On the Practice of 600 Highwaymen
What follows are thoughts that I have put together from a series of correspondences/interactions with 600 Highwaymen. The information and conversation stem from a connection made by Culturebot and Prelude12.
I see this piece as establishing as a foundation between the work Abby and Michael make and how I engage and write about it. I look forward to continuing and expanding this conversation into the future.
My Introduction to 600 Highwaymen via Prelude12
I wish I had asked 600 Highwaymen my last question first: Where does the name 600 Highwaymen come from and what does it mean to you?
If I had asked this question first, I would have learned early on that Michael and Abby are attracted to plays/performances such as Waiting for Godot. (This is where the two words 600 and Highwaymen come from.) I would have been offered the phrase ‘felt synergetic.’ (A phrase that has remained with me and resonates as I think about their work-in-progress Everyone Was Chanting Your Name for Prelude12). And I would have been given an equation, 1 + 1 = 3. (An equation that dramaturg Paul Slangen highlighted a few years ago when he spoke about his ideas of performance at Columbia University and has been at the forefront of my thoughts since.) All these pieces of information would have given me wonderful insight into the theater that both Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone create under the rubric 600 Highwaymen.
Of course, one doesn’t need any of this information to enjoy or be captivated by the work the two build; but, a driving purpose of Prelude 12 was to develop new and expanding conversations about contemporary performance in NYC, so it seems wrong to let this language stay fixed in my singular experience. In what follows I will use these three references to offer a beginning conversation about 600 Highwaymen.
Before I move on to doing this, let me give a little background. 600 Highwaymen is as an entity that allows directors Abigail Browde (Abby) and Michael Silverstone to work together and create “…a body of original, immersive productions that re-imagine the live theatrical experience for an audience.” The beginning of this re-imagining often comes from the two pioneering relationships with communities outside of the theater and allowing these associations to guide and sculpt unique and specific performance methods, aesthetics, and receptions between the performers and the spectators. For example, their most recent work leading up to Prelude 12 “collided” (another 600 Highwaymen word) Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a cast of Austin locals whose ages ranged from 7 to 70, and a 4,000 square foot bingo hall in East Austin to make This Great Country. The text, people and space were brought together to explore the hopes and despairs that are weaved into our American landscape and was performed at Austin’s Fusebox Festival.
To return then to Michael’s and Abby’s language beginning with Waiting for Godot…
A few years back I was asked to look at Godot in a dramatic structure class. I’d read the play many times throughout my life. This time, after spending hours poring over the pages, I realized that what I was looking at was a new form of architecture, a new blueprint, an Eiffel tower, for the stage. Beckett understood how humanity was being accelerated across time in space. He interwove this understanding into a complex system that weaved natural time with the artificial: crisis structures with the epic. Through the augmented possibilities of time and space Beckett proposed a new, theatricalist form of theater: one that opened up possibilities for its transformative reimaginings. While some historians and critics might argue that most of these possibilities have been used up and our now clichéd, I see 600 Highwaymen picking up on Beckett’s plans and finding their own architectural blueprints for the stage.
I first witnessed this new blueprint during a rehearsal of their recent work Everyone Was Chanting Your Name. The typical plans, the hierarchies that are often followed, in the creation of a performance are in many ways leveled by the Abby and Michael. As co-directors the two acutely listen to the text, performer/character, space, and sound… and work towards having each element in full participation with the others. What follows is a theatrical event that unfolds before the audience in a manner that feels synergetic, feels as if it should take place in the space it was made and with the people who are performing it. Perhaps this is because as co-directors the two must always be in a present and open dialogue with what they are witnessing being built. That dialogue carries forward and generates an active discourse with every element of their production.
What do I mean when I use the phrase feels synergetic? When I first encountered the phrase in an email that Michael had sent to me, I felt that I both inherently understood what this phrase meant while also being lost to its specific meaning. So I began to research the word and find its origins. In doing that I was introduced to the study of Synergetics: a mode of investigation, an empirical study into systems of transformation.
Now, one could argue that most all forms of theater perform systems of transformation. For 600 Highwaymen this work has its own particular meaning. It begins with an interest that both Abby and Michael have in finding communities outside of the theater who are interested in making plays. Their collaborators relationship to identifying themselves as actors is a wide spectrum that ranges from the traditional idea of the professional actor to the oxymoronic term non-actor. The same holds true for the spaces that open themselves to host their performances. Whether bingo halls or the recreation room of a Brooklyn church, the communities that are used to hosting and attending non-theatrical productions are brought into a ritual of theatrical engagement that necessitates a specific system of production. This production can only happen by Abby and Michael constructing specific systems/rules for each theatrical engagement.
When we were together for our conversation I had asked them about the use of the word construct, which comes up often in pieces that have been written about them.
Michael: Abby’s a real constructor. That’s her whole thing. I would go to rehearsals when she was working on stuff on her own. And you know, they were talking a whole other language. All this crazy stuff.
Abby: This to that to this.
Michael: Creating systems and creating names …I don’t know if its construction…
Abby: Make something really simple really complicated so people have to learn it by heart…All it is is cross here, but you’re thinking, fish tank to cross-eyed to this.
Michael: I think that’s what it came[comes] from.
