City Council Meeting: Interview with Aaron Landsman and Mallory Catlett

by Carrie Marie Schneider October 28, 2012

City Council Meeting is a participatory performance work created by Aaron Landsman, Mallory Catlett and Jim Findlay. For the past few weeks, I’ve been working with them as a “staffer” for the piece and it has given me even more questions than I started with.

Carrie Schneider: Can you give us an overview of what City Council Meeting is?

Aaron Landsman: City Council Meeting is a piece about empathy, democracy and power. It’s performed by the audience, with the help of “staffers,” in all kinds of spaces—meeting rooms, council chambers, schools, museums. It’s being developed in three cities concurrently, with Houston being the first, followed by Tempe, AZ and NYC. Later we’ll do it in San Francisco. In Houston, it’s being presented by DiverseWorks at UH’s Mitchell Center For The Arts.

The piece is divided into three sections: the orientation, the meeting and the ending. The orientation is a video like what you see before you do jury duty, and it lets you know how you can participate or watch the piece. The meeting itself looks a lot like an actual city council meeting: The audience enacts a text drawn from several cities’ local government sessions, with testimonies, budgets and debate. There are cameras and monitors like on cable access. The ending section is created locally in every city. We try to get people from different sides of a local issue to cooperate on a performance together.

CS: So Aaron, you became interested in city council meetings after going to one in Portland, and witnessing a dramatic scene that will play out in our version. You’ve also said that you’ve seen some riveting acting at these meetings. Can you describe it? What is so captivating for you that you genuinely find an elegance, humor and aesthetic appreciation for the minutiae of bureaucracy? How ironic are you being?

AL: For me I don’t think it’s ironic at all. I mean, I watched this guy clearly make a decision about how he would interact with the council and the meeting, how he would address not only the issue but the structure. He dressed up, he was very deferrent and polite, he smiled. Very different than if he’d been at a neighborhood association or something like that. What I love about good actors is that they identify or create a container—something they can butt up against that keeps them honest. This guy in Portland was doing that. He’d identified the rules and boundaries of that situation and was responding accordingly, even though he was doing something transgressive. The same thing was true about the way the students in San Antonio prepared, or the priest in Houston. If you understand this thing that we all do—perform ourselves—without putting something on top of it, then good acting can be reflecting what is happening in the room at the moment that it’s happening, instead of how someone would theatrically render that in an actual play. For us, we’re not doing what happened in a previous city council meeting, but are trying to replicate something very intangible about the event. We have to keep stripping away the assumptions about what makes a performer or performance, otherwise we’re building up more and more things on an unquestioned foundation.

CS: Mallory, what drew you to the idea?

Mallory Catlett: I wanted to do something where my relationship to the audience was more direct. I had been saying for awhile that I was “more interested in communication than representation.” This was a good opportunity to test that. Most of what I do is help write instructions. It’s real clear when you’re not communicating. People don’t know what to do.

CS: City Council is recognizable to me, from an art background, as a delegated performance social sculpture. Where does City Council Meeting fit in theater?

MC:  We’re taking on the structure of city council meetings that already exists. We always have the people who say “you should really hire professional actors” to represent these people who are saying important things. The best answer is “We did—and you were amazing.” We’ve all been on the planet for a long time and are very good at performing ourselves. We make a lot of effort to answer that question within the piece. It’s a big challenge to try and constantly focus the audience away from just the content and the characters and onto the form and how we participate to make it happen.

AL: Theater really tends to focus on content, a story, characters. It makes an emotional point. What I got excited about in social sculpture was creating a form in which a lot of different things could happen. An artist we’re working with in Tempe, Gregory Sale, said that relational art, visual art performance, often does a single gesture and kind of throws it into the room, whereas (because we’re from theater) we’re trying to sustain an experience through time.

MC: Some theater just wants you to feel. We’re asking for you to think as much as feel, and at the same time. We’re asking for more thought and self-reflection and self-consciousness.

AL: A lot of theater wants you to have a unified response, to all feel or think the same thing at the same time. And we are trying to not do that. There are basically a hundred different arcs you could go through here, depending on what you choose to do or not do.

