Performance still from This Great Country. Photo by Maria Baranova. Image courtesy of 600 HIGHWAYMEN.
Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone have created performances together under the name 600 HIGHWAYMEN since 2009. I first encountered their work in the summer of 2012, when I saw This Great Country, their interpretation of Death of a Salesman, at the River to River Festival in Lower Manhattan. Presented in a gutted department store, This Great Country was an exactingly contemporary revision of Arthur Miller’s play, in a way that was deeply and almost shockingly generous. I had never seen a show with a cast so diverse (in terms of age, ethnicity, bodies, voices) and so attuned to each other and to their audience. The performance felt like a portrait, not of the individual alluded to in Miller’s title, but of the nation referenced by 600 HIGHWAYMEN’s name for this piece. The presence and attention of the performers (seeing each other, seeing the spectators) seemed to deal directly with the reality of the situation—actors in front of an audience—rather than attempting to camouflage or mediate that relationship.
When I first spoke with Browde and Silverstone about this conversation, they asked if rather than conduct a one-time interview, they could instead write their responses over the course of several weeks or months. Since the success of their piece, The Record (a sold-out hit at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival in 2014, now touring in Europe), they had given a succession of interviews in which the writers chose to focus on the casting of their shows, and specifically on what had been labeled the casting of “non-performers” (Browde: “How can they be non-performers? If they’re performing, they’re performers!”)
Currently in residence at the Park Avenue Armory, Browde and Silverstone are developing a new piece titled The Fever, inspired by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which has them reconsidering their practices of relating performers to the audience.
Ben Gansky Let’s start with why. Why make shows?
Michael Silverstone I make shows to get closer to who I am, and to get closer to other people, especially those who are not like me. Making theater is a way for me to have conversations with myself and with other people. It’s the way I stay active. Also, I’m interested in staring. Things happen when you look at something or someone for a long time—like empathy, or compassion, or even just clarity, seeing the surface and imagining what’s beyond. I’m making theater to do all that more.
Abigail Browde Living art feels like the deepest connection I have to a kind of poetic transcendence. I’m not even sure what that means, but living art, people moving in front of other people, is the purest, most accessible, most moving form of expression to me. Humans perform for one another. We look at each other. It’s what we’ve always done. Staring at each other—whether it’s on the subway, in the grocery store, or onstage—feels like second nature, like eating, breathing, talking, and so on. Making plays is sculpting our animal instinct to look at each other.
MS I’m also making theater to wake up to agendas other than my own. We’ve got an idea of what we’d like to happen, and as much as we push it, something else is going to occur, something we can’t control. The idea of dictating what to do or what to experience, and then expecting that very thing to occur, is an impossible expectation, and it’s also a bit boring to make. I’m using the form as a way to put myself in collision with other agendas so that I might come out at the other end more tolerant, or more humanized, or just less narrow.
BG Do you see your work as engaging with any specific problems/issues in the field of contemporary performance?
AB In the relationships between artists and those who support them (institutions and funders) I think there’s an over-proportioned value in “knowing.” In my experience, there are plenty of artistic processes well worth their salt that can’t be effectively put into words. Many processes are instinctive. We’ve got this system in place where we reward the people who make work that can be articulated—or people who can be articulate [about that work]—and so a specific arc of projects is rewarded with resources and support. I do realize it’s hard to support someone if you don’t understand their intuition or their practice, but I think it’s a limiting system.
We addressed these issues from the beginning by making ourselves completely self-reliant. We chose to make shows where we didn’t need institutional support. But the sustainability of this is difficult. And it’s not always fun. I mean, had someone come to the bingo hall in Texas where we made This Great Country and offered to figure out how the electricity in that building worked, so we would stop blowing fuses two days before the opening, I would have been thrilled. Or if we had a producer or manager who would make sure there was adequate heat in the church when we made This Time Tomorrow, I would have kissed them. But I also know that had we held out for adequate heat and perfect electrical wiring, we probably wouldn’t have made those shows. Or they wouldn’t have been what they were. And what they were was genuine and specific and important to us. Also, when it comes to “problems in the field” there’s the lobby problem: lots of money going to maintain and renovate the physical theaters, but not the same dedication of funds going towards the artists. Lobby renovations instead of living wages. I think this is a problem in the field.
Performance still from This Great Country. Photo by Maria Baranova. Image courtesy of 600 HIGHWAYMEN.
