Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone have been creating performance works together since 2009 under the name 600 Highwaymen. Their latest, The Fever, explores the limits of individual and collective responsibility, and will be performed at the Walker as a part of Out There 2018. Here, Browde and Silverstone discuss collaboration, bravery, and the act of participation in troubled times.
Julian Andrews: Your work creates space for people to experience theater in a very connected and collaborative way. The people who come to your shows are deeply involved in the work, but it’s not all about playing characters. What does it mean to you to have your audience members remain themselves as they participate in your performances? What drives you towards this type of work?
Abigail Browde: Instead of getting someone to transform into another character where they’re representing someone else, it’s keeping the two. Our Death of a Salesman performance is a good way to talk about it because the presence of the character is much more obvious when we’re dealing with an imposed narrative, but keeping the distinct space between the character and the performer, there can be room for both, and throughout the performance the two can inform one another, but we’re never asking the actor themselves to disappear.
Michael Silverstone: I also think it solves a problem that we have with the field which is that, especially when you look at acting training across the country, there’s so much emphasis on becoming somebody else and transporting audiences to another time and place, and the audience is sort of losing the sense that they’re in the theater. For us this generally results in a lot of bad acting. We want [our audiences and actors] to be in the theater, to see each other. We all want to be part of this. The witnesses, the spectators, we’re all part of the same event we’re making.
Browde: I think that’s also one of the tenets where we straddle with the dance world. I think that’s much more of a component of contemporary dance—the bodies are the bodies, the people are the people, the arms are the arms, a chair is a chair, whereas with theater there’s much more, “Is this the chair we’re trying to get you to think of?”
Silverstone: The Fever was kind of a radical break for us. This audience participation thing was not something we had ever done, but it really came about because we felt that this idea of one group of people looking at another, it didn’t really feel like it was enough. We were also thinking about questions of participation, and trying to find our position in the world. With The Fever it felt like we needed something to be really different, and the portrait we needed to make had to do with the entire room, not just the people onstage. No one in this moment in time should be sitting in the dark. We need to be seeing each other. It’s all about your neighbor. It’s all about the stranger. It’s all about how we create community.
Andrews: I’m really interested in this idea of collective action and collective work between strangers. I don’t really know where else you’d see that in the world. Maybe in protest or political action, but it’s definitely unique! What is that experience like, to work with a group of people who don’t know each other but are creating something together?
Browde: It’s deeply satisfying. Traveling with the show is the process of remaking the show everywhere that we go. There’s no wash and repeat.
Silverstone: The show does exist in a different way in each place. Each place we’ve taken it something new shines through—a new story or a new narrative or new themes come into focus.
Browde: I was on jury duty a few years ago and there was something about it that was this really powerful experience for me! And I was talking to someone and they said, “It’s just like The Fever, it’s just like one of your shows!” It’s this group of strangers coming together and trusting in the group exercise of it. Not that the show is anything like jury duty.
Silverstone: It keeps it live for us too. We think that we understand everything about the show and how it functions, but the fact is the show is always revealing itself to us, and at the end of the show we always go backstage and unpack it a little bit. That’s just such an exciting thing for us as touring artists—to have something that changes every night.
Andrews: You’ve been touring The Fever for a while now. What have you learned about how people act under the scrutiny of a group?
Browde: There’s something about the fact not everything can be done just from your seat. There is something about asking people to come forward, to be seen, to do these things. And I think that’s an important element of the show. It’s not just asking you to fill out this form or do something that’s passive. You’re doing something that’s under gaze. It’s not private, it’s a very public experience. There’s an anxiety to that. What does it mean to perform and to be seen? We put a lot of care into structuring the show so that those feelings are actually part of the piece. They’re not something that’s getting in the way of us getting to what the actual subject matter is. It’s about that! What does it mean to stand before one another? Some of my favorite experiences performing the show have been when we see someone who participates with a kind of bravery that isn’t showmanship enthusiasm, that isn’t “I need to be the star,” but is actually, “I think I need to do this.” Those are always exciting moments, when you can feel someone’s vulnerability in the act of participating.