"You are a good mayor," director Mallory Catlett told me as I was leaving a City Council Meeting rehearsal. I got to be the mayor — several in fact — as a test audience for a very different kind of theater experience called City Council Meeting, happening through DiverseWorks this weekend.
Aaron Landsman developed this piece, with Catlett, through a residency at University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts.
Some two decades ago, I wanted to scream, "Bravo!" after listening to my husband's impassioned testimony about the need for a traffic signal at a city council meeting in Larkspur, Calif., the little creekside hamlet where we lived before moving to Houston. As moving as the experience was, I never once thought about the inherent theatricality of the experience.
You will be given a choice to be a speaker, a city council member, a supporter or a bystander.
Something very different happened when Landsman attended a city council meeting in Portland, Ore. He couldn't shake the experience, which in his book meant that he needed to make a theater event about it.
Landsman traveled to city council meetings in six cities, San Antonio, Tempe, Ariz., Bismark, N.D., Oakland, Portland and Houston, where the hot topic of Proposition 1 on the city's drainage infrastructure was being discussed. A heated battle between the city's mega-preachers and engineers ensued, some of which ended up right in his play. The piece is culled from transcripts from all six cities.
City Council Meeting takes place at three locations throughout the city: Tonight at Palm Center, Second floor courtroom, 5300 Briggs, Friday at Project Row Houses' Eldorado Ballroom, 2310 Elgin, and Saturday at DiverseWorks' new midtown location, 4102 Fannin Street. The DiverseWorks performance will be Livestreamed on NewPlayTV. The performances are free.
Houston City councilmember Stephen Costello, who was one of the proponets of Proposition 1, will appear in the play on Friday and Saturday nights.
I first met Landsman while he was in town to direct The Frogs as part of the UH Honors College Dionysia last spring. The actor, along with Catlett, were laying the groundwork for the piece during their Mitchell Center residency.
They struck me as two smart theater people not remotely interested in theater as usual, my kind of people. Landsman performed What You've Done, a co-production between DiverseWorks and Project Row Houses in 2005, and has performed extensively with Elevator Repair Service Theater in New York City.
The idea behind this experiment is a solid one, especially now on the eve of an election.
With a tag line of "Performed Participatory Democracy,"City Council Meeting is no ordinary play. The audience performs it. But don't worry, it's not the usual dreaded audience participation situation. You will be given a choice to be a speaker, a city council member, a supporter or a bystander.
"The audience makes the piece," Catlett says. "We value every role, not just the people who speak; everyone is active."
Seven savvy "staffers" hand you instructions on exactly what to do when. Staffers include such notable artists as Maurice Duhon, Christa Forster, John Harvey, Maria-Cristina Jadick, Autumn Knight, Assata Richards and Carrie Schneider.
Like real life
I saw for myself how the staffers actually move the engine of this play forward, and I must say, it's a marvel in and of itself. I don't normally follow instructions well and I still made a good mayor. The moment you need the citation for an award, it's handed to you. My staffer got me riled up on this drainage issue as she whispered details in my ear.
There's also a four-camera live video going on which will cue you in on which city we are in and the names of the actual city council members, exactly like you would find in an authentic city council meeting. Jim Findlay, an internationally known designer, director and performer, is production designer in charge of video, set and lights.
I don't normally follow instructions well and I still made a good mayor.
Landsman hopes to bring the piece to each city he visited. Each city will have its own ending. It's somewhat of a surprise, so I'm not inclined to give it away here. But I will tell you that it will involve some real players and music.
"People would always tell us, 'You should perform this with real actors' and I would respond, 'We did, and you were fantastic,' " recalls Catlett. "We perform the role of ourselves."
And yes, there are awkward silences, places where a speaker might stumble on some words or need some nudging from a staffer. This is not about acting folks. Landsman and Catlett find these moments are indeed crucial to the piece.
"There are times when people might wonder if this thing is broken," Catlett quips. "That's part of the experience."
The idea behind this experiment is a solid one, especially now on the eve of an election. The issues that surface: What makes us a community; What are the rules that bind us; Who makes those rules; Who leads; and, How do we follow responsibility, lie at the very core of citizenship.
"City Council Meeting creates a new city each night," Landsman says.
I found the experience of being a mayor for one hour empowering. We can feel so defeated by the world around us, thinking we are powerless to change our environment. Taking a serious look at how the very guts of a city work is a good thing to do.
These are the very politics that matter most to our lives.