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ON THE ART OF CONNECTION

by Ana Freeman

It is through the possibility of intimacy that the experience of art can be truly transformative.

 

"The desire for connection and the impossibility of it,” said Jim Findlay in our latest interview, “pretty much sum up the whole of human experience, from the criminal to the holy.” Since taking over the editorship of this interview series last January, I’ve spoken with more than a dozen artists. They’ve all had very insightful things to say, but none have stuck with me more than this particular comment. I’m inclined to think it’s true that a desire for connection is at the root of, well, everything. However, I don’t quite agree with Jim that connection is ultimately impossible. I would say that it is rare, but still possible. While we can perhaps never fully know or be known by another person, we can at least feel glimmers of what Marina Keegan called “the opposite of loneliness.” There are many means we have for reaching towards those glimmers. I have recently been working on withholding judgments on the myriad ways people have found to feel whole in the world: to use Jim’s terms, one person’s "criminal" is another person’s "holy." 

I moved to New York City about two years ago. It is a cliché to talk about feeling alone in a crowded city, but I have noticed that many people I know do seem to feel disconnected, despite most of us interacting with many people on a daily basis. There are multiple possible explanations: the rise of technologies that enable communicating in impersonal ways; alienation resulting from an urban, capitalist, and competitive environment; rising rates of clinical depression; and the recent inauguration in the United States of a particularly oppressive administration. The extreme political polarization of our country and the violence in our world seem evidence enough that disconnection is not a problem unique to New York. It’s also possible that it has become more popular to talk of a perceived lack of community in recent years because increasing numbers of people have the resources to protect themselves from more pressing practical worries. Nevertheless, we are living in a time where the seeming impossibility of connection is especially potent.

I’ve always believed that art is perhaps more particularly positioned to address the universal human need for connection than most other experiences. But then, where’s the human connection in an abstract painting? There is some message being passed from artist to viewer, of course, but it may be more of an aesthetic or conceptual message than a heartfelt one—more akin to receiving a text than to gazing into someone’s eyes. So though all art is communicative, some of these communications are more intimate than others. It is through the possibility of intimacy that the experience of art can be truly transformative.

Odyssey Works’ first principle is to begin with empathy. For us, this means that we begin the process of creating an Odyssey by extensively researching and interviewing our participant, in order to get to know them as much as possible and gain an understanding of what life in their skin might feel like. It also means that the first intention of the work is that it be designed from the point of view of the participant’s experience, rather than our own. This is the only way for us to make an experience that is truly for and about one person. 

I was the production manager for Pilgrimage, the Odyssey we created last November for Ayden LeRoux, our assistant director. Early into the process, I found myself Google-stalking Ayden and constantly thinking about her and how she might react to various pieces of the experience we were planning. For example, when writing couplets that Ayden would find hidden in the New York Picture Library, I adhered not to my own poetic sensibilities, but to what I knew of Ayden’s tastes and history. 

The Odyssey centered around Ayden’s knowledge that she carried a gene that put her at high risk for breast cancer. This was not an experience I shared, though I have had medical problems of my own and could relate to the sense of being betrayed by my body. During the planning for the Odyssey, I thought a lot about how it would feel to be in this situation. 

When watching a movie or play, there’s a certain process that occurs by which, for the length of the piece, you become the protagonist. The character becomes your avatar for navigating the fictional world, and you share their emotional, intellectual (and sometimes physical, in the case of immersive or VR work) experience. In Pilgrimage, Ayden was the audience member, and I was one of the creators of the work, yet I found myself seeing through her perspective in a similar way, both when planning the Odyssey and during it. Since we spent months creating the piece, this was an experience of prolonged and deep empathy unlike anything else. 

 

Ayden is carried through Brooklyn Bridge Park during her Odyssey. Credit Katy McCarthy.

Ayden is carried through Brooklyn Bridge Park during her Odyssey. Credit Katy McCarthy.

