Friday, February 24, 2012

Occupy Your Mind - DIY Investigative Theater

This post is by Jay Stull, who participated in The Civilians' new Occupy Your Mind project, in which we are encouraging YOU to conduct your own interviews about the Occupy movement and create a performance from them. You then send us a video and we broadcast it to the world! Click HERE to view Jay's performance!

Last week I wanted to test a few premises of the Occupy Your Mind Project here at The Civilians. The Project sounds awesome: artists and non-artists alike, in conversation with people involved in the global Occupy movement, perform stories culled from those conversations and post videos of those performances on our website to share. People around the world grow increasingly interested; our idea goes "viral"; millions of interview-based performances are recorded and submitted; our website crashes, is rebuilt; Google blanches in fear; the world is united by art and tolerance. So yeah, it sounds really cool on paper. But I still had some secretly held misgivings about the viability of this work in all the different and varied performance spaces throughout the land. I mean, at The Civilians, the performances are great. Professional in every sense of the word. Great lighting and sound. Amazing artistic talent. Awesome venues. I began to wonder how much value was added by a strong production, value that we assumed wouldn't be necessary for (and knew may not be available to) everyone to do the work we envisioned. So I set out to see how these Occupy Your Mind monologues stood up in a room with only a handful of people, no theatrical lighting, and no mics; just folks connecting with a given material and an audience willing to listen to them speak.

Luckily, I had a ready-made group of willing, talented artists in the Winter Ensemble Class I'm taking at the LAByrinth theater. We'd been tasked with creating an ensemble-based work of theater of at least 20 minutes and for an audience of at least 20 people to be completed within the week. I knew that the Occupy Your Mind project contemplated the re-use of monologues already performed by artists and posted on the website, and I seized on this as a potential source text. I chose five monologues for six different cast members and we all divided up the duties of directing. With less than a week's notice, our only available space was a large recreation room in the apartment building of one member of the ensemble. We arrived two hours before the performance to run through the evening (which we had estimated would be roughly 60 minutes) for the first and last time. At that point, honestly, things looked grim. The room was darker than I had hoped. Our collective mechanical engineering skills failed for a time to figure out how to fully elevate the two music stands we had procured from friends of friends. The defunct sound system in the rec room was a barely audible conduit for the music we had intended to play interstitially throughout. Another tenant of the apartment, cradling a bowl of fruit salad and clutching a copy of The Lion King, made a competing bid for the room; management was called; a tense conversation took place just out of earshot. Meanwhile, a debaucherous 21st birthday party in the room next door threatened to drown out our mic-less performance with the thumping bass of a Britney Spears album (I kid you not, they were playing Britney Spears, who I had erroneously assumed died years ago). But we dispatched charismatic young actors to quell the thumping hysteria next door. We re-imagined the dark room as ready made for theater. We figured out the music stands, did away with our playlist, and maintained our hold on the room with an iron fist. We hoped - because it was all we could do at that point - that the monologues themselves and the work the actors had done to perform them would be sufficient to constitute an evening of theater. So the dust settled, the audience arrived, and we began to share these stories.

Here's the thing about these monologues: they have the peculiar ring of truth about them. And because they are at once both odd and specific, they are, to an audience, good theater. Without mics, music, lighting, or even a stage; without being off-book; without equity status, these monologues captivate. They are lived-in stories and, because they were told to us variously at protests, after a raid, after an arrest, they have in their very fiber the urgency and meaning of a good monologue. They take us somewhere and help us to connect to people we may suspect are strange or may have been taught are dangerous. But their stories reveal something else: that there is reason behind action and urgency behind reason. There was also, at least to me, a theatrical echo of the consensus method used in Zuccotti and elsewhere in the Occupy Movement, the "human mic" - a way of giving physical voice to the ideas of another. What is theater, I thought, if not a formalized, ancient tradition of the human microphone? We long to hear each others stories and, in this instance, the stories are most definitely, by themselves, enough. By way of experiment, I can say to you now: go interview, go edit a monologue and, without a penny to your name, find two listeners to perform. It hardly takes a "production", traditionally defined. What it does take is a willingness to listen, a curiosity about someone different from yourself, and the courage to become that person for at least four to seven minutes. And this, I can assure you from depths of a midtown apartment complex rec room, will most certainly be enough.

Jay Stull is currently the artistic intern at The Civilians. Clips from the Occupy Your Mind performance described above can be found on Tumblr, and if you an interest in getting involved in the project itself, please visit our website at