A Talkback/ Q+ A with 600 HIGHWAYMEN Nov 23, 2020
by Alyssa Yeoman
Below is a talkback/Q+A with 600 HIGHWAYMEN and our Artistic Director, Rachel Cook
RACHEL COOK: I’ve been thinking about these themes as part of your work, can you tell me how you relate to these words and if they resonate to you with what you are making now? Collaboration / Collectivity / Being-ness / Belonging
600 HIGHWAYMEN: We think there is some kind of overlap in all of these words that feel right, that resonate. At the same time, there’s an implication with these words -- we tend to associate them with harmony and amicability. Though our work explores questions of collectivity and collaboration, we also are interested in exploring the prickly, sharp edges of those ideas. What is complicated about collaboration? What is charged, electric, joyful – but also challenging about sharing space? The nature of being together is ease as well as friction. And we’re always looking for ways to embrace this joyful and complicated friction.
RC: Can you talk about the agency of a solo voice? And do you see the voice as a narrator, a guide, a companion, or something else?
600 HWM: We tried a lot of different versions of what this “voice” on the phone would be. When we began the process, we started with a real voice (Abby’s voice), but we found that having a real voice on the line seemed to get in the way of what we’re hoping to achieve between the two callers. We ended up landing on a computer-generated voice, which we’ve manipulated and adjusted over several hundred hours to try to get at certain qualities. We’ve composed her voice like we would a piece of music, choosing what words are high and what words are low, where she pauses, where she breathes, etc. Here’s a glimpse of the coding of a simple line of the play:
Not quite. Just thinking. And now? A, you hum that song that you love.
You hum it, to the two of us
600 HWM: We think of the voice as all of those things: narrator, guide and companion. What was most apparent to us as we were crafting and writing exactly her cadence and how she would speak, pause, breath, etc, was that her “personality” couldn’t get in the way of the experience of the callers.
RC: Trilogy, triptychs, and 3-part series, what is about being able to create an idea in three-parts that most interests you?
600 HWM: While the projects are linked, they each have a different tone, spirit, and immediate agenda. This has been tremendously fun for us. It’s very satisfying to have multiple containers for your ideas. In the process of making any work you invariably hit the moment where you have to get rid of an idea you are really attached to. In making a triptych, we’re given the opportunity to shift something from installment to another.
It’s also exciting to be able to work in a way that decentralizes the exact moment of the performance and instead stretches across time, to incorporate the aftermath of a performance, or the in-between-times, the interstitial period between installments. That feels really potent for this moment, and for this project which we hope can chart us back to togetherness.
RC: Can you talk about how as artists you work with audiences as both collaborators and full participants in the performance?
600 HWM: We do make performances where the audiences sit down and watch and aren’t expected to speak! But even in those instances, we have always thought that our primary collaborators are the audience bearing witness. It’s as if the oxygen in the room comes from the attending spectators.
All our projects are dependent on spectatorship. They need a living, breathing audience, and without that gaze, very little occurs.
There’s always a question of willingness. Do you, as an audience member, want to keep this thing moving forward. We all (us included) have horror stories about dreaded audience participation, and I think that’s largely because the versions of this that we have in our head often make the audience member the butt of a joke. We try to both create a structure that provides a kind of support mechanism, in a Sol Lewitt kind of way (just follow the steps and the piece will come to being), but also leave enough space for people to come into the work as they are, from where they are. The audience is not a monolith and no one experiences this piece in quite the same way, not only because of who they are, but also because of who is on the other end of the line.
We try to calibrate a balance between structure and freedom. In early tests of the show, audience members spoke much more freely and loosely. Some audience members would take 5 mins to respond to question, where another audience member would answer the same question in a few words. We found that we liked what came into focus from having a very tight structure. It might leave you wanting to talk more to your partner, to ask them questions, to know more -- but we like that the piece might reveal that desire, but not necessarily “solve” it.