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Turning City Council Meetings into Performance

Jeffrey Mosser: Dear artists, welcome to another episode of From the Ground Up podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. I’m your host, Jeffrey Mosser, recording from the ancestral homeland of the Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk, and Menominee, now known as Milwaukee, Wisconsin. These episodes are shared digitally to the internet. Let’s take a moment to consider the legacy of colonization embedded within the technology, structure, and ways of thinking that we use every day. We are using equipment and high-speed internet not available in many Indigenous communities. Even the technologies that are central to much of the work we make leave a significant carbon footprint contributing to climate change that disproportionately affects Indigenous people worldwide. I invite you to join me in acknowledging the truth and violence perpetrated in the name of this country, as well as our shared responsibility to make good of this time and for each of us to consider our roles and reconciliation, decolonization, and allyship.

Dear artists, so glad to be a part of your day today. I sincerely hope that this podcast is something that you find useful to make the connections to your artistic and ensemble-based practices, and I’m glad to be leaning into how we continue the story of American ensemble theatremaking with you. If I may for a moment say that these conversations only deepen my own personal practice as I apply them with my students and ensembles that I get to work with. I hope they’re finding a way into your ensemble work and whoever you call a student, whether that’s actors or creatives or other folks. Today is no different, as we have Mallory Catlett and Aaron Landsman, co-authors of The City We Make Together: City Council Meeting’s Primer For Participation. They have been co-creators on this process for a very long time, and I have to say that my relationship to Aaron started a very long time ago, as we discussed in the call.

In fact, one thing he mentions is a workshop performance in Boston, which I actually got to be a part of. For this to now have taken life as a book is so exciting. The book itself really does poke into nooks and crannies of the creative and civic experiences they both encountered. It was truly great to hear about how this piece has evolved and how it was financially feasible through partnerships. Given the civic nature of this work, it reminded me of our call with Michael Rohd in season two, episode five.

All right, quick plug y’all. If this or any other episode has gotten you excited about continuing your collaboratively creative work or less traditional ensemble-based processes, I hope you’ll drop us a line at [email protected] or connect with us at @FTGU_Pod and @ensemble_ethnographer on Twitter and Instagram. I need to know what you want to know more about, so please don’t be shy. Let me know what you like. What little known ensemble-based company is in your town or was in your town? I want to know about them. Let’s talk.

All right, let’s jump into it. Mallory and Aaron Zoomed in to me from Lenape land in New York and New Jersey on August 12, 2022. Enjoy.

What can this form that we call theatre contain? Can it contain more than it does right now?

Jeffrey: But I certainly remember meeting you at Double Edge at their Art & Survival Conference.

Aaron Landsman: Yes.

Jeffrey: It was moderated by Michael Rohd and all the fine folks there at Double Edge and I was Michael’s notetaker and—

Aaron: Ah, right. Yeah, yeah, I do. I remember.

Jeffrey: I was behind a desk. Go ahead, sorry.

Aaron: No, no. I was talking to my wife about it because we were both there with our son who was then probably two or maybe three, and he’s now thirteen and taller than her. I just remember also that we were very, like, “How do we do this parenting thing still? It’s been two years or three years and we’re not...” If my memory is foggy, I blame it on my kid because he’s—

Jeffrey: Totally understandable and having gone through a kiddo at that age, I totally am with you. How do I make art and make good choices for my child right now?

Aaron: Yeah, yeah. Usually I just sacrifice the good choices for my child. That’s been my—

Jeffrey: That’s the short— Yeah. I hate to say—

Aaron: I don’t know if that works for you, but I recommend it.

Jeffrey: Right. The number of production meetings I went to with a baby strapped to me was, like, I know it’s embarrassing. It was great.

Hey folks, welcome. Thank you so much for doing this and thanks— I was very excited, based on that, Aaron and Mallory and everyone, I was really excited to get the reach out from your publicist about this and I’m so proud to be able to give this book and this process a little bit of airtime. Yeah, this is really exciting to me and it must feel exciting for y’all to be able to put this out there into the world.

I’ve been through your book. Listen, I’ve had this book for maybe three weeks and it looks like I’ve owned it for ten years. It is written in and crinkled and crumpled and I have so many pages that are dog-eared already and it’s so exciting to read and just get this peek into the world, but I assume that much of our audience may not have read the book quite yet, and so I want to know first about you all and discover a little bit more about— In making of the play, City Council Meeting, I want to know how does this play reflect your own artistic aesthetics and how did you come to begin to lean into the creation of it?

Mallory Catlett: I’ll just—

Jeffrey: Yeah, go, go.

Mallory: I just want to say I’m not sure that we would call it a play, first off. I think we would call it more of a performance because I think, in terms of approach, we weren’t like, “We’re going to make a play.” What we wanted to do was explore the idea of participation, and we pretty quickly realized that because it was about participation, we wanted the audience to perform it. It just always felt like a performance of transcripts of a meeting. It never really felt like... I don’t know. Maybe the distinction is subtle, but it’s not— I don’t direct that many plays anymore, but used to, but it just feels like a very different way to begin for me, because a play comes at you with a kind of— Not always, but it’s something that’s been set out when you get it and now it can change and all that stuff, but there is a shape to it and it’s coming from one, normally a writer, so it has a very different feel.

The writer of this, which is like a— Transcripts are really city council meetings. It’s a collage, so whoever’s authored it is like multi-authored from its original textual source material. We were collaging those things together. Now, Aaron is a writer and it includes material that Aaron wrote as a way of subverting or disrupting or disclaiming the event, but Aaron was working very much in response to this source material.

Aaron: I would say, just to add, Mallory talks about trying to prioritize real communication rather than representation in this work especially, but I think in some of her work and probably now in some of mine, and so, there was a sense of like, can these texts be vehicles for people to communicate with each other directly in the room who’ve never maybe met before as a way to embody some of what we were interested in and looking at. I think there is a lineage in visual art performance that is more quick to embrace that approach rather than narrative being front and center or emotional representation being front and center or psychology being front and center. I think that’s also why play or performance... On one hand, it can feel like splitting hairs. On the other hand, I think both Mallory and I are interested in: What can this form that we call theatre contain? Can it contain more than it does right now? That kind of thing.

