Agitational Performance, Now and Then

At the protests against the World Trade Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle in November 1999, leftist activists took to the streets with a vigor and an effectiveness the United States has not seen for a long time. For many this activity heralded the dawn of a new era of political activism in America. And given that the WTO events were followed up by large-scale protests at both the Democratic and Republican national conventions, that prediction may yet be borne out. One of the most striking features of the Seattle protests was the extent to which they were imbued with elements of performance [...]

The goals of theatrical activism today remain the same as they have been through-out the [20th] century: to get a clear message to the public in a way that is both entertaining and persuasive. However, today's activists compete with a barrage of entertainments that are easily accessible all day long [...]

As a result, today's activists tend to favor the indirect means of ironic statement to the direct means of didacticism as a way of conveying their messages. Activists now need to master the use of technologies and advertising skills in order to compete with the mainstream media for the public's attention. Nonetheless, they continue to use low-tech theatrical forms like puppetry and street theater to provide a cultural alternative to the mainstream, high-tech corporate world [...]

Like RTS [Reclaim the Streets], the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) also addresses the policing of public space. They are, however, less interested in calling in the news cameras than exposing the cameras that already silently pervade our everyday lives. [The] Surveillance Camera Players began with the idea of high-lighting the ubiquity of surveillance cameras by performing for them. Their first performances included a five-minute version of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi and short pieces by Beckett, Poe, and Orwell. Since surveillance cameras are not allowed to record sound, the players' presentations relied on pantomime, dramatic action, and props. In part, they hoped to provide entertainment for the guards, who were probably bored sitting and watching the cameras continuously. Actor, author, and organizer Bill Brown points out that performing for the cameras made sense, since "the cameras turn public spaces into theatrical space by their [very] presence."

The players' current work focuses more on original pieces by Brown that address the political issues involved in the constant surveillance of public space. One performance for a camera at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral had the players praying to a camera as if it were the eye of God, mimicking various religious gestures. On election night the players staged their first mobile performance, which moved about from one camera to another. With Rockefeller Center as their backdrop, decked out as it was in American flags and flanked by two huge television monitors broadcasting election results, the Surveillance Camera Players moved around the plaza holding up to the cameras a series of posters that read, "The Surveillance Camera Players Present," "It's OK Officer," "Just Going to Work," "On My Way Home," "Getting Something to Eat," and "Going Shopping." The most impressive addition to the performance is a leaflet for interested passersby with a map of the 129 surveillance cameras in the Rockefeller Center area. For Brown, the proliferation of surveillance cameras has the potential of stripping us of what is human. Through low-tech outdoor performance that exposes the cameras, the Surveillance Camera Players stand up for human rights in a technologized world [...]

[Written by Claudia Orenstein and published in Theater, Volume 31, Number 3 in November 2001 by the Yale School of Drama and the Yale Repertory Theatre.]

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NY Surveillance Camera Players