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Crafting 'The Great American Drama' Night by Night

The Neo-Futurists present an ever-changing performance based on audience feedback.

Photo by Hunter Canning

Artists across the country in the past two months have been struggling with how to respond to the election of Donald Trump, and works of theater have sprung up across New York City trying to do just that. But the most successful of those performances may in fact be one small experimental piece of theater that was not even meant to focus on the election at all.

The Great American Drama is an experiment in trying to create a successful show (or to "make theater great again") using audience feedback. Creator Connor Sampson began collecting survey responses months ago from theatergoers asking what elements of a show are most important to them, what they would pay to see onstage, how they believe a show can become profitable and more. From those answers, collaborators Sampson, Nicole Hill, Daniel McCoy and Katy-May Hudson constructed a series of scenes to give the people what they want. The piece is directed by Sampson and Greg Taubman.

This formula of short skits, a constantly changing repertoire and frequent audience participation will sound familiar to many fans of downtown experimental theater—this is a New York Neo-Futurists production. But unlike The Neo Show (formerly known as Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind), The Great American Drama is a meta-theatrical reflection on what we as both audience and performer value in theater, and its value in a contemporary culture that so often dismisses it.

Survey respondents asked for a dizzying array of items, from the general ("to be transported") to the bizarrely specific ("a fountain of period blood"), and from the practical ("under 90 minutes") to the impossible. All the same, the responses are projected on the back wall of the theater, discussed, and then performed. At the end of the show, the performers ask for feedback, and those responses are then incorporated into the next performance.

As would be expected for a show that opened on Inauguration weekend, The Great American Drama has much to do with the recent presidential election, and with moving forward now that it is over. As Sampson openly admits at one point during the performance, this show—which has been in development for several years—was originally imagined for a world in which Hillary Clinton would be president, and in which the definition of Americanness would not be questioned nearly as much as it is now. As it stands today, the performers work to reaffirm the voices of all Americans and their right to see themselves represented onstage.

That doesn't just mean having a diverse cast, either. A row of designated audience participation seats allows anyone to become part of the show at any moment, whether that means critiquing an actor's performance, reading out more suggested prompts for the performers or joining a brief immersive theater experience. The entire audience, however, does get to participate in a few smaller ways: writing their own suggestions on index cards as they enter the theater, being asked in one moment to stand if certain statements resonate as true to them, voting on the overall success of the performance and more.

And as for the scenes created based on those audience suggestions? They alternate between serious and humorous, well-rehearsed and frantic. Some of the most well-received and most powerful moments are the solemn ones: the four actors each read a piece they wrote in September capturing that snapshot in time. Sampson manipulates the bodies and voices of the other performers to tell his life story that ends with his proposing to his boyfriend. Hill and Sampson reveal increasingly personal truths as they remove articles of clothing. Hill sings a breathtaking "Soul Bird."

But humor also has an important part to play in the show. We see the first sixty seconds or so of Hamilton, perhaps the most common response to the survey—likely due to that question about how to become profitable—before the music is shut down due to Fair Use restrictions. An audience member is "seduced" in a sexy but also cute fashion. And these scenes tend to be the most fun and effective when multiple prompts are combined, like the miniature five act verse drama about the 2016 presidential election, performed by puppets.

This show would be impossible without a great deal of honesty, compassion and joy on the part of its actors, and Sampson, Hill, McCoy and Hudson do not disappoint there. Together, the group creates a genuine sense of community that brings the audience in as part of the show. And musician Lijie is far more than she appears; in addition to frequently taking the stage during musical numbers, Lijie is a performer in her own right, adding a cool and contained energy to the other actors' franticness. 

The Great American Drama is by definition a work-in-progress, and there are definitely still improvements to be made. There is perhaps too much explaining of the central concept of the show, particularly at the beginning, rather than trusting the audience to figure it out as they go along. Clarity is sometimes a concern, during the scenes in which there is a lot of running around and when a distorted voiceover is utilized. But overall, as the audience voted at the end of the evening, the play is certainly a success.

If there is any common theme in what the Neo-Futurist audiences requested for this show, it is a desire for authenticity. In this art form that will never look as "realistic" as film, what audiences want to see in theater is something they can recognize as true in a deeper sense. Perhaps that is the reason for and the goal of theater going forward, to present the truths that no other form of art can do. It's worth a try, at least.

The Great American Drama plays at the Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at A.R.T. New York Theatres through February 5.

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