Ann Liv Young’s Home Theater
One of the most dynamic performance spaces in New York City today is Ann Liv Young’s two-bedroom apartment in Bushwick. If, for instance, you grow weary at the prospect of wandering through the airport-terminal ambience of the Shed on your way to see the next “gesamtkunstwerk by Skype,” as The New Yorker’s Alex Ross put it, then keep an eye on Young’s Instagram (@annlivyounger) to stay abreast of the latest offerings at her second-floor walk-up. Over the past six months I have attended two productions there, Antigone and Couples Therapy Dinner, each one offering a new, intimate vantage point from which to appreciate Young’s artistry. Seemingly unphased by the material limitations of her humble abode, she has arrived at a turning point in her career without surrendering her trademark tenacity.
If, as Antonin Artaud declared in The Theater and Its Double, “The actor is an athlete of the heart,” then Young has always possessed the “affective athleticism” of a mixed martial artist in a UFC fight. Since the early 2000s, her work—which she conceives, directs, choreographs, and performs—is kinetic, explosive, and even combative. When she interacts with another performer or an audience member you never know whether she’s going to be their cornerman or sparring partner. Sure, she has pissed, shit, and fucked on stage, but it’s the way she lands emotional body blows that stays with you. Whereas her earlier work could feel like a brawl, e.g., the controversial incidents at MoMA PS1 in 2009 and at American Realness in 2014, her recent work grapples with vulnerability, shame, and abjection with the agility of jiu-jitsu.
Take Antigone, which had its New York premiere in late May of this year. Young has always been a freewheeling adaptor, and in Antigone she raids her ancient Greek source for spare parts. The production largely ignores Sophocles’s storyline, and instead creates an exquisite corpse of scenarios and improvisations involving Antigone (Young); Haemon, her lover and Creon’s son (Daniel Klingen Borg); and Ismene, her sister (Lucie Strecker). At one of the two performances I attended, Creon, the ruler of Thebes and Antigone’s uncle (played by Young’s real-life, gregarious neighbor, Cliff), joined the trio. Set pieces—a “wolf” dance, a bizarre ritual in which Young’s breasts are covered with body paint—punctuate these scenes like outré choral interludes. As in most of her work, Young sings hip-hop and pop music karaoke style, including a fierce rendition of Cardi B’s “Be Careful,” with the kind of total abandon that’s closer to demonic possession than bachelorette-party intoxication.
Antigone’s vibe might be described as Theater of the Ridiculous meets Fight Club. The production takes place in what would otherwise be a bedroom, covered completely in cardboard with piles of dolls, glitter, dirt, and cheap props, including a snow machine used to spectacular effect, sprinkled throughout. Purple, blue, green, pink, and darker shades of red dominate the color palette. The costumes comprise a menagerie of punk, camp, and Eurotrash—colorful wigs, thrift store leather vests, animal print dresses, and chiffon skirts. The audience packs into an adjacent room, sitting on floor pillows or a bunk bed, and, if necessary, spills out into the playing space itself (I sat under the upstage sound console on one occasion). Everyone is only a few feet away from everyone else.
Young’s Antigone acts primarily as an onstage director, setting the scene for the other actors and then giving them constant feedback, such as, “Stay focused,” “Faster, faster, faster,” and “Make it real.” Unlike her source, Young’s Antigone is not interested in whether one chooses to uphold divine law over the sovereign decree. Instead, the show transposes the Sophoclean aporia onto the theatrical situation itself: Can a performer be true to themselves while at the same time fulfilling their role in the production? Or is performing necessarily an act of self-sacrifice, maybe even self-destruction?
