Celebration, Florida, the town that Disney built, is located in Osceola County. Despite containing buildings in a multitude of historical styles, the town was only established in 1994. At the 2010 census, Celebration was home to 7,427 people, equating to 3,063 households and 716 families. Should you wish to send a postcard to the residents, it uses the USPS ZIP code 34747.
Between September 1997 and August 1998, academic and author Andrew Ross lived in the town in order to write the book later marketed under the title, The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disney’s New Town. Aware of his own position as a liberal intellectual previously living in New York, Ross was committed to depicting the town not as simply the result of small town Disney-obsessed dreamers wanting to return to a past ideal of American life.
Ross opens the book with discussing the advertising billboards for Celebration on display at the time of his residency. Located just outside of the town, was one such billboard emblazoned with the slogan ‘Isn’t this reason enough for Celebration?’ The accompanying image was of two young all-American girls enjoying their time on a swing, whilst being bathed in the Florida sunlight. The advertising played on the ideal of a simpler way of life. Interestingly, it was advertising an existence at odds with the greater Florida surroundings, specifically the hyper-commercialism of endless malls, fast food outlets and – in spite of its Disney links – the extreme entertainment of theme parks.
Celebration, Florida, the show that Greg Wohead created, was performed at the Out of the Blue Drill Hall, Edinburgh in August 2016 as part of Forest Fringe. The show was performed on four consecutive days from Thursday 11 – Sunday 14 August. On each performance, a different pair of performers appeared on stage and acted according to instructions given to them through headphones.
At the performance on 12 August, which I attended, the two people on stage were Rachael Clerke and Catriona James. I recognised Rachael Clerke as being the writer and one of the performers of Cuncrete, also being staged in Edinburgh this August, but at Summerhall as part of the Fringe. I did not recognise Catriona James, but I later Googled her and discovered she is an actor based in Cardiff. I made a mental note to see her perform again one day.
Wohead’s show was developed at the Yard in London and was shown there as part of NOW15. It has since also been performed in California, Derby, London (again) and Leeds. According to the creator of the work, it “orbits around ideas of surrogacy; a stand-in to replace a person you miss, a re-creation of an experience you can’t stop thinking about, nostalgia for a place that never existed.” In this respect it is easy to perceive a link between this piece of theatre and ideas that percolate around the town it shares a name with. Suggestions of yearning, and the collision of past and present float gently by.
Celebration, Florida, the town that Disney built, proved itself not to be immune to problems. Ross states that behind the picture-perfect façade of picket fences and historical building styles, “there lies one of the town’s most calamitous stories.” The subtitle to the book suggests that translating the Disney name into lucrative property prices was a driving factor behind many residents’ purchasing decisions.
Yet this intention was undermined by the two main building contractors using a workforce often lacking the necessary skills to properly construct the housing. This resulted in a never-ending list of complaints about leaking roofs, wonky woodwork, failing plumbing and even parts of buildings having to be entirely re-built. Despite its flawless outside appearance and best attempt at emanating a mapped-out idea of how this should play out – including following a pattern book for construction – the foundations of Celebration were literally shaky.
Many of the residents Ross speaks to are aware of their reputation as laughable ‘Disnoids’ who want to retire to the past. They are used to fielding patronizing questions from journalists. On the whole, however, they are nowhere near as naïve as some depict them. Those who moved to the town brought with them knowledge of the outside world and their own pasts. They included teenagers who felt the pressure of being first to graduate from Celebration’s progressive school. On a human level we can also assume that all of them brought with them their own pasts, a tapestry of lives touched by love, joy, grief and loss.
Celebration, Florida, the show that Greg Wohead created, involves participants speaking aloud recorded words fed to them through headphones. The words are those of the author and so the people on stage are functioning as the embodied surrogates for Wohead. The show has an implicit tenseness resulting from the possibility that the performer will fail to deliver the lines correctly or completely.
Equally, the success of the show hinges on the individual performers of each show saying the same words in different ways. Wohead is American, but his words spoken through the mouth of Rachael Clerke take on an English accent or, through Catriona James, the slight hint of a Canadian accent. The same words, the same designated script takes on different attributes depending on the individuals inhabiting the performance space. Similarly, they are asked to perform Stand By Me on Karaoke several times.
Again, the same scripted words dictated to the performers are changed and morph into new things each time a different person at a different performance of this same show sings them. The words might be the same, but everyone says them differently, adds the emphasis to another part or – as with the beginning of the show and America as a nation – sings them in Spanish because that is the language they speak. The performers also go off-headset and present a short monologue on saying goodbye. These are stories unique to the performer, brought with them when they walk onto stage. No matter the controlled environment, their memories exist.
Celebration, Florida, the town that Disney built, has a reputation for being all about small town American values. However, Ross discusses how the town had a high number of openly gay residents, some of whom lived together. Although there was some dissent from Southern Baptists in the Florida area, “the prevailing ethos in a community so identified with families was one of inclusion.” Celebration, as a town created in 1994 and influenced by the existing urban areas of the Southeastern United States, was not entirely recreating the domestic values of the past. Historic elements, such as the look of the housing, prevailed but the people who lived in those buildings were not – and could not – be identical to their ancestors.
Celebration, Florida, the show created by Greg Wohead, contains a recurrent comment about the author being from Texas. He tells us that he always tells people this biographical fact, despite also being at pains to distance himself from the stereotype. Because this, of course, is what human beings do. When faced with scripted words or a set of accepted behaviours, they often choose to rebel, dissent, challenge. Eight performers over four nights say the same words and sing the same song, yet when the individuals step forward there is always the possibility that this time they will tear the headphones off and ignore the voice. Within rejecting the script is the space for change, for more listening and more acceptance.
Isn’t this reason enough for celebration?