In early 2006, the Pentagon – under then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld – launched a new, ground-breaking, fully operational branch: the Defense Venture Catalyst Initiative (DeVenCi). A sort of military matchmaker, DeVenCi paired politically engaged venture capitalists with private sector firms developing software of potential use to the defense department: the Pentagon would identify an area of intelligence gathering in need of a boost, and DeVenCi would find the (private) company with the knowledge, and the investor with the means, to make it happen.
Before long, the suburbs of Washington DC were peppered with security start-ups; the dot-com boom had given way to a quest for the latest terrorist-busting search logarithm to flog to the Pentagon. Soon too came the launch of the Department of Homeland Security with its 1% doctrine – that any threat identified as being 1% likely must be treated as if it were 100% likely – and subsequent multi-billion investment in companies immaculately detecting and solving entirely unproven possibilities. And there followed the
Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA), a government intelligence body outsourcing around 70% of its workload to private companies: “homeland security is too important to be left to the government,” claimed former National Security Agency director Ken Minihan.
These and plentiful other examples of “disaster capitalism” form the basis of Naomi Klein’s seminal The Shock Doctrine, among whose many early readers was theatre director Rachel Chavkin. With her company The TEAM, Chavkin had just finished an international tour of Architecting, a scathing dissection of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the profiteering that took place in the name of disaster response. With Klein on her mind, Architecting in the background and seemingly anything – from intelligence gathering to disaster relief – a potential profit-maker, Chavkin was provoked by a question: what defines American capitalism?
In 2008, she set about answering that in the best way she knew how: in the rehearsal room. Arriving one morning for a TEAM meeting and putting the idea to her colleagues, Chavkin admits the response was a mixture of smiles, puzzled looks and blank faces. But there was also an unquenchable sense of adventure; company members set about researching everything from Keynesian theory to American consumer culture in a quest for a theatrical response. And then the stock market crashed. One of the cities that had been a focus of research turned from American’s fastest growing city to the epicenter of a housing crisis: Las Vegas. A field trip was in order.
The TEAM’s Vegas trip is the source for so much of what was to become Mission Drift, currently playing at The Shed. Three months of intense research created what Chavkin dubs a “shared unconscious” among the performers: of neon boneyards, acres of redundant signs piled high with nowhere to hang; of the Nevada Proving Grounds, test site for atomic bombs until as late as the 1990s (and still in limited use today); of vast retail and housing developments, halfbuilt and then abandoned post-Crash; of Miss Atomic Bomb contests; of 60 yearold pig farms being sued by gated community homeowners for smelling too much.
As Chavkin flicks through an album of her Vegas photos, I recognise many from their refractions in the show: the simultaneously seductive and destructive image of a discarded neon showgirl or the haunting beauty of an abandoned new building. The process that followed the trip, trying to figure out a play from hundreds of hours of research, was fractious; of the 17 company members who started the process, two perform in the current production. “This was the hardest show to make,” says Chavkin, “the company was broken up and reborn.” But the end result captures on stage the tone of that early research, the excitement and intensity of attempting to tackle so vast a question in 120 minutes of theatre.
As Catherine Love points out in her review, Mission Drift succeeds in both romanticising and undermining the capitalist crusade, of capturing the beauty and folly of the religious zeal with which Vegas grew as an embodiment of the American Dream (“if you believe in Vegas then you believe in God,” sings the show’s own Miss Atomic). Its Vegas dives are Baurdillard’s Disneyland, a “deterrence machine”, made out to be imaginary to make us believe that the rest is real.
Part of Mission Drift’s triumph is its messiness: it shatters the simulacra, enjoys twelve rounds of Barthesian myth-busting with the American Dream, provokes without resolving. “That’s my taste,” says Chavkin; “I’m intellectually more interested in things that are in a state of chaos, that skirt the edge – even down to which way the mic stands will tip in the show.” Does that scare her, I ask; is she afraid that one day audiences won’t be willing to come play? With a smile she admits it does; “but I’m not turned on by a polished aesthetic… And that’s partly why we build a lot of comedy into the show, to help sustain the audience… to make sure they’re spiritually engaged even if not satisfied.”
That lack of resolution, of not needing to satisfy, isn’t new for the TEAM – their previous work has been just as provocative in its staging of questions that seek to define Americanism while never for a moment believing that’s an achievable task. But what differentiates Mission Drift is a historical approach, a tracing back of the essence of capitalism over hundreds of years, mapping economic growth onto the expansion of the frontier through the story of a young Dutch couple landing in New Amsterdam. “Our early work has tended to start with a cataclysm,” says Chavkin, “a crisis, then chaos, then a slight resolution….
Architecting was post-crisis, but still about chaos. Mission Drift feels different thermodynamically – it’s reflective, rather than in the middle of the crisis – there’s more stillness and silence in this show.”
Yet while retrospective, Mission Drift bears the hallmarks of the world-changing events that happened during its long gestation: the 2008 Crash of course, but also Occupy, which – for Chavkin – turned the language of discussions of being and protest more vitriolic. Its debunking of the logic of limitless America, of growth without consequence, is by extension a critique of the reason behind, for example, slavery; not “a straight analysis of the financial collapse” but an occupation of the space “between the myth of the frontier and the reality of its costs.” And while made in America, it’s echoed the world over; swap Vegas for Beijing and a mushroom cloud for Beijing smog, and Chimerica’s Zhang Lin makes the same argument.
Chavkin mentions in passing that those early 2008 conversations came at a big moment for the company, too, with the TEAM’s fifth birthday and many of the players turning 30. It’s a coming of age piece, she says, but also a working out of a state of mind, of new narratives, and inevitably that’s given rise to questions for future pieces – “new frontiers” of state and power in Primer for a Failed Superpower, of American identity in RooseElvis (that’s Teddy Roosevelt meets Elvis Presley) – that the TEAM are currently developing. That their quest to define Americanism is ongoing should come as no surprise. “Mission Drift ends with a question,” says Chavkin with a tone somewhere between Jed Bartlet and Naomi Klein: “What’s next?”
Mission Drift is at the Shed at the National Theatre until 28th June 2013.