Bearing witness from the choir?

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In many art schools there's a phenomenon I'll call the "visiting genius."  

Now, the visiting genius is often not visiting and often not a genius but that doesn't change how students feel.  People speak of the visiting genius in hushed tones. The genius leads a special studio for a chosen few. Those on the outside question what's happening - it seems unorthodox.  Those on the inside tell you it's the most profound experience of their lives.  It's difficult, there are a lot of tears but 'oh my god'.  The visiting genius is leading them towards something.  It's not like work they've ever done before.  It's changing their lives.

Usually at the end of the studio led by the visiting genius, there's a showing of the students’ work: people assemble to witness it.

What you end up seeing is often intense, deeply personal, and often not really about the audience but about the journey of the students.

The Actors' Gang's latest show "The New Colossus" feels very much like that.

Right after the box office gives you your ticket for the show, a kind usher asks you about your ancestors.

You're standing in front of a map of the world and she hands you a magnet and says "put it on the map where your people are from ... before America."

Moments later in the theater, a bare stage is suddenly filled with twelve actors evenly spaced - each with their own, single suitcase.  They're all speaking at once in what sounds like many different languages.  Through the babel you start to pick out different names, different countries.  There's Turkey, Vietnam, Germany, Russia.  You learn that they're all refugees.  They're all fleeing something.

It's a stunning collage and confrontation.

Then they begin to run in a circle . . . for a while.  That's when things become a little tricky.

After that promising opening, what unfolds onstage feels like the result of a profound but distant class exercise.  Over the course of 90 minutes you see something of an extended, mostly silent movement piece. You're watching these refugees make their harrowing journey.  There's the running to escape moment, the crawling under a fence, the quest for fire, the outside threats, the vermin, the crossing.  All the while, projected across the walls of the theater are photos of actual refugees from across the world.  

While the story and the message are very clear - the drama isn't.  It's not that what they’re doing isn't dramatic (fleeing from oppressive regimes across time is clearly dramatic) ...but what we're doing in the theater, as an audience, is something closer to watching a living documentary than a piece of theater.  We're being asked to bear witness.  It's like those long repetitive moments in a Ken Burns’ civil war documentary or those page long lists from Homer.  They may be very important but they are dramatically inert. There's only really one thing for the audience to do: experience it. There is no conflict between ideas, no drama of protagonist versus antagonist where we aren't sure who to root for or who will win.  

There's a lot of this ‘witnessing’ happening in the theater right now.  Our political climate has theater makers anxious to do something, say something, to protest in some way. The challenge is–when you're preaching to the choir, what do you say?

"The New Colossus" is a sincere work that's clearly the result of a remarkable process.  If you go, try to embrace the role of witness rather than the expectations of audience.

"The New Colossus" plays at the Actors' Gang in Culver City through March 24th.

Photo credit: Ashley Randall