There is a fine line between incorporating audience-generated material into a new work, and simply repeating what the audience created in a different context. I Land, the newest offering from Anonymous Ensemble, is a play that offers a few new experiences, but ultimately feels un-balanced and struggles to make a cohesive statement out of material that the audience shares during the first half of the play.
I Land is created and performed by Anonymous Ensemble (Liz Davito, Eamonn Farrell, Lucy Smith, and Jessica Weinstein). The structure of the evening is in two sections. The first part lasts about an hour, and consists of two cast members getting to know the audience by asking open-ended questions about our aspirations, imagination, and dreams. “What did you want to be when you grow up?” “Do you have any recurring dreams?” “What was a transformative moment in your past?” Audience members then have the opportunity to raise their hand and tell personal stories. These stories create the fabric of the performance aspect of the play, which takes up the last 30 minutes of the 90 minute evening (the run time for the show can vary due to its’ improv nature). The performance was a very loose interpretation of what the audience shared during the first hour, with the cast essentially repeating aspects of what they heard in different combinations and in a variety of surreal contexts.
The production is complimented by skillful and elaborate tech elements including sound mixing (the audience provides soundscapes that are then digitally maneuvered to provide the soundtrack to the play), live video feeds, and projections. While many of these elements are impressive, they did not prove to be a necessary story telling device. The concepts explored in this material seem like they would be the same without these technical elements, which makes me question their involvement. The one major exception (and also the most visually arresting moment of the play) is when they submerged the audience’s self-made portraits into a bin of water one at a time, projecting a live video feed of this onto 3 separate screens. Each of the screens displayed the same feed, but with a progressively longer delay. This was so beautiful and ritualistic, that I wished I had been asked to speak about something for which I needed absolution. It seemed like a baptism of sorts, but nothing we spoke about previously begged forgiveness.
Live musical elements were also used in the performance section of the evening, including a closing number performed by the entire group, again with all of the lyrics taken from people’s stories. The issue here was seeing the magic of improv (“How did they make that up on the spot?!”) replaced with watching actors hesitate, sing on top of each other, and fumble lines. Some serious time and energy should be spent learning a few basic song structures. A song is challenging to make up on the spot, and this troupe was not in sync enough to pull it off without making it uncomfortable for the audience to watch. The solo numbers worked much better.
The most compelling and unique aspect of this experience is the audience involvement, and on that level this is a success. People were so willing to open up and share stories from their personal lives, a testament both to the delicate touch of the cast, and to the nature of the event that they have crafted. These stories and this experience bordered on being transformative. Sitting in the theatre, listening to fellow audience members share was community-building (how often can you say that about an experience in the theatre). Yet the traditional stadium style seating hindered this community – when people were speaking behind me I felt obliged to turn around and listen, but as the evening wore on and some of the stories were uninteresting, I could simply turn back around and dis-engage from the group. That aspect could probably be solved by a better suited space and/or a non-traditional audience layout. As the performance began however, the community that had formed began to dissolve. When the performance featured someone’s personal story, only that specific person would laugh (or if they came with friends, those people would laugh as well), while everyone else was left waiting for their contributions to rise to the surface. There was never a clear reasoning or impetus to re-share this material they gathered from us, and no clear connecting through-line that anchored the evening. So in a sense, it became a competition to see how much of your own story was used in the play.
In the fact that this is an experimental festival and this piece is an experiment in itself, viewing it was a mixed-bag. On the one hand I appreciate the barrier-bashing theatrical experience Anonymous Ensemble undertook; on the other I wish that this was a more polished evening with a strong voice. Walking out I couldn’t help but think that the most interesting section had been listening to the audience share stories. We need a bigger pay-off during the performance portion of the show – we talked for an hour, now it’s your turn to make what we gave you into something more magical than it was the first time around.