Jeffrey: That’s great, but you would ultimately consider this theatre, yes? Not reenactment or—

Aaron: I would put it to the audience at each show, honestly, because literally there’s a, kind of, now many-times told story about a response by a couple people in Tempe, Arizona when we did it. One was— A woman came up and said, “I don’t know if that was theatre or some kind of weird social experiment.” Then her son said, “No, that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” and then the woman said, “We’re leaving.” I think it’s in the book too.

It depended on who you asked on a given night. I think a lot of people picked apart that question afterward. They talked to us about being unable to stop talking about the piece when they saw it, so I think it really lives in that liminal space of, Yeah, it’s theatre, kind of.

Jeffrey: Like I was mentioning earlier, Aaron, I met you eleven years ago now or so, and you said you were working on it then, and in the book you allude to starting the process in... Was it 2010 when this actually—

Aaron: Basically, yeah. I saw the formative meeting in 2009 and then we really got to work in 2010.

Jeffrey: So that’s a lot of time from then till now. My question about that is: Civics have changed significantly—our process and our communication about civics—and did that evolution of our cultural civic process inform this work as it continued to evolve or as you continued to work on it?

Aaron: For me, the initial meeting was four months into Obama’s first term. That was April of 2009, so I saw this very theatrical council meeting that we go into in the book. Then right after that I drove from Portland, Oregon to Missoula, Montana where I was teaching a workshop. I was listening to radio the whole time and I heard a lot of right-wing talk shows and I was like, “Oh wow, we’re really brayed in our national discourse.” And Obama’s presidency, the racism surrounding that, became very clearly a focal point or a flashpoint.

I felt like, well, what I was seeing in local government meetings was a little bit more hope. I feel like that was the beginning of a process that led to Trump and that led to the further fracturing or polarization. It does feel like local meetings have become, in the last two years, more of a battleground around these hot-button issues, and the right has actually done a pretty good job of using performance approaches to get points across or to make statements. That’s one change that I see.

Jeffrey: I can see the form is laid out before you. You’ve got a city council meeting where it’s laid out. This is the structure, these are the events, and even the act structure of the play as you outlined it in the book. Since you’re using transcripts and actual language from meetings, you’ve also got some content. I’m wondering, can you talk a little bit about how the form and the content fed each other in the creative process? That might lead us to how we brought community members into the process as well?

Mallory: Yeah, I’ll go back to this idea that the thrust of the thing was about thinking about why we do or do not participate in our civic lives or how we participate. The city council meeting itself and the structure, what you’re saying, the dramaturgy is very much about that, meaning that when you go to a city council meeting, the first part makes you feel good and they do all the fun stuff. It rewards you for being there, and then it immediately goes into something that’s really boring that is designed to hopefully make you leave because it’s all been decided and it just doesn’t— So that by the time it gets to the place where a contentious thing is going to be discussed, there will be as few people in the audience as possible.

So the structure, it kind of goes both ways in terms of the impression of participation and welcoming and inclusion and dwindling out of that. At the same time, the structure literally does the opposite, which is that it actually moves from the table to the audience. So it goes in both directions, this thing. It’s a great form to think about participation in a multitude of ways. Because on the one side, there’s the idea of the impression and the hope of the people in power, which is to dwindle the participation. While the structure itself— while a city council meeting moves from the people on the council table talking more to, that giving way to the audience. So because there’s this one structure, the power structure wants it to move in the opposite direction. It’s really a fascinating structure if you’re interested in participation. And that’s what we were interested in.

The form and the content are so... And I was thinking about this recently, about myself, is that I actually am so fascinated with structure and that’s really what my focus is… Is that sometimes when it’s not a structural problem it’s just a problem of content, like if we go back to this notion of representation, I get bored, and when it’s purely just about making the content good or making the story work or you know what I mean, I lose my interest and then get a little bit like, I don’t know what to do. I was thinking about it because this project, the content and the form were so interlocked that it was always fascinating and I was always into the problem to be solved here.

For me, extremely engaging process. And as I’m working on other projects now I get to these places where I’m like, “I don’t know what to do here. It’s not working.” But I’m like, I’m not— I realize it’s because there isn’t a structural problem oftentimes. What’s great, and I think the best pieces I’ve ever made, is where the form and the content are so well married and so well-matched that it’s endlessly enriching and endlessly interesting to try to figure out, to problem solve, and to make choices.

Jeffrey: I want to go down a rabbit hole there with you, but I will resist it for the moment. That’s great, thank you. So you were bringing in non-actors to perform most if not all of the piece, and you use the term “spect-actors” in here to allude to what Boal used in terms of bringing in untrained actors to perform the pieces and actually tell the story of the community.

Can you talk about how you shaped those spect-actors or those non-actors to give them their tasks and instructions as they jumped into the play? In fact, actually, I might back this up for a second. Can you talk about the different roles that you asked audience members to play throughout the piece?

Aaron: There’s two different levels to which we could answer the question. One is that we worked with a local group of staffers, and so in each city Mallory figured out a way to, in about seven rehearsals, just very technically train a group of people that we asked to join us who were... Some might have had theatre backgrounds or performing experience, but many were just— We wanted it to look like the city that we were in. We worked with local partners who were usually really, really deeply engaged, and trusted them, and then we trusted the staffers to be able to pull off guiding the audience through the show. That was one very important role that evolved in the process. There were, I think, seven or eight staffers in each city. Then in terms of the audience roles, people could choose through an orientation video to be a council member, a speaker who got a piece of testimony, a supporter who maybe didn’t have to speak but got instructions like stand up at a certain point or answer your phone if it rings and that kind of thing. Then a bystander—and the bystander would just leave the room after the orientation, after they had made their decision and come back with a program, and it would be like watching a show.

Every other role had a specific orientation that a staffer would do with them. Each council member had their own orientation. The speakers got a piece of testimony and a little bit of instruction, but not much. Just enough to be able to basically know when to come up if their name was called. Supporters, it was the same thing. They got a card with a series of instructions and then there were people around they could ask questions of. I think one bottom line for us was always assuming that the audience members coming in as well as the staffers were experts, that we didn’t have to teach them anything. We just had to offer something really clear.

