Putting Themselves in Imelda Marcos’s Shoes

Via The New York Times

Putting Themselves in Imelda Marcos’s Shoes
‘Here Lies Love’ and the Era of Audience Participation

By ANAND GIRIDHARADAS

JULY 11, 2013

LUCILLE BARCHITTA was geared up for a night of theater.

Running belt from iFitness around her waist, with just 2 of her usual 10 lipsticks. Self-described “tight, cute cargo pants, not male-person-type cargo pants,” to hold her money and cards and replace her bucket of a purse. Well-honed dance moves like her Hands-Snapping-Behind-Hips number, her shimmy and a side-to-side maneuver that she calls her Janet Jackson. Check, check and check.

Champagne in hand, Ms. Barchitta flitted among friends at the Library bar at the Public Theater. She was ready for her turn as attendee-performer. Of course, in New York all attendance is performance. But it was especially so tonight. Ms. Barchitta was about to see “Here Lies Love,” a participatory disco-musical that belongs to a rising wave of theater in which the audience hams, too. While watching the actors act, she would stand in their midst and dance in a theater space reimagined as a Filipino nightclub.

Some people can’t handle having to dance in a musical while watching that same musical, especially after paying $100. But Ms. Barchitta — using an explanation she would repeat: “I mean, I’m from Staten Island” — claimed not to be nervous. She vowed to the women in her group, who belonged to the “Sex and the City” demographic and had gathered to toast a friend leaving New York, that she’d “be all up in front, like this.” To illustrate, she roof-raised. She boasted of being the type that doesn’t need to drink to dance.

Theater tickets aren’t getting any cheaper, but these days your money may not be enough. A new genre of shows wants your labor, too. They want you to sleuth around a hotel, deciphering “Macbeth” from silent actors (“Sleep No More”); or to converse with a character fated to become a sex-trafficking victim while driving around Brooklyn with her in a bus (“Roadkill”); or, in “Here Lies Love,” to bust moves while watching a bio-musical about Imelda Marcos, notorious former first lady of the Philippines.

It’s theater for the crowdsourcing era. Some view this as a new egalitarian phase in the actor-audience relationship; others promote it as a rescue for theaters in dire financial straits. What remains to be seen is whether involving the crowd — or, more cynically, exploiting its vanities — can lift ticket sales and outcompete Netflix-connected screens.

At the Library bar, moments before the show, someone informed Ms. Barchitta that there would be no alcohol inside. Her earlier boast notwithstanding, she seemed taken aback. She reached over and took a gulp of her friend’s Maker’s-and-diet. With participatory theater, even when you’re from Staten Island, a swallow of whiskey can help.

Ms. Barchitta, who is 40 and works in television advertising, typically declines theater invitations from her friend Lauren Wylie, whose farewell they were feting. Ms. Barchitta can find the theater stuffy and not worth the money; it rarely seizes her enough to stop her wondering what e-mails she’s receiving. But this show’s “surprise element” of dancing grabbed her. “There’s not that many surprises in life anymore,” she said.

And so, at 8:30 one recent night, the two friends and the rest of their group trudged up three flights of stairs, swirling with disco smoke, and into the packed theater turned nightclub.

Greeting them were ushers in sequined pink jumpsuits, looking like you might expect tarmac workers to look if the ’70s-era Elton John took over La Guardia. As the actors began to sing and prance about on elevated platforms throughout the room, the ushers encouraged the audience of 150 or so to dance.

The dancing was mostly DIY. But as Mrs. Marcos’s life story began to be told, starting with her provincial childhood, the D.J. did occasionally suggest steps: “Raise the roof, raise the roof, shimmy down now.” Yet at first the audience behaved as though at an eighth-grade dance — or, to be more precise, like the chaperones at such a dance.

With dancing, as with anesthesia, there is local and there is general. This dancing was decidedly local — one body part, maybe two, offering itself to the festivities. Golf Shirt and Khakis Guy, hands in his pockets, put out some impressive, sincere shoulder thrusts. Hipster Blond Woman, shuffling her feet, was entirely still above the shins. Artsy Sundress Lady With Earplugs tried to mouth lyrics she clearly didn’t know.