 

The fact that Ayden was a real person was also key to this. Imagined characters and situations are often complex and potent, but they can only go so far. Sharing in a character’s experience can be very moving, but I do not believe a relationship with an artwork can compare to a human relationship—unless that artwork itself constitutes a genuine human relationship. 

It is for this reason that Odyssey Works strives to create real, rather than make-believe, experiences. Just as an Odyssey is based on a participant’s life, so the Odyssey comes to exist within the real world. Though an Odyssey is composed of scenes, those scenes are not populated by actors, but rather by real people interacting with the participant.

In one scene during Pilgrimage, I gave Ayden a talismanic necklace as she walked across a bridge leading to her final destination, the site of her pilgrimage. As she walked towards me, there was a moment of recognition between us. I recognized her, of course, because I’d been waiting for her, and all my energy was focused on her imminent arrival. But she also recognized me—I was someone she already knew, and she knew I had a role in creating her Odyssey. So I both saw her approaching and saw her realizing that it was me standing there once she got close enough. 

I’ve found that acting in front of people I know can be awkward, because they recognize me in spite of the character I’m playing, and this can feel like it threatens the performance. The mutual recognition I felt with Ayden did not threaten the experience, but actually enabled it. Looking back at that moment, I feel that I shared a piece of Ayden’s real journey, not that I played a part in an immersive play created about her journey. 

Ayden and I have never sat down and had a long conversation, but I still feel close to her, and protective of her, and like I gave her something that I am proud of giving. I felt privileged to be allowed such deep knowledge of someone. I dove into and explored her experience not because I am her close friend or family member or lover, but simply as in end in itself. In some way it’s the arbitrariness of it that made it so powerful. To partake in someone’s Odyssey is to know that we are all connected, or at least that we can be, if we work at it.  

In the spirit of connection, we decided to start this blog in August 2015 to interview artists with similar intentions to our own. Last year, Princeton Architectural Press released a book about our theory and practice called Odyssey Works: Transformative Experiences for an Audience of One, by Abraham Burickson and Ayden LeRoux. If the digitization of communication is one cause of alienation, it also has the power to connect people all over the world, and through the book and this blog we’ve hoped to begin an inclusive conversation. Over the last couple of years, we’ve spoken to conceptual artists, experience designers, performance artists, experimental musicians, game designers, theatre-makers, and culture-creators of all stripes. Via email, phone, and fountain-side conversation, these artists have told us about their ideas, inspirations, and processes. Though we would love to continue the series forever, it is time for us to bring it to a close for the time being. We’ve found a significant sense of solidarity through engaging with like-minded artists, and every one of our interviewees had something new and enlightening to add to the dialogue. With that in mind, I’d like to highlight just a few of the interviews that particularly contributed to our understanding of intimacy in art. 

Our interview with Olive Bieringa offered us a stunning view of what making art that stems from empathy can look like. As co-director of the Body Cartography Project with Otto Ramstad, Olive has created several one-on-one dance projects. In her words, this kind of work is a way to “practice being present with another person.” Through movement, artist and audience member give and receive their perspectives and come to a place of mutual understanding. This performance structure facilitates an exciting reciprocal dialogue that disrupts traditional notions of the roles of dancers and audience members. 

 

Kendra Dennard performing with the Body Cartography Project. Credit Sean Smuda.

Kendra Dennard performing with the Body Cartography Project. Credit Sean Smuda.

 

Christine Jones’ work demonstrates a similar kind of mutuality. Her Theatre for One series consisted of private performances shared between one performer and one audience member. In this model, theatre is not a spectacle or a transaction, but a genuine exchange between two people who share a particular slice of time with one another. She is “an artist who uses intimacy the way a painter uses paint…to make people feel seen, and sometimes…loved.” 

Intimacy can go even further when the narrative and symbolic material of the art comes from real life. Tiu de Haan is a beautiful example of this. As a celebrant, she designs experiences for people around major life events, such as deaths and marriages. By using events that are already significant to people as her starting point, she can make experiences that are profoundly meaningful. In detailing her process of working with her participants, she said: “I empathize with their…hopes, and their fears. I build trust, I become their confidant, and I help them to channel their thoughts into a creative container that reflects what is truly important to them.” Her practice is thus founded on authentic listening, which engenders wonder through connectedness. 