As a writer, I was often working with Mallory to change the text of an orientation so that it could be crystal clear and we would basically do work in progress and learn from mistakes, and we just considered them our own mistakes. If an audience member didn’t know what to do, that was something we could correct in terms of how we gave them something in the moment of the performance. That idea of audience members or collaborators as experts, whether or not they have a performance background, for me, is a term that Rimini Protokoll uses. It was a good provocation to me as someone who’s pretty... I spent a lot of time making theatre, so I think of myself as having expertise, but then to just turn that over was really liberating for me.

Mal, do you want to add anything?

Mallory: Yeah, I think that one of the things about the choices that you could have is— It also had to do with anonymity, like the levels of anonymity. If you were going to be a counselor, you were putting yourself as an individual very much front and center in the performance. The speakers had to give their name, so we had to identify— but the supporters, it was completely anonymous. You went up and you got a card. Then of course the bystander... The other thing about the bystanders is not only did they leave, but I think what’s important about that moment after the orientation and after the bystanders leave is that the rest of the audience understands that everybody is getting different kinds of treatment. If you’re a supporter, you’re watching the council member get this instruction. You don’t know what they’re being told, but you know that there’s a distinction between what you know because of what you’ve chosen.

There’s immediately these implications between what you choose and what happens. Then the bystander doesn’t understand that anybody’s been oriented at all. My guess is that they understand that the staffers are whatever, and they get the same instructions and they basically know, but they don’t have any experience of what that orientation looked like or any of that.

What we constantly were trying to do is, like… There’s four different audiences for the piece, and that’s also why it made it really fascinating to work on, is that we’re dealing with four different audiences constantly and thinking about, Okay, how is the show good for the council table? How’s the show good for the people sitting looking at the council table, depending on where you are? Yeah, again, wanting people— all geared towards wanting people to make a choice and then spend the entire performance thinking about, Why did I make this choice? What are the repercussions of this choice? The bystander thinking—

We had a good reviewer that we know in New York who chose to be a bystander maybe because she was a reviewer, but she immediately noticed that that choice that she made said so much about the entire piece and her experience of the whole thing. Again, because a lot of what happened to me when I started going to city council meeting is: I’m just overwhelmed by my own judgment of everybody in the room. Why am I here? Why did I come? Why aren’t I on the other side of the table? All sorts of things. I felt like a thirteen-year-old. Bored, impatient, judgmental, all those sorts of stuff. We really want our audience, not painfully so, but we do want them to engage in that way, because that’s really where the rubber hits the road in terms of participation.

We can all say we want to do it, but when we go to do it, we actually have to deal with ourselves. We have to deal with ourselves in the room doing those things, and that’s really why we do or don’t do something you, you know what I mean? That was very important for us to— All the choices we were making was trying to get back down to that place where people would have this inner dialogue about: What’s going on here, why am I here? What’s entertaining about it? All those kinds of things.

Jeffrey: Did you get feedback from those four types of audiences?

Aaron: Yeah, I loved getting feedback from council members and we’ve begun to teach this work in classroom settings and that’s also a really great lab for us, but one of the things I heard a lot after performances was as soon as I sat down behind the council table, I was like, “Why are they looking at me? Why do they want something from me? Don’t they know how to get...” They really fell into the emotionality of being someone in power. There’s instructions that council members get, just them alone, and there’s a moment when we ask a staffer, or an index card that they get, would say, “Look out at the audience and try to figure out what they want from you,” or something like that. I think it fed what we were getting as feedback.

I did a lot of interviews with council members and they really ranged from the guy in Bismarck who said, “My job is to bend down and really get close to people and listen to what causes pain for them and then try to do something about it” to, “Yeah, we just put a couple tables up here and then boom, we’re in power.” Especially if you go to small-town government meetings, it’s wild. It’s literally folding tables and chairs, one flag, maybe a video monitor, and all of a sudden, there’s a power dynamic. I think that was always very satisfying because the people who sat down at the council table, either they were hams and they wanted attention, and then our job with the staffers was to help them reign it in. We had a really nuanced way of talking to people at the council table quietly.

A staffer might go up and be like, “Can you just say the words please?” To an audience member outside of the council table, it just looks like an advisor giving advice, but the other side also worked. In some performances, someone would be really brave and take a risk and decide to be on the council table who was shy or for whom English maybe wasn’t their first language. Then the staffer’s role was to go in and go, “You’re doing awesome. Just can you get a little closer to the mic and feel free to speak up?” Really, in a way, that’s the acting that happened and we just worked with very welcoming people, I think, at the council table.

In terms of the other roles, I’m trying to remember. People who were supporters sometimes felt like that was what they chose because they didn’t want to have to talk, and so they then would sometimes say, “Oh, I wish I had taken a speaker role,” whereas the bystanders felt more like a wash in the whole thing. That was my impression a lot.

Mallory: I think what’s really interesting about the piece is that we were getting feedback from these people all the time because they were performing it. It’s not a normal thing where you have to ask the audience what they were thinking. Everybody was seeing. Not everyone was putting it in words and saying, “I’m an audience member to you, the creator,” but the reason this was a fascinating project is because their performance was their response to the piece. Do you know what I’m saying? We could see their level of discomfort or not. Commonly, because with the speakers, everybody got testimony, but there was only certain people who were called and every piece of testimony was discreet from every— Every piece of testimony was actually from the meeting, so it was our way to build coalitions in the audience around certain issues because that’s the way it works.

In the meeting, there were fifteen people who spoke, and we had all those testimonies, but we only called three of them. It mattered to us that a person, when the person did speak in that coalition, that the person who didn’t get to speak who was also part of that coalition understood that relationship and they had it. Those people were sad that they weren’t called. I remember because a friend of mine in Houston or one of our collaborators in Houston, a guy that was in this choir, he was so jazzed and ready to— He really wanted—

We never had anybody insist upon speaking. We did make a contingency for that because we weren’t really sure because that’s the way this works, is once it gets going, we’re not really interceding. We did talk about whether someone was like, “I really want to say this. I have this testimony and I want to speak.” We had a contingency where we’d probably just let them do it, but no one really super assisted, but that was a thing that came up for me about the speakers.

