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Features NYC FeaturesPerformance Published 16 May 2014

With Democracy and Theater for All

New York-based performers Big Art Group came home to Abrons Arts Center this month, with their show The People, an experiment in democracy-building as only this adventurous, tech-savvy company could imagine it.
Molly Grogan

The experimental performance company Big Art Group may be known for some  spectacular things: a live-theater/video hybrid dubbed Real Time Film; its bold recuperation of media signifiers; and high-tech, knock-out shows like Flicker (2002) and House of No More (2004). If political activism hasn’t been part of their shtick so far, that’s changing with The People, a site-specific installation/performance/play that the company calls a “transformation of civil life.”

Already seven years old, this show with grand ambitions and an outsize visual palette only recently made its debut in New York, after being developed in Europe and touring to San Francisco and Portland. The People threw its panoramic spectacle on the walls of Abrons Arts Center for two performances May 9-10. The visit was this monumental project’s latest exercise in democracy-building, in the same venue where the company began in 1999. Big Art Group’s co-founders and directors Caden Manson and Jemma Nelson talked to me over Boxed Water and coffee about The People’s genesis and revealed some of its more recent surprises.

Alexis de Tocqueville famously observed that “Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.” The line might have inspired The People, which fosters reflection on democratic principles within a local community and then bounces those ideas off a foundational piece of theater on the democratic question: Aeschylus’s trilogy, The Oresteia.

But in its earliest phase, Manson and Nelson explained, The People was an experiment in participatory work that started in Polverigi, Italy. This small municipality of 4,000 people annually hosts some of the most daring names in experimental theater during the Inteatro Festival every July. Manson, who acts as the company’s Artistic Director, and Nelson, its Executive Director, were impressed by the “very open” spirit reigning in Polverigi. It was, they said, “the perfect community” with which to begin a new line of investigation for the company.

Nelson explained: “The objective was to take what we’ve been doing with Big Art Group, which is mediated work, working with live video, very technical and rigorous, and seeing if we could turn that around and say, ‘What if we used untrained actors? What if we used ordinary people and how does that change it? Can they do it? Will they fail at it? How do they fail?’ Those kinds of questions.”

And so The People began not with the company’s more usual visual razzmatazz and deconstructing of media discourses but with a choice to “politicize the work,” according to Manson, through grassroots networking and one-to-one interviews in Polverigi. They asked Inteatro’s organizers to begin to lay out an ever-widening net of local participants who would be asked questions on five topics: community, justice, democracy, war, and terrorism. Manson and Nelson wanted to know, for example, which communities the participants were part of, how easily they could find a neighbor to help them in an emergency, and who they would consider a foreigner. In turn, these participants were sent out to find more interviewees and ask them the same questions, and these in turn would repeat the process.

At the same time, which happened to be the years of the Bush Doctrine and its purported agenda of democracy building, Manson and Nelson were exploring the idea of what it meant to “export” performance to a community that was not their own. That reflection led them to look first at The Oresteia for it’s early positing of democracy on the principle of representation by one’s peers and its abandoning of blood justice as a solution to political discord. They also considered Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Notes for an African Oresteia,” in which the Italian filmmaker observed ordinary Tanzanians and Ugandans as he looked to cast the primary roles of this Greek tragedy: Clytemnestra, who murders her husband to avenge his sacrifice of their daughter; her son Orestes, who murders her; and his sister, Electra, who adheres to the gods’ initial prescriptive for cathartic revenge.

Putting Pasolini’s never-realized idea into practice, The People does cast ordinary people in those roles, and this is the point at which the project becomes a “reality-based theater series,”  according to the company’s website.

To date, each version of The People’s five-city tour has been performed in a meaningful location for the community participating in the project. Past sites have included the mayor’s residence in Polverigi, a former Stasi headquarters in Halle, Germany, and an abandoned high school in Portland. In New York, Manson and Nelson chose to bring the project to Abrons Arts Center because of its historic relationship with the  Henry Street Settlement, an early champion of social justice in the city and a provider of  many vital outreach programs to the Lower East Side communities it serves. Working with Abrons and the company’s own contacts in the community, Manson and Nelson were able to integrate into The People’s New York showing a diverse demographic, from teens enrolled in theater classes at Abrons to longtime local residents.

