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Boredom may not be a new sensation for theatregoers, but <i>intentional</i> boredom is a rarer bird.
That's what's created in City Council Meeting, a theatrical event devised by Mallory Catlett, Jim Findlay, and Aaron Landsman.
Presented for free by HERE, the concept of the project is simple: Take a sampling of the minutes of real city council meetings and present them in such a way that challenges the audience to look at both local politics and the theatre in a fresh way.
Running through May 22 in a series of venues ranging from high school auditoriums to El Museo del Barrio, the show revels in both the touching awkwardness of community members' concerns (one rant revolves around ficus trees) and the ways in which we fail the system by succumbing to boredom.
"In an age when you can constantly be mediatized, looking at some screen takes your mind off the fact that you're waiting for a train for the 400th time this year. But I think that's important," says Landsman. "Boredom keeps a lot of people out of the process---and a lot of council meetings are structured so that the boring parts come first to keep people away."
What Landsman has learned after years of workshops around the country is that the piece creates different gradations of boredom. There's the boredom of the impatient, of course, but there's also a boredom Landsman calls "productive," in which audience members slowly succumb to the show's stuttering rhythms. Creating that state is dependent on a diverse audience, one in which, as Landsman says, "everyone can watch people participate and go, 'Oh, maybe different people respond to this material differently.' "
Landsman and his co-creators aren't interested in spoon-feeding the audience---many of whom are shaken out of their stupor when the show routinely requires them to stand in the back of the auditorium. Crucially, the creators also ask audience volunteers to play most of the characters, and those "average citizens" are integrated in surprising ways.
There are several built-in moments, for instance, when the proceedings seem to break down, underlining the fact that most of the men and women on stage were sitting next to you in the audience mere moments before.
As they read aloud from the script, the volunteers are also kept on their toes by crafty text insertions, such as the moment when one character presents a plaque to another and the script says in brackets, "Today's date." The volunteer must pause long enough to recall what day it is.
That glorifying of real-life mistakes is what makes City Council Meeting feel unlike anything else currently on stage, particularly when it comes to the participants. Landsman says that while the worst audience imaginable would be one in which everyone opted to be a silent bystander, a close second is the audience full of would-be actors. One memorable night involved a woman adopting a broad Southern accent as a politician, which prompted a reworking of the script to eliminate that possibility in the future.
This foray into pushing the boundaries of what we accept as theatre is at the heart of Landsman's work. "The key is always asking, 'Why does this piece of work have to be in this particular space or in this context? What are the restrictions of the space we've chosen?'" he says. An earlier workshop in a black box theatre took the piece from "boring to laborious," and the show has been presented in less theatrically charged spaces ever since.
Landsman admits that he's not sure where the interactive piece falls on the theatrical spectrum, but leans towards calling it a play because "it draws people through time and space using action. I'm saying that because I'm wondering if theatre is the right thing for this project. But it doesn't matter if it's theatre or not. Whether or not this piece is artistically successful, I want to get beyond definitions. And I think that's part of the exercise."
For a complete list of showtimes and locations, visit http://here.org
Mark Peikert is the N.Y. Bureau Chief at Backstage magazine
Photo by David A. Brown