Then there’s also, with the supporters… You could really tell because sometimes they would actually do the thing on the card and sometimes they may not do the thing on the card, and bystanders, I think there were some which was like, “Oh, I get it. My whole experience of the piece not necessarily suffered, but was very mitigated by this choice that I’ve made.” Those people who commonly want to do that— And I have to cop to it, you know when I go see what participative performances look like, I don’t want to sit in the front row of the piece that I’ve heard sprays water all over our people or Jell-O wrestles or whatever, you know what I mean? That goes back to this idea of the representation versus the communication because we were so interested in that. We got a lot of communication, spoken and unspoken, from the people in the room.

Jeffrey: When did you realize you needed the staffers? I feel like the staffers, from my point of view and from hearing you talk about it right now, it feels a little bit like the staffers were internal stage management. They were boots on the ground to manage the space in a clever way. When did you realize, Oh, we need something to be a little bit more controlled in here?

Aaron: Well, it’s a good time to give a shout-out to our third collaborator, Jim Findlay, because Jim production designed the whole project, and he did it in such a brilliant way. He has a term he calls “invisible design,” which is unless you’re looking for it, it just looks like a council table set up in the middle of a theatre, whatever, but he also made this incredible video rig, and that fit within our budget, but looked like closed-circuit TV, which was also brilliant. But he’s an incredible director, dramaturg, and performer. We both worked with him in different capacities. We were doing a work-in-progress in Boston at A.R.T. [American Repertory Theater], we had two staff members for the whole council table, and every counselor got the whole script of the meeting.

Two things became very apparent: One was that orientation with two staff members and a hundred audience members took an hour. We were just way backed up. Then when we got into the performance, the counselors were just leafing through the script trying to find when their next line was so that they could say it right. The staffers were only able to keep up with collation, basically, or maybe changing some name cards. Jim was the one who pointed out, he was like, “You got to get those scripts out of there. It’s taking away the energy to give everyone the whole script.” The staffer’s first new role when we expanded was to basically have a piece of paper with each speech by a council member on it. At the beginning when there’s just a roll call and the procedural votes, they would just lean over and say, “Just say yes to everything. You’ve already decided on it. There’s nothing new happening here.”

The counselors would be sitting there with no script just going, “Here.” It really felt like the beginnings of communication that we wanted in the piece. Their role was really— Yes, “internal stage managers” is a great way to think about it because it was very task focused. As we developed the piece and we were able to develop it in New York and Tempe and Houston at the same time, we had a Houston staffer who had been on staff in the mayor’s office. She was able to be like, “That’s not how you lean over. You got to lean over like this. This is how you hold your clipboard.”

It became both choreography and stage management that gave it a lot of impact, I think, in subtle ways. The other nice thing about the live video that we used in the piece, again thanks to Jim, there were two live camera operators and as the piece progressed we became more intentional about camera shots, so that at the beginning it was mostly a wide shot. By the time the more contentious issues got discussed, we could zoom in on a council member who was being accused of something in some audience testimony and then show a staffer whispering to them and point out the fact that how we mediatized a moment of political engagement changes its meaning.

As an audience member, you could see, Oh, this looks suspicious on camera, but in the room, it actually feels like it might be fine. Then that also allowed the staffers to feed more psychological information to their counselors. In the beginning, it was super about “Just follow the rules” and by the end, it was like “This person coming up is a very popular Episcopal priest,” or, “This person is an activist in the neighborhood.” “They’re on your side.” “You voted against this person’s neighborhood.” It fed some of the drama without, again, asking people to perform in ways that we typically associate with performing.

We want to see that tension, that grappling with, in real time, of that space between my experience and somebody else’s.

Jeffrey: As I understand from the book, one of the things that’s really interesting is you might have someone reading a testimony or a piece of content from something that is not their particular cultural background. Encouraging folks to avoid character was so necessary and so important. Can you talk a little bit about how you prepped your staffers to have a non-character line?

Mallory: Yeah, I think one of the important things about the staffers in those seven rehearsals that we had is that not only did they have to experience... They had to go through it as the council member and then as the staffer. They had to experience both sides of what their job was, but we also had to explain so much of the thematic theoretical ideas of the piece so that they could really carry the ethos of the piece in a lot of ways. In the early parts of the meeting, they actually have to model what we wanted the audience to. It always came up early. One of the ways that we did it, we had to model for the audience how we felt about this issue. There were things that were emphasized like, “You are speaking for somebody else.”

One of the reasons we weren’t always looking for actors to be staffers is because actors would assume this is what— Because that’s the way they look at, they might look at the job. Whereas people who aren’t actors don’t have that capacity to begin with, and so they’re not going to be good at it. They’re going to question that and they might say, “Well, oh, I don’t know how to do this.” The way we did it, there was one council member who, in the beginning, gets replaced in the very opening of the piece, and that person was played by a staffer and it was a comic role, and it was the role of this woman, this lovely woman who in Bismarck was retiring. We purposefully always had a male staffer play that part because it was clear that one, we weren’t changing the pronoun. We weren’t changing the pronoun of the thing. That male staffer was reading it as a male. They could be funny because comedy does take some skills that not everybody—

It allowed us to lighten up the situation, but also to model, “Here’s a man reading a woman.” We really had to model those things. We also had to make sure that the staffers really understood what our approach to that was. That came from very early when we were really testing this out, where people could just come up and say whatever they wanted. Although it probably felt good for them, it was really actually uninteresting. We were trying to figure out why it was uninteresting. And it took a while, but what we came to is that it had to do with a responsibility to another person. And that we thought was really beautiful when we were seeing it. Somebody would come up and they would be— It would feel awkward, like, “I have this weird problem,” and most often, people would be incredibly respectful to that distance, that space that they were trying to bridge.

It was actually really beautiful. It was filled with tension, it was filled with respect, it was filled with a kind of care. That was a thing that we could point to and say, “This is really...” Well, we want to look at what is this thing that we can do as people. The minute somebody goes up and just assumes that they have to be the person, it goes away, and what you see is just their assumptions about another person that they don’t know.

