We Are Still Watching: the author, the text, and asking for directions
The other day, while trying to cross from the east to west side, I got lost in Central Park. I finally made it across, but not without the help of three strangers whom I approached for directions. On my walk, I noticed several other parties in a similar, hopelessly-lost state who were in the act of asking other walkers for help. For them as me, the strangers they approached seemed not only accommodating, but ready to go above and beyond in explaining their directions. Some used a map application on their smart phones, others consulted friends to determine the best route, and all demonstrated a collaborative responsiveness that I wished I witnessed more often.
Last week, as an audience member of Ivana Müller’s We Are Still Watching, I felt a bit like a lost person wandering in a park who quickly fell into capable hands. Whether these were the hands of the author, the script itself, or my fellow audience members I cannot say exactly, but either way there was a discernable trust in the room that we would not be led astray. We, the audience members, were the performers, and the performance depended on all of us to get through the text. After we took our seats—each of which had a number that corresponded to a randomly selected number given to us at the door—a member of New York Live Arts staff explained that there were scripts underneath seven chairs, and that whoever started with the scripts were to begin reading from the highlighted lines. These seven audience members, the first readers, found their scripts, opened to the front page, and began our performance. Gradually the scripts passed among us, as written in the stage directions, and by the end we were all reciting lines in unison. While the momentum of the script did plateau somewhere between a discussion of restaging (how this exact group of people could come together again years from now for a reunion recitation) and a meditation on the potential of death (comparing the act of reading out loud in public to standing at the edge of a cliff), the text led us to an overall resonant conclusion: I was happy to be in the exact place and time that I was, and more curious about the intricacies of these no-longer-strangers with whom I shared this moment.
I do not get particularly nervous when someone asks me to participate in a performance—if I am sitting down. Sitting in stillness means there will be little to no danger of messing up some larger aspect of the production’s mechanics: tripping on a chord, accidentally blocking one of the “real” performers’ entrances, becoming an unintentional spectacle. There are many performance-goers who would be anxious and even upset to be asked to play a role in the performance they’ve paid to see (let alone to function as the sole reason for the performance’s happening at all), but one imagines that an artist like Müller, known for staging participatory works, would draw to her performances a self-selected audience who is collectively easy-going about performative role-switching. Still, when I looked around the room at my fellow audience/actors at the beginning of our reading, I wondered about what our group dynamic would become.
As mentioned, as the performance progressed I felt like I was receiving directions from an informed, compassionate stranger. The text anticipated our grumblings, were we to have any. To hear the potential gripes about participation be read out loud from the text led to a satisfying (and often humorous) relief from whatever tension I had from considering the level of intention behind the work. The text questioned who in the room seemed like a hero, and challenged the validity of a performance without rehearsed professionals enacting it. It discussed the fear of having to get naked, should a stage direction command us to do so. How far would we go with these directions if they became more and more demanding? The text asked us to look at each other, and speculated about the possibility of some of us falling in love right there and then. A quintessentially self-aware line: “Amateurs built Noah’s ark; professionals built the Titanic.”
And who is the self who, in this performance, is self-aware? At first it seems like Müller, the one who authored the text. Then it feels more like the text itself. But as we became more comfortable with each other, after one audience member helps another find her place in the text, and an initially shy audience member delivers his line with the particular bravado of a coming-out-of-his-shell moment, the self suddenly is all of us, and our awareness is of our togetherness and the particularities of our being here.
What excuses do we have to really talk to people we do not already know? The weather, a train delay, intoxication, getting lost—situations that necessitate (or permit) for human contact are often out of our control. A lesson in social dynamics, Müller’s We Are Still Watching was a chance to have an extended, somehow honest conversation with people I may never see again.