NYU’s Verbatim Performance Lab show urges us to hear each other



NEW YORK — Theater regularly brings people together, for the betterment of art. But can it do the same for democracy?

Joe Salvatore and his colleagues at New York University are testing out this ambitious thesis in a black-box performance space on Washington Square in Greenwich Village. With midterm elections looming in a politically and demographically divided nation, they are looking at our polarization in a deeply personal way: by acting out the commentary of everyday people on race and covid and gender and history, from every corner of the country.

The hope is that through the dramatizations by students in Salvatore’s Verbatim Performance Lab — based on interviews conducted with 100 subjects over the past year — audiences will hear more than what’s on other people’s minds. They’ll also discover that we’re not at each other’s ideological throats to the degree that politicians and pundits would have us believe.

“The media and politicians have done an excellent job of whipping us into a frenzy and making us believe that we are not going for the same things,” said Salvatore, the lab’s founder and director. “My hypothesis entering this project was, we’re going to find that folks are a little closer together. Or they might not even know that, but when we hear their stories set against each other, all of a sudden you’re like, ‘Oh, these people are wanting the same things.’ ”

This latest performance piece by the five-year-old lab, in NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, goes by the title “Whatever You Are, Be a Good One.” The interactive, 90-minute production features a quintet of Steinhardt students, under Keith R. Huff’s direction, assuming the identities of some of the people they interviewed. (Ten students rotate in and out of the cast.) In brief snippets, they offer word-for-word recitations of their subjects’ thoughts. Then, thanks to real-time polling software, spectators train their phone cameras on QR codes and react to the short speeches, answering such questions as: “Which of these people would you like to have a drink or coffee with?” Or “Where do you think this person is from?”

The questions are prompts for audience members to comment in a follow-up live discussion led by Salvatore. Backstage, three analysts tabulate the answers to the digital polling and project the results on overhead screens. The instant temperature-taking of the room is a measure of how we hear others. “We consume media without chewing carefully,” Salvatore tells the audience. “And we ‘consume’ other people without considering very carefully.”

About 50 people were in the audience last weekend for “Whatever You Are,” which runs through Oct. 3o. And on Oct. 27, its reach becomes broader, as it is livestreamed nationwide for free, with the same opportunity for interactive participation.

Salvatore’s work dovetails with an innovative, hybrid genre — a mix of drama and journalism — that sees conversation gleaned from interviews as a way to intensify authenticity and stir vigorous reflection. Anna Deavere Smith, a pioneer of the form, applied her chameleon-like acting skills to the process in the early 1990s in the now-classic “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.”

Deavere Smith has described what she attempts as “documentations of moments in history,” and this characterization carries over to other practitioners. At Georgetown University, for example, the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics uses a verbatim approach in its “In Your Shoes” project, which has people of divergent beliefs take the words of a dialogue partner and recite them back — a process Georgetown professor Derek Goldman calls “witness across difference.” “The Courtroom” by New York’s Waterwell dramatizes court transcripts to give substance to the emotional underpinnings of an actual immigration case.

Another variation occurs in Sojourn Theatre’s “The Race,” spearheaded by Phoenix-based theater maker Michael Rohd. During the show, audience members volunteer in a segment titled “Presidential Speech Karaoke” to read actual candidate speeches off teleprompters.

In “Whatever You Are, Be a Good One,” each actor memorizes several speeches, compressed from conversations recorded by students and faculty with people from 37 states. The goal was perspectives from across the political spectrum, which was easier said than done.

“We tried very hard to find conservative voices,” said Huff, the lab’s associate director. “And we received emails from people that said they would love to do the project, but they were terrified that if word got out, and they were outed as conservatives, that they might lose their jobs.”

Still, the production does manage to distill provocative viewpoints. The actors often portray people of other genders and ethnicities, and the roster of speeches changes every night, based on assigned numbers, picked by audience members. One such viewpoint last weekend came by way of Michael Roberts, an NYU graduate student in educational theater from San Antonio, embodying Rosana, an older woman who expressed a belief that affirmative action policies may have gone too far.

“Going to rehearsal and performing these people is a workout for my empathy muscle,” Roberts said. “I first got Rosana and I was thinking, ‘I don’t agree with everything that she’s saying. How am I going to do this?’

“Then Joe says, ‘You don’t have to agree with these people to empathize with them.’ And so once that gate was sort of opened up, it just became about empathizing. There are things that she speaks about that I will never be able to experience.”

And that, in essence, is all that Salvatore is after.

Whatever You Are, Be a Good One: A Portraits US Town Hall, directed by Keith R. Huff. Through Sunday at NYU’s Pless Hall, 82 Washington Square East, New York. tickets.nyu.edu. 212-998-4941. Online performances through Oct. 30. vimeo.com/event/2506108.

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