We were very clear to say that’s what we want to see. We want to see that tension, that grappling with, in real time, of that space between my experience and somebody else’s, and how do I take care of, how do I represent, that person in a respectful way? We could point to that, to the staffers, and say, “This is what we’re looking for, so if you aren’t seeing that…” How are the many different ways that we can encourage that?”

Maybe it’s just be like... The guy in Houston who wanted to do his George Bush impersonation. It’s just like, “You know what? We need to keep it going here. Can you please stick to the script and just move more quickly?” We’re not judging that guy. We’re not making him feel bad, but we’re doing formal things to get him to move forward, or somebody who might be so shy that doesn’t know how to deal with that discrepancy to be like, “You’re doing great,” because that other side of not knowing how to negotiate that gap could shut somebody down.

On the other side, it’s like, “You’re doing great because the thing that you are grappling with is the really interesting thing. We want to encourage you to engage and to bring yourself fully to it,” because that person is... Also, it was the secretary, I think, who chose the mayor and pretty much they would choose an interesting person. You know what I mean?

I’m going on, but what I mean to say is just that the staffers were really important because we had to identify what is that performance sweet spot that we were interested in and how to give them the tools they needed to mitigate that. On the other side though, we realized that we could mitigate it to a certain point, but if we were really honest with ourselves in the form we were setting up, is just that it’s a rules-based performance and that’s going to bring certain things out in certain people and it’s going to bring a kind of resistance out of certain people. As much as we wanted to avoid the blatant performance of stereotype and to mitigate that as much as possible, it was going to be part of this experience and it was going to be a thing that people were probably going to have to reflect upon.

We could stop it from being a wave of misunderstanding. We could do that, but we couldn’t completely eliminate the possibility of it happening. That’s actually where real tension and real emotion and real discomfort would come up around this performance and everybody would have to reflect upon that. I think that is where, what Aaron said, “Is this a social experiment or...” That’s where that comes up.

I think early on, we’re like, “How do we eliminate this from ever happening?” But then we had to realize, no, that’s part of the provocation that we’re setting up here. As creators, we have to be responsible and we have to see it for what it is, and we have to know that we’ve put something in play that’s going to be a possibility. We just have to make sure that the structure of the piece, it’s not going to be a rolling wave of that. There are guard rails within the structure, but once it gets going, that’s maybe going to happen.

Jeffrey: This is fascinating. One of the things you say in the book is the duality: This is a performance, this is not a performance. This is action, this is not. The performers in the piece are in this duality of acting the way that they think they ought to act because they’re in a space that is meant to do a particular thing. They’re either feeling like, “I have chosen to sit back and I am going to sit back and watch and enjoy” or, “I’m going to actively participate, but I think I should act this way and I think I should do this thing because I’m, quote unquote, in a meeting here right now.” The staffers mitigate that tension through that, of making sure the throughline of the intention of the play comes through. Is that fair to say?

Aaron: Yeah, I think that’s one of the roles for sure, is to keep us on as much of a keel as we can be, but then also the piece was there to... I think the piece at its best was there to support the staffers so that if things got out of hand, like the one or two performances where people started really performing stereotypes, the piece could ideally frame that: “Here’s what’s happening. We are doing this now. Who are we together and why are we—” Just to bring that question up. Not always in super clear explicit language necessarily, but I think the poetics of it and even some hints as to why something might feel uncomfortable was between staffers and the text that framed the piece and the structure of the piece itself.

Jeffrey: Then after intermission, we come back and do the “local ending.” I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about what the “local ending” meant and maybe the roles as you went into that second half of the show.

Aaron: The initial provocation that we set for ourselves was— Well, there were two or three. One was that we were going to make a theatrical or an artistic response to some local issue that was contentious locally in which adversaries might collaborate with us on making this project. In each city, it would be a different kind of reflection. I think part of the question was, I think Mallory said this first, “How can art respond to politics in a way that local government can’t respond to politics” or “What’s a different frame?”

The meeting really had a verisimilitude in a way, although we weren’t seeking representational accuracy. What happened was all of these people, in this flurry of performing certain tasks and speaking transcripts, felt a little like a government meeting. Literally, there was one showing where someone came in and was like, “Is this a city council meeting?” I was like, “No, it’s a show,” and they were like, “Okay,” and then they went in. That felt really rewarding.

The ending in each city was much more... I don’t know. It was like a lyrical response or a poetic response, so that in Houston, there were churches fighting back against one council member’s proposal to issue a drainage fee on everybody’s, what they called, “non-porous land.” If you have a big parking lot in Houston, that was a big cause of flooding. This was pre–Hurricane Harvey, but they were recognizing that their infrastructure was not enough to handle the rainfall that was starting to increase and the seawater rise. This council member was going to say, “If you’re a megachurch and you have this acres-long parking lot, it’s going to be like paying your electric bill. It’s not taxing the church,” and all of these churches came to a meeting and it was super powerful where they all stood up and they called it state squashing the church and all kinds of very dramatic, biblical language.

We worked with the council member himself and then groups of church choirs or, depending on the night, school kids, because the schools also would come on board because they have big parking lots, the Houston Independent School District, and we just asked them to make something with us. That was the premise of all the city’s endings, was people who wouldn’t normally agree about the political issue, not trying to solve the issue. I think we were very wary about problem-solving in our piece. The goal was much more like, Can you take what you felt here in our performance and go to a council meeting and more effectively do what you want to do?

The real goal was like, can we just make this a beautiful event that is reflecting the city that we were visiting back to itself? Or, in New York’s case, our own city back to itself in a different way? We ended up with wildly different endings in each city. I think some were more successful than others. New York was in some ways the hardest because it was where we lived and there were so many contentious issues. In the other cities, we could set for ourselves a task of... We are not going to pretend to know this place better than someone who’s a longtime resident.

We’re going to go see a council meeting, see what theatricality emerges and what issues come up and agree to limit ourselves in a way to that. That gave us a much easier frame to work within. In New York, it was like, Well, we know all the problems. There’s tons of them and we know all the contentious issues, so how are we going to narrow it down? We ended up with working with a paid cohort of high school students from across the city to talk about standardized testing because that happened to be in the news quite a bit that year that we were working on the piece.

