Playing in No Mans Land with The Anthropologists
Every rehearsal room is a reflection, a reflection of values: who is present and whose voice is heard. The construction of the rehearsal room is the delicate and often alchemic work of the director; walking into the room an ethos is immediately shared by the one who leads, and this is a powerful politic. The verticality favored by the commercial theater—the top-down structure, which keeps the designers from the actors, and the director and playwright in their own lonely towers—is designed for the efficacy of success. This vertical model also tends to subscribe to a certain type of play, now canonized; plays we have been taught and seen dominate the past century, with narratives resembling the male orgasm; plays which have trained the public to judge a work’s success, and their own satisfaction, against Freytag’s patriarchal pyramid. This vertical eruption is a theater without circles; a theater that quiets us instead of incites, and satisfies complacency. This is boring theater or, as theater-maker Jordan Tannahill put it in his recent book, “Theatre of the Unimpressed.” By contrast, is The Anthropologists, a company of collaborators who reject this verticality, favoring a space where everyone is included and, as artistic director Melissa Moschitto says, “Every play demands a different process.”
“In an ideal situation, we have as many types of people in the room as possible as early as possible in the devising process,” Moschitto explains. “That means not just actors and director but also dramaturg, designers, technicians. Everyone has the capacity to be a storyteller and we value everyone’s contributions. Actors are writers, designers can be dramaturgs, the director is researcher.”
The Anthropologists’ performances are a direct reflection of their rehearsal room and the values they incubate therein. The stage is a rehearsal in itself, for a work by this company always feels appropriately unfinished—there is some other shoe waiting to drop when the event culminates, and that shoe is, often, related to your own value system: where you stand in relation to the unanswerable questions they’ve provoked.
My first experience with The Anthropologists was over the summer of 2008. It was an insufferably humid summer, an exhaustive sheen of sweat persistently glistened upon the beautiful people of New York City: this is my memory. I had just moved to the city, and my only sacred refuge, after toiling hours selling full-priced Broadway tickets to foreigners in Times Square, was my weekend afternoon “jam sessions” with The Anthropologists. In downtown loft spaces we would meet, at the hottest hours of the day, to be led by Moschitto. Together we moved, related, created, and developed community, utilizing whatever tools were necessary for the circumstances. At the end of that summer, in the basement of the Flea Theater, we presented a one-act, a surreal work on borders, global migrations, and walk-abouts. It was lovely and magical, and I felt, after just three months, like I had a real community in the city.
Although I haven’t worked with The Anthropologists since, I have carried that summer with me and imbued those “jam sessions” into my work as a playwright and director. It was because of that summer that I began to see the value of the horizontal in theater-making and began developing a rehearsal room that included everyone—assiduously handpicking those who stand in opposition to my own viewpoint, so as to have all the experiences, all the genders, all the colors and bodies in collaboration, making impressions upon the work for the invited audience. These are very much The Anthropologists’ values, and they became mine.
I have kept a close watch on the company as they have transitioned and grown over the past eight years. In that time Moschitto has become a mother of two daughters who, I can tell you from having had them attend one of my plays, are avid and patient spectators. The time away from The Anthropologists has certainly given Moschitto time to incubate new thoughts, and the appearance of two little people on the scene has given her and, by proxy, the company new inspiration.
The last large piece that The Anthropologists premiered in New York, Another Place at HERE (2011), was a contemporary Cassandra tale told in the age of climate change (the main character, a scientist, was actually named Cassandra). The piece, unlike so many works on climate change, wasn’t about owning the responsibility of destroying our planet. The Anthropologists did not point directed fingers; instead the company chose a heroine with a vision and then allowed everything to crumble under her hubris. It was not an indictment on how we got here, but rather a provocation of what we do now. The scenic design for the piece featured a wall of recycled cardboard, elegantly rolled as a massive installation covered in white Christmas lights, serving as a backdrop. The costumes were all found or recycled, acquired with a budget amounting to fifteen dollars for a cast of five.
“One of our mandates for that project was to be as eco-conscious as possible,” says Moschitto in response, “both on a personal, individual level and also as a production.” This is where the process and discoveries of the rehearsal room explicitly shape the production.
