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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