Mallory: Yeah, I also just want to say one thing, which is that we were very aware of what the expectation— We were setting up a certain expectation with the meeting, meaning that it was political content. We realized what the ending would be is— People were expecting that there would be a gotcha moment, like we would come down on one side or the other of some thing, and we were like, “That’s not the way we deal with art.” That’s not the way we respond artistically if we’re making something about any number of subject matters. It’s not like, “Oh, I’m a democrat.” It was a little bit also just how do we respond as artists to all those similar tensions. It just became, like Aaron said, meaningful that we could get— Could we get people into the room to work together on something and make something within those tensions that was an artistic gesture, basically?

Aaron: Often, the corollary benefit, and this is where I think— For me, this is really interesting when we think about community-engaged art of any kind, is that the corollary benefit was often the most important. We worked with this council member in Houston. The most successful night of the piece was when we did it at a ballroom that was part of Project Row Houses, which is this incredible organization. We had people from a middle school in the neighborhood in Houston’s Third Ward in dialogue with this council member. I would do interviews with each side, and then we created a dialogue out of those interviews. Well, the council member hadn’t really visited Third Ward so much, and so he was able to meet people that would not have met him and that he hadn’t met. He was a very liberal, progressive guy. A classic newly awakened do-gooder who had been in private practice as an engineer for a long time.

Then the students were like, “Wow, I can talk to a council member. Well, listen, our neighborhood needs this, this, and this.” They were totally fearless, so that wasn’t in the piece necessarily. There were little moments of that, but what was more exciting was what happened after the piece and they sat and chatted and they had invitations to go visit each other again, and both of them reported back on that.

That felt like, often—for better and for worse, depending on the city—we were creating connections that outlived the piece, but I think we were, like Mallory said, leery of trying to, A) solve a problem, or B) tell people how to think, even though that was very difficult at times.

I think there were people that we were working with, not massive, super conservative people, but people who are well-intentioned but would say stuff, and I’d be like, “Really?” Like in an interview about how difficult it was to deal with unhoused people because of freedom of speech. I would be like, “Oh, surely, they don’t want that in the piece,” and they’d be like, “No, put that back. That happened in Tempe,” and so we were pretty good about not censoring that nor commenting on it and hopefully letting the piece do the work of— Or some other element of the piece speak to the things that we might have issue with.

Jeffrey: Yeah. It sounds like throughout this, the idea is to create a call to action to, “I will leave and become more active in my civic process,” hopefully. As you mentioned in the book, you’re not interested in creating any sort of consensus at the end, but I’m wondering if either of you were at all interested in quantifying or finding out if people actually did take those steps to become more civically minded or civically active in their community. The thing is, how do you track such a thing?

Aaron: It’s a good question. I don’t think quantifying that was the explicit goal, but I think I would imagine both of us and all three of us were really curious about whether and how this piece allowed people to perceive things differently. That to me is really where it starts. Really, the provocation of the piece is, can you see yourself more clearly using this frame? Then when you go to similar frames, whether they’re civic, theatrical, or anything else, can you use that perception you might have gained to participate in a way that you might not have? That would be great, but I think just the perception for me is enough.

Some of the things that I was really interested in or when people talked to— From the partners we had worked with, the arts organizations, they were like... We often had multiple partners helping us present, especially the first three cities. In New York, it was was HERE Arts Center, and that was a three-year residency and we worked with school students and we had a lot of funding support: NPN [National Performance Network] and MAP [Fund] and the National Theater Project. And then in Tempe we worked with ASU Gammage plus two other organizations, and in Houston, it was Row Houses, DiverseWorks and the Mitchell Center at University of Houston.

All that is to say we were able to spend between ten and fifteen weeks over the course of a couple of years working on this project in three cities and to pay ourselves and staffers, and collaborative organizations also reap some of those rewards. That’s not often how community-engaged performance is resourced quite honestly. Artists are sometimes like, “Can you come in in two weeks and make a show with this community?”

Some people do great work doing that. I think actually, you mentioned spect-actors and I think Theatre of the Oppressed actually has an incredible methodology for going in quick and using something that they’ve used before to illuminate an issue. That’s awesome. For us, I think the longer-term engagement, the impact of that, was just as powerful to me. What if we were able to resource a lot of projects like ours, to spend fifteen weeks or twenty weeks or twelve weeks really working in partnership with people who we hadn’t met before or who we were just building a relationship with.

That’s part of it, and then on a more nuts-and-bolts level, we as artists and organizations were often asked to quantify the impact of our work to funders and for reports and stuff, and we could do that and talk about how many people came and where they were from and all that, but what we were really excited about was that in two cities, people ran for office.

I think both of them actually mentioned our project as being formative. Certainly not the only thing. I just wanted to really shout out to Assata Richards and Marcelino Quiñonez who were already on a path toward more civic engagement. Our project helped them see other pathways toward that that might not have been as visible. The flippant way to quantify it is to say we impacted two people. We spent all the money, we impacted two people. They just happen to be changemakers in their communities, and so that feels like a way that we do talk about the projects a fair amount.

That’s also why I think we’re interested in making an educational curriculum out of it, because the idea is that it’s a toolkit and that it doesn’t prioritize one kind of engagement or another. Maybe that’s the last thing to say about it, is that if you want to take this and be a better activist because of it, I’m fully excited about that, as much as someone running for office. This is a way, again— Because it is about seeing frames and structures, it’s about saying like, “Oh, if I want to bring three hundred people to protest at a government meeting, what’s my strategy based on what I know from this project or curriculum or book?”

Mallory: Yeah. I’ll just add that I feel like part of when we go about making the curriculum, we are very focused on giving people a toolkit of how to engage in a meeting. That’s what a curriculum— Especially if we’re talking about younger people. The curriculum is like, what are the rules? Hopefully, we will include the personal, emotional... You know what I mean? That’s what we would bring to the curriculum, is how complex it is when you— It’s not just like, You go here, you do this. Everybody has a PowerPoint on how to give a speech, but giving people a sense of what power does, how it makes one feel, all those things… That’s an impact for a curriculum. I think that’s why we’re interested in the curriculum, but going back to the piece, the piece was a piece of performance that has all the intentionality of making art, which is that it’s trying to do a lot of things.

