Saturday, August 13, 2011

Silent New York

On July 30th, I had the fortune of being in a strange and wonderful theatrical experiment, Silent New York. Playwright Matthew Freeman invited me to be in the show only a few days earlier, but he assured me there were no lines to learn, no blocking to learn—my part in this production was to simply be onstage as myself. When I received the complete “script” from Freeman, I saw what he meant.

In fact, “no lines to learn" was basically a commandment. There was to be no speaking, and it applied to hand gestures, facial expressions, taps, etc. My job as a participant was to be onstage for approximately ten minutes, and in that ten minutes I could stand, kneel, dance, sit, huddle under the desk onstage: whatever I wanted to do, so long as I didn't speak. I could stand and stare at a member of the audience, and if giggling or squirming developed in either me or the audience member, so be it. But, the point of my presence on stage was to simply be present. Yes, in a way I was “in dialog” with the audience, but at a level more primitive than speaking, even in Freeman’s broad interpretation.

The “script” went on to indicate that I was one of six people in the show: in addition to an announcer, there would be five other people that Freeman knew. Each of us would be announced, walk onstage, be present in that stage space for ten minutes, be thanked by the announcer, and then we would exit the stage. Our direction was to simply be ourselves in that space. I entertained the notion of getting some work done on my blackberry, but that was forbidden too. My job was to be on stage and be stared at by an audience.

I told you it was strange. But, it was also wonderful. When it was my turn on stage, I did a few different things, but I settled into one pose that felt very natural: standing with my big gut stretching my shirt out (I’ve been eating too much junk food this summer) and my hands resting on top of my gut, just below my heart. I stared at the back row of the theater, but I couldn’t ascertain faces. In the days leading up to the show, I had thought about doing many different things, but this was not one of them. However, after a few minutes on stage, it was just what overcame me. It felt right. What the audience was thinking, I didn’t know. I was just trying to find some comfortable space in which to be myself. When I did, I was happy.

As Freeman admitted in the script, Silent New York was more of an experiment. It was based on, and I’m paraphrasing here, the hypothesis that people in and of themselves—devoid of performance, entertainment value, gadgets, skill, eloquence--are worthy of appreciation. Not study, not examination--appreciation. The audience, asked to look at an individual sitting in a chair, or staring at the lights, standing in a corner, or sipping water, will at some point in that ten minutes—if only for a moment--consider that out there, on stage, is a real person. There’s a wonderful compassion, even love, in this simple experiment.

I had a friend tell me once, that he was concerned for the future of the students he was teaching. He basically said that many of them, not all, seemed to regard everyone around them as starring in a video that was either entertaining them (or not). What I love about Silent New York is that it responds, and to some degree rejects, the idea that everyone around us is only one event away from starring in a youtube video.

Yes, for a long, long time, audiences have been asked to recognize the inherent humanity in others, to appreciate their fellow humans, but Silent New York makes it a kind of strange exercise. I use the word exercise carefully here. I bet it was difficult for some to sit there and stare at someone not doing anything intentionally interesting for ten minutes, for ten minutes at someone simply being. It would be difficult for me to concentrate. But, I also think it must have been fascinating and weird. And that’s a good thing. We have, as a culture, travelled so far down into this cave where we see other humans as mere entertainment, it will be work to climb that distance back to the opening where humans are complex and special.

Full disclosure, Matthew Freeman is a friend of mine. I would have participated in this project for anyone who asked, and I would have seen the value in this project regardless of who organized it; I think I just came to these to actions more quickly for my friend.

If you attended Silent New York, please share your thoughts. If you were an audience member, what were some of the thoughts you had throughout the evening? If you were on stage, what was it like for you?

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