Perhaps there are a few whose steely hearts do not melt at the sight of a child in a tutu performing her first solo or, as the curtain rises, a lone grade-schooler pretending to be a tree. But 600 Highwaymen (writer/directors Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone) figures no one can resist five prepubescent thespians, and they’re probably right.
It would seem almost inhuman not to fall for the five nine- and ten-year-olds in 600 Highwaymen’s Employee of the Year. They exude a mixture of innocence and knowingness as they recite the story of J, a woman buffeted back and forth across the country in search of her birth mother, who in the course of her hard luck tale ages episodically from three to eighty. The show was presented at the Florence Gould Hall in New York on October 15th and 16th as part of the six-week-long French Institute/Alliance Française-sponsored Crossing the Line, an annual festival of interdisciplinary performance. (The French connection is confusing, as the artists in the festival, like 600 Highwaymen, are usually mostly American.)
The girls in Employee of the Year aren’t exactly acting, and no one, including the creators of this show, is really expecting them to. Instead, they speak their lines emotionlessly while striking a series of simple poses, often variations on having one arm fully extended in one direction and the other cocked at a ninety-degree angle at the elbow. The girls succeed one another in the speaking role, passing off the monologue, while the nonspeaking girls sometimes mutely represent other persons, physical objects, or environments referred to in the recitation. The stage is bare except for a large white square of what appeared to be carpeting.
If their confident presentation of J’s desperate life were not winning enough, just wait. They sing as well, and not nursery rhymes, but complex compositions by singer/songwriter David Cale, with lyrics such as, “When people say/You’re good to me/I nod and smile/Agreeably/I wish I loved you more/I wish I loved you more.” The girls can all sing fairly well, and a couple of them have perfect pitch and those enchantingly pure voices that are beautifully untouched by adolescent smoking and other debaucheries of later life.
According to the group’s publicist, 600 Highwaymen found the girls through friends and collaborators, and they have no previous performance training. 600 Highwaymen prefers unschooled actors. In the group’s The Record, which played at The Public Theater earlier this year as part of the Under the Radar Festival, scores of volunteers, who were rehearsed briefly, performed simple choreography. The very awkwardness and freshness of the persons onstage, along with the range of age and ethnicity, were appealing, though one could have criticized the bare bones movements as unambitious.
Somewhat similarly, Employee of the Year is premised on the lack of virtuosity of the young girls (Candela Cubria, Rachel Dostal, Stella Lapidus, Alice Chastain Levy, and Violet Newman). They bring none of the skills and, consequently, also none of the defects of acting as it’s generally conceived.
This approach to acting and the blending of the public with the characters onstage has a long tradition. In America it goes back to The Living Theatre’s work in the 1950s, and in the European tradition to the early twentieth century in the experiments of Dadaism and Surrealism. For these earlier movements, the rejection of the divide between performer and spectator was motivated in part by a desire to destroy societal structures and highbrow aesthetics which were seen as oppressive and linked to orchestrated violence (the First World War and the Vietnam War).
The distaste for professional acting is a staple of art performance, though theater groups that originally held this belief such as the Wooster Group have evolved into companies whose previously nonprofessional actors have decades of experience behind them now, or they have taken to hiring professionals.
600 Highwaymen’s all-girl cast carries the show admirably well, perhaps a bit too well for the anti-acting concept to adhere. I can only recall one stumble during the show I saw. The girls are all well-scrubbed and suspiciously mostly white. While I have no reason to doubt 600 Highwaymen’s statement that the girls are untrained, they do seem awfully at home on the stage. Their acting is perhaps too good.
I could not help but question whether it was fair to confront the audience with this bouquet of innocence and poise. Who would boo at a nine-year-old’s ballet recital? I was told that Florence Gould Hall does indeed host many of them. I wondered if the girls’ parents were in the audience, cheering them on, and perhaps their parents’ friends. A child actor is a bankable asset in entertainment perhaps because it is impolite to criticize a kid. Darryl F. Zanuck knew that Shirley Temple’s sweet little face would mint money for his movie studio, and she remained an oil-gusher of a darling for him for many a year, leastways until she grew up and became an operative for the Republican Party. And 600 Highwaymen is taking no chances by serving up five, count ’em, five charming young things.
What remains strongest is the dissonance between the story they’re telling and their age. It is impossible that a nine-year-old can comprehend J’s lifetime of pain and disappointment looking for home and family. J is dealt a bad hand and compounds her misery by making a number of inadvisable life decisions; her choices are so bad and arbitrary that they strain credulity. By contrast, these girls are obviously smart and disciplined, and, one guesses, they come from stable, supportive homes.
Though they know all the words of the text and the lyrics of their songs, they cannot and do not attempt to imitate or enact J’s torment. The words keep flowing, the bodies keep moving, the story rolls on, a story that is plainly not theirs. More pointedly, as J has sex and enters into less than ideal adult relationships, the story has crossed beyond their possible experience, regardless of the girls’ circumstances. Likewise, the indignities of old age have not visited these pre-teens. This incongruity is constantly brought to mind by the children’s voices, their undeveloped bodies, and in part the primitiveness of the staging. The subliminal frisson created by this tension elevates the sometimes clumsy story into a wistful take on the inevitable messiness of adulthood.
Employee of the Year took place at the FIAF Florence Gould Hall (55 East 59th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) on October 15 & 16, 2014.