The Anthropologists’ mission, as seen through their work, has been to excavate and expose America’s hidden or ignored histories. By taking archetypal historic figures like Christopher Columbus, who has now appeared in four of their works (The Potato Play, The Columbus Project, Another Place, and No Man’s Land), the collaborators are able to repurpose history for the sake of a theatrical conversation. All archetypes and histories, like set pieces and costumes, are recyclable. Columbus appears as both criticism and reflection—to reveal an untoward truth in what we thought we revered, and to expose our own hidden prejudices and racism via the archetype. In this way, the theater pieces connect what it means to be American to a particular global history, shrouded by whiteness and the men who capitalize on writing the narrative.
What sets The Anthropologists apart from other socially conscious devised ensembles is that one never feels burdened by the group’s task, whether it is climate change or modern-day colonialism. Without the cape of the Social Justice Warrior flapping in the wind, the collaborators are able to truly play with these ideas without asking us to deem them the authority. In their embrace of childlike silliness, we recognize the foible of any dinner table argument: that righteousness is a danger to any progressive ideology.
The loci of this playful energy is founding company member Jean Goto, a zestful performer whose presence has lit every work with earnest curiosity. The nearly decade-long collaboration between Goto and Moschitto has infected every member of the ensemble with a sense of play. The performance-style is equally instructive and nonsensical, in that there is no vertical reach—in fact, as is the case in their newest work, they might not be getting anywhere at all.
The Anthropologists will return this fall to present No Man’s Land, an investigation of audacity, privilege, race, whose story gets to be told and—more complicated—who gets to tell it. Moschitto has sharpened her focus in this new work on the act of storytelling and how theater can be a tool to have an open, and unwieldy, conversation about the dangers of art.
The “desired” plot of this new work tells the true story of Jeremiah Heaton, a white Virginian farmer who plants a flag in an unclaimed territory between Sudan and Egypt, naming it North Sudan, so that his seven-year-old daughter Emily can become a princess. We follow Heaton as he raises money via crowd funding to create an “ark” in this new nation (a desert) where he intends to farm crops that will “save the world.” Disney even buys the rights to Heaton’s story: The American farmer who made his daughter a princess! It’s a crazy and, yes, audacious tale.
Through their critique of Heaton, The Anthropologists grapples with what dreams are instilled in the American consciousness and who gets to pursue those dreams to their end.
The act of storytelling, however, is constantly interrupted by the values of the rehearsal room. The performers stop and start the action, calling out acts of privilege, from the minute to the magnanimous. In fact, as the performers attempt to tell the “taken from the headlines” tale, they are unable to advance any story. Instead they, and we the audience, are left somewhere in-between—a territory The Anthropologists know how to plumb the deepest with a series of questions and responses, all personal and imperfect. Due to the multiple lenses of who was invited into the rehearsal room, the performers call themselves out at every turn. Keeping the conversation in the contemporary, the performers break out in dialogue like this:
How on God’s holy earth did this mediocre man suddenly become his own sovereign nation? How do you think that happened? If a middle-aged middle-class black man tried to do this, do you think that the news outlets would reporting it? That they’d say, “Aw, what a good Daddy!” Hell, no!
What Reggie is trying to say is that people don’t care about black people. Even theater people don’t care about black people! Except in Hamilton but only if they’re black people playing white people.
If the constant digressions and interruptions become clawing, there’s a reason for this. In No Man’s Land the act of storytelling is being called out wholesale. Moschitto and The Anthropologists seem to be saying that this is where we are: we cannot move forward, we cannot get through our story until we call out who isn’t represented and, to quote the script, “to tear down this white savior complex.”
One is left reeling in the breakdown of storytelling. The questions arrive, buried in each other, more and more complex, and they explode inward: Is it possible to make relevant and fully awake work as a white artist? How does whiteness influence not just white storytellers, but how we, all of us, tell stories? When we show our children princess tales, what are we telling them? What is the value of any story? Does it change depending on the teller? And should there be now a conscious silence from those who have wielded the power and direction of story telling throughout our global history?
The Anthropologists doesn’t intend to have an answer, but in asking the questions our consciousness is raised to consider the implications personally—in the stories we tell and the art we make.
The success of No Man’s Land will rely on audiences letting go of the event as a qualitative experience, embracing the horizontality, sitting with the questions and accepting that the other shoe might remain un-dropped for a very long time.
No Man’s Land will run from November 18 – December 11 at TheaterLab (357 West 36th Street, Manhattan). For more about The Anthropologists, visit http://www.theanthropologists.org/. For tickets, please visit https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pe.c/10122309.
ContributorAdam R. Burnett
ADAM R. BURNETT is a playwright. In April, he will facilitate The Ecstatic Unknown, an environmental workshop for writers and performance-makers. adamrburnett.com