Putting Performance into the City

Picture this: It’s the near future. Your candidate of choice has won the Presidency. As they stand before Congress for the State of the Union, he or she declares:

My fellow Americans, I stand before you today to assure you that the state of our union is strong. What keeps it strong? The number of arts organizations, artists, and art supporters.”

Okay, so maybe that’s just my fantasy. But, the disconnect between our civic lives and the arts is a detriment of both. If we are going to have a robust understanding of civic life and citizenship, we must look to philosophy as well as the arts.

This thesis underlined the creation of an Honors Seminar, The City as Theater, that I co-taught this past semester at the University of Scranton with Sharon Meagher, chair of Latin American and Women’s Studies. Students in the course studied various philosophical works (taken from Philosophy and the City edited by Dr. Meagher) and theatrical texts (Wilder’s Our Town, Eno’s Middletown, Iizuka’s At the Vanishing Point, Antigone, etc.) on various urban issues. The final project for the course was the creation of a “city in speech” on the campus of the University of Scranton. We called the performance Performing the City.

Using philosophical writings as a conceptual framework, the students were asked to devise a performance, which addresses a particular civic issue. We chose a performance site situated where the university’s campus met the civic space of Scranton and dubbed it “Our City” (in homage to Wilder). Dr. Meagher and I also enlisted the help of Aaron Landsman, a member of Elevator Repair Service, with whom I co-directed Appointment at NYU. Landsman’s current project, City Council Meeting, is a performed experiment in participatory democracy which probes using performance space for civic discourse (he wrote about it for HowlRound here).

What emerged from the students’ work on Performing the City were a number of interactive pieces with various civic goals like challenging the rise of gated communities, propelling audience members toward active citizenship, interrogating the history of democracy, and questioning civic identity.

While our students are academically exceptional, few had performance experience. We generated a special toolset to concoct interactive performances that spanned three hours in a site-specific work. Rather than conceiving of the audience as outsiders to the work, we used various tactics to integrate them as citizens of the city. Docents handed out masks to audience members after they had filled out an application form. These masks would serve particular performances. For example, the young woman who was the president of the gated community only let in people with masks of a certain color. Through this, the audience became citizens of “Our City,” subtly encouraging them to act along with the performers. Performing the City was its own civic event. Like a city, the “citizens” chose what and who to see.

The scripting of the performance demanded flexibility as each piece had its own agenda. The student who ran the welcome center relied on set text used to conduct orientation sessions to “Our City,” whereas another student playing a homeless teen begged for money and attempted to have others advocate for her. To script this, each student-performer developed a series of cycles, bits of action with set text or tasks, which could be amended to illicit an audience response.

...it’s our charge to keep the arts an integral part of civic life so that we might perform our responsibilities and roles in a more robust way.

What amazed during the performance was how the audience took it upon themselves to change “Our City.” As the homeless teen was denied entry to the gated community, audience members demanded that the president remove the restrictive practices of the neighborhood. When she refused, the audience constructed a homeless shelter out of the nearby dump to house the homeless teen.

The performance space, performers and performances that populated our city provided agency for the audience to enact these moments of spontaneous civic responsibility.  While I doubt that the president will champion the arts in the State of the Union any time soon, it’s our charge to keep the arts an integral part of civic life so that we might perform our responsibilities and roles in a more robust way.

For additional information about this project, check out an interview with Hank and Sharon here.  

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Thoughts from the curator

An overview of the theatre scene in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

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