 

The connection found through art is something that is captured rather than invented.

 

Emma Sulkowicz also relentlessly pursues truth in her art. Her most famous piece, Mattress Performance, was inspired by sexual trauma that happened in her real life. In her later performances, she has gone even further in working with reality. For example, in Self-Portrait, she answered audience members' questions, but passed along the over-asked ones she no longer wished to answer to a robot version of herself. Reflecting on the performance, she said “I wasn’t changing the way I acted because I was in a gallery. Other people assumed that I would be, because most people really believe in this distinction between art and life, but I’m trying to break down that distinction.” For a more recent piece, The Healing Touch Integral Wellness Center, Emma took on the role of a psychiatrist. My experience of the work was the same as my experience of Emma as a person. In other words, though the work had a specific framework, Emma wasn’t acting. She does not have a medical degree, but she was still her real self in a fictional situation. In a later conversation, she referenced the stereotype that performing artists are performing all the time, even in their real lives. She tries to do the opposite, which is to live her real life even when she’s performing. 

It is paradoxical to suggest that the truest intimacy, which is both real and mutual, can be found through art, a medium traditionally thought to be both fictional and unidirectional. I think this paradox rings true because art simply provides a container—a time and space in which we can be with each other—which we don’t often have time to do in the superficial hustle and bustle of our daily lives. The connection found through art is something that is captured rather than invented. As Todd Shalom said to us about his work with Elastic City, “We already have everything that we need, so it’s just a question of reframing.” 

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ANA FREEMAN was Odyssey Works' 2016-2017 intern, editor of the artists' interview series, and the production manager of Pilgrimage. She also writes for Theatre is Easy and performs with Fooju Dance Collaborative.

 

 

Leanne Zacharias on Preventing Passivity

Credit Kevin Bertram.

Credit Kevin Bertram.

LEANNE ZACHARIAS is a Canadian cellist, interdisciplinary artist, and performance curator. She has been breaking ground in the post-classical music landscape since the 90s, in collaboration with artists of all stripes. Zacharias' ongoing performance project Music for Spaces reimagines concert, public, and natural spaces with sound. Other notable work includes CityWide, which consisted of simultaneous recitals by 50 cellists to open the International Cello Festival, and Sonus Loci, a winter sound installation on Winnipeg’s frozen Assiniboine River. Her cello performance formed the climax of Odyssey Works' piece for Rick Moody, When I Left the House It Was Still Dark

 

A performance works best when everyone feels they are contributing.

 

Odyssey Works: How do you understand immersivity and interactivity? How do they work and what is the point?

Leanne Zacharias: The point is to prevent anyone, audience member or performer, from operating in anything resembling a passive or inconsequential mode. A performance works best when everyone feels they are contributing—via navigation, work, or some form of interaction.

 

OW: Why create experiences?

LZ: Experiences do more than most performances. They are lived rather than witnessed, so they exist differently in the memory. I think the best art is of this nature. As a performer, the task of creating an experience for someone shifts the intention from self-satisfactory pursuit to gift-giving. In giving a gift to someone, you ask different questions: What do they need? What do they want? What would they like?

 

OW: What are you trying to do with your work?

LZ: To enable close encounters with live performance, sound, and other people. To create musical scenarios that engage both listeners and players in a more direct way than typical concert settings do. To enhance awareness of gesture, place, and time. To ask what the audience would like that they don't know of yet.

 

Credit Kevin Bertram.

Credit Kevin Bertram.

 

OW: What is the collaboration between artist and audience as you see it? Where is the artwork itself located?

In many concerts and performance situations, there's little to no collaboration between artist and audience. There's an agreement on the terms, often in the form of a transaction: audience pays admission fee, artist delivers a program. This agreement is a contract and playbook. It outlines expectations. To me, the most interesting place to find the artwork is at the explosion of that transaction—the moment when the audience realizes they're being offered a different type of contract, a new playbook with unorthodox or unclear terms. 

