My Barbarian at ICA: The Mandate to Participate

“Who votes for the sanctity of marriage?” Malik asks. “Who votes for the war on women? If we had to write a musical about the war on women, who would the main characters be?”

It’s a brisk autumn Friday, and Malik Gaines and Alex Segade of the performance collective My Barbarian are working with an enthusiastic group from the University of Pennsylvania, doing exercises and playing games that will culminate in a public performance at ICA on Sunday.
Miranda: Sitting around on FridayA

Photo: Tiala Glabau

The group sprawls on the wooden floor tossing around ideas, both narrative and political. They talk about equal pay, “legitimate rape,” and Hillary Clinton’s pant suits. Malik says, “Let’s try a war-on-women machine. Start with a motion and a sound you can repeat.”

“I’ve got one.” A young woman with long hair jumps up on the stage and mimes knocking on a glass ceiling.

“Anyone want to add on?” Malik asks.

Pretty soon the whole group is up there, stomping, pointing, knocking, and groaning. “Go!” one says, and another says “Stay!” One accuses, “Slut,” while another begs, “Aspirin?” Together they make a lively, noisy, funny, animatronic organism, growing more complex and increasing in volume until Malik calls, “Freeze!” Everyone takes turns demonstrating their bit amid much laughter. Next they construct an “Apologizing for America” machine (eerie and solemn) and then a machine for “Drone Attacks”—this one frenetic with drones zooming all over the stage.

“What if drones fell in love with people?” Malik asks.

“I was born to kill but learned to love!” one of the drones, an art history student, cries.

“Let’s animate it one more time,” Malik suggests, and they do.

Welcome to Post-Living Ante-Action Theater. Serious and irreverent, political and participatory, PoLAAT (its name refers to two important avant-garde theater collectives of the past) is a collaborative project that My Barbarian has staged all over the world, engaging audiences with a seductive combination of spectacle, politics, camp, and critique. In a little while, the group will improvise scenes literally ripped from the headlines, using newspaper stories as the basis of skits, some of which they will refine and perform on Sunday. One will be about ambiguous election laws in Pennsylvania; another will concern cheerleading safety.

This first afternoon of the three-day workshop, the group seems tentative. They throw out ideas with some effort, laugh nervously as they organize scenes, shift positions. But as the scenes are performed, games are played, and pizza is eaten, everyone relaxes. With Malik and Alex’s guidance, you can see them learning to trust each other.

By Sunday, with a storm brewing outside and members of the public filing in, the performers have found their groove.
Miranda: Hours-of-the-day-2A

Photo: Tiala Glabau

They are lying on the floor as we enter ICA’s auditorium and take our seats around the walls. A voice is chanting: “Six a.m., seven a.m., eight a.m…” Bodies begin to get up, to mime brushing teeth, texting, eating. Characters chatter into invisible phones, drive invisible cars, change channels on invisible TVs, type. A woman in a red dress does jumping jacks. We watch the day go by in a hypnotic whoosh of time until, before we know it, it’s evening again. People lie down in their invisible beds and the room grows still—though around one a.m. two of them get up in their separate spaces and dance. On the wall, a screens light up: “PoLAAT: Born to Kill, Learn to Love,” it says. The joke, tossed out during the workshop Friday, has become a catchphrase, summing up some essence of the work the group has done, a mixture of irony and sincerity, provocation and humor.

One of the five principles of PoLAAT is “Mandate to Participate,” which Alex described on Friday as “friendly and coercive at the same time.” The workshop group wants the audience to join with them, and they invite us in, gently at first, but with increasing persistence. Malik goes around with a microphone, asking us our names and our astrological signs. We watch some of the scenes I saw being developed on Friday, listen to some songs, and enjoy a fabulous costume parade. Then Malik asks for volunteers for an act of levitation, and two people are passed back and forth over a row of actors.
Miranda: LevitationA

Photo: Tiala Glabau

After that feat, Alex wants us to all get up and try out different kinds of walks. We mostly do. We circle the room like gorillas, like queens of England, like Hurricane Sandy. It’s not too scary—at least not until we find ourselves playing a game called Binary, crossing to one side of the room or the other to declare our allegiance to an eclectic assortment of objects, qualities, aesthetics.

Peanut butter, or jelly?

People divide, right and left.

Prefer to live in the past or the future?

We divide again.
Miranda: BinaryA

Photo: Tiala Glabau

Spiritualist or Satanist? Cops or robbers? Those who identify as part of the minority and those who identify as part of the majority?

“Theater can be a model for the forms we hope to create,” Malik says, as almost everybody crosses to the minority side. “Each show is a rehearsal for a better life.” He and Alex are smiling now. They look pleased with their latest PoLAAT experiment, and with this disparate group of initiates who, having met only two days ago, have come together and made something new. Who have entertained and provoked us. Who have drawn us into their performance and gently coerced us into—literally—taking sides. Who have put on a show.

My Barbarian’s residency was sponsored by ICA and Penn’s Theatre Arts Program, and was supported in part by a grant from the Provost of the University of Pennsylvania.

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