It’s trying to present the complexity. One thing it might do is make you think about why or why you may not participate. I know my sister who has been in the public-school system forever and has been to PTA meetings, she was like, “Oh my God, I got to get out of here.” You know what I mean? It was so visceral to her. I don’t know that it made her want to do more, because she already was so engaged in that, you know what I mean?

I think for us, that was one part of it and it certainly was the part of why we do or do not participate, but that’s a different question than: How do we get people to a meeting? I think making the show was one thing, and then we were like, “Oh, maybe...” I think we’ve always had this about this project, which is we started working with kids and were like, Wow, they kinda really get it, and we can see it’s doing something for those kids in a very discrete way that the show doesn’t do, you know what I mean, the show doesn’t do.

So we were like, “Oh, and so they’re writing a book,” maybe that’s a good iteration for this work and this material. Then after we wrote the book, it’s like maybe there’s an iteration of a curriculum because then we can pinpoint… And that’s the arena to do that, which is we want people to feel like they could walk into that room and be prepared to some extent. For us, it was like making a performance, a piece of art, and it’s complex and it brings with it so much that you can’t pull out any single strain. We all know this about any piece of art. You can’t pull out one strain that it’s about, and that’s what makes ideas of impact and funders and all that a crazy... We get why it’s done, but it’s also a crazy idea that there could ever be a one-to-one way to measure it.

That felt like, often—for better and for worse, depending on the city—we were creating connections that outlived the piece.

Aaron: One thing that this piece did for me was— The long time frame is just a given now. What I’ve seen is that a subsequent project I started called Perfect City, which I thought would be like a year and a half... I work at Abrons Arts Center. We were going to make something with a paid group of young adults who live on the Lower East Side or have a relationship to it around gentrification and planning. A year in, we made a decision that it would be a twenty-year project and we’re in year six now, but what is powerful is that two or three of the working-group members that have stayed with it have really developed their own leadership skills in ways that I could never have predicted or caused, but what was, was that we kind of made an alliance with each other for the long-term.

The Foundry Theatre for me is a big touchstone of “What is your hundred-year plan” and “What do you want the world to—” You know, it’s the seven generations approach from lots of different cultures. I think that was the seed of making that explicit in a lot of the work that I do. Even when I write a more traditional monologue or play, it tends to take five to ten years to really get it to where it needs to be. It doesn’t mean that I’m working full-time like that. It just means that it needs to sift and sit and settle and be with itself in relationship to other people in as many ways as possible before it’s really done.

I think that’s been something that I’ve taken away, is like, “Yep, other people’s timelines just don’t apply.” Even if we can make and produce work more quickly, it’s often been germinating or gestating for a long, long time.

Mallory: Yeah. I’ll just say most of my pieces take between five and ten years to make. If you make enough of them, everybody thinks you’re doing everything in six weeks.

Aaron: Exactly.

Jeffrey: You’ve touched on the fact that you had lots of partnerships and you had funding from some great resources that have been on this podcast or that I’ve discussed in this podcast in different places. You use those things to make this happen, and I’m wondering: What do you imagine or hope a future of this piece might be? How can I bring this to Milwaukee and other locals and other folks who are listening to this, how can it happen in their towns? Is it cost prohibitive for it to happen, for someone and an individual to do it themselves without the potential resources, everything that you may have had the opportunities for?

Aaron: Well, I think it’s funny you should mention Milwaukee because we have been talking to folks at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee about doing a rollout in... Not this year, but the next year of a way to bridge the curriculum and the production. I think one of the reasons we wrote the book was because as we cycled through the very, very fortunate funding we had, there were other opportunities to present the work, but it would’ve been a little cursory like, “Can you come for ten days?” We originally even thought maybe there’s a festival version of this piece, but it actually felt like it would do a disservice to the people we were working with to not be able to spend a lot of time.

On one hand, we resourced this piece pretty lavishly by the standards of the way things work in this country. We wanted to honor what those resources gained, both us, the piece, and the people we worked with. Since we couldn’t really afford to make further versions of the piece, we put it into book form and then the hope is that you and Milwaukee could just take it and be like, “What about this do I like? What do I want to jettison?” Just try some stuff. Then, more tactile-y, if you wanted to have people that we’d worked with or us come and help you, that would be great, but we don’t need to. I feel like the goal is open-source in a way.

As the curriculum rolls out, the goal is really open-source. The hope is that school districts will want to use it and that would be a viable resource-generating thing for us, but also that there might be people that we could just give it to. We’re still weighing that out, but I think the goal was to make it more accessible and at the same time recognize that we brought a set of skills to making the performance in the five cities that we did, and that that would be hard to replicate unless there were more resources that came up.

Mallory: Yeah. I’ll just say, I think that there’s these two cross-sections at work here, which is that... Going back to this “What can the theatre contain?” thing, is that I think we both want trained theatre people to actually understand that they can bring their skills or their questions or their— I know for myself the reason I call myself an interdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary artist is because I’m really interested in how the rules of a different discipline or a different arena can be brought into the theatre. Sometimes, the theatre just takes content, it just eats it, and everything looks like a play, and it spits it out and it’s like it’s just a play, but sometimes, the work that I’m interested in is when you adapt a novel, what does the novel form do to change what the theatrical experience is?

Or if you work with transcripts from a city council meeting, how does that broaden or expand what this form can contain? Both wanting artists who have a performance background to want to explore other arenas, but also for people in other arenas to realize that if you’re a social studies teacher and you really love this speech or this meeting or the transcripts, you can get your students to do it. There’s a difference between making your students go home and read the transcript and say, “Today, we are all going to sit around and we’re going to construct the table and we are going to read it together.” There’s just a huge difference about what that is. It may be very counterintuitive to certain people, but there’s a thing about just embodying these kinds of structures, these arrangements, these ideas, which really enliven things for people on a very basic level.

