At a Portland (Ore.) City Council meeting a decade ago, a local environmental activist concluded his remarks by dumping a load of garbage he’d collected onto the floor of the council chambers. Whatever the impact this stunt had on council members, it immediately moved Aaron Landsman, an out-of-town artist who was in the audience by chance. It suggested to him a trove of untapped theatrical potential lurking beneath the tedium of local government meetings.
Landsman began attending similar meetings across the country, and along with collaborators Mallory Catlett and Jim Findlay, he would spend the next several years developing and presenting a participatory performance work that the trio called “City Council Meeting.” It was an effort to make art “with” communities, and in doing so to investigate how creativity and rigorous inquiry could lead to a more complete and nuanced look at the structures of local government.
Now Landsman and Catlett have turned their experience and related research into a book, “The City We Make Together: City Council Meeting’s Primer for Participation,” and they are developing a companion curriculum that they hope will take their concept into schools across the country. They recently spoke about these efforts with Governing Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson.
Governing: Let’s start with the performance piece. What led to the two of you coming together to create “City Council Meeting”?
Mallory Catlett: We shared a certain set of political beliefs, as well as an interest in seeing what can happen when you take performance into different kinds of spaces. It’s interesting when the audience has more ownership over the space, as opposed to a theater, where the artists appear to have the control or power. By flipping that, you force people to communicate differently. The challenge was to bring the conventions of a city council meeting into performance. The piece is about participation, a thing that we all grapple with in civic life and in life in general.
Aaron Landsman: This project started when I was dragged to a local government meeting in Portland, Ore., while I was there working on another show. I was already interested in the theater of everyday life. For example, what happens at a dinner table that’s theatrical. I was wrestling with that sort of question at the time, and though the meeting was really boring at first, it turned out to be really amazing theater. A local activist dumped a bag of trash in front of the council. That became an anchor point for our production. The idea of putting actual transcripts of a local government meeting on stage seemed both compelling, but it seemed like an impossible thing to make interesting theatrically because, along with these occasional exciting parts, there are long boring periods to sit through.
Governing: So someone dumping a load of trash in the middle of a government meeting really changed your life.
Aaron Landsman: It was about an hour into the meeting that he got up to speak. Beige suit, beige shoes, beige briefcase. He was in his 60s, really polite and had a prepared testimony. Then he dumped a bag of heroin works and used condoms and dirty diapers on the table and said, “I pick these up every day in the kid zone. What are you going to do to clean up the city?” A council member said, “You just created a public health hazard. Now we have to clear the room.” And the activist said, “Well, you just made my point better than I ever could have.” At that point, I realized that there was theater to be found here. I started going to meetings wherever I was.
Governing: As you went from meeting to meeting across the country, how often did you encounter theater of that sort?
Aaron Landsman: More and more. I don’t know if that’s a good thing, honestly, because local meetings are getting more and more fractious, especially school board meetings. There was always one moment that was at least somewhat theatrical. Sometimes we’d challenge ourselves to attend a random council meeting and then incorporate material from that meeting no matter what.
Mallory Catlett: The point is to give the people sitting there a different kind of frame. The composer John Cage said that if you want to see theater, sit at a park bench and put a frame in front of your face. Once you have that frame, you’re suddenly seeing an intentionality and a formality to everything that moves in and out of it. “City Council Meeting” is not about picking great moments and putting them together. It’s about doing things that ask the audience to think and to ask questions as they watch. Why do I feel bored? What’s going on with me? How is this meeting structured? It gives the appearance of wanting people to participate, but at the same time it completely undermines that. They do the fun stuff first and then it gets really boring. They hope that people will leave before the contentious stuff happens. Nobody’s there to experience all that back and forth.
We studied that form and then developed prompts and roles for our audience designed to make them question and reflect. Why do they want to participate? Why do they not want to participate? What are the obstacles? What are the invitations? We weren’t just trying to make a replica of a city council meeting. We weren’t interested in people having cathartic experiences because then they’d just go back to their lives. We wanted them to develop a skill set and an understanding so that they would go to an actual city council meeting and stay connected and engaged. We wanted them to have their cathartic moment in the real city council meeting. We’re trying to give people a different set of questions that can change their presence and what they get out of this.