 

A heightened sensitivity to space, surroundings, and people invites elements of surprise and risk; it requires and builds trust, and creates an exciting tension that is integral to great performance.

 

OW: What is the role of wonder and discovery in your work?

LZ: Crucial. If the work is a musical composition, the performer's role is interpretative. Even if a piece has been performed dozens or hundreds of times, it must be made new—through interpretive decisions, its placement in proximity to other musical works, its placement in the environment, or the placement of the performers and audience. Ideally, everyone is experiencing the discovery of a new interpretation of the piece together, in real time. I think of the entire performance, not just the music, as the work, so I attend to all the details: musical landscape, physical landscape, movement, proximity. A heightened sensitivity to space, surroundings, and people invites elements of surprise and risk; it requires and builds trust, and creates an exciting tension that is integral to great performance.

 

Credit Katalin Hausel.

Credit Katalin Hausel.

 

OW: Who are your influences? Can you describe an experience in which art changed you?

LZ: I'm influenced by knowledge and language beyond my home base in music: architects on community, designers on space, choreographers on movement, visual artists on images and materiality, theatre artists on presentation, and athletes and yogis on repetitive practices. I'm also inspired by naturalists, wilderness gurus, and explorers. I admire their embrace of wildness and their expeditions in search of sudden, fleeting beauty.

My first encounter with Janet Cardiff's Forty Part Motet was significant. It didn't change me so much as distill or crystallize a fundamental part of my identity as an artist. The piece consists of forty individually recorded voices each singing their part of  Thomas Tallis' Spem in alium, playing through forty speakers placed throughout the space. It is a stunning, complex installation and a beautiful experience with a single musical work that never changes. Her piece succeeds as a rare opportunity for art-goers to become listeners, and get close to each voice. What it doesn't do is bring the piece to life as a unique performance, or allow listeners to get close to the musicians' real-time efforts, the physical and intellectual work of executing a single part of a grand composition that is unique with each iteration.  I had a very strong reaction: I realized my purpose as a musician involves advocating for liveness and finding ways for live performance to involve the level of accessibility, interaction, and immersion of Cardiff's piece. Come to think of it, the experience of performing for Rick Moody in the Straw Bale Observatory is a perfect example of achieving this.

Tom Pearson On Dream Logic

Tom Pearson. Credit Christopher Duggan.

Tom Pearson. Credit Christopher Duggan.

TOM PEARSON is one of the artistic directors of Third Rail Projects, along with Zach Morris and Jennine Willett. Hailed as one of the foremost companies creating site-specific, immersive, and experiential dance theatre in the United States, Third Rail Projects is dedicated to re-envisioning how audiences can engage with contemporary performance. They are the creators of the long-running immersive theatre hit Then She Fell and the new immersive sensation The Grand Paradise, which is playing in New York through May 29, 2016. More information can be found at thirdrailprojects.com.

 

Immersive theatre lets you create the world from the ground up.

 

Odyssey Works: What are you seeking to accomplish with your work? 

Tom Pearson: In all of my work, I am hoping to give audiences intimate and transformative experiences by making room for them in the work and making the work about them. I hope each piece becomes a Rorschach blot for their own reflective experiences and takes them on a heightened symbolic journey.  At the end of the day, I hope they see and examine something of themselves in everything I make and that they walk away having perhaps discovered something they didn’t know before.

 

Joshua Reaver and Tara O'Con in  The Grand Paradise . Credit Third Rail Projects.

Joshua Reaver and Tara O'Con in The Grand Paradise. Credit Third Rail Projects.

 

OW: You create work that is both immersive and site-specific. Can you explain the relationship between these two qualities? 

TP: They relate in that they provoke similar approaches to creating work. Many of our public site works focus on the discovery of the narratives that are bricked into the architecture of a place.  In site-specific work, there is a rigorous engagement with real-world architecture and a deep sense of place.  I think that’s true for immersive work as well, but often it involves creating the place ourselves rather than excavating the meanings of pre-existing space. Immersive theatre lets you create the world from the ground up.