I think there is this desire for people to pick up the mantle from opposite ends and to cross over. I also think we made a lot of mistakes. We made a lot of mistakes, and when you go into this work, it is a hotbed of making mistakes. The important thing about time is that the thing about... If you are committed to stick around, to make mistakes and to stick around and be held accountable, to be like, “We are going to make mistakes”—and I know right now we live in a cultural arena where people are petrified of making mistakes around issues like this and for good reason, for good reason on all sides—I think we really want to share those mistakes and those assumptions that we felt we were pushing against and then where we felt comfortable, but also where we just made mistakes and had our own blind spots.

I think that we hope that people can benefit from the mistakes that we made in the way that they think about how to engage with that, so that it’s not just, like, pick up a transcript and go. The book is pretty thorough about giving you resources, theory, other companies to look at who are resources out there for you. I’m also just a lover of how to bring theoretical deep thinking and research into a theatrical or performative situation. You can do it. People tell you, “No, no, no, it’s too academic.” You know what I mean?

I think that that puts a lot of more academic-type people— Prevents them from doing that kind of work, but I think that’s also one of my hopes, is that people will venture into the arena who might have been tentative because we’ve laid out a lot of the mistakes, a lot of the pitfalls that you may make and a lot of things you might encounter in the hopes that they’ll try to figure out how to do it on their own terms and, in a small way, stick with it. I think that’s about time. If you’re going to make mistakes and be accountable and make something with a group of people, the most important thing is that you’re going to be around for it. You’re not just going to hightail it out of there. I’m hoping that that’s a big part of it, which is that there is the sharing of tools and also mistakes.

Jeffrey: Wonderful. Yeah. Thank you. I think that’s a great place for us to catch all. Anything I didn’t give you a chance to say that you’d like to say? I understand that you might have to run.

Aaron: No, this was great. I really appreciate it.

Jeffrey: Great. All right, well, thanks y’all. Thanks for your time and, yeah, I wish this much success. I think it’s a great resource and I hope folks start picking it up and running with it, and it’s exciting for me to get to talk to you today. Thanks again and we’ll catch you again on the flip side, whenever that might be.

Aaron: Okay. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks.

Aaron: Take care, y’all.

Mallory: Bye. Bye.

Jeffrey: Back to that Boston production. Aaron was absolutely right. I spent most of my time looking for my lines rather than following the event itself. I love what Aaron says at the end about how, because they were in cities workshopping for so long, those dollars and resources for rehearsal also impacted the conversation around the actual topic in their local endings. How often can you say that that happens? Ultimately, I think it really is about demonstrating the complexity of things that happens at such a meeting. For them to have language for staffers and to name things like, “Stare at the audience and try to decide what they want,” is really an excellent prompt for inside-out and outside-in performance. Those things are naming thoughts and feelings people may be having and is really quite insidious, but not in a bad way, but it is really the meta way of looking at a situation and naming complex ideas.

Here’s a quote for y’all. “We want trained theatre people to actually understand that they can bring their skills or their questions. Sometimes the theatre just takes content and eats it and looks at the play. When you adapt a novel, what does a novel form do to change what the theatrical experience is?” I love how they’re broadening what their idea or the expectation of theatre is. One thing that they said that is really fascinating to me is how does it broaden or expand what this form can contain? There’s these arrangements and these ideas which really enliven things for people on a very basic level.

“There’s a desire for people to pick up the mantle from opposite ends and cross over.” Yeah. Every time we put theatre in a different medium, we find different crossover. It is so fascinating and so exciting, and I hope we continue to look for those sorts of crossover as we expand and examine devised and ensemble-based work. I’m so glad to have gotten the chance to be with you all today. I hope you’ll join us next time when we’ll have Cristal Chanelle Truscott, a multifaceted artist, who continues to develop her SoulWork practice as currently found in the Black Acting Methods book. All right, y’all.

Double the lightning round this time. Listen up and we’ll be with you all again soon.

Mallory: A salutation is like, “Hello,” kind of thing?

Jeffrey: Yeah. How do you greet the room.

Mallory: “Howdy.” Exclamation... What’s...?

Aaron: Like with an exclamation. Like, “Dope!”

Mallory: “Nice work, America.”

Transportation: Swimming?

Aaron: Oh, nice.

Mallory: I would probably spend a lot of time researching my family history full-time.

“Ensemble,” ideally, I think great collaboration maybe.

Favorite ice cream. Oh, rocky road. Why not?

Aaron: Really?

Mallory: When I was twelve, that’s what I liked. Mango sorbet now.

Jeffrey: Oh, hey, there you go. Aaron, same for you?

Aaron: Sure. I would say salutation would be, “Hey.” Exclamation would be, “Motherfucker,” but I don’t get to use that as much as I probably would like to. Transportation is definitely bike lately, and what would I be doing if not theatre? I’d probably be teaching. I’m guessing like full-time academic teaching, some weird hybrid, or maybe writing poems. I don’t know. What does ensemble mean to me? I feel like at its best it means equality. Equality of voice. Showing up means you’re an equal to anybody else in the room, no matter what the roles assigned are. Favorite flavor of ice cream… That’s going to be some boring-ass chocolate.

Jeffrey: Listen, if it’s your flavor, that’s not boring. That’s great. I love that.

This has been another episode of From the Ground Up. You can find, like, and follow this podcast at @ftgu_pod, or me, Jeffrey Mosser @ensemble_ethnographer on Instagram, and @KineticMimetic on Twitter.

Think you or someone you know ought to be on the show? Send us an email at [email protected]. We also accept fan mail and requests. Access to all of our past episodes can be found on my website, jeffreymosser.com as well as howlround.com. The audio bed was created by Kiran Vedula. You can find him on SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and flutesatdawn.org.

This podcast is produced as a contribution to the HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Simplecast, and wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to search “HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts” and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can find a transcript for the episode along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com.

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Thoughts from the curator

From the Ground Up is here to ask questions about ensemble-based creation. Who’s doing it? How is it practiced? Are they paid? Are they able to thrive? We’re also examining that word: Ensemble. What does it mean? There is no roadmap, format, prescription, description, or rubber stamp to the way ensemble-based work is made from place to place and process to process. This podcast interviews companies from around the country on how they make and pay for the art. If you have questions about where to begin or what to do next with your own company, stay tuned.

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