Interesting Times with the Nerve Tankby Jake Witlen
In June of 1966, Robert F. Kennedy stood in front of a crowd of youthful supporters in Cape Town, South Africa and delivered a speech on the importance of individual liberty, apartheid, and the need for greater civil rights. In his speech, RFK spoke passionately about the dangers of an individual failing to strive for change, and offered up hope “against misery, against ignorance or injustice, and violence.” He urged his listeners to create a great movement of change by breaking with convention and never succumbing to timidity or comfort. The rhetoric was filled with inspiration, and proved that no matter how difficult the fight may be, the power of a single man with conviction and self-confidence can send ripples of hope through a society. In the end, the speech took an historic turn. In his closing remarks, he ended with an old Chinese curse for his audience to ponder. “May you live in interesting times,” Kennedy proclaimed, adding, “Like it or not, we live in interesting times.”
It was this apocryphal quote that led Chance Muehleck and Melanie Armer of Brooklyn’s Nerve Tank to begin the work on their latest devised piece LIVE/FEED. In it, Muehleck and Armer have been grappling with some big questions, and drawing stark parallels between the Cold War and the present War on Terror. “I don’t believe in dualities,” Muehleck said sitting over a burger in a Midtown diner. “Good and bad and all of that stuff…We wanted to take what was happening during the Cold War and mash it up with the idea of what’s happening now.” His artistic collaborator and partner, Melanie Armer, quickly chimes in, “And it’s so much the same! Yet, because our culture is different and of course our technology is different, it means we can express [ourselves] in a really different way. The control and terror that we’re experiencing… When you live in it, there is no duality. It’s just around you. This is life and it is interesting. We won’t know if it’s one thing or the other until we’re far far away.”
This type of repartee is exactly what makes Muehleck and Armer such a powerful artistic team—their sensibilities line up with such precision that they are able to tackle difficult and abstract concepts with startling clarity. LIVE/FEED has forced their company of actors and designers to confront a challenging duality in our society—specifically, where terror and control intersect. Through a long and intense development period, the two co-founders of Nerve Tank have brought these questions to the table for all the artists involved, and forced one another to look deeper at what control means in today’s society.
LIVE/FEED began as an idea shortly after 9/11 when Muehleck began grappling with the culture of fear that was beginning to invade our collective consciousness. The idea was shelved until the Nerve Tank was formed in 2006, when he began what he calls an “assembly” of text reflecting the anxiety of a nation at war. Like other Nerve Tank works, this is a collaboratively created piece, and while the two co-founders are clearly the instigators of this type of work, they are quick to mention, “any creator in the room can create.” Over the years, LIVE/FEED has percolated and sifted, and through developmental workshops at Dixon Place and their resident house, the Brooklyn Lyceum, it is finally coming to a full production in May.
Using Kennedy’s “curse” as a jumping off point, the work has been assembled using fragments of text, movement, sound, and light to find the relationship between control and terror. “The notion of this phrase as a curse, as opposed to a blessing, speaks to the fact that just because the times are interesting, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re good,” Armer points out. “We love what’s interesting, and this is a time period when things really are interesting. But, it’s also pretty terrifying.” It is with these ideas that the company has broken its work into three main points of focus—how one person controls another, where culture controls the individual, and where the individual controls themselves.
The work is a devised piece, and the first of the company’s not to focus heavily on technology. Instead the play will take a notably “low-fi” approach to the world it creates, and be rather “gestural” in its relationship to time. Muehleck describes it “not as genre-based or period, but rather focused on what happens in the room.”
And the room, indeed, is impressive. The Nerve Tank is the resident theater company of the artfully dilapidated Brooklyn Lyceum Theatre, and as a company, they feel an obligation to create work as inspiring as the building itself. Originally a bathhouse, the Lyceum was converted to a theater nearly 15 years ago, and today houses a wide array of music, theater, dance, and community offerings for children and residents of Brooklyn. What one is most impressed by, however, is its huge open and raw space—“something you’d never find in Manhattan,” Muehleck adds with a little smile.
The Nerve Tank is never one to shy away from the spaces it works in, and is self-described as a “site-responsive” company that only creates pieces in spaces it is able to rehearse in as well—a luxury for any New York theater company. In LIVE/FEED they use the space creatively, riffing off the stairs, bridges, raw floors, brick walls, and I-beams that make up the space. All of these elements “have a language of their own, and inform the way we think about the topics we’re talking about.”
It is in this relationship to space and time that Nerve Tank really stands out as a company. In dissecting the layers of truth in any one topic, they allow their audience multiple entry points to access their work, which is exactly what they hope to achieve. “We want the audience to find their own roads in,” Muehleck muses, “It’s much the way I engage with the world.” At exactly that moment, a group of Mennonites walk by. Armer and Muehleck exchange glances, and quickly begin a witty exchange. “Where do they buy those hats? We should do a piece on Mennonites.” “Yes, a durational performance about Mennonites!” Their eyes meet, they exchange a quick high-five. There is the charge of artistic creation, and it becomes clear how ideas can quickly snowball into reality for this company. “We’re on the same page aesthetically. We like building a flexible box that’s formed with strong ideas and concepts,” Muehleck says.
After years of development, the Nerve Tank’s flexible box has clearly been filled with deep musings on the nature of terror and control. While scholars continue to debate the truth of Kennedy’s curse and its origins, there is no question that we live in interesting times, and LIVE/FEED’s imaginings promise to be a unique experience shedding light on an incredibly pertinent subject.
The Nerve Tank’s LIVE/FEED performs at the Brooklyn Lyceum (227 4th Avenue, Brooklyn) May 7 and, May 12-14, May 20-22 and May 27-29, all at 8 p.m., with a 3 p.m. show on May 23. Tickets are available from Brown Paper Tickets, 1-800-838-3006 or www.brownpapertickets.com.
Jake Witlen is a writer/director, and a founding member of The Internationalists.