The Fever strings together a series of simple moments: an excited chase around the perimeter of the open space, faster and faster; an old man about to fall, “hold me,” he says and someone comes to help him up, and the actions repeat. These short, only partially related scenes, compose 600 Highwaymen’s The Fever. A soundscape, hardly discernible at times, at other moments building to a loud crescendo, seems to emphasize the urgency and rush of strangers coming together on stage. Being a stranger is at the center of The Fever, alongside themes of loneliness, togetherness, and where the two touch (the particular sense of solitude coming back from a successful party). This motif is all the more potent because of who is on stage in these scenes: not only performers, but audience members as well. The Fever is a piece that invites the audience to take active part in the telling of a story, where performers ask spectators to join them in the acting space. Having come onto the stage, viewers-turned-participants are given instructions for movement, allowing them to physically embody the action described by the actors.
The online description of The Fever, part of the Walker’s 2018 Out There festival, describes a performance that, “tests the limits of individual and collective responsibility, and our willingness to be there for one another. Themes that resonate more urgently than ever in fractured and factionalized present-day United States.” Tagging the piece in this way clearly highlights the ethical inclination of the performance towards responsibility and mutual care. These resonate strongly with some of the scenes, like that of the old man asking to be helped, over and over again. This blurb further links this ethical intention with a political one, connecting this aspect of the performance to the contemporary political reality in the US. In a political culture which is often discussed as “polarized,” our ability to be together in solidarity, to act together, to give a helping hand, to see a stranger and to find in them a partner is put into question. Here we might see how the performance, both in the form it takes and the quotidian moments that it stages, sutures the ethical and the political in a basic and embodied fashion.
600 Highwaymen is a collaboration between Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone. Since 2009, the pair has been creating experimental work that challenges more traditional ways in which theater is made and experienced. In Employee of the Year (2014), for example, Browde and Silverston translated a children’s play into choreography in a black box converted into a sandbox; the piece fragments a first-person lifelong narrative of a woman into roles for five young girls. It created a series of disjunctures: the single life narrative told through five young tellers; the drama of life and the simplicity and held-back delivery; the first-person telling and the unrelated movement and choreography. The Record (2013), on the other hand, featured 45 performers, and each performer’s role was developed and rehearsed separately. Allowing the performers to see their role in the totality of the piece for the first time in the moment of performance created a dramatic shift in the solitude of the creative act and the collaboration of the moment of performance. Although the audience was witnessing a well-rehearsed piece, it was at the same time a unique experience of the discovery of the collective.
We might want to think about The Fever through the choices that it makes in conducting the experience: how it departs from our expectations of how performers perform and audiences spectate, and what it develops instead. It places the performers and the audience in a relation of co-production of the represented action of the piece. Although embodying action, the performers also narrate and commentate on it, extending to the audience and seeking its participation. The audience is expected to engage with the performers’ invitation and return (or remain) to witnessing after fulfilling the request. This relationship of co-production places The Fever within a history of participatory theater. Participatory theater has had a particularly strong influence on 20th century theater, from the experiments of Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator in 1920s–1930s Germany to Brazil and the radical theater practices developed by Augusto Boal in the 1960s. Piscator developed agitational material for bands of traveling activist-performers, intended to arouse his audience into active debate with the performance and performers. Brecht, particularly in his teaching-plays (lehrstucke), was interested in the play as a form of learning: not aiming towards the moment of performance, these plays were to be rehearsed by non-actors as a mode of developing thought and criticism about social reality. Boal further developed these ideas in his forum–theater, in which audience members are encouraged to take the place of the protagonist in order to attempt to rehearse possible action on the social issues staged.
As this genealogy highlights, the ethical-political commitment of 600 Highwaymen is integral to this dramaturgy, but how? In what way is it political, and how might we think about what this practice does? How does it not only offer us a space and time for reflection but also incline us towards particular types of engagement?
