These were the opening words of the performance lecture conceived by Ida Daniel and myself in the undergroundzero festival still ongoing in New York. I’m going to describe the performance as a whole today and give a version of the spoken text tomorrow, so as not to go on too long. It’s a bit narcissistic, perhaps, but this is what I’ve been doing in Occupy recently and that’s what this project is about, after all.
Ida, who works as a director in Bulgaria, and I were paired by the festival. She comes from a theatre family. Her grandfather was an influential Brechtian director, as we saw during the performances, when Bulgarian theatre types would approach her reverentially, as might Americans meeting Stanislavsky’s grand-daughter.
Ida attended a Strike Debt assembly in Washington Square Park and became active for the duration of her visit in a working group as well as the assembly. We talked about a format and arrived at a formula whereby the point of the performance would be to undo the idea that we can change the debt situation by means of a more perfect analysis. We wanted to explore the associations of debt with shame and the forms of personal transformation that getting past those connections would entail.
So I went off and wrote some bits and Ida worked with the actors when they could coordinate their schedules. When we started working together it became clear that this was really going to be a performative lecture, not just a lecture with performance around it. Which made me more than a little nervous.
The actors were: Amanda Boekelheide, Darcy Cadman and Tracy Everett, all very gifted and well-trained, all working multiple paying jobs–including preparing apartments to be sprayed for bed bugs–as well as engaging in multiple (often non-paying) acting work. The usual combination of factors meant that they weren’t paid for this performance either, which, for what it’s worth, I did point out to the audience each night (I wasn’t paid of course, but I have a job, so I don’t need to be). The performance was free to the audience as well, though.
The space was a small black-box theatre in the Clemente Soto Veléz Cultural and Education Center on Suffolk Street. There were three lights that operated as on or off so no fade-in or out was possible, let alone any other theater technology. Somehow, whether because the building is an old school, or because so many performances have taken place there before, it has a very welcoming feel nonetheless. I could imagine a small audience feeling perfectly comfortable there in a way that sometimes you don’t.
The actors opened with a nonsense song that finally converged on a chant of “Debt, Debt, Debt” in the tune of “Frère Jacques.” I emerged from behind a curtain into the space and they carried me in. I was The Expert and they were to be The Assistants. At work here was a combination of Brecht’s theory of the gesture, in which what is not said is as important as what is; with Kafka’s bureaucratic vision in which the not-quite-human Assistants are the only people in whom we can have hope. Ida later told us that she is committed to a theater that thinks, and encourages its audience to think, in body and mind, a very OWS paradigm.
So I introduce the topic of debt, which kept changing as I worked more with the actors, until we got to a point where we engaged in a word association game with the audience. I asked them first to call out how much they were in debt. Then why they were in debt. How it made them feel. And what they wanted to do about it. The Assistants shouted out the answers, wrote them down on the walls of the space and on the floor and gradually created a cacophony of responses. The noise was ended when Amanda picked up Tracy, pushed her against the wall and used her body to erase what was written. She then did the same on the other side with Darcy and he then picked her up to clean off the remaining writing. Meanwhile Tracy used water to clean away any writing on the stage. This was all very funny but we were directed to take it seriously, as our work as The Expert and The Assistants.
In the second half, then, having given up on the idea of a pure analysis, I talked about the curious associations of debt with shame and thought about how we might claim an abolition of debt that we will have to do ourselves. At a certain point in this discussion, the Assistants revived themselves and began a complicated and funny game of exchanging clothing with each other and myself. This game was halted only when I brought out a cake to share–an example I use in the lecture part to show why we will always have debt as a form of social obligation, even if monetary debt disappears.
We distributed the cake to the audience and each performer shared a story about their own experience with debt. We then invited the audience to share stories as well. As I mentioned, Occupy people, who are used to this, took up the offer with alacrity. The second night, when we had performers from other shows in the festival as our main audience, there was surprisingly less willingness to share, even though many people came up to us afterwards and told stories or hinted at them. Debt is so destructive, so hard to discuss.
Debt, debt, debt.