Collaboration with The Living Theater

At a few minutes past 7 PM on Wednesday 9 August 2000, the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) performed Headline News in front of a large and very sophisticated-looking surveillance camera operated by the New York Police Department and mounted on a street-lamp in the heart of Manhattan's Times Square, the self-avowed "crossroads of the world." In an arrangement worked out just minutes before the performance began, the SCP presented Headline News as a sort of preface to The Living Theater's performance of Not in My Name, an excellent anti-death penalty play that the group performs in Times Square to coincide with executions.

The Living Theater (LT), formed in New York City by Julian Beck more than 50 years ago, is one of the best-known street theater groups in the United States, especially since the 1960s, when it became famous for its confrontational approach to audiences. These days the LT doesn't confront or provoke its audiences, but the group has remained relevant -- and has found a way to attract new volunteers and renew itself -- by performing explicitly political works in both traditional theaters (for a modest admission price) and on city streets (for free). According to Judith Melina, a central player in the group in the 1960s and '70s, the LT -- like the Surveillance Camera Players -- has over the course of its long career been animated by both the political theory of the Situationist International and the dramatic works of Bertolt Brecht, Antonin Artaud and Samuel Beckett. (There's a wonderful passage in a book about the Living Theater, in which Melina says that, though the Situationists thought that her group was delaying and thereby profiting from the inevitable and total collapse of "theater" as an autonomous art-form, she continued to read the Situationists' publications, to recommend them to others, and to be inspired by the SI's example.)

The SCP ended up collaborating with the LT in an "unusual" fashion. That is to say, the SCP didn't ask for or get prior approval to show up and perform one of its own plays at the exact time and in the exact place that the LT had planned to perform Not in My Name. (In the shifting multilayered psychogeography of New York City, the LT have staked a strong claim to the weird triangular space at the northern side -- the 46th Street side -- of the pedestrian island awkwardly wedged between 7th Avenue and Broadway. This space is weird because its "floor" is not a continuous, smooth surface of asphalt or reinforced-concrete. It is made of an interlocking mesh of steel bars, through which sometimes fairly strong currents of air come rushing (the floor is actually the "ceiling" for part of the subway system). The LT have been performing their anti-death penalty play in this unique location (and at 6:45 PM) for over five years. No -- the SCP simply showed up, ready to perform a play with clear relevance to both the prison industry and little-publicized events of major importance, and proposed that Headline News be used as an introduction to the LT's Not in My Name.

The Surveillance Camera Players chose to put the members of the Living Theater on the spot for a variety of reasons. In addition to being confident that the LT could easily "handle the pressure" and would likely welcome such an offer (especially if it were made by another group of political street performers), the SCP wanted to give the older, larger, more talented, polished and "professional" group a little "love tap." In the experience of SCP Director Art Toad, the LT is difficult to make contact with -- unless one wants to join the group and become part of the production, which means spending about 12 hours in rehearsal sessions. If one has the time and energy to do so, it is easy to get involved in the LT; all you have to do is call its telephone number. But if one wants to work with, but remain autonomous from, the group, calling the LT's number can be quite frustrating. The only people who call you back are appointment secretaries, not the group's directors or performers. Art Toad's e-mailed proposal for a collaboration between the two groups, for example, went unanswered for weeks, indeed, until 9 August 2000, the very day the LT planned to perform Not in My Name (which was scheduled to coincide with a rare double-execution in Gov. George W. Bush's death-penalty-crazed Texas). And so, working both with and against the LT's commitment to chance encounters and spontaneity, the SCP decided to simply show up with a relevant play, propose that it be performed, and see what happened.

The Living Theater welcomed the Surveillance Camera Players with open arms. In addition to allowing the SCP to provide a preface to Not in My Name, the LT actually incorporated Headline News into their performance! That is to say, as the preface was being performed, the members of the LT (some 15 people in all) walked counter-clockwise in a large circle around the SCP. At the center of this silent maelstrom, the three members of the SCP (Gus, Bill and Kate) stood, facing a surveillance camera that was behind and thus over the heads of the members of the audience. To begin the performance, they pointed to the camera for which they were performing. Once Bill raised the title board, the one saying, HEADLINE NEWS, Gus and Kate -- standing on either side of Bill -- held up the play's wicked parodies of commercials for such corporations as Nike, CBS, Pepsi and Chase Manhattan Bank. While this was going on, Bill performed the news itself; he tried to raise and lowering his boards at twice the pace of the other SCPers. Not performed since 24 May 2000, Headline News is longer than ever before. It now includes extra reports on "National News" (a person behind bars) and "Local News" (cops standing behind a barricade that says POLICE STATE), as well as the following basics: "World News" (capitalism in the form of an eagle standing on top of the world); "National news" (an assault rifle); "Local News" (NYC Mayor Giuliani as a grinning, devil-nazi); "Sports" (giant dollar sign); and "Weather" (sign for poison).

Several factors combined to make it impossible for the SCP to get an idea of how they went over. Short on performers, the SCP had no one to hand out its flyers (the ones that include the map of camera locations in the Times Square area) during the performance, and so had to settle for giving a few out before and after the performance was staged. To make matters worse, Monsieur Le Art Toad forgot to bring the board that says THE SURVEILLANCE CAMERA PLAYERS PRESENT. And so no one could know who was in the center of the circling actors dressed in black, no one could tell that there were in fact two different groups performing, instead of a single, very large and subdivided one. Despite all this, the two groups plan to collaborate again sometime soon.

The performance was watched by two police officers, about 20 people, and two media crews, one there to tape and interview the Living Theater, the other (Metro TV, local cable TV channel 70) to tape and interview the SCP.

Contact the Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail

By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998

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