The Mystery of Common Inspiration

600 Highwaymen's "The Record" (photo by Maria Baranova)

600 HIGHWAYMEN’s “The Record” (photo by Maria Baranova)

Right after the opening of the third and last performance of 600 HIGHWAYMEN‘s The Record in the Dutch city of Groningen, on Friday August 29, a woman in the audience got the giggles. She succumbed when the first player appeared on stage, a tall and thin young man with long hair tied in a bun on top of his head, who quietly adopted a tai chi-like pose. The woman, probably a relative or close friend of the player, just could not stop. Her giggling went on for what felt like minutes. ‘Sorry!,’ she exclaimed at one point, very audibly.

It was the sort of incident that usually causes palpable embarrassment and irritation in a theater audience. Not this time. The player simply smiled back at the woman, in a totally relaxed and natural way. The other viewers reacted with soft, liberating laughter, and that was that. The show continued without another hitch.

The player’s improvised intervention could be termed ‘professional’. Problem is, he wasn’t. For The Record, Michael Silverstone and Abby Browde, the maker couple behind 600 HIGHWAYMEN, recruit 45 ‘ordinary’ people from the town where the show is staged. First, 45 New Yorkers, for the first showing in January of this year, during the festival Under the Radar. Then, 45 Groningers, for the summer festival Noorderzon in the north of the Netherlands. Later editions are being prepared in Paris and Hannover.

Browde and Silverstone rehearse their non-professional players thoroughly, and individually. Only on the opening night do they first play together as an ensemble. They don’t speak or sing, just move, accompanied by live music. They walk from A to B to C and back, run in circles, bend, sit, lie down, touch hands, put an arm around each other’s shoulder. All according to a meticulous choreography that becomes more and more complicated as more and more players come on stage. Still, all these ‘amateurs’ milling around rarely miss a beat. The hard work they’ve put in on Silverstone’s and Browde’s behest shows in every detail of their behaviour. The way they put down their feet and start their movements. Their presence and self-assuredness, whether they are simply standing somewhere or staring intently at their audience.

As a viewer, you marvel at the ability of the players, all the more so because you are constantly aware of their ‘amateur’ status. But that same status also allows you to feel a very special bond with them. They are ‘just like you’ and vice versa, like professional actors never can be. The result is not just a powerful emotional experience, like any really good theater show offers. The Record also reinvents and reinvigorates live theater. The show rewrites the code of understanding between players and viewers. They become equals within a new sphere of intimacy. I have never before felt anything like this during a live show. It was almost like a revelation – I kid you not.

In their work, Browde and Silverstone strive to do away with fiction, and with the ‘fourth wall’ between actor and audience. During a public talk I had with them at Noorderzon, they told how they got the idea for The Record during This Great Country, their 2012-2013 radical reworking of Arthur Miller’s classic Death of a Salesman. In this earlier show, they allowed their players to occasionally, and very publicly, on stage, withdraw from their character and Miller’s text. Abby and Michael are no heavy-handed theoreticians; they speak lightly, almost playfully, about their goals and inventions.

Maybe that is their secret. During the past three or four decades, theater has allowed its defining characteristic, its very liveness, to grow slowly into an ever heavier burden. Fictional drama seemed to be so much better served by the camera, either for tv or the cinema, with all its companions: editing, animation, photo-shopping, 3D, Imax, Dolby sense-surround sound. The much more constricted stage repertoire of costumes, whigs, fake moustaches and bellies started to look sad and silly. Theater’s defensive response – to give film- and tv-stars the leading roles on Broadway and West End – only served to underscore its obsolescence.

Now, this unequal battle is being turned around and taken back to Hollywood. By 600 HIGHWAYMEN, and by many other independent, irreverent, innovative and very internationally minded theater makers from all the continents save Antarctica. Their playgrounds range from living rooms in Buenos Aires to well-established venues like Groningen’s Stadsschouwburg and New York’s Public Theatre. Their main sponsors are festivals like Noorderzon in Groningen, Under the Radar and Crossing the Line in New York, PuSh in Vancouver and Fusebox in Austin, Texas, among many others. They may seem small, with their 30,000 to 150,000 visitors, and theater ticket sales of 5,000 to 25,000 per edition. But they are growing fast, unlike most of the ‘traditional’ theater. And they attract a growing number of Hollywood heavies, who want to learn new trades and get in touch with new audiences.