MS Our first five shows were made in the social hall of our neighborhood church, often rehearsing while other things were happening in the room: baby showers, piano lessons, even setting up for a funeral, and instead of fighting the overlap, we fell in love with it. We learned to be fluid. The situation was always being complicated, and that kept it alive. There was only so much we could plan. We learned to watch the whole room, to see what was happening in a fuller sense. Working in the church got us thinking about human landscapes, and how to recalibrate the focus of an audience. We want our shows to be messing with the dials and the hierarchies. I want there to be a lot at stake in the way we assemble people.
BG One of the seminal texts of the last half-century on theatre-making is Peter Brook’s The Empty Space. Rereading it recently, it struck me as dated—in fact, colonialist—to conceive of any space as “empty,” without context or history, as tabula rasa. In the same vein, I am disturbed by the tendency of character- and plot-based theatre to treat actors as seemingly empty vessels for characters. What do you think about Brook’s thesis, “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage”? Any thoughts as to how the kind of responses your work has sometimes evoked (“non-actors,” “non-professionals”) might relate to its challenging the dominance of a theatre paradigm based in disguising the truth of a space and performers, rather than revealing it?
MS We’re interested in the lives of the people onstage, both what is true and what is inferred. I want to look at a person and have an idea of how they were raised. Or where they live. Or what they eat for breakfast. I want to know that the creators are telling me that’s an okay thing to do. This is important. My prejudices, my narratives, my values—there’s so much I’m interested in sorting through in the theater.
AB Blankness is, indeed, impossible. It’s a false premise to imagine that it’s possible to be blank, bare, empty. But falseness as an idea must be addressed when you’re working in theater. It’s such an inherently fictional, false medium. The falseness of memorizing words and then reciting them effortlessly, the falseness of fictional circumstance, the falseness of acting like you are not being watched, when in fact what you’re doing is sculpted for surveillance (and often by a large mass of people). Michael and I tend to deal directly with this falseness, to really engage with it. Each piece has a different relationship with this.
MS Richard Avedon has a quote about “the surface” of the subjects he photographed from his American West series in the ’80s. “You can’t get at the thing itself, the real nature of the sitter, by stripping away the surface. The surface is all you’ve got. You can only get beyond the surface by working with the surface.”
AB Our deepest success is when we can bend and manipulate the theatrical form (one that really deals in games of pretend and falseness), to make something true and real.
BG Can you talk a little about how your backgrounds have influenced your work?
MS After we graduated from NYU, Abby was making shows that she was writing, choreographing, and performing in. I was directing new plays, and I was having a hard time in that world. I kept getting hurt, and I didn’t feel in control of my work. I felt like a janitor. At the same time, I was heading this theater group in a maximum-security prison, and I was spending a lot of time with this group. I was teaching them acting. We’d work on monologues, and ultimately we performed a full-length play for the public. Something about this specific group, and the way I figured out how to work with them, pulled me out of a disillusionment I didn’t realize had taken hold. I began to feel a lot of possibility. And right around then Abby and I started working together.
BG How do you go about relating your personal lives together to the work you’re making?
AB How we live our personal lives and how we make work is very messy. We spend an inordinate amount of time with each other, sharing and articulating and explaining things. At the same time, we’re both very private people. Actually, neither of us likes to talk about our ideas with the other, but we do it. It’s like an emotional shoehorn.
Actors have also told us that we keep our cards close to our chest. This is true. We prepare the process so that the actors’ focus stays on the inside. We work with smart people, but we don’t rely on them to have an outside perspective on what we’re doing. Their job is to be inside the apparatus, working on the task at hand, so they’re prepared to work with the spectators.
Photo by Paal Williams. Image courtesy of 600 HIGHWAYMEN.
MS There are opposing forces in our creative process, but actually we’re trying to simplify the whole thing in a big way. We’re trying to open our shows so there’s room for something to happen, something unknown to all of us. We’re setting up a framework, and we’re aiming to get lost in the gaps.
I thought a lot about this when working with Death of a Salesman. That first scene is so great because this guy, Willy, has come home in the middle of the night, and his wife finds him standing in the middle of the kitchen alone. She’s in her robe and he’s dressed for work, and it’s the middle of the night and she turns the light on. And they’re just standing there. It’s the truest sense of reality, even they don’t know how they arrived at this point in time. The thing is, in a lot of productions, all that reality gets lost. A bunch of decisions are made that take away all the uncertainty. Linda kisses Willy on the forehead, she helps him with his coat, a cup of tea is made, they do the special glance. It all becomes very digestible. But theater can be much more mysterious. We can deal with figuring it out on our own. If the actors are working and the setup is right, something really great can occur.
