Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Class Project speaks unpopular truths

Theatre is an essential aspect of life. We come together in the theatre to put something under the lights in order that we may reflect upon our human condition. For many, the human condition is all about sensation or fluff or glitz and razzmatazz. Then there are the theatrical endeavors that strike deep chords of understanding that may not leave us feeling all warm and tingly, but definitely leave us thinking about a subject we often avoid.

I'm talking class warfare, you know -- the most recent right-wing election year threat. "The liberals want class warfare!" is an attack line that falls flat when you consider that the trend over the past decade has been to strip more money away from the middle and lower classes into the hands of the upper 5%. It wasn't the liberals who created the increasing economic disparities among the classes.

The Class Project, an original performance piece, shows us the human faces and voices of class distinctions and divisions based upon socio-economic terms. The NYU Steinhardt theatre production just ended its run this weekend. I was fortunate enough to see it last night in the school's black box theatre. (In full disclosure, a former student of mine was in the cast in his first university production.)

The press release provides a capsule description of the project:
Inspired by the work of such playwrights as Anna Deavere Smith (University Professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts) and Mois├ęs Kaufman, The Class Project, explores current perceptions of class and socioeconomic status among people living and working in New York City. A group of seven researchers/actors, under the guidance of Educational Theatre faculty member Joe Salvatore, interviewed a diverse range of subjects, from academics, students, business owners, immigrants, public school teachers, and more, on their understanding of how class affects their day-to-day lives. The interviews were pieced together to create the performance script.

What the press release doesn't tell you is how powerfully the stories come across. Anna Deavere Smith's technique of recording interviews and performing them not only verbatim but with every verbal stutter and tick voiced by the subject included. The effect of watching these precisely rendered recreations is incredibly moving. Underneath every awkward pause or stumbled word is some kind of accompanying emotion.

Within each assumed posture and voice, the actors speak answers to questions about class, questions that were elicited by the actors themselves. Each of the actors had to pass an exam in order to be certified to collect data from human subjects. It is fascinating to see the raw data enacted rather than transcribed into words on a page. This directly relates to the thesis that theatre is an essential aspect to life.

The ensemble of actors appeared to be deliberately selected for the widest variety of researcher/en-actors. Just as student populations are divided into classes based upon low to high status, the ensemble contained freshmen all the way through Masters and PhD candidates. The cast members often inhabited characters not of their own race, age, religion or gender which has the odd effect of drawing the audience inside the character along with the actor. For example, a college professor speaks of recognizing class resentment felt toward students who have it easy. The teacher and the audience must confront this very personal expression of class division, one not easily given voice. We recognize our own tendencies toward resentment of others not in our class.

34 NYC residents participated in the interview process and 18 of the participants' interviews finally appeared in the finished work. Their ages, social circumstances and economic status reflected the diversity of greater NYC. And yet, I was more struck by their commonalities: the initial discomfort at speaking about class differences, the powerlessness that comes from feeling divided from others, the social pressures that make us instantly assess and judge one another based upon status and economic ranking.

That sense of alienation was beautifully reflected in the scenic background. The diamond shaped playing area was bordered on two sides by wooden assemblages composed of varying sizes of boxes and rectangles, some of which housed the simple stools and blocks that were pulled out and used for a number of the interviews. Three dark doorways provided entrance and exit possibilities. Lighting enhanced the compartmentalizing aspects of the production. One character spoke of the bubble-like aspect of living within your class while pretending to ignore the world outside the bubble. Even within NYC, one of the largest multi-cultural urban areas on the planet, cultures dwell in bubble worlds every bit as self-contained as suburban cultures.

The actors wore basic contemporary slacks or skirts in tones of sepia or gray. They might add a hoodie or an over shirt or a pair of glasses or other accessory to distinguish and further define their characters. When finished with playing their characters, the actors hung or placed their prop/costume enhancements in the wooden framed set, forming shadowboxes of memories or perhaps display cases to hold evidence of our collective understanding of the concept of class. This was perhaps underscored in each scene by one actor playing the witness to each character's revelations. The silent listener transformed each scene into something more genuine than a contrived theatrical monologue. They reminded us that this was a study in human research and to approach the responses as valuable data to be mulled and digested over time.

The production was punctuated by bouts of intense physical movement to music. The shapes and forms of the movements provided another way of understanding class conflict beyond words and theories. As the actors approached and encountered each other we could reflect upon how class and status can be revealed in the distancing that must take place when confronted by someone perceived as higher or lower in status. The actors worked with several different themes, including one movement section in which the actors "wrote" the pre-amble to the Constitution with their bodies. Another section was developed by the actors responding to a list of words that came from their understanding of class.

The actors in this production were exceptionally supple in their physicality, so that the movement pieces and physicalizations of each character were revealed in full clarity. Truly a pleasure to watch actors so free with bodies and voices. Nothing mushy about the acting or the concept, which tells me that the process must have been clicking on all cylinders. The energy levels, the ensemble connectivity, the pacing and timing of shifts between actors, scenes, and movement pieces added to the texture of the production's composition.

The final stunning visual image was created by the cast chalking out a map of NYC and its boroughs, then marking their subjects' names (Anonymous Immigrant, Rose, White Female 43 etc) upon their geographical locations. Kudos to the cast of nine, director Joe Salvatore, the talented design team and crew for creating an exciting and essential piece of theatre, one with immediate connection to the world we live, work and vote in.

For those unfamiliar with the work of Anna Deavere Smith, here is a YouTube excerpt from her one woman show Fires in the Mirror:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wendy, thank you thank you thank you for this very moving description of our work at NYU. I really appreciate your being able to see it, and I'm thrilled that it seems that you enjoyed it. I hope you are well!

joe salvatore