At the beginning of the show, each of the actors sets a goal for their performance that night, but their goals—to be more present, to use their body more, and so on—meet resistance quickly. The actors often feel unable to overcome their limitations, confused by the plot, incapable of operating machinery, or overwhelmed trying to meet Young/Antigone’s demands. The palpable tension can devolve into bickering, arguments, or even a full-on fight. As the actors navigate the scenes, there are flashes of brilliance but also frequent breakdowns. Moments tend to fizzle out or combust under pressure. This is tragedy rendered as travesty—and gloriously so. The glitches turn out to be the features. Like the characters of Sophocles’s drama, each actor in Young’s production, its creator included, pushes themselves to their limit as artists and collaborators, using the resources of theatricality—acting, choreography, music, and so on—to venture into an unforgiving psychological landscape marked by shame and vulnerability. Young’s Antigone will feel uncannily familiar to anyone who has ever felt uneasy in the role in which they have been cast.
This is especially true for the audience members whom Young compels to act during the production. Unlike so much so-called participatory theater, Antigone does not politely ask you to come up on the stage and then gently encourage you to follow a pre-ordained set of responses. Instead, if Young chooses you, you are expected to perform just like the other company members, and you will receive feedback from Young and the audience in real time. The physical proximity amplifies the stakes of these scenes, and the results run the gamut from embarrassing to inspired. Cast as a villager during an improvised scene, one woman could not connect with Antigone and Haemon as they begged her for help. In response to this impasse, Young stopped the improv and asked the audience for feedback, which took the form of everything from support to scorn (“She’s full of shit,” one spectator declared). It was agonizing to watch. A little later, a woman was asked to respond to Haemon’s calls for help using only language she would employ in her real-life job as a financial services advisor. The results were nothing short of spectacular (“You need to concentrate on portfolio diversification,” she earnestly tells Haemon after he asks what to do about his father, who wants to disown him and execute his girlfriend). At another performance, Young led a post-show talkback during which she prodded us for the most pointed critiques we could offer of her fellow castmates. In Young’s theater you are free to act and to respond in whatever way you want; you are not free of the consequences. The severity of this compact with the audience feels right at home in the world of Greek tragedy, in which one must “suffer into truth,” as the immortal line of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon goes.
The next show I attended at Young’s home pivoted away from tragedy and towards another form native to ancient Greece: the symposium. On Friday, October 18, six of us gathered around the kitchen table in Young’s apartment for the first iteration of Couples Therapy Dinner. Two couples—in both cases close friends as opposed to romantic partners—and Kristin Worrall (the evening’s patisserie) comprised the guest list. A cadre of animals, including a friendly rescue dog and a rambunctious cat, joined our party intermittently. Young, in the role of Sherry, played host, sous chef, server, and therapist.
Sherry is Young’s longtime, go-to performance avatar. Part self-help guru, part huckster, Sherry speaks with a pronounced Southern accent and frequently wears a platinum blonde wig, garish make-up, and a suit jacket with bright colors and broad shoulders. In addition to performances, Sherry offers Sherapy, her own branded form of talk therapy. Although Young is not a licensed mental health professional, Sherry has held sessions with audience-patients throughout America and Europe, including an appearance at an international psychiatry conference in 2014.
At Couples Therapy Dinner, Sherry takes on a different appearance. Her hair is now auburn, and a long, cotton dress composed of earthy colors replaces the suit and skirt . This change in appearance coincides with a new tone for Sherry as well. Absent from Couples Therapy Dinner are the platitudes and sales pitches that have played such a big role in past performances. Instead, Sherry is the Socrates of our therapeutic symposium. In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates and a group of his fellow Athenian citizens, including the playwright Aristophanes, discuss the nature of love (eros) as wine flows freely. Like Socrates, Sherry guides our conversation through provocative questions, thought experiments, and a generous but not indulgent amount of food and drink. Unlike her ancient Greek predecessor, however, Sherry is not interested in universal abstractions but in our individual struggles and their messy, concrete details.
As in Antigone, Sherry asks each person at the outset to set a goal for the evening. Some want to untangle a messy situation. Some need to decipher conflicting signals. Some dream about starting over. Sherry holds each person accountable to their ambition during the three-plus hours that follow. I will forgo the details, as they were shared in presumed confidence, but their array was vast, given that all of us were New Yorkers in our mid-twenties to early forties. People confess to transgressions and indulge in salacious fantasies, recall group sex and sort through overlapping partnerships of various intensities and geographic locales. People cite everything from Esther Perel’s podcast to esoteric Buddhist mantras. Sherry steps in regularly to ask the group to respond directly to what someone has just said. When most people initially offer encouragement, she asks us to recognize that impulse and reach for something else, something that might be more difficult to put into the room. It never becomes hostile but at moments the mood hangs over a precipice before finding its feet.