 

The artwork itself exists in that sharp turn when a scene moves from an obvious read into the deeper recesses of possibility.
 

 

OW: How would you characterize the exchange you facilitate between artist and audience? Where is the artwork itself located? 

TP: My work is about creating scenarios that keep the audience in mind from the outset—so they are necessary to the work, and each scene is built with that exchange in mind.  I think I am trying to achieve intimacy, but also to challenge audience members' expectations, bypass their rational minds, put them in places with smells and tastes and textures that trigger emotional or physical responses and put them into a place of strong receptivityand then turn a corner to go into deeper, more symbolic, meaningful places. The artwork itself exists in that sharp turn when a scene moves from an obvious read into the deeper recesses of possibility.

 

Roxanne Kidd in  Then She Fell . Credit Darial Sneed. 

Roxanne Kidd in Then She Fell. Credit Darial Sneed. 

 

OW: Unlike some other experiential art, Third Rail’s pieces seem to have a strong narrative focus, yet they are also clearly structured differently from traditional theatre. Can you talk about the role of narrative in your work?

TP: Our narratives are always fragmented, which is the nature of immersive work, and what is most effective about it.  Audiences seem to need to hook themselves onto some sort of narrative to navigate the worlds, which is why the writings of Lewis Carroll offer so much to Then She Fell; audiences have some cultural and literary signifiers that are easy to understand, so they can relax a little more into the figurative and fragmented and symbolic aspects of the work. They can go deeper into the dream logic because they have an anchor in the narrative images. It’s harder with something like The Grand Paradise, where we are hooking the audience’s attention onto broader cultural signifiers...like the idea of "paradise," a status quo family from Middle America on vacation, a coming of age, a midlife crisis, the collective cultural fantasies of the late 1970s, and the Fountain of Youth.  These are anchor points too, but much looser ones.

 

OW:  Immersive theatre is often compared to video games or other interactive virtual experiences. Why do you choose to create embodied experiences? What does liveness mean to you? 

TP: I think immersive theatre is just a more obvious form of liveness than other theatre, maybe because audience members feel some agency and control in it, but also because it allows them a more personal, tactile, intimate encounter with art.  And I think video games and the last 20 years of digital living have made us all crave liveness, while also preparing us to navigate these real worlds that follow video game logic. Like a video game, immersive theatre trains you, sets you loose to unlock possibilities, and then levels you through based on your choices; there are boons along the way, and a sense of discovery as you put the structure together for yourself through your own experience of it.

 

How can audiences and characters be given the same offerings and have synonymous experiences in a safe space?

 

OW: Tell us about your process for creating a piece. 

TP: It can start and finish in a myriad of ways. Often, it begins with a movement idea that becomes an organizing principle, or a narrative fragment, such as a sense of duality, or a yearning for the Fountain of Youth. Then She Fell began with the idea of a personality torn in two directions, towards two separate agendas, with both halves operating on either side of a real-life event. The Grand Paradise was inspired by archetypal psychology, by the idea of characters representing different aspects of a single psyche. I envisioned that psyche being that of a place, a sentient place that gives birth to a pantheon of archetypal characters who promise to fulfill audience desires. From those kinds of starting places, the choreography, writing, and scenarios spin out around the idea of audience inclusion and what that could mean. How can audiences and characters be given the same offerings and have synonymous experiences in a safe space?

 

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Interview by Ana Freeman

Aaron Landsman on Participation And Process

Aaron Landsman. Credit Mallory Catlett.

Aaron Landsman. Credit Mallory Catlett.

Aaron Landsman is a theatre artist in New York City who works with theatrical and found spaces and texts. He is a Princeton Arts Fellow, a playwright-in-residence at Abrons Arts Center, and the Gammage Residency Artist at ASU Gammage in Tempe, AZ. He collaborates regularly with director Mallory Catlett and designer/performer Jim Findlay; the three created the participatory performance City Council Meeting in five US cities between 2011 and 2014. The performance consisted of audience members enacting transcripts of local government meetings from around the country; each city had a unique ending in which real-life political adversaries performed a scripted scene that had been written in response to a hot-button local issue. Landsman is currently developing several new projects, including Perfect City, commissioned by Crossing The Line and created with Lower East Side young adults.