The People. Photo: Joseph Webb

Big Art Group’s The People. Photo: Joseph Webb

As well as being symbols of their communities, the chosen sites are equally important to the performances themselves as they are fully exploited, both inside and out, to tell The People’s story on multiple planes: while scenes from The Oresteia are performed within the site’s walls by Big Art Group’s actors and community volunteers, that same architecture is used as the backdrop for over-sized edits of the video interviews, which function as The Oresteia’s Chorus. The audience moves at will through these free performances, allowing the spectator, as in Big Art Group’s earlier pieces, to become his or her own “active editor” of the information and images being created and disseminated. New here, however, the public is also asked to participate in or reflect on the action by using their mobile devices. For example, spectators are called upon to break Orestes’ hung jury by texting in a vote for guilty or not guilty. These intrusions by the audience are necessary, Nelson said, to “add to the diplomatic discussion of what we’re talking about.”

“We’re focusing on levels of engagement, levels of audience and levels of control,” Manson explained. “The primary audience of The People is the people we’re making it with, [while] there’s the secondary audience for the actual presentation of the work. It’s about taking the private and making it epic and taking the personal and making it mythical.”

Despite the show’s political concerns, fans of Big Art Group’s Real Time Film technology and video aesthetic – which draws liberally on horror and true-crime film and TV genres – won’t be disappointed. The company’s particular methods of “critiquing” media tropes – “a queer idea of embedding and embodying and then subverting and corrupting,” according to Manson – is part of both the visual excitement and the social message of The People.

“We’re making a contemporary language for the stage, so that contemporary language encompasses all the ways that we communicate day to day, and we want to critique that,” Manson continued. “We critique that in a queer way a lot of times because we’re talking about issues of power and who has control of that and frame: the frame that you’re in and how you reflect it back to yourself; how you’re promoted or projected onto others and things like that.”

One example of that critique can be seen in the show’s portrayal of the central action of The Oresteia. Aeschylus imagined the elimination of the adulterous and murderous Clytemnestra by her children as an attempt to restore justice and the fair exercise of power in the kingdom. Big Art Group looks at that pivotal action through a new lens, interpreting the murder through activist movements like Occupy and Anonymous.

Now in it’s fifth version, The People has been a learning process for the show’s directors, who, like de Tocqueville, have seen firsthand some notable differences in the way democracy is approached in America and on the Old Continent.

“People can agree that democracy has to be just, has to represent everyone equally,” Manson said. “They also all agree that it doesn’t really work. I think where you find a lot of disagreement is when you talk about terrorism and justice. Those tend to fall on a wide spectrum.”

Americans and Europeans also don’t agree, apparently, on what their role should be in a democracy. Nelson said he was struck by the length of the interviews they performed in the different communities they visited: in Europe, their set of questions usually elicited conversations with interviewees lasting an hour, on average. In the United Sates, however, he said, those interviews lasted around 12 minutes and consisted mostly of yes and no answers and little deep reflection. He attributes the phenomenon both to the “very rancorous model of discussion in the news in this country” and the limits imposed in the wake of the Occupy movement to assemble and demonstrate, or what he called “how you can physically and actively participate in democracy.”

“I’ve heard a lot more disengagement [in the US]: ‘I’m not going to participate; I’m not part of the process; it doesn’t speak to me,’” Nelson continued. “So, here, we started to try to say, well, what do you think about this? Can you engage? Can you come on the stage and be part of it in a very small, limited, formal, artistic way? It’s a question: How can you give people voice? How can you let them voice their concerns in a public forum?”

Conceived by and for the people, the show was not so much inspired by the constituents of America’s Founding Fathers as by the idea of the German volk, Manson said. And though the piece has taken on shape and meaning in Europe and North America, he and Nelson agreed they would like to take the project “somewhere radically different with a different conception of democracy.” Their hope is the work will develop into a cross-cultural reflection on “all the people” and communities they have worked with over the years, however long The People will continue.

If politics have not been so overtly present in the work of Big Art Group before The People, blending – or rather colliding – larger-than-life art and “big” ideas has always been one of the company’s defining principles. As Nelson explains it, “We look at the broader project of our work as trying to make choices for critical thought.”

Manson agreed: “Culture’s not a play on a stage; culture is a critical space that the play makes, and that’s very dangerous to having zombified consumers and not participants in democracy.”

The People gets out the vote in a whole new fashion, reminding us that it’s not so much the ballot that counts as the process that gets it into the box and gets us thinking –  in this case, thanks to theater and art – outside it.

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Molly Grogan

Molly is a New York Co-Editor for Exeunt.

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