CS: Why do you choose the cases you choose? In our initial meeting we brought up how choosing this church-centric transcript was kind of stereotypically Southern, and Assata kept asking why you didn’t address something that mattered, currently, to the general population. You seem to be more interested with a poetic performance of politics rather than actual political engagement. At the same time, you do see this process as a way that a play can imagine a new politic, or at least pique people’s interest in the process. What do you feel is the role of artists in imagining and creating new forms of civic engagement?

MC: We definitely have spent more time on the area of the piece that we’re less comfortable with politically, which is good because it shouldn’t be about our political leaning. The hardest thing for us to do is make phone calls to a preacher or go to a church, we don’t feel comfortable in that space, but that’s the opportunity that the piece affords us, for us to get down to the level where we’re uncomfortable.

AL: Us getting vulnerable allows the piece to have a certain vulnerability. In terms of a general population, that meeting about drainage was packed, and it was the actual city council meeting that I saw. It was a big issue—a hotly contested issue. So it mattered to people. I would also say that Mallory and I both carry a certain sensitivity and curiosity about people in general, that allows us to go to people and not patronize or judge. I think we are both good listeners. And then the onus is on us to make sure we’re delving as deeply into this seemingly mundane issue as we can, so that we can really unpack a lot. This was a way to honor the fact that we are from the outside. It would be a trap to ask what the community needs or what would galvanize everyone. I worry sometimes that politically motivated art replaces actual political engagement or makes you feel like you’ve engaged politically without doing it. Earlier on, we left room for people to make their own testimony in an open agenda. And it was aesthetically boring because we were all lefties asking for more art funding. But if you get up in arms about that issue at our show, are you more or less likely to go to city hall and speak? Most of what makes people go to city council meetings is being mad or being in danger. There has to be something imperative. So, in the piece, sticking with something seemingly tedious allows us to both step away and feel the structure that we’re working in.

MC: It’s just not the way in which we judge the success of the piece. A lot of political art is very outcome-driven, and I just question that equation for art, because it feels very corporate: You do something. It has a purpose. You count it. I think art and its outcome is often surprising and may not play out when or how you expect it. Maybe it can have a use without being useful. Or be useful without a use.

AL: I love a lot of art that investigates politics or comes from a political point of view. People like Robert Pruitt, whose work I know a little bit. It’s tricky, and humorous and cuts when it needs to. I love political art that doesn’t have a short-term political goal but comes from a politically informed person.

CS: Why do you choose the staffers you choose? Staffers in Houston include Assata, who facilitates the young mother’s program at Project Row Houses and is civically active in their community meetings. Maurice will run next year to unseat Sheila Jackson Lee as congressperson. JP spent years in government as a campaigner and staffer. In contrast, I’ve had zero theater experience since fifth grade and have only been in courtrooms for traffic tickets. How does the staffer’s level of experience change the experience of creating the work?

AL: You guys also picked us, you know. A mix is really good, for the working group we have an agenda to have a diverse range of people, not just in terms of cultural background but age, experience, interest. I think everyone in the working group gets to blossom in different ways or places. Cristy was great dealing with schoolkids yesterday, for instance.

MC: There’s a practical reason to have it mixed. The audience that performs the piece is not actors. It’s really important that there’s nothing in the room that makes you feel like you’re not free to choose what you want to choose. Facing a wall of actors in character can be intimidating. It’s a barrier that makes things less accessible. Also, when we teach staffers, the more “I don’t get this” comes up, the faster the group learns to address and anticipate what will happen in performance. We need that kind of person in the room. Actors won’t question stuff nearly as much as non-actors.

AL: There’s a level on which the piece can be discomforting, just generally. And actors can make people more uncomfortable by being actorly. People in the working group are actually better at simply being in conversations and coaching someone through a series of tasks. That makes people more comfortable.

MC: That’s one reason why I don’t like participatory theater—that creepy moment when an actor comes up to you and tries to involve you, but they don’t exist in your world, they’re in some character’s play world that makes them incapable of just talking to you and sharing the same space. The staffers are also the first people (outside of the presenter) that we talk to when we start to work in a new city—their broader range of perspectives helps us have a better understanding of the city.

AL: And Sixto’s relationship as the presenter was really key here, because he opened the door to potential working group members, and then we got one layer deeper.

