I didn’t know what to expect from Einat Amir’s “Our Best Intentions,” a work premiering in New York as part of Performa 13. I had seen the trailer, which suggests a fairly emotional experience. I had read the description on the Performa site, which says the participatory piece blends “psychotherapy, theater and art.” I braced myself for honesty. I was a little nervous.
When I arrived at Affirmation Arts (a fitting name for a space hosting this kind of work), I was told to sign a waiver and check all of my things. Just after 6:30 pm, we 24 waiting participants — a mix of young and old that skewed toward the well-dressed — were invited into the space. On our way, we were asked to choose black vests with words on the back, a mix of nouns such as “mother,” “desire,” “humiliation,” “lover,” etc. (I chose “awkwardness”), and then sit anywhere in the space. Tape on the floor had been used to divide the large gallery into four quadrants; each area was furnished like a different domestic room and held six people.
As it turned out, these four rooms would be the settings for the performance’s four scenes/sessions, each led by a different moderator. When the lights came up on the first, the living room, a sweet-sounding woman named Mika Lee stood up and introduced herself. She gathered participants into a circle and asked them to represent themselves with noises and movements. Eventually, one woman in the group volunteered to explore the word on her chosen vest through living sculpture and free association. She said she had chosen the word, “active,” because it was important to her, except when she turned around, the audience saw that her vest actually said “addiction.” No matter, I suppose; no one corrected her. The scene culminated in a light and goofy visual and audio tableaux, including two women holding hands, swinging their arms, snapping, and saying “salsa!”
The second session, in the bedroom, was moderated by Rob Reese. If you ever took a theater class in middle or high school, Rob was like the guy who taught it. “Nothing is not okay here,” he stressed. The participants did what seemed like variations on theater improv games. They built up to a multilayered exercise that involving two people talking, two interpretive dancing, and two giving directions, but the participants themselves seemed confused about their roles and rules. The vests and the words on them were never mentioned.
Third (the scenes moved counterclockwise around the space) up was the dining room, where Talia Weiss Peckerman, amiable and sporting a thick New York accent, led what came closest to a therapy session. After a few initial get-to-know-you exercises involving vest choices, the group singled out one man to talk about and explore his relationship with his father, whom he said he hadn’t spoken to in years. The man was made to play both himself and his father in an imagined conversation scenario. It was tense and fascinating, but by the end of the scene, when other members of the group were asked to participate, the dialogue had dropped below an audible level for the audience. Everyone was clearly nervous about exposing themselves.
Finally, the lights came up on my room, the study. Our guide, Leslie Satin, spoke to us in a whisper. The first thing she said was, “I’m not going to make you do anything embarrassing.” My fellow group members seemed to sigh in relief, but I felt slightly disappointed; after watching nearly everyone else in the room put themselves out there in some way, I wanted a chance to do the same. Instead, Leslie proceeded to take us through a series of physical exercises, and then she gave us individual instructions, staging each of us in a different spot with a different activity. I circled the room for a while, first walking and then at a run. Our session ended with all of us pretending to climb up and down the wall. One by one, Leslie told us to return to our seats, and the lights came up.
Now that I’ve seen and been through “Our Best Intentions,” I’m not sure I have a clearer picture of it. On paper (or on screen), the idea of blending elements from therapy and performance sounds smart, a riff on the constant sharing and performing we do today, especially online. In practice, the work was too scattered and inconsistent. For the man who talked about his father, it may have been transformative, or at least cathartic in some way. For the woman who turned “addiction” into “active,” it looked like a bit of fun. For me, who ran in circles for a while, it was a reason to sweat. But I don’t know what, if anything, tied those experiences together, besides the shared space. Putting people in a room and pushing their limits is practically the standard definition of performance art these days, and while “Our Best Intentions” doesn’t seem like a candidate for breaking new ground, a little more structure would have saved it from being ramshackle.
As it was, I spent most of the hour engaged, but I can’t say I walked away with anything tangible — not a feeling or a thought to pin my experiences on. Einat Amir may have had the best intentions, but they simply weren’t enough.
Einat Amir’s “Our Best Intentions” continues through November 23 at Affirmation Arts (523 West 37th Street, West Side, Manhattan), presented by Artis, as part of Performa 13. Tickets are free but must be reserved in advance.