Impressions of Ivana Müller's “We Are Still Watching”
At New York Live Arts
Co-Presented with the French Institute Alliance Française
Part of FIAF’s Crossing the Line Festival
September 30-October 3, 2014
We don’t think about it, but the experience of the audience is as scripted as the performance on stage. Stay in your seat; don’t talk; applaud even if you hate it; and, for Pete’s sake, TURN OFF YOUR PHONE. The performing arts, with its reflexive adherence to these long-established rules, can feel hampered by its liveness, this very thing that makes theater, theater. Thrust into relief against movies and television — glossy mediums that can’t be offended by multitasking and phone checking — theater, with its fraught desire to say important things in a real-time environment, can feel dated, a relic from another period akin to pantomimes or masques.
Ivana Müller, as does the smallish audience gathered at New York Live Arts 3rd floor studio, believes that the theater experience can be stretched to ignore the tropes that burden conventional shows. In We Are Still Watching, presented as part of FIAF’s Crossing the Line Festival, she recasts show-goers as performers, and we spend an hour reading aloud a play, randomly passing around scripts to ensure everyone has a go in the spotlight.
Using amateurs, even game amateurs, carries an inherent risk. A few are good: natural, articulate, and gifted at imbuing words with subtext and significance. Most of us aren’t that great. The non-native English speakers struggle. (The script doesn’t help; a brief perusal reveals nonstandard punctuation and a couple of typos.) Some are wooden, or worse, barely understandable. I, in a fuzz of blistering humiliation, frustrate the proceedings for several excruciating minutes because I’m on the wrong page.
The play isn’t really a play; it’s a play about an audience putting on a play, and there’s a lot of reflection about the silliness of paying to be your own performer. Occasionally, people embody archetypes like horny misogynist or a lovelorn sad sack. Pop culture references, Facebook and Milan Kundera, proliferate. Portions of the script sounds like drunk talk. Lines I recited (paraphrased here) include, “I wish I were black,” and “Let’s start a revolution,” apropos of nothing.
We laugh and laugh during We Are Still Watching. The setup, four banks of chairs framing an empty space, permits us to see each other perform. Much of the humor stems from the dichotomy between what’s being said and who’s doing the saying: Words written for a man spoken by a mousy woman or an emotional speech rendered in a deadpan delivery garner big guffaws. We snicker at the inevitable blunders of lines misspoken or issued at the wrong time. A merry, we-are-all-in-this-together vibe saturates the evening: We are, as one phrase puts it, “the legendary group of September 30.”
We Are Still Watching closes with an anthem, a kumbaya of sorts, in which we affirm that we are “doing it together.” We warble to the plunk of a metronome before wobbling off into a discordant canon.
Müller stated in the press release that, with this piece, she aspires to generate an instant community. It doesn’t quite pan out like that. If anything, it cleaves a hierarchy: There’s them, the superior actors who elevate the material, and then there’s us, the twitchy, tongue-tied players. What does resonate is the bravery of live performance for both the audience and the participants. To be present for another, whether as a listener or a speaker, is an act of courage, a declaration of the human experience, which is to witness, and be witnessed.