Empathy for our (often) Ridiculous Culture
Gob Squad’s Western Society
Western Society by Gob Squad (recently at REDCAT and commissioned by Center Theatre Group) is a show bursting with ideas that swings between moments of silly, stupid fun and moving compassion. It’s a lot like our lives—a mish-mash of mundane daily life juxtaposed with moments of transcendence, often all delivered via our social media machines. Western Society, in some senses, models our online world—there are screens within screens, videos within videos, and stories within stories. Watching the show is like reading a beautiful piece of literature stuffed within a cat video wrapped in gold lamé. But what makes this show incredible is that Gob Squad finds the heart in all of it—it’s emotional, it’s strange, and it’s a show that cares about all of our lives. Instead of ridiculing our often-ridiculous culture, Western Society works through the noise to explore the complexity and depth of humanity.
Gob Squad is a British-German collective who, according to their website, “explore the point where theater meets art, media, and real life.… The audience are often asked to step beyond their traditional role as passive spectators and bear witness to the results.” In my experience of Gob Squad’s work, you don’t feel as if you’re in a traditional theater space—the space is charged with a different energy—it’s an event, not just a play, and there’s a strong connection between performers and audience.
Gob Squad uses video, theater, and the audience to fulfill their dreams and desires, to imagine their futures, and to re-write their pasts.
Western Society begins with the ensemble explaining the show’s point of inspiration—a YouTube video—perhaps “one of the least watched videos on the Internet.” When Gob Squad first stumbled upon this unremarkable gem on YouTube, it had something like five or six views. The video features friends and family in Santa Barbara, hanging out at a party, singing karaoke. During the show, the real video is only shown in snippets or in the distance while Gob Squad recreates the scene on stage in three dimensions. The actors become the people in the video, aptly named Remote Control Man, Next to Remote, Girl with Phone, and others.
The stage is sparse—a couch and chairs upstage represent the living room from the YouTube video. Downstage, there are microphones and a moveable screen. The screen sometimes serves as a projection surface to show a live feed of the re-enactments.
Early in the show, as Gob Squad re-enacts the video, they meditate on why they are doing this reenactment at all, asking each other, “Why am I doing this?” As the scene continues, they ask each other questions, less as performers and more as people. Questions like: “Would you rather have Ebola at your daughter’s school, or in Africa?” or “Lady Gaga or Madonna?” The questions often seem improvised, which lends a rough spontaneity to the show.
Next, the ensemble brings some audience members onstage who put on headphones and are directed (by the Gob Squad performers, via microphone) to re-enact the video. Then Gob Squad starts to lay their own personal stories of family onto (or over) the YouTube family that they’ve been playing. Using the members of the audience as their surrogate “family,” we watch the actors re-create their own lives. This evolution, for me, was when the show deepened. For example, one of the performers, Sarah Thom, re-casts one of the audience members as her father who has Alzheimer’s and can no longer remember she’s his daughter. Sarah feeds her father’s lines (what he should say, in her mind) to the audience member’s headset, and the audience member repeats them aloud. Then, Sarah responds as herself. In this fantasy retelling, Sarah’s father knows exactly who she is. Sarah is so happy. They have a great conversation. Suddenly, another ensemble member pulls the microphone from Sarah, and we watch as her father (the audience member) falls into forgetfulness once again.
There is a theme of wish fulfillment that runs throughout Western Society. Gob Squad uses video, theater, and the audience to fulfill their dreams and desires, to imagine their futures, and to re-write their pasts. It’s interesting that this show was written, workshopped, and now performed in Los Angeles, the symbol of American and Western desire. These days though, Los Angeles isn’t the only place to hold this mantle—it’s everywhere. Our desires and the way those desires are manipulated for profit saturate every facet of our lives and, just like this show, our lives are a projection of our desires.
And for Gob Squad, it seems, that’s what theater is too—a place to investigate desire. In Western Society, the performers are constantly filming themselves and each other. It seems they are looking at themselves, asking, “Is this what I want? To be me? Is this me? Am I the person I thought I would be? Do I even like what I see?” Perhaps this is our culture. We’re always looking at ourselves through someone else’s viewpoint. Like the YouTube video, we are the aggregate of the projections that we put out for the world to see.
Fortunately, Western Society doesn’t take a cynical view. The YouTube video may be the “least watched video on the Internet,” but instead of trolling these anonymous people in Santa Barbara, Gob Squad finds beauty within their creation. After all, this is a family party that someone bothered, not only to film, but also to share with the world. Someone cared about this party, and in turn, Gob Squad cared enough to make a show about it.
In another Gob Squad show that recently played at REDCAT, Super Night Shot, the group wages “a war on anonymity.” An hour before curtain, Gob Squad begins shooting a film on the streets of Los Angeles. At the end of the film, or the beginning of the theater performance, they enter the lobby of the theater running, cameras in hand, and then screen the film for us, the paying audience. Of course, we are in the movie too, because we’re the last bit they shot, in the lobby. The star of the film is a total stranger that they approached on the street—a total stranger who was asked if they believe in love at first sight, and if they wanted to be in a movie about romantic love. Like Western Society, Super Night Shot is about our shared ideals, desires, and passions—our quest to avoid anonymity, to really connect, and to even in a small way, to create an image that lasts.
Ultimately, what makes Gob Squad so unique is their open and generous relationship with the audience. A lot of theater teaches us that the show is about the performer, but Gob Squad upends this notion and makes their shows about us. We are the stars of our own crazy, fucked-up culture, and its imperfect but that’s what makes it beautiful. Gob Squad reminds us that there is beauty to be found in our own desires, too. After all, these desires drive most things, good and bad, here in our Western society.