The lovely woman who served us our Lolo Juices at the concession stand suggested we finish our drinks before entering the theater to see “The Fever,” a show by 600 HIGHWAYMEN now playing at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club as part of Onassis Festival 2019: Democracy is Coming.
Because we’d need our hands for the show.
“Does this have audience participation? Because I hate that,” I said.
“I don’t think it’s too much,” she assured me.
Nevertheless, I was filled with dread as my friend and I caught up while sipping our juices. What ensued was the unique type of theatrical experience that you don’t want to say too much about, but you want to share and discuss with others — if only because it’s the type of theater you imagine NYC venues like La MaMa were created for. It defies description and is better experienced than explained.
Instead of writing or saying too much about it, I decided to just ask the piece’s writer-director team, Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, a few questions that were on my mind as I made my way home from what they call “a performance built from our dependence on one another.” I corresponded with the two members of 600 HIGHWAYMEN via email, and they responded as one.
What is 600 HIGHWAYMEN, and where did the name come from?
The name actually comes from Lucky’s long speech in “Waiting for Godot.” It’s not a direct quote; he talks about “600 something” and then later talks about “highwaymen.” We cut and pasted the words together, and it sort of clicked. 600 HIGHWAYMEN is the moniker for the two of us (Michael and Abby) as we make work together.
How did you two begin working together, and at what point did you decide to form a company together?
We started working together in 2009. Before then we were making work independently, but each of us individually was sort of piqued by the work and process of the other. I think we had some sort of intuition that we each had something that the other needed. It started as an experiment — with an attitude of, “Let’s give this a try and see what happens.” Our first show (“This Time Tomorrow”) left us wanting to keep making work together. It wasn’t — and isn’t — necessarily easier than working independently, but it’s a combination of wanting to be continually surprised in a process, and also knowing that the work is somehow stronger with both of us behind it. So we’ve kept at it, and in some ways we’ve discovered a kind of freedom to it all.
Without giving too much away, of course, can you describe what “The Fever” is?
The Fever is a show that is made in collaboration with the audience. It is theater in its basic form — a gathering of people in a public space. The performance asks questions about community, action and what it means to be a part of a group. There is a story — there are several stories, in fact — and they all come together in a way that we hope feels owned, every performance by a different group of strangers.
“The Fever” was originally commissioned by The Public Theater. What was the process for developing it? What inspired it?
To make the show, we needed to work with a lot of people we didn’t know. This meant we had to develop the work mostly outside of where we are based, which is New York City. We went to Seattle, Massachusetts, Arizona and Colorado. Each city had a different residency structure in which we took a handful of people and engaged with a lot of the community in each city. The show was built from us going to places where we were unknown, and working with the people we met to help us create the story.
And what’s been its life between the original commissioning and this current run? Has it changed?
Since we premiered the piece at The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival in 2017, we’ve had the opportunity to perform it in 25 cities around the world, including Dallas, Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Chicago, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Dublin, Sarajevo, Abu Dhabi. The piece has evolved in subtle ways since the first performances, which seems inevitable and organic with any performance and its long run. Of course a lot of that might be social context: January 2017 was a very particular time in the United States to be asking questions about community, care and who belongs to whom. The questions are still relevant, but the temperature has perhaps shifted.
Your website says “The Fever” is “a public convergence for today.” Is it designed for this specific political and social time?
All of our work feels to somehow be in response to what’s happening around us. The shows we make have a tendency to absorb what’s happening around them. The Fever was made in 2015-16, and thus is exploring how we take care of one another, how we’ve become who we are, legacy and the nature of fear and trust.
Are there things that you hope come out of this convergence?
We are not the kind of directors that want everyone in the audience to have one monolithic emotional response. We leave a lot of room for an audience to think, to feel, to create their own individual impression. That said, if the performance makes us all a little more able to look a stranger in the eye, we would be happy with that.
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What have been some of your favorite reactions to the piece?
Every performance is a little different (or sometimes a lot different). There are specific people from audiences around the world that we will never forget because they brought something unique or magical to the work. I could give lots of examples, but I don’t want to give anything away!
We sometimes get called a “participatory theater company” and that’s not really true at all. Quite the opposite: We both feel apprehensive about the form, and have never explored it in our previous work. But again, 2015-16 felt like the right time to make a piece about a community coming together and all the feelings that come about. We knew that something major was going on in the country, and it just didn’t seem like the right time to turn off the lights.
Will others have a chance to catch “The Fever” (pun intended) after its run at La MaMa? Any other projects (600 HIGHWAYMEN or other) on the horizon?
Unfortunately this is probably the last time the show will be in NYC! After this, you will have to travel to another city see it. We have a whole slate of projects in the works that we’re very excited about. On the most-immediate horizon is a new project called “Manmade Earth” that will be at the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn in September. We are very excited about this piece! It was made up in Buffalo, N.Y., and we can’t wait to perform it at home.
“The Fever” runs through Sunday, April 21, 2019 in La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre at 66 East 4th Street as part of “Onassis Festival 2019: Democracy Is Coming” and is a co-presentation by La MaMa, The Public Theater and Onassis USA. Tickets are $35 and are available online.
Top Image: 600 HIGHWAYMEN's "The Fever." Photo: Maria Baranova