But this is really a matter of personal taste. I’m interested in work that has room for me to make something happen on my own. I don’t want to be transported, I want to wake up to myself. I want to be triggered. Not every audience member has to feel the same thing, but I do know that you’ve got three minutes at the top of Miller’s story to get the majority of the audience thinking about their parents, and I think there’s a way to do this that is more subconscious, more ephemeral—something that sneaks up on you.
BG How are you guys working to leave things onstage unresolved for an audience?
AB We’re leaving gaps that are generally filled by traditional American realism. Put some spackle over the hole and paint it clean. This is super apparent I think in the choreography for Employee of the Year.
MS We’re asking performers to think about themselves in relation to the experience of being seen by an audience, and in relation to the words being said. We’re not very interested in psychological realism, or in the fictional given circumstances. Sometimes we talk through this idea I stole from Brian Mertes, which is that there are three things—character, self, and the text—and each occupies the foreground, middle ground, or background of every moment for a performer. They are constantly shifting and being rearranged by the performer. This is asking the person onstage to be thinking of who they are while onstage. It’s asking them to be present and to be aware. It becomes a very concentrated thing.
BG When you say “reality of the narrative” or the reality of the lines, do you mean the reality as it relates to the actual personal life of the performer?
AB No, I don’t think that’s what I mean.
MS Sort of.
AB It isn’t about the actor’s “personal” life, but more the reality of who they are in the moment of doing the show. Less psychoanalysis.
BG So, reality perhaps meaning in this case the reality of the situation—this being a performance in front of an audience.
MS Yes, and really listening to the physical mechanics of being up there. Like, feeling your eyes move and your blood flow.
BG Can I ask you guys about your recent experience workshopping your new show, The Fever, at the Sundance Institute Lab at MASS MoCA? How are these questions resonating for you in light of this recent development period? Mistakes, presence, leaving things unresolved—maybe especially as relates to the dynamic between performer and content?
MS We’re trying to disturb some of our core ideas with this next project. It’s time to move to new stuff. When we hit material at MASS MoCA that felt like our other work, I couldn’t digest it. It was as if my body was rejecting it.
BG Can you outline a sense of either what you feel like you’re rejecting or what you’re embracing through this process?
MS Stillness. Standing on two feet.
AB Yep. And even looking at the audience is something to upend for us.
MS “The encounter” between spectator and performer. Symmetry. A lot of what we’ve been talking about, actually. These are things we want to put aside.
AB This does not mean we’re asking the performers to pretend the audience isn’t there. We’re not erecting a solid fourth wall.
MS No, but it feels like we’re partially building it up again. At least half-so.
BG And this show is based on material from Rite of Spring?
AB “Loosely inspired by” at the moment. I think we’re in a “breaking up” period with Rite of Spring as a source. We need to see other people.
BG How do you go about that sort of dating scene?
AB For real. Tinder for art projects.
BG Tinder dramaturgy.
MS Usually our work is in direct conversation with visual art, and we’ve been looking at sources that are thematically linked in some way for a while.
BG That’s fascinating. It’s something I didn’t know about your process. Can I ask what or whose work in particular has influenced this and/or past pieces?
MS The artist Nick Cave. He makes these soundsuits, full-body pieces for people to wear. What I like is how open to interpretation they are. There are a lot of ways to read them. And they alter your perception, which is something we’re always trying to do. In the past we’ve done this by playing with time and point of focus, but never with something so theatrical. To me this show feels like a goodbye to something, or a letting go of the argument.
AB Or a hello to something else. Something additional.
BG Do you feel like that’s a reaction to a direction you were taking in Employee of the Year?
AB I think actually there’s something about having made Employee of the Year and then remounting The Record in the Netherlands around the same time that made us look at our work in a very new way.
BG Did you have any particular revelations?
MS Both shows feel very solitary to me, and I’m feeling not so interested in the singular anymore.
AB Oh, that’s interesting. That’s right.
MS It feels like we’re breaking the skin to get lost in the cells of something greater, maybe something more chaotic.