbled through a really dense bit of text, for instance, everyone seemed to feel for him, root for him, urge him to go on. And by removing the specifics of any given place and combining transcripts from several cities into one work, we have tried to create a fictional city all of us can inhabit together now. Maybe that guy is actually the Mayor of this night. And maybe when you speak the voice of a teenager who feels his neighborhood has been left behind, you are speaking for kids like her all over. We are trying to find the poetry in bureaucracy, the metaphor in procedure.

We are looking ahead to how to open the piece up and grow it. What happens if a couple Respondents get a call on their phones and are asked to repeat what they hear on the other end of the line, interrupting the regular meeting? How does the design of the room point to one kind of reality on a video monitor and another kind live (luckily we have designer and director Jim Findlay to help us work that one out)? How far can we push this? You’ll find us in Brooklyn and Boston this spring trying to find out. A couple people were frustrated by what we showed in January; they wanted to know what the point was, what I was trying to say, why I was doing it, and where the whole thing was going. I had to answer honestly that I can only find out by making the show.

But here is something City Council Meeting has in common with a lot that I do: it’s a paean to misfits. I am always gravitating toward moments when marginal people say something truthful, whether they are speaking to power or just to themselves on a street corner. I live in a city because I want to be where the confines of passable behavior are as broad as possible. I feel like cities have saved me over and over again; so has being an artist. So, as streets and stores become more homogenized, I look for spaces where misfits can go. Right now they tend to be public ones—parks, libraries, and yes, city council chambers. It’s where you can make sense of a senseless world, give a voice to something not normally honored, or have a direct line to the people who seem to hold the strings. That is always one of the inherent reasons I make work: to try and give us a place to be eloquently ourselves.

One thing I think I am after is this: I would like us to make something revolutionary—where the viewer becomes the maker and the makers are just along for the ride. If we could do that in a theater, can we do it at City Hall? This is probably not feasible, and that is humbling. It makes me want to keep trying.

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wonderful window in your thinking and process! It's also gratifying to see this taking shape...I'd joked for years that while I worked at a richly inviting theater and arts space I was fascinated by civic engagement and participatory politics, because it was the best theater--and city council meetings are perhaps the best expression of that.

Everyone gets their three minutes to testify before the council, perhaps more affirming and full of potential for both dread and delight than any Warholian 15-minutes.

Hi Aaron-

It was fascinating to watch our democracy in action at your City Council Meeting. After the show I couldn't help but think that this is what makes our democracy tick: how rigorously Council members adhere the minutia of mundane bureaucratic rules and procedures.

Look forward to seeing how it evolves-


this is great, after serving for two years on the Urbana Sustainability commission I am totally intrigued by the power structures of city politics. I can't wait to see this. Such exciting work!

Aaron--this is fantastic! What a cool way to bring people in conflict (who may not actually be in conflict--or may) together. This would be cool to have the people in these meetings get new roles and have to stand in the oppositions shoes--what kind of understanding could come from that--how might people open?


Thank you for that eloquent insight into your process with "City Council Meeting", Aaron. It has been a pleasure hearing your describe it over time (in multiple cities and countries, in the past year or so), and to see you and the work have co-evolved. You take risks with the subjects and forms you choose to investigate, and your seem adept at letting the work lead you into new directions. You question, and are open to abandoning preconceived notions if better questions or more curious directions open up. How inspiring. How novel. And how rare, these days.

Brendan McCall
Founder & Artistic Director
Ensemble Free Theater Norway.


What a great set of observations and articulations of practice. Thanks for the shout out. As we at Sojourn (along with our collaborators at The TEAM) work on Town Hall, our own exploration into participatory democracy, we follow your work and discoveries for inspiration and a sense of shared passions and values. I especially want to note your thoughtful examination of what dramaturgy, scripting and participation can mean at a time when new work development is on so many minds (and blogs). You give some great examples of how expansive new work can be, formally as well as with respect to intent.

and of course, thanks to Polly for putting you and your work here.

Michael Rohd
Sojourn Theatre