We want to to place you in the gap between the world you live in and the world we make.

Odyssey Works: What are you trying to do with your work? 

Aaron Landsman: I don't know that I have a clear mission, except to create a space that illuminates the value of misfits and the nascent creativity of cities. I don't know that I start out making any given project in order to do that, but that's so often where things lead—whether it's a play, or something more conceptual like City Council Meeting—that I'm going to stick with it. Or it's going to stick with me. 

OW: What led you to your current approach? Who are your influences, and within what traditions do you locate your work?  

AL: Beyond the artists I love and the collaborators I work with, I'd say that Erving Goffman and Jacques Rancière have been huge influences. I read Goffman's The Presentation Of Self In Everyday Life when I was in high school, and it satisfied a certain adolescent cynicism then. When we started working on City Council Meeting, I went back to it and found it really rewarding in a whole different way. If we are always performing ourselves, whether we know it or not, then everything we do is theatrical to some degree. Everything is fodder for art. And Rancière really articulates something about the gap that exists between a teacher and student, a work of art and its viewer, a political reality and the agents of change trying to move that reality somewhere different. Those two writers are who I go back to all the time when I'm trying to make something new. 

On a more pedestrian level, Mallory Catlett once said something when we started working together to the effect that she is more interested in communication than representation, and that's been super helpful to me as we have continued to collaborate. 

Swearing in during a  City Council Meeting  at LaGuardia Community College in New York City, May 2013. Credit David Brown and dabfoto creative.

Swearing in during a City Council Meeting at LaGuardia Community College in New York City, May 2013. Credit David Brown and dabfoto creative.

I feel really influenced by a whole host of artists in New York and elsewhere right now. Elevator Repair Service's process is really delightful, even if an endurance test sometimes. Ant Hampton is thinking about the political meaning of form in exciting ways. Daniel Alexander Jones is an artist with a phenomenal range of avant-garde approaches at his disposal. Jim Findlay is generally always the smartest guy in the room, so I always want to be around him, because it makes me look and feel good. Rimini Protokol is exciting in the range of their work and their idea of their subjects as "experts". Ron Vawter was a touchstone for acting seemingly tiny moments in an epic way, and the Wooster Group's idea of "putting a frame around the actors' lives" resonates with me in my own work. So—ensembles, sociologists, and expert misfits.

OW: What does it mean for you to call City Council Meeting “participatory”? Is this different from being “immersive” or “interactive”?

AL: I like this question. Mallory Catlett (the director/dramaturg who co-created City Council Meeting with me) and I thought a lot about this. First, we think you're "participating" in the piece even if you choose to simply watch. Meaning, seeing a show is participatory, to us, even if it's not interactive. Some nights I go to the theatre and I don't want to interact, I want to watch and participate imaginatively rather than verbally, or physically, for instance. This piece is about how you participate.

It also asks each audience member to reckon with a choice she makes at the beginning of the show, when we ask viewers to choose a way to engage with the piece: as Councilors, who take a very active role; as Speakers, who get a piece of testimony they may or may not be called on to speak in the piece; as Supporters, who get simple physical instructions; and as Bystanders, who simply watch. Sometimes the payoff of the piece is surprising for viewers. They think a lot about why they made a particular choice, and what the consequences of that have been.

We don't call it immersive because we don't want you to get too caught up in some kind of traditional-but-3D theatrical suspension of disbelief. The mental, imaginative gaps we want you to fill should always be present—between you and the person whose words you're reading, between your choice and the choices of the people next to you, between your city and the city whose transcripts we're hearing. I think of immersive work as sort of sweeping you away in its world, and we want to place you in the gap between the world you live in and the world we make.