MC: Because Houston’s such a visual art town, and because we are more inspired by ideas that come more from that world, we were interested to work with more people of that ilk. We don’t have to spend all that time removing the assumptions and desires of actors. We can choose people who don’t think we’re asking them to be in a play and have a starring role. Answering “Do I have any lines?” is not something that I enjoy.

AL: There are artists like Rich Maxwell, who really choose to work with actors and cut away that desire to interpret or act. He can really make something amazing out of the process of brutalizing that virtuosic tendency. He’s providing a different kind of container. I worked with him once, a bunch of years ago, and I learned so much about acting from what he wouldn’t let me do.

CS: How did you decide to use these directly transcribed speeches as the script itself? What role do you think that puts the original speaker in? What role does it put the performance speaker in?

AL: Ideally, the person reading the text is aware that they are speaking the actual words that someone spoke. It would be so different if I wrote something for them to say. In terms of the actual people whose testimony it was, I’m a little sad not to get in touch with the ULC kids from San Antonio because I wanted to both offer them a chance to change their names, just because they were kids at the time, but also say that they’d inspired something.

MC: We’re aware of the conundrum, of the spot we’re putting everyone in, and are trying to utilize that to generate an empathic response. In a play, an actor’s relationship to the words of the character is often a given. Not always.

AL: And there is work that is documentary theater—pieces like the Laramie Project, where a company went to Laramie and interviewed people about Matthew Shepard, and then the actors portrayed those interviewees onstage. So the difference here is that City Council Meeting allows people who aren’t actors to be in the shoes of people who aren’t actors. And all city council meetings are on the record and available online. It would be different if we used recordings of people that they didn’t know about.

CS: You also seem concerned with exposing the seams of the production, making a joke of where it does not cohere, drawing attention or inserting purposeful lapses to admit that it is a performance. Why manicure these into the work instead of just allowing for more chance? Do you expect or welcome spectators to derail the agenda or interject their own voices?

MC: We’ve made more seams to encourage more disruptive behavior because we learned early on when it was seamless that people just wanted to follow the rules and think “Oh, its a play. This is my role.” Then it’s boring. So those hard cuts are to remind people that no one has done this before in this room.

AL: It works best when it really feels like things could go off the rail. It’s so tight overall that any little rip does feel like things could go terribly wrong—for a little moment.

MC: We have yet to intervene, to manipulate it once it starts. We create that ending with Pete Colt because it does explore what could go terribly wrong, you know in those moments when things are incredibly boring and you can’t help but think, “what could go wrong?”

AL: It seems like, at least so far, that the piece, the structure, is pretty sturdy. We did a work-in-progress in Boston last year, and at this moment that was kind of quiet, this guy just yells out: “What the hell!” In most other theater pieces, if someone does that, or if their phone goes off, it would be a big disruption, but here it’s just folded into the proceedings.

CS: Documentation of social practice projects are ever lacking the feedback of participants and acknowledgments of failure. Would you be willing to describe this so far? What is not working? Where are the gaps?

MC: I feel like its about constant failure. You have an idea, then you see how in that specific arena it is going to fail. Then you keep trying to see how, and if it can pan out.

AL: There’s a lovely tradition in experimental theater of problem solving—what can’t we get away with? That is the thing that we will try to do and get away with. That ends up being the best. I have worked with this theater company Elevator Repair Service for a long time, and the company starts every new project with a challenge: What’s something you shouldn’t be able to get away with onstage, and then, how can we get away with it? Like perform an entire piece in the dark, or read a whole novel onstage. And that gives us problems to solve, which keeps us honest. This works a little bit similarly. We propose something—see how it’s problematic, then see how we can solve those problems.

One thing that could become a failure is if we didn’t really communicate or embody our own interest or curiosity about this material. If people go through it and are like, “huh.” That would be too bad. Our working group in NY is really into it, but I’m not sure how much that is because they are steeped in it. The big unknown is the ending.

MC: The end of the piece is designed to be a particular answer to the beginning of the piece. After the meeting there is a feeling of “OK, but what’s the point?” We have a choice. We could suddenly reveal our political leanings, but that’s not why we are doing this. Our opinions are not important. For me, the only answer is an artistic answer—how would art deal with those same tensions differently? How do we make an event that reflects the subjectivity in the room, to hear everyone, to counter the expectation of a big reveal of a definite answer? We don’t know whether it will play out that way. Here in Houston will be our first time doing the ending. The meeting is restrained, it’s not a big spectacle, then the ending is surprising, beautiful and on its own terms. It might catch people off-guard.