Aaron Landsman: We went to a meeting in Tempe, Ariz., that seemed boring on the surface. There was controversy about whether the city was going to keep paying for ficus trees along Mill Avenue. Most of the people who got up to speak felt that the trees were a symbol of downtown. They wanted to keep them. But others pointed out that it costs about $10,000 per tree to irrigate them because they don’t belong in the desert. Then engineers suggested another tree that looks like the ficus but that belongs in the region and would be cheaper to maintain. But we dug deeper. We talked to people in city government, people with the tourism bureau and people that ran a shelter for unhoused people. They had all noticed that unhoused people were taking shelter from the sun under the ficus trees. It seemed clear to us that people don’t want to talk about the intractable problems of homelessness in Tempe, so they talk about ficus trees. People in government would say, “No one knows what to do about homelessness, so we stick with the ficus.” We try to use that in the show to help participants see those with whom they share their city in a different way.
In an unrelated bit of public comment performance art, electric scooter advocates bring performance art to the public comment period of a West Hollywood City Council meeting.
Governing: “City Council Meeting” uses material from actual meetings, but there’s a creative side to the product as well.
Aaron Landsman: Right. Some elements of our script were from transcripts, but others were original writing. Some of it came from interviews. Council members told us in interviews how at times in a meeting nobody really knows what’s going on. Staffers are whispering in their ears, reminding them what they are for or against. Maybe the council members haven’t read the entire 250-page budget, so their staffer is reminding them of their position. So we added staffers to our production. They shepherd the audience through the process. And we have two big video monitors off to the side of the council table. Our video starts out simple, a lot like a closed circuit or local cable access TV version of a council meeting but becomes more and more purposeful as the show goes on. We embellish things a bit with closeups of staffers whispering to council members. It begins to look a little suspicious. It is designed to make people question whether they are being influenced by the ways that the media portrays a government meeting.
Mallory Catlett: We enlivened people’s interest by letting them choose how they want to participate. They could choose to be on the city council, for example, or maybe a staffer. Each different role had a different orientation or a different kind of instruction. Each had a different frame. One way you get them to reflect upon what they’re seeing is to get them to realize that it depends on how they choose to participate. That’s the way life generally works. Your level of participation is going to frame your experience. It’s interesting for us as creative people because we’re not just talking to an audience that has one frame. It’s like having four different audiences with four different frames. And it’s not only about how each frame experiences the piece, but how they interact.
In another unrelated bit of city council theater and cosplay, a YouTuber dressed in scrubs performs a COVID-19 vaccine rap at Dallas City Council Meeting.
Governing: What led you to turn “City Council Meeting” into a book?
Aaron Landsman: We don’t tour or perform the work anymore. We did five cities, and it became a community organizing thing where we would spend time in each city doing interviews, building the local part of the performance, meeting council members and working with the presenter to get a really invested audience in the room. We were able to do this because we had gotten lucky with grant funding. That allowed us to not just parachute into a town but to maybe spend 12 or 15 weeks over the course of two or three years, building trust, attending churches, talking to people and really getting to know what the community wanted to ask. Once the funding ran out, we wrote the book and began to build a curriculum.
Governing: What’s your hope for the book?
Aaron Landsman: This book and this project can provide a vehicle for asking questions about issues that are plaguing or exciting us. We can use the vehicle of this project, for example, to ask why one city is struggling and another isn’t when they’re literally 20 minutes apart. Which has the truer democratic access to power? Why does it take less to get elected somewhere where there’s less participation? What does that mean? There are lots of questions that younger people can train their minds on by putting a frame around a particular set of interactions that they might normally take for granted.
For us, the charge is to get involved. The original title of this book was “No One Is Qualified,” which is the flip side of “Everyone Is Qualified.” Plato’s idea of democracy is that it’s dangerous because it’s a decision among equals as to which one is going to lead others. On some level, we are seeing both the benefits and problems of that playing out. If we really decide we believe in a democracy, then we have to decide that everyone’s qualified to lead. That means we really need to get people who take seriously these larger questions about community and identity, about who we are and what we want the future to be, about how we care for the planet or just the city. We need people to be engaged and to be involved. That’s the hope.
You can also hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the Governing podcast, “Listening to America.” Clay’s most recent book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing firstname.lastname@example.org or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.