Thus, at Noorderzon this year, I saw famous West Coast DJ Kid Koala and production designer K.K. Barrett, Oscar-nominee for his work on Her, mingling with the crowd at the festival’s backstage in the open air. No 300-page riders here; Barrett and the Kid were enjoying the same simple but nutritious meals as the 850 volunteers who form the backbone of Noorderzon. They were there for Nufonia Must Fall Live, an elaborate stage version of a 350-page cartoon book Kid Koala published in 2003. The story is retold by puppeteers working twelve miniature sets on stage, filmed live in black and white, then projected onto a big screen, accompanied by live music from the Kid himself and The Afiara Quartet.

Kid Koala still loves his DJ work, he explained during my public talk with him. But he also wants ‘more than just make drunken people dance’. For Barrett and him, their complicated new live show was all about learning, about exploring new ideas and new venues, about reaching out to people they’d never served before. It would be impossible for them to do that in their usual settings, where the stakes, financial and otherwise, are so much higher. Here, the much smaller scale and lower cost hurdle of live theater compared to film suddenly becomes an advantage. And it’s a two-way bargain. During the talk, the audience reveled in their unrestricted access to the Kid. The members ranged from erudite film buffs to local Kid Koala-punters, who wanted to know every detail about his scratching technique.

The accessibility of the actors has always been a very special secret of live theater. After the show, you just wait for them to come down and have a drink at the bar, and you can have a chat. But festivals are temporary pressure cookers that greatly increase your curiosity and urge to belong, to participate in and enjoy this collective experience. This magic works equally well for actors and audience, in my experience. Maybe that explains why festivals are such fertile breeding grounds for the new and the unexpected, for the stuff that reinvents and reinvigorates theater. There is simply so much feverish and spontaneous communication going on. They offer a very special level of inspiration, of which intimacy, between crowd and performers, forms an essential part.

Another thing that strikes me about festivals is what I would like to call the Mystery of Common Inspiration. Also present at Noorderzon 2014 was Argentinian maker Mariano Pensotti. With a play, Cineastas, and an installation, El Paraiso. Both are very clever, intricate games with screen and stage, with film and theater. Pensotti lives and works in Buenos Aires. Although his shows tour the world extensively, he had never heard of 600 HIGHWAYMEN, he told me during my public talk with him, let alone met Abby Browde and Michael Silverstone. Still, Pensotti came up with much the same ideas, although he translates them in a different way because he comes from a very different cultural background. Cineastas follows four film makers as they each are in the process of making a film. The play shows how their personal lives are influenced by these films, not just the other way around. Only live theater could convey this message – Pensotti, too, is thumbing his nose at Hollywood. Almost literally: he is just as relaxed and playful as Browde and Silverstone are. No present day Bertolt Brechts here.

In recent years we have seen cinema being overtaken by television. Series like Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, Mad Men, The Wire, The Sopranos, Homeland, Downton Abbey and Breaking Bad seem so much more interesting and in tune with our times than what Hollywood has to offer. But only to a degree. Film remains film, whether it lasts ninety minutes in cinema or six seasons at home. It simply cannot touch the intimacy, immediacy and intensity of live shows like Cineastas and The Record.

You could argue that this very special experience remains the very special privilege of a very limited audience. What are 5,000 to 25,000 viewers compared to the many millions watching film and television? This argument overlooks that live festival pundits are also ardent lovers of the screen, and of the visual arts. They do and-and-and, not either-or. They are also much more active; they will not restrict the sharing of what they saw to their office colleagues gathering around the water cooler. They are the performing arts’ equivalent of the early adopters of the digital world: well-informed people with a well-developed taste who are always on the lookout for things new and exciting, and never afraid to trumpet them.

My guess is that international live avant garde theater festivals like the ones mentioned above will become at least as influential as HBO and Netflix. The reason is simple: they work as sources of inspiration for audiences and actors alike, in a way film simply cannot offer.

One thought on “The Mystery of Common Inspiration”

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