AL: And this is the first piece that I’m not making for everyone to like. I mean that would be great if everyone did, but if we feel like we’re doing justice to the people and the forms in the room, then great. I mean, when I started going to city council meetings, even though I really enjoyed it, it wasn’t comfortable. My favorite experiences are often where I feel embraced even as I feel on-edge.

CS: How much does City Council Meeting change from performance to performance, from city to city? Not just in terms of the ever-changing cast, but also in terms of your evolving process, and the way you convey instructions, script formatting and the tech…

MC: It’s huge. It’s been huge here, we’re realizing now what we have to have in place to hit the ground running with a fresh group of people in about 30 hours. That’s in the realm of what presenters can do. That’s changed from New York, where we’ve had a very luxurious time for two years with the same group of people. In some ways it is actually easier here, because with them when we started we didn’t know what we were doing. Here we do, even though we are still playing around, discovering new things. The piece will change every time with every city. There is detail we want to accomplish in Arizona that we won’t attempt here—activating the audience on Twitter, having someone who can answer questions and have a web presence. We’ll stream one performance here, but would like to do it with every performance, so you could watch the feed that’s on the monitor. Jim is really still developing the video because we have an entirely different system. We now have four cameras, so the video design is evolving vastly here. It will be far superior here. The set will also evolve as we do it in many different places. Probably in Houston we will be learning more about this piece in a fundamental, nuts-and-boltsy way.

AL: In Arizona, where we’re doing the project next, we will have two artists who are on the ground working locally between our visits, so the piece will have a local authorship that is even more significant or drawn out.

CS: You are from New York, but your performances are in less prominent art cities. What do you feel the role of art is outside of these megahubs?

MC: I do less traveling than Aaron around the country as an artist, so our experience is different. For me, I really enjoy learning about other communities of artists because in New York sometimes it feels like it’s the only place that artists live—and you feel like because you’re in New York you know what’s going on in the rest of the country—but you really don’t. In a way, the scene in New York is the most insular—it serves its artists very well, but doesn’t necessarily connect with people who aren’t artists. Here (Houston), or in Arizona, the artist community is smaller so they’re often much more in conversation with non-artists.

AL: There’s a really strong conversation in the NY experimental theater community, among practitioners and audience members, about the work itself, and that is something I don’t see as much elsewhere. But the role of the artist is more proscribed, and the work can get way more turned in on itself and have way less interaction outside the arts world.

MC: Usually the conversation about community only comes up in marketing…

AL: Like, “Yeah we want to do something community-engaged—should we design the postcard differently?”

MC: But there are exceptions in the city… and a group of artists who are primarily community-based practitioners, but they are very much separated. There is a big divide. Right now there’s a lot of discussion about the language and economy of the visual art scene because there’s a lack of smart critique in the crossover between visual art performance and experimental performance.

CS: So you have spoken about deliberately not judging City Council Meeting on the usual theater play criteria of delivering a consistent emotional experience to everyone in the audience, and also not judging it as political activism—so what is your criteria?

AL: Does it raise questions for people about how they see their role in the world? And depending on who you are, that can be political or less so.

MC: It is designed for you to ask why you participate or don’t. Why you feel included or excluded. The orientation video describes the idea of democracy from Plato as being dependent upon “the qualification of no qualification.” The promise that everybody can do it for no other reason than that they are a human being. That’s the promise of democracy. Why one junior higher can say “I’m gonna be the mayor,” and then that kid can be the mayor. There are lots of things societally that keep that kid from being the mayor, the promise is often denied, but in City Council Meeting when the audience comes in and it’s up to them to choose what they want to do—they can do it, they’re qualified. For myself, it’s a reminder of that idea.

city council meeting

Thursday, November 1, 7:30-9:30 p.m., Palm Center, 2nd floor courtroom, 5300 Griggs
Friday, November 2, 7:30-9:30 p.m., El Dorado Ballroom, 2310 Elgin
Saturday, Nov 3, 7:30-9:30 p.m., DiverseWorks Midtown, 4102 Fannin


Carrie Schneider is a Houston-based conceptual artist.

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