What'd I experience?
I've had my eyes on the New York Neo-Futurists (affectionately called the Neos) since my first experience with their work, a little over three years ago. So it came as no surprise when I decided to make it a point to see The Great American Drama as soon as I heard of its existence.
When I was buying my ticket, I was prompted to fill out a survey on SurveyMonkey that had to do with my preferences when it came to the theatre, in addition to my views on the American dream. I tried to be as honest as possible with my answers, stressing the importance of immersive theatre, audience participation, and the power of intimate spaces.
When it came to the American dream, I wrote about how although I found the idea of the American dream pleasant enough, I recognized that there were certain groups of people (particularly people of color, women, people with prison records, people of certain religions - Jews and Muslims came to mind, and people in the LGBTQ+ community) who simply for being themselves, had disadvantages in life that stood in their way of achieving the American dream no matter how much they pursued or persevered.
I used to believe in the American dream, but it was relatively easy to do so when the odds were more or less stacked in my favor, which they were. As a woman and a Jew, I had had some struggles, but in time I came to understand that I had and still have far more privilege than lack of privilege. And if the concept of the American dream, by definition, was meant to include equal opportunities "to achieve success and prosperity" for all US citizens, then it was clear that it was failing. It was too idealistic and not designed for a diverse America, the America I was a part of, with no official language or religion, and with a history as unfortunate as it was positive.
I wondered what the Neos would do with my responses. How would they incorporate it into their show, if at all?
My mom and I already had tickets that were purchased online in advance, but since the seating was general admission, we were a tad concerned about getting good seats that allowed us to sit next to each other. But we needn't have worried. We arrived at the theatre before the house had opened, early enough for us each to write down something we wanted to see happen in the show that night and hand it to a staff member. Snickering, my mom wrote that she'd like to see "A breakup of some sort," while I wrote that I'd like to see "An audience-wide Never Have I Ever game." If the cast attempted any of our ideas, if would have been super cool, like we were uncredited writers.
SIDE NOTE: Both my mom's and my suggestion ended up being attempted by the Neos!
When the house opened, I walked my mom over to what turned out to be the designated participation row (A.K.A. the front row). I knew instantly that there was no way I wasn't going to sit there. My mom, on the other hand, was a bit more hesitant at first, but I managed to talk her into sitting next to me. I hoped I would be called on stage, but I could understand the reservations people had with audience participation in the theatre. I guess they were afraid of being put on the spot or embarrassed. But while I was far from immune to embarrassment, I simply valued the thrill that came from not knowing what was going to be asked of me, and that alone was enough to overpower any nerves I may have had.
A large part of The Great American Drama involved the Neos trying to accommodate as many of our requests as possible, primarily working off of the actual responses submitted in the "How Do You Like Your Theatre?" survey. One of the most common suggestions was for The Great American Drama to be Hamilton, as in Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton.
*Yup, I haven't seen it either.*
After showing us this particular request projected on a screen a number of times and by a number of different people, the cast then proceeded to don Hamilton-esque garb and burst into "Alexander Hamilton." This was almost too much to take. I resisted the urge to sing along, knowing every word by heart. All too soon, the performers stopped in the middle of the song, mentioning that it would be illegal for them to continue due to copyright laws.
As it turned out, I wasn't called on stage, but my mom was. It seemed that the entire cast took a liking to her at first sight, and they simply couldn't stay away. At one point, during a moment in the show that was like something out of The Matrix, she was offered two Dixie cups and told to pick one, ultimately choosing the cup to her right. I looked inside and saw what looked like a blue cough drop. She didn't seem to want to eat it, so I snatched it up and popped it in my mouth, enjoying its minty taste. Later in the show, during a display of magic, a cast member asked my mom to call heads or tails while he was flipping a coin. When she did, he made it "disappear" in mid-air. But the craziest part was when my mom was dragged up on stage and sat in a chair facing the audience. For a few overwhelming seconds, I wondered under my breath if I was going to watch my mom get treated to a lap dance. That was not quite what happened... As requested, the cast was trying to do something sexy, but also cute, on stage. This was where my mother came in. They danced seductively around the chair and held signs of cartoon clouds and suns behind her. My mom had no idea what was happening - I could tell - but to her credit, she was rolling with it. They finally handed her an adorable stuffed animal, before snatching it away from her because they were also trying to accommodate the request to "keep production costs low."
There was some nudity in The Great American Drama, but only as much as we would allow. The Neos made it clear that all we had to do was say, "stop," and they would cease undressing. It was difficult terrain to navigate, mainly because as the two Neos undressed, they would tell very revealing personal stories. I didn't want them to be uncomfortable by stripping on stage, but I also wanted to hear more about their lives. Luckily, we all got the best of both worlds, and we heard enough about the Neos' private business without the... uh, content, ever jumping above a PG-13 rating. All of this was thanks to a kind audience member who shouted, "stop!" a few minutes in, to which one Neo replied, "Thank you!" #Consent
The Great American Drama was more impactful than I think the Neos intended it to be. When the Neos were drafting the show, Donald Trump had not yet been elected President, and it looked like there was no way he would be. But sitting where I was, achingly aware of the new reality I had found myself in, the American dream seemed farther away than ever. And the Neos felt it too. They each read a letter they had written in September of 2016, and how much had changed in so little time was apparent. In September, I had not yet turned 22, I was still working in my old, far less satisfying job, and I had not voted for Hillary Clinton in what would be the second Presidential election I would be old enough to have a say in.
The Neos asked us to leave something under our seats that we wanted to be placed in a time capsule. While I loved the idea, I couldn't think of something important enough, and even if I did think of something, the odds that it would be a something that I'd carry in my purse were slim. *BUT, my mom did end up losing a pair of black fuzzy gloves at the theatre, and we were comforted to think that they likely ended up in a time capsule*
The Neos wanted us to critique their performance as a whole, right in front of them. We simply had to answer the question:
We were encouraged to text either YES or NO to a phone number provided for us. The Neos turned their backs to us, instead facing a bar graph that illustrated the live results of our text messages. My mother and I texted YES with zero uncertainty, and looking at the graph, there were others who felt exactly the same way as us. Right when it was looking like The Great American Drama was going to get a 100% approval rating, a few truthful people texted NO, resulting in an 84% approval rating overall. The Neos were satisfied with the honesty that was displayed, and they aimed to do better next time. Many of the Neos truly felt that this night's performance hadn't been their best. It was only the second night of previews, and yes, there may have been a few hiccups, but the integrity and authenticity of the work remained intact, at least in my opinion.
After the bows and applause, my mom walked right over to a Neo who shared her name, Nicole. The two embraced as if they were friends, and Nicole admitted to my mother that all of the Neos thought she was an actress and were conducting a poll backstage to determine how old they thought she was, finding it hard to believe that this youthful woman had an adult daughter. I was used to this type of thing - My mom turned heads wherever she went. And besides, my mother did have a background in the arts.
I left the building with my mom in good spirits. Even in the aftermath of a disappointing election, with Donald Trump to officially take office in a few days, there was nothing I would rather do than be a participant in a politically and socially aware piece of theatre that catered to its audience. In a time in my life when it felt like none of my views were being listened to, it was wonderful to experience a show where my voice actually had the power to effect what happened next.
Want to see it?
What did you experience?
Let PXP know in the comments below...