Today’s Stories, Tomorrow’s Parties

Photo courtesy of Natascha Bodemann (French Institute)

Photo courtesy of Natascha Bodemann (French Institute)

A string of colored bulbs strung between two poles and sloping down to the stage on either side gently lights the playing space. It simultaneously suggests a circus tent, a backyard party on a warm evening in late summer, a county fair, and a small-town political rally. A little raised wooden platform, just the size for two people to stand on it side-by-side, sits downstage center. Two people—Cathy Naden and Jeremy Killick—enter to preshow chatter. They exchange a glance, and then they do stand on the platform side-by-side. They will stand there for the duration of the performance, which is Forced Entertainment’s Tomorrow’s Parties, directed by Tim Etchells, playing at FIAF Florence Gould Hall from September 28–October 1, 2016 as part of the Crossing the Line Festival. They will move very little, simply talking to us.

The house lights dim and they begin. Taking turns, speaking with the quiet calm of a bedtime storyteller, they describe to us the way the world will be “in the future.” Each potential future is self-contained, usually entirely incompatible with the one that preceded it. The descriptions are delivered with a mix of authority and a sense of oh god, I’m making this up as I go. This is another reason I often felt, pleasantly, like a child recipient of a bedtime story. It also makes everything feel like a bit of a party game. Describe the future. Once you start, you can’t contradict yourself. You can say anything, except for “I don’t know.” Each new future starts with “Or,” and that’s how we know the authority is feigned. This is a storytelling game.

Generally the futures are produced in a few modes. In one, the speaker begins with an outlandish speculation (“Or in the future, the world will just be run by insurance companies”), and then works backward to make it sound plausible (“So that everything you do will have to be assessed for its risk factor and you’ll have to pay a premium in order to do it…so for example you’d have to go online and you’d have to buy an insurance premium if you wanted to go down to the shops”), often seeming surprised by her or his own ingenuity in so doing. One is reactionary: Killick cuddles up too close to Naden while describing one of his speculative worlds; Naden responds by abolishing men in her next world; Killick counters by reinstating just a few men, among many women, the youngest and prettiest of whom will simply “sit around and have interesting conversations and be very good at massage and things like that.” Another mode is responsive but not antagonistic, following a yes-and model, so that a series of worlds blossoms with each building on or productively complicating the one before it.

There are natural peaks and valleys. Sometimes Naden and Killick, starting to see dark futures, seem to sink further into them, like Atreyu in the Swamp of Sadness, so that each successive future is darker than the last—only to reverse and pull themselves out, compensating with a series of more playful speculations. The futures clump into thematic groups and this is what gives the play’s structure motion (though “forward” wouldn’t be the way to describe it). These theme-clumps include war, space, race, technology, sex, gender, children, the criminal justice system, pills, climate. One of the most poignant is a series of futures that aren’t so much about the future as they are about how our present will be seen. It will be reviled. Or it will be revered. Or it will be forgotten.

There are few explicit science fiction, pop cultural, or political references in the text, yet watching, you can’t help but be reminded of specific instances of speculative fiction—or nonfiction. Your favorite sci-fi novels. The last really frightening article you skimmed about climate change. A conversation you had earlier in the week about police brutality and institutionalized racism in America or an essay you read about Brexit. The rise of Pokémon Go. How your high school students think about gender. Ultimately, what all of this speculation reminds us is that everything—from science, to politics, from gender to the way we structure our societies—is storytelling. We are literally making everything up as we go along.

As the string of lights grows dimmer, its individual bulbs (so brightly varicolored when lit) all taking on the same subdued grayish glow before blinking out entirely, the text enters its final theme: time. People will be able to replay it, the best bits. Or time will stretch. Or stop. Or speed up, so fast, until in the end people will only live for an hour. With that future, the lights dim to black, and our hour with Tomorrow’s Parties, at least, is up.

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