Couples Therapy Dinner forges a unique alloy of voyeurism and empathy. It would be easy to say that the event is a fortifying antidote to the toxic waste dump of social media. And, in some sense, this is true. I suppose all of us were more forthcoming, thoughtful, and invested in what we said and how we listened than we otherwise would be. Ironically, the structure of the performance, animated by Sherry’s directives, keeps people’s most performative tendencies (using the modifier pejoratively as it often is) at bay. Yes, it is awkward to look at someone whom you just met across a table and, as Sherry instructs you to do, say the three words that you associate with them. But the permission to divulge some of your most personal details to an attentive audience, as well as the thrill of listening to others do the same, redeems the risk. With Sherry at the helm, what begins as an anecdotal tributary can open out onto an undiscovered country. More than anything, Couples Therapy Dinner gave me a renewed appreciation of how strange strangers can be and how, in their presence, we can become strange—wondrous, weird, and worthy of inquiry—to ourselves.
Young’s home theater is not for everyone. If you require a reliable start and run time, go elsewhere. These productions do not follow a strict script but a mutable set list that can change in an instant. The first time I saw Antigone, seven people attended and it ran for well over two hours with two intermissions. The performances were intense but focused, almost workmanlike. The second time, the audience packed the house, and the show rocketed by in less than ninety minutes, with emotions throttling and the atmospheric pressure changing by the second. Our Couples Therapy Dinner was civil and unhurried, but Sherry intimated that future performances might be faster paced and more unpredictable.
For some, Young’s art offers a passport to certain, increasingly hard to find pleasures. There is the romance of trekking to see a riotous, outrageous show in an artist’s apartment, an experience that seems to belong to a bygone New York, now that rents have skyrocketed and even small cultural institutions adopt the posture of a corporate brand. (Aspects of Antigone, in particular, recall the work of Jack Smith, whose phantasmagoric, failure-prone performances in the 1960s and 1970s—which could start at midnight and last until dawn—attained a kind of occult aura.) There is also the exhilarating rigor, the way Young demands your attention and compels your involvement. In a theater and performance field littered with rhetoric about work that is “innovative,” “cutting-edge,” and “breaking boundaries,” Young is one of the few artists rewriting the contract between performer and spectator. There are no pre-show announcements, in part because there are no disruptions, only actions that inform and enliven the next moment. Want to take out your phone and text? Please, I dare you, and I hope I’m there to see what happens. Maybe Young will want to take a selfie, or share your photos, or throw your phone out the window. Anything could happen.
That a major artist such as Young has self-produced her most recent ventures without any support, financial or otherwise, from any New York institution is a reason to celebrate her unwavering resolve. It is also a cause for concern and a reflection of the peculiar ways in which the city’s cultural capital circulates. Young receives more support from Europe, where Antigone premiered and toured in the fall of 2018, than from her home base. The New York press has not helped matters as of late. After Young received a New York Times profile in advance of Antigone, not a single outlet reviewed the production, which ran for over a week. This is a shame, because Young’s work is changing and this is an opportunity to update and re-evaluate her outmoded reputation. It might also be a moment for New York theater to claim an artist who has historically, for better or worse, been aligned with and presented under the rubrics of dance and performance art. Young’s Antigone, along with Elektra and Elektra Cabaret (2014-16), rank as some of the most original and electrifying engagements with Greek tragedy over the last half decade or so, as strong as anything presented at BAM, the Park Avenue Armory, The Shed, The Public Theater, New York Theatre Workshop, or the Skirball Center—all venues where Young has never performed. Let’s hope that, unlike Creon, these gatekeepers give this indomitable woman with something to say a chance to be heard.