Abby: Also our first show that we did in the church, the actors basically had cue cards off to the side, like a set-list. This piece happens and then this piece and this piece. So the audience couldn’t see, but they could see. Because we know those pieces were set. We know we do this section and then we do this section. And we know there are rules to transition from section to section – you have to look at the audience and be quiet and we have to make sure we see this entrance. Or whatever. But, it’s also open so you don’t know, leaving some rule for living through something.
Michael: Constructing, yeah something about that.
Abby: And we do use a lot of masking tape.
Michael: Yeah we use a lot of masking tape.
The necessity of constructing systems also comes from incorporating real people into their plays. Together the ensemble has to generate its own very particular vocabulary in order to articulate the words and actions that the play demands and to get people comfortable in grounding their presence on stage. In our current performance world, the idea of non-actors and non-traditional performance spaces are not new. Michael Kirby was writing about John Cage, Fluxus, Happenings and non-matrixed performances back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. While this style of performance is not new to the performance world, Abby and Michael’s use of it is refreshingly genuine. The two are not merely looking for individuals who credit themselves as having a certain level and interest in performance. They are also looking for work that they want to bring to a particular community of collaborators. For example, when 600 Highwaymen were asked to be a part of Prelude 12, they began working on an adaptation of Oedipus.
Michael: We wanted to do a big story. In Austin we were working with Death of a Salesman. We fell in love with well-made plays. We totally fell in love with Death of Salesman. So we thought we wanted to work with narrative and structure.
We finished it on paper but we couldn’t find a reason to walk into the room with people to do this.
And so together the two decided to kill that project, keep its title Everyone Was Chanting Your Name, which still felt right and build a piece that simultaneously came from them and from the performers they were working with. The piece, a living portrait of eight individuals spanning six decades in age, originally came from figurines that the two found at a children’s toy store in Austin.
Abby: We basically taped out a big space on this table.
Michael: We saw these people and thought, oh, they’re talking to each other: What do you do for fun?
Abby: There’s something about being in a process with a lot of people and having to find a language that includes Susan who’s in her sixties and Rami who’s 11. I think there’s something really important about finding a common language there that feels right. But I’m always really nervous when it feels like an ironic choice…wanting it to be more about humanity than isn’t it funny…
We were balancing what’s fiction and what’s fact… we were dealing with a play that was coming into contact with …true words.
Perhaps here is a good moment to segment into my last thought for this piece. The idea of bringing performers and audience in contact with true words resonates with the equation 1 + 1 = 3, which Michael had referenced in regards to the name 600 Highwaymen and their work. One form of this equation is in relation to a larger one: 1 + 1 = 1; 1 + 1 = 3; 1 – 1 = 2. Paul Slangen, who I mentioned early had shared this larger equation with a group of dramaturgs a few years back. Slangen highlighted the 1 + 1 = 3 portion of the equation and offered the idea that art is communication and that what comes forward and is shared between the maker and the spectator. Our job is to seduce all to become actively involved in the performance. Abby, Michael and their artists most definitely find the opportunities to seduce those of us engaged in their performance. They give us the opportunity to come in contact with true words and honest performances. They show the blueprint of their work by creating solid performances from their performers. They don’t hide the forms and spaces they are using but put them into a present context for the audience. We are all seen, we are all present, we are all in participation to the work happening. In a sense we are seduced to be true to the moment. To be trusted to travel in and out of our imaginations and be with the performance unfolding in front of and around us.
A few Saturday’s ago I went to Gallim Dance’s open house. They opened their new home, located within the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew, to both local and dance communities. Throughout the day they presented different programs. The one I was able to attend was New Voices, which showcased choreography that has been created for their students. I found myself deeply moved by the circuit of participation and engagement that was created. Gallim had clearly spent quality time with their students giving them a foundation of contemporary movement as well as receiving and feeding off of the information from their dancers’ bodies. Each piece in the program showcased both vocabularies and allowed the audience to witness the DNA of choreography visually as well as enter into a kinesthetic response to the muscles and minds at work.
The context/relationship 600 Highwaymen to their space at Duryea Presbyterian Church where they build and sometimes perform their shows is totally different from Gallim’s; but, what the companies seem to share (at this particular moment) is a similar process of constructing performance. Like Gallim Dance, 600 Highwaymen is welcoming individuals who desire an expressive outlet and work with their genuine qualities, their non-neutral material to construct theatrical experiences. Abby and Michael are stripping away the mask of imitation while also generating a shared performance vocabulary, giving the space for each person to share or present a unique quality of their identity (gesture/speech pattern) with the audience. This ‘rough form’ seems to transcend the boundaries/frames from which an audience is used to situating themselves and invites an opportunity for participation. That participation can be simple or complex. It can be as simple as allowing your imagination to take the lead and view a person named Rami as a forty year old man wanting to bound walls, sharing your name with everyone in a room, or making an imagine of your favorite person from an imagined piece of clay. Whatever level of engagement 600 Highwaymen creates an opportunity for the audience to work with the performers on stage to construct the matter of the event. And the level of engagement will most definitely affect the outcome of the performance for those taking part of it.
I can’t help but think, after being invited into the architecture, the churches, where both company’s find the space to build their work, that there is something wonderfully and simplistically spiritual to this process. And it makes me wonder if perhaps, in our current day and age, where we find ourselves in networks and circuits, if one of the trends in contemporary performance is finding and being a part of the divine in beautiful, mundane, idiosyncratic, human habits.