AUDIENCE-GENERATED PERFORMANCE: A Summer Spent Watchingby Sarah Maxfield
1. Saturday, June 11 3 – 4:30 p.m.
Warren Street, Brooklyn
I chose to begin in front of my apartment. I was alone, and I felt a bit silly. It was raining. I was reminded of my great-grandmother, sitting on her porch in Small Town, Illinois. Watching. Day after day after day. This is no longer something that many of us do. I had invited others to join me, and after 30 minutes, one arrived. Late seating was allowed. She chose a chair, while I stood, holding an umbrella. The few people who hurried past in the rain shot us questioning looks. Stillness is subversive in New York City. I watched birds splashing in puddles. Someone across the street began to play a piano. I didn’t know that my neighbors had a piano—could play piano—I don’t know my neighbors.
2. Thursday, June 23 6:30 – 8:00 p.m.
Park Avenue at 63rd Street
There were barricades and cops everywhere, and I briefly considered rescheduling. Instead, I walked up to one of the policemen and asked permission to stand among the barricades and watch the city for 90 minutes. Utterly unfazed, he grunted an assent. Surprised and grateful, I stood. Access to the area became increasingly restricted, but my friend managed to join me. We stood. The barrier around us grew. The traffic thinned. Was cleared. I stood, and she sat, on the median. The police continued to allow us. We watched. There was no more traffic on Park Avenue. Absolutely no traffic. Not a single car. There were no people inside the barriers except us. And the police. This was turning into one of those situations where the audience becomes the performance. Finally, we were required to move outside of the barricades. We went, but continued to watch, in stillness and silence. The traffic lights continued to blink to an empty street. And then, out of nowhere, the President’s motorcade came speeding the wrong direction up the avenue: a streak of black cars with tiny flags. Just as quickly, it was gone again. We watched. Barricades were removed and we (now three) were allowed back to the median. Again and still, we watched. The traffic—pedestrian and vehicular—gradually resumed its normal flow. The cop who had given us initial permission, now joined our ranks, looking. After a few sheepish moments he peeled away, muttering in explanation, “I just wanted to see what this was all about.”
3. Friday, July 8 6:00 – 7:30 a.m.
The Brooklyn Bridge
I was alone in the audience—unsurprising, given the 6 a.m. “curtain.” Later in the day, I would have been among many amblers and onlookers, but at this hour, I was alone in my inactivity. Early morning on the Brooklyn Bridge is not for tourists. It is for runners and professional photographers. It is for an elderly man performing complicated calisthenics. It is for a pair of young girls struggling through unison squats at the encouragement of a trainer. It is for two photographers, eyeing each other warily, chasing the last bit of mystical, sunrise light. At 6 a.m. on the Brooklyn Bridge, the traffic under the pedestrian walkway sounds like the ocean. I stood, watching the exercising bodies glide past. I stood, listening to the traffic. I stood, with the water far below and the city just out of reach. I stood, suspended. Gradually, the running, jumping, stretching bodies disappeared, replaced by a parade of suits. A flutter of feathers fell from the heights of the bridge, like snow.
4. Friday, July 22 10 – 11:30 p.m.
First Avenue at First Street
There were two of us from the start this time. The temperature was pushing 100, despite the lateness of the hour. Most people on the street were wearing a little clothing as possible. Most people on the street were speaking as loudly as possible. Could they possibly all be drunk? Yes. Midway through, a timid young woman approached us and asked for directions. A bit later, my guest asked if we could move to the median separating the bike lane from traffic on First Avenue. She wanted to be closer to the action. We moved. She sat on the curb, and I stood. We watched. She was almost hit by a car. We watched. We received looks of concern, of derision, of amusement. We watched. We were ignored. We watched. After, we sat talking on the curb, on the median, in the middle of First Avenue. It’s funny what a person can become used to.
5. Saturday, August 6 11:30 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.
Quiet. Eerie. As expected. (I have an overactive imagination and an epic fear of the supernatural, due mostly to an Irish-Catholic upbringing full of martyrs and ghosts.) But then, most surprisingly it became absolutely normal to sit and stare, surrounded by stones and bones. In this place, I was most aware of the unseen. What was behind me? Under? What was going on outside the frame I had chosen, the frame terminating at the limit of my peripheral vision? Why do I so rarely ask this question when watching performance, unless directed to do so through some instigating out-of-view commotion? We are trained to accept limits. Here I noticed the light changing. The moving shadows highlighting the drama of time’s passage. I thought of designers. Sitting together, my friend and I turned our heads at the same moment. Following the light, perhaps. My bare feet on the blanket in front of me transformed, became horrific, grotesque. I must look away from them. All of those around me, now gone and marked by stones, had feet like mine. The bones of my feet will someday become like these now buried. I look away to the sky. It is rare that I think of my own feet while watching other feet on stage.
6. Wednesday, August 17 7:00 – 8:30 p.m.
Eighth Avenue at 41st Street
Crashing reality. Like watching static. The weather was beautiful. I kept reminding myself, but I hardly noticed through the onslaught of image and sound. People running, walking, stopping, pointing, asking directions, moving again. Moving. Moving. Moving. I was alone in my specific audience. Though, despite the constant activity, I wasn’t the only one waiting and watching. Others were there, with suitcases, with weed, with badges and guns. I considered leaving at intermission. It had been a long day, and I had seen this show before, but I stayed. I realized that I was waiting for it to end, instead of watching. This is something I find myself doing in theaters too. I stayed, now watching. For one glorious moment, the chatter paused. For one moment, everything suspended as the sun set at the other end of the Port Authority overpass. Darkness sank into a groove and the lights gleamed and glowed, flickered and flashed. For a moment, all was glitter, and then the noise resumed. This is the beaten track. There is more to discover elsewhere. Or is there?
7. Saturday, August 27 3:00 – 4:30 a.m.
Warren Street, Brooklyn
At the end, which is yet to come at the time that I am writing, I will return to the beginning. Yet, such a return is impossible. On that first day, as I sat with my friend in front of the building, my landlord arrived home, to the apartment above mine. The rain had just stopped, and very few people were on the street. My friend sat in a wooden chair from the backyard. I stood next to her. My landlord raised an eyebrow at us, as he climbed the stairs to the front door. He paused. Then, with an edge of mild suspicion he asked, “You’re just sitting there? Enjoying life?”
Yes, I said. Exactly.
About the Author
SARAH MAXFIELD (sarahmaxfield.wordpress.com) investigates contemporary performance and its history through practice, discussion, and critical theory. She spent the summer giving audience to the everyday performance that is New York City. This fall, she resumes curation of THROW, an ongoing performance-development series at the Chocolate Factory Theater, and One-Shot, a solo-performance-relay for the Internet, produced in collaboration with the Gibney Dance Center. Maxfield is developing Knowing the Score, a one-day exploration of improvisational performance structures, to be presented by the Museum of Arts and Design on September 24. She is also collecting an oral history of experimental dance and performance in New York City. Maxfield lives in Brooklyn with her husband and works a day job, like everyone else.