Features NYC Features Published 18 February 2015

In Tune With One Another

Nicole Serratore meets performance collective Gob Squad to discuss their latest interactive show, Western Society.
Nicole Serratore

What if you could take a moment from your past and hold onto it forever?  Gob Squad’s new show Western Society gives the performers a chance to speculate about things in their past and their future, but like any fantasy these fragile moments cannot last.  They are not real.

After celebrating their twentieth anniversary in 2014, the German-British performance collective continues to invite audiences on stage with them, explore intimacy through technology, and pushes the bounds of the real.  In this new show, they attempt to  understand “western society” on a grand scale but insteadc end up exploring the personal emotional moments which the performers project upon the work.

Gob Squad has always operated as an arts collective, their work existing in the sweet spot “where theatre meets art, media and real life.” The composition of the group has changed somewhat from when they started as student theater-makers but their unusual approach to work has remained the same.  There is no director.  There is no writer.  Everyone in the collective contributes to devising the work.  They use their own names in the shows.  They swap roles, even after the show has premiered, to keep things fresh and to stay flexible.  They improvise and the script comes late in the process if they ever have a script at all.  It seems the key to their longevity and success is working as a unit.  As longtime member Bastian Trost explains, “We’re more like a band.  The tune only works if we’re all together.”

Trost joined Gob Squad first as a guest artist and then as a full member in the early 2000s.  Even after many years working with them he remains excited by their approach, “The being yourself thing, the realness, the pressuring the moment and trying to make something unique is still something I am so inspired by.”

Gob Squad has often played with surfaces and pop culture in their shows—looking at Andy Warhol’s world in Kitchen and exploring red carpet behavior with Who Are You Wearing. Western Society is no exception.  The show was commissioned by Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles.  Gob Squad spent time in Los Angeles and Venice Beach in residency developing the work, so American pop culture and California itself became a natural influence on it.  “We were quite inspired by the weird mixture of being very poor and very rich.  The sun always shines but there’s this edge to it which is very rough and cruel as well,” says Trost.   They were surprised by the reaction they got when they returned to California to perform the finished piece.  “We thought we had made one of the most American shows in our Gob Squad history.  They experienced it as very European,” remarks Trost.

The starting point for devising the show Western Society was the title itself. The plan was to focus on dinner scenes in Hollywood movies and make it quite family-based.  But this idea got derailed when one member of the collective found a barely watched YouTube video of an American family eating cake and singing karaoke. The YouTube video became more and more central to the piece.  The collective set to work dissecting and choreographing a reconstruction of every movement and gesture in the video.  Now the performers reenact the YouTube video on stage. Then members of the audience are called to the stage and wearing headphones they are directed to reenact the video as well.  As Bastian Trost explains, the YouTube video has become a surface “to project our own family stories on.  It became the main element [of the show]. We were quite happy with the idea of western society being represented by one of the least watched videos on the internet.”

During Western Society, various Gob Squad members share their personal anecdotes and fight for control of the audience in an attempt to recreate moments from their own lives. As Trost explains, “I will see my parents in [the recreated YouTube video] and I will fantasize about the last party they spent together before they split up. It’s this fantasy if I could go back in time and hold this moment.  I never had this picture and this show is a lot about image-making because we are using the audience as that image.  I really enjoy doing that. A random pick of two people are my parents and I tell the audience about the moment.”  The magic of the Gob Squad’s approach is that regardless of whic audience members are involved during any given performance, the moment still works.  “What I am so inspired by with Gob Squad is the audience is so willing to follow a fantasy.”  Moreover, he revels in the fact that these scenes are still capable of generating emotion even if this emotion “is so constructed and fake.”

Trost’s moment with the audience reenactors and the video does not last.  He loses them to the other performers. “We all want to have our moments with this image.  Everyone wants to get their teeth in.  But it starts to ruin the video.  After a while it falls apart and it becomes about something else.” Even as the group build something unique together, their individual interests can tear it apart.  But as part of the audience in Western Society we get to experience both.

Main image: David Baltzer

Gob Squad’s Western Society is at NYU Skirball, New York, from 18th-21st February 2015

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Nicole Serratore

Nicole Serratore writes about theater for The Village Voice, The Stage, American Theatre magazine, TDF Stages, and Flavorpill. She was a co-host and co-producer of the Maxamoo theater podcast. She blogs at Mildly Bitter's Musings.

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