Dancing felt like a “should” early on. People seemed to be doing it to extract the full value of the ticket price.

Though it was her send-off, Ms. Wylie, the sensible and contained one among her friends, felt apprehensive. “I went to a place of self-consciousness, awareness of my body, shyness, and also conscious of other people’s experience around me,” she said later. She shushed her louder friends. A musical-theater major turned corporate sustainability manager, she attempted brief connections with the cast — some eye contact here, a dance move there — but feared that she would “mess them up.”

Across a platform from Ms. Wylie, Ms. Barchitta had no such trouble. The night reminded her of her receding past partying in the clubs of New York — what she called her “Limelight/Marquee/Pink Elephant days.” But she did have one beef.

“What made me a little uneasy was when the people around me stood there awkwardly and did not move,” Ms. Barchitta said. “I would have appreciated more effort on other people’s parts.”

It came as a relief when, nearly an hour in, the characters emerged in masks of John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon and other contemporaries of the Marcoses and danced one on one with audience members. Ms. Barchitta and Ms. Wylie’s friend Jill Lotenberg got fleetingly freaky-grindy with a woman playing Fidel Castro.

After a climactic, rousing end, I debriefed several audience members, who were uniformly thrilled with the show.

“A wonderful, dynamic and innovative play,” said Marty Birnbaum, a middle-aged man attending with his wife. He pronounced it “a wow night of theater.”

Rita Berman, who along with her husband, Jay, was on the higher end of the age distribution, said dancing with strangers made it feel “like meeting old friends.”

If they agreed on what the show had done for them, the audience was fuzzier on what their dancing had done for the show. In the theater world, it’s a subject of some discussion.

Participatory theater is often heralded as a way of growing attendance in an age of thinning live audiences and shrinking budgets. Diane Paulus, artistic director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard and a pioneer of interactivity, has argued that artists must cease to “blame the audience” for not coming, and instead involve theatergoers so as to compete with their other entertainments.

“Maybe we, as artists and producers, have to think about how we make our work, how we invite the audience, what’s the level of engagement,” Ms. Paulus once told a television interviewer.

For Lynne Conner, chairwoman of the theater and dance department at Colby College, participatory theater must be about more than filling seats. From the ancient Greeks onward, she has said, audiences possessed a “cultural right to co-author the meaning of the arts event.” This right motivated audiences to throw eggs and tomatoes onto the stage and to beg opera singers to repeat an aria.

Such back-and-forth fizzled in the 19th century, Ms. Conner says, because of new ideas about high culture requiring silent appreciation of artistic virtuosity, and because of the coming of electric light, which more than before let stages be illuminated by focused shafts while keeping audiences in darkness. What the new participatory theater promises, in her estimation, is a belated revival of the egalitarian, two-way bond between crowd and performer.

This revival, as encountered in “Here Lies Love,” remains tentative and unpolished, promising if still vague. Audience members are asked to perform, but no one seems sure how to use them. It’s easy to let them dance. It’s harder to meet Ms. Conner’s standard of bringing them into the meaning-making — letting the paying performers become creative co-conspirators with the paid.

“They chose moments to engage people,” Ms. Wylie said of the performers, “but they could have taken it further.”

For Ms. Barchitta more than for her friend, the dancing was instrumental to the meaning she took away — but not necessarily in a good way.

After the show, she suffered from a political hangover. She realized that Champagne-and-whiskey-soaked dancing, an activity not often associated with critical reasoning, had lulled her into sympathy for a corrupt and autocratic regime.

“The dancing lightened the mood a little and put Imelda in a much more relatable light,” she said. “Whether she deserved that grace or not is another story.” But if engagement was its goal, the show worked. When Ms. Barchitta left the theater, she had a new mission: She would Google these Marcoses and, with the shimmying behind her, figure out what they were really all about.

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