To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Here, artist Billy Noble shares his perspective on The Fever by 600 Highwaymen, presented as part of Out There 2018.
I once read an article that described US shopping centers—you know the kind that look like throwbacks to small-town main streets—as social experiments. One of the first examples of these shopping centers was in a city that was enmeshed in decades of racial and economic turmoil. A city, much like Minneapolis, where one could read in street names, housing prices, and bus routes an unspoken guide to who belonged in what neighborhood and who should stay away. The article discussed research a group of behavioral scientists was conducting which suggested that these new, liminal shopping spaces were some of the best integrated, diverse, and crime-free spaces in the city. That everyone was welcome there, that no one owned them, and as a result they were bizarre and diverse utopias of late capitalism. Who doesn’t shop at Target, right?
While sitting in the audience of The Fever, I was reminded of the mall. Specifically, I thought, “Isn’t it funny how we are only all equal when we are all no one and nothing?” That was the effect that The Fever had on me, that of an invitation, albeit fraught, to be just a person in the room.
The Fever is a roughly hour-long group participatory experiment. It is led by five performers and enacted largely by the audience. The five performers are indistinguishable from the audience at the beginning of the piece. The audience is indistinguishable from the performers at the end of the piece. It is another bizarre utopia.
There were 80 of us, sitting on the McGuire stage atop a dark pink floor in a square, watching each other. Then it began. Audience members are asked to perform small tasks like waiving their arms, standing, dancing, and running, as the 600 Highwaymen’s Abby Browde and Michael Silverstone, along with three cast members, revealed a scenario for us—Maryanne threw a party, we were all there, some of us stayed too long, after the party a stranger appeared, we all emerged from our houses and gathered around, we formed a tribe, a man fell down, some of us helped him, a young man wanted to play, some of us played with him, another young person invited the audience to be their parent, we all carried them above our heads, we danced some more, someone read lines from a card. The lights changed a few times. There was moody electronic music here and there. Then, it was over.
I have had many conversations with other audience members and artists since the show. First, my wife and I led a talkback between the audience and 600 Highwaymen. The audience really wanted to talk about consent and control. We tried leading them into other thoughts, but they snapped back to consent and control.
Our artist friends wanted to talk about world building and rules of engagement. Alone, at home, my wife and I just wanted to talk about what it meant to be a person in the room. How the work wasn’t for us, specifically, it wasn’t a work designed for performance-makers, but I think was an earnest attempt at designing an experience for audiences. Yet there we were, all the same, having thoughts on Maryanne.
I tried and failed to be just a person, any old person, to believe that such a thing exists. I tried not to see danger when a young man of color asked a straight-presenting white man to hold his hand, to twirl him, to chase him. I tried not to think of James Baldwin’s Another Country. I tried and failed to watch an older man lie on the floor and ask for help and not see my grandfather before he died. I tried to not see my own struggles as a transgender person to be seen and accepted by my real mother when a gender queer performer invited an audience member to imagine themselves to be a parent and a child, a parent that knew and accepted everything about their body. I tried to not think of how many times my community had let me down as the audience carried that trans body across the floor gently passing it from one hand to the next. I tried and failed to believe the audience was made up of other people in the room, and that they had no bias or ill will for me.
I wonder how the performance might have gone differently had the audience been more diverse, had the performance taken place in a more openly-contested space, or in a city, like my hometown, where people don’t default to nice.
I wonder what we would have said had we been allowed to speak, and what we would have done if we would have been encouraged to move however we wanted. I question how frail this temporary community, this momentary utopia was, if it was utopia at all.
I felt anger and disdain, and I clung to them as reminders of my own individuality. I felt jealousy that some people, seeing the same things as me, only saw the potential for joy, play, and community, and not their own history of disenfranchisement. And I resented the work for suggesting I could feel otherwise. And I resented the room for not being able to see me as clearly as I felt I saw it.
The thing about those utopian shopping centers, and about The Fever, is that they are owned by someone, someone who prefers to remain invisible, who watches closely from the security cameras and quietly guides us miscreants out a side door.
I don’t mean to sound like I don’t think the work was good. But rather, that negative experiences are valid and meaningful. If only to remind us that our piss and vinegar are real and important, too.
I didn’t catch the fever, though I believe some other people may have. And, I am jealous of them.