It might be helpful to place 600 Highwaymen in relation to other prominent contemporary performance. “Putting Real People on Stage,” part of the title of this essay, is taken from a panel held in Australia in 2012, on the occasion of the visit of Rimini Protokoll, an experimental theater collective based in Berlin (which performed at the Walker in 2009). Similar to 600 Highwaymen, Rimini Protokoll has become known for its innovative Theatre of Experts: performances in which real people, who are otherwise not professional actors, stage scenes relating to their daily and professional life and challenges. Their performances are celebrated for giving a stage to people who otherwise are rarely seen on stage (such as immigrant workers, call-center employees, international adoptees) and facilitating political and social discussion while creating artistically and aesthetically compelling work. At the panel, the public was invited to ask questions of the collective’s directors and local artists who, likewise, “put real people on stage.” This practice—making theater with non-professional performers—is often described by theater scholars as “reality theater” (evoking the contemporaneous trend in television production). Such performance is part of a wider movement that began in the 1990s and saw practices more common to community and socially engaged theater rise to the forefront of experimental or avant-garde theater and performance. On one hand, this raises questions regarding the social context that has caused this turn: the shift towards technocratic expert-driven political structures of since Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the US, and the growth in inequality and the loss of social infrastructure following the shift away from Keynesianism and the welfare state. On the other hand, we might ask who has profited from the mass interest in such work, and wha has it meant for the practices themselves to have them taken out of such contexts with more significant affective and daily connections? In any case, such reality theater is one example of a diverse set of practices that aim to “recycle reality,” in material ways on stage.
Both “reality theater” and participatory theater are different ways of attempting to “put real people on stage,” and through this create a change in the relations among the performance material, the act of performing, and the viewing of performance. The Fever, for example, changes the action of performing, which here includes, for example, the act of invitation and calling on the audience, as well as the discovery that someone is in fact a performer, and not an audience member, as all performers are sitting in the audience, dressed in plain clothes, until they get up and take initiative; and the action of viewing of the performance, that includes embodied participation. In doing so, the relations between the two actions, of performing and viewing, are both raised for us to notice, and the distinctions and lines between them blurred.
I wish to return to my earlier question about the ethical-political commitment of such participatory theater. How are we to see this work as political? In what way is the story of a party, or of an old man falling in the street and receiving help from passersby, political? It starts from a proposal that representing social and political reality is not in itself enough to make art political, even if such representation exposes the causes and reasons for the social reality or shows sympathy with the oppressed. It shifts the perspective from the contents of the representation—i.e. the political meaning of the material represented—to a need for political modes of representation to, finally, the ways in which theater is produced, performed, and structured for reception. Through these categories, reality theater shifts the mode of performance, overturning the power often given to those making meaning of the social world (so-called experts), between that of “the represented” (the underprivileged, the migrants etc. : all those whose lived conditions are “of interest”) and those representing (the playwright, the artist, etc.).
Similarly, participatory theater unsettles the divide between who is active and who is passive in performance; it also undercuts the separation of the audience, the isolation of siting in the (most often) dark auditorium. In a way, we might say that there is a similar inclination here towards “activation” of those classically denied a place on stage, either in the moment of production (reality theater), or in the moment of reception (participatory theater). We see this direction clearly in the work of 600 Highwaymen, both in the choice to make use of non-professional performers (in both Employee of the Year and The Record) and in the decision to complicate the moment of performance for the performers. Complicating the moment of reception, The Fever opens a shared experience in which the audience sees one another, never in the dark and sitting in a square around the acting space, and interacts both with one another and the performers.
In an early moment in The Fever one of the performers describes getting into a heated political argument at a party. This is one of the rare moments of narrative unaccompanied by audience participation. The action is described—quietly: the actor tells of how he became so engrossed he had to leave the room. His solitude in relation to the shared experience of the rest of the piece highlights what the performance tackles: the ability for the political to undue the very fabric on which it is constituted and dependent. For The Fever, that seems to be an engagement with human interaction and communication. In contrast, the rest of the performance’s insistence on allowing strangers to interact, creating moments of support and intimacy across-difference functions as a kind of rebellion to the current political moment.