And we don't say "interactive" because it's not quite accurate. Everything in the piece is pretty tightly scripted—you're reading the actual language of another person. Another viewer may read someone else's words back to you, but you're not really interacting in an improvisational way.

OW: What is the collaboration between artist and audience as you see it? Where is the art itself located? 

AL: I think the sweet spot is the decision a piece of art provokes you to make. And those decisions, for me, can just be decisions about how it made you feel. I am not so convinced that art is a great way to make social change on any sort of massive level, but I do think it can provoke feelings that lead you to think about your life differently, and perhaps then do something different out of that revelation. Some work is kind of blinding and insistent—it pounds a decision out of you (I'm thinking of the punk music I listened to a lot growing up). Other stuff creeps up on you weeks later. I think the art is located in the space between what the artist's efforts illuminate and the conception of yourself you came in with.

Giving testimony at a  City Council Meeting  at Redfern Arts Center in Keene, NH, October 2014. Credit Aaron Landsman.

Giving testimony at a City Council Meeting at Redfern Arts Center in Keene, NH, October 2014. Credit Aaron Landsman.

OW: What, for you, is the relationship between performance and reality? What is the role of theatre in effecting real-life change, and to what degree is politics already theatrical?

AL: I guess I think we're only not performing when we're asleep, or for flickers during meditation, or maybe during real intimacy, physical or emotional. So a performance of politics, a performance of theatre, a performance of a date, a performance of a job—those things are on a continuum. We might not rehearse our council meeting testimony or our promotion interview day-to-day, but we do prepare. And as an actor, I know that the best way to think about preparation is that it gets you closer to something truthful, rather than something canned or insincere. So acknowledging the levels on which we are very often performing ourselves in "real life" and on stage is not cynical for me. 

The process of making art is what can have the most political impact.

When we were making City Council Meeting, we pretty quickly got past any thoughts we had that this would be some kind of inspirational piece that would get people to take specific actions in their towns. Once we honed in on the act and investigation of participation itself, and the historical ideas of democracy (from Plato on up) that we were playing with, we found something more open-ended and less agitprop. We found that when we allowed people to "testify" about something they wanted to speak on—say, an issue that they cared a lot about—it wasn't very interesting. 

The corollary benefit of the piece turned out to be that a couple people in different cities decided to run for local offices after being part of our working group. That felt like a real-life political victory, because both of them represent marginalized communities to greater or lesser degrees.

I don't actually think theatre can predict its outcome on any broad level. I think you can have a really politically astute piece of work and it still won't necessarily change people's minds. I think if you help people imagine their world differently, and they walk out the door of your show and then see possibilities they hadn't seen before, that is both immeasurable and profound. 

I'm working on a new project now called Perfect City, and I'm trying to infuse it with the idea that the process of making art is what can have the most political impact. I'm working with young adults on the Lower East Side to make something about the way cities evolve. I want them to leave the process (which will take a couple years) with the sense that they have the language of access and power with which to enact change. If the piece we make is fanciful, obtuse, or even unsuccessful on some level, but my collaborators walk away feeling like they have more agency, I think that is more important than whether the piece reflects my own political desires—as long as the work is at least somewhat truthful and beautiful.

OW: What is your artistic process? What are the similarities and differences between the process of creating theatre and the political process?

AL: I just saw a student production of Elektra at Princeton, where I'm working now, and one of the things they got really right was the sense that Greek drama can be seen as a court case for its characters, with audience as jury. There's a tie-in to political life that Greek drama often carries with it. There is a sense that politics is performative, and that that is not always bad. Meaning, I think most of us associate politicians with phoniness and pretense. But in fact, how else are you going to craft an argument that is going to reach many people? You perform the part of yourself you think will connect with others, and convince them to come over to your side, to let you represent them.

And, ideally, that's what making theatre is, on a good day. You strip away everything but what's essential, until you get to a message or a feeling that is burnished enough that it's impossible to ignore.

But also, really? The artistic process, at least when making performances, is basically a series of failures combined with a series of deadlines. And the discoveries get made by embracing the tension between those two things. 

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Interview by Ana Freeman