“What if tonight, instead of leaving, you just stayed here? What if we all just stopped trying, as a group, forever?” Miranda July asks us, the audience.
We put it to a vote while July implores us to “vote with the reckless part of your heart, vote like you’re drunk.”
Fifteen minutes earlier I had entered UCLA’s Freud Playhouse to view July’s latest performance piece, New Society. At that point, all I knew about the show is that it involves audience participation, and I am in no way a participator.
My lack of knowledge about the show is actually a testament to its former viewers, since it has already had successful runs in New York and San Francisco earlier this year—after which attendees and reviewers were asked not to reveal the intricacies of the performance so as to preserve the candid experience for future dates. I take my seat amongst grandparents, hipsters, and Riot Grrrls alike. July’s fans seem to transcend any particular genre of human, just as her art (films, books, performances) similarly resists categorization.
If Miranda July makes something, I consume it. When I read her short story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You years ago as a beginning fiction student, I was thrilled to discover that a writer could, in fact, make something this odd, and that this oddness could illuminate reality so lucidly. The sentiment, of course, continues as I decide to subscribe to this new reality she proposes, and I feel my apprehension of participating alleviate—oh god, what if we could all stop caring as a group forever, what if we could be okay with doing nothing—and let myself be consumed by the next hour and a half in our New Society.
What happens is something I should have been able to infer from the title of the show: July, our fearless leader, guides us through the creation of our own society. A musician is brought to the stage to play our new anthem (“Don’t go home/stay with me/new society, new society”), a flagmaker is selected, constitutional law specialists compose our laws, and doctors are given strips of July’s blouse to tie on their arms, identifying them as our medics. We are instructed to rip up our programs and use the pieces as our new currency. Despite our best intentions, a caste system forms. Some try to escape; they return, and reassure July that “nothing matters out there.” Intermission consists of a bazaar, where we sell the contents of our pockets and take a yoga class (this is L.A., after all).
Perhaps the most compelling component of the performance is the seemingly effortless way that July inserts each of us into the narrative. We make rules, we share photos from our former lives, we read letters to those on the outside. Couples break up, and come together again, in a kissing parade that seems to point to those preexisting relationships outside the theatre walls.
The lights darken to indicate the passing nights, July offers us periodic updates on the status of our society, and in this way, 20 years pass. We are gently guided to the conclusion that we must recommit to lives on the outside, despite their messiness. And yet, at the end of the performance, when July asks the audience to once again vote, this time on whether we are to leave the theatre and face the world—“After twenty years of doing nothing, you are desperate to try… and you will all die trying,” she reminds us—I find that my hand is not among those raised. I am not yet ready to leave this space have made together, a space that is not being out there, in the world, trying.
“I am so honored to have spent so much of my life with you,” she tells us, and the feeling is, of course, mutual.
I spoke with July a couple days after she wrapped her final performance in Los Angeles.
I became totally sold and on-board with the journey when you asked us to all “stop trying as a group, forever.” What does this everyday trying look like for you?
I guess the first thing that popped into my head is fear. I feel like there are two aspects to my almost compulsive level of trying: that level of workaholic-ism, or whatever you want to call it; and one is really creative and has grace, and kind of saved me, and the other side is kind of fear-driven and a form of anxiety, kind of an inability to feel okay not working. And we could dig deeper there—I’m working on it in therapy—but I think I use the word “trying” instead of “working” because it speaks to the anxiety more, but also by the end of the show, I think it can also speak to hope, like, we all want to die trying. And you take that away, and it’s quite sad. That’s actually sort of the human condition; if it weren’t for trying, there wouldn’t be any art or anything.
Which brings me to a follow-up question: Can we ever have a reprieve from that kind of trying? In the performance, even as a group, we are trying to construct something that will “save us” from our trying, but in many ways what we make mimics the outside reality.
Right. I guess the reason why I start the show by “forgetting” the show is to kind of wipe clean the idea that there’s a best product or best outcome from trying. Instead, what else might there be if you lost the effort of your trying? What might you be left with? It’s not a real question. There’s no way to really live it or prove it or even really think about it, but to me it set up a good open space for the audience to really be present in.
The participatory element of the performance made me feel like I was part of a candid process; creating my destiny along with the rest of the audience, and yet, this performance has a narrative arc comparable to a novel or film. Has your working in many different mediums meant that they have bled into each other? Is there something to be gained from the participatory element that you can’t do in books and films?
I’ve been performing longer than I’ve done anything else, and after I made my first feature, there was sort of a question of—performing helped me a lot to the path of making this feature, but why would I continue doing it now, given that I have a much bigger audience and another way to tell stories that’s so effective? What I came to is that the reason to perform is that you’re really there with people and you get the medium of the present moment, and the audience itself. And you don’t have that in a book or a movie.
I saw the show alone, which in some ways felt ideal, as though I could be anyone in this new society, and they could all be anyone as well. I’m curious if, or how, you intended for the show to deal with the idea of authenticity—because the room is full of strangers, when an audience member is inserted into the narrative, we accept it as authentic, and each of us kind of recreates ourself to all fit this new narrative.
I didn’t consciously think about authenticity because I’m having people play parts in some cases—like reading letters that have been pre-written—and in some cases they become other characters, so I think it’s a shifting thing. If I’m interested in a kind of authenticity it doesn’t come about from some pure idea of being yourself. I think playing a role, especially in this kind of context, can reveal just as much, or more, and can set people free to release things that they’re not totally in control of, and I like that.
Is some of the value of live performance derived from ephemerality? I felt sad at the end of the show, knowing that in actual space and time, I was in a room with these people, and that I soon would not be.
I did (the show) four nights in a row the other week, and afterward I was so, so sad. In a way that I didn’t have anything to say about it, I didn’t have a thing I was sad about, and then my husband finally saw it, and he was like “Oh, no wonder you’re sad, you’re not pulling your punches there, you’re going after some of the sadder things in life.” And I was like, oh, right! I can’t really do the show without being incredibly vulnerable. It’s a good thing, the sadness, but I was kind of relieved to have someone point out to me that it’s sad.
Did the connection with the audience change over the course of the performance’s run?
It’s just been different in every place and every time. I once did a show on Halloween, and that was kind of horrible because everybody is already performing in a way.
You’ve asked the audiences and reviewers at previous runs of the performance not to reveal much about it online. Is it difficult to trust the audience in this way?
I didn’t like to be in that position, of trying to control people, it was unappealing but a necessary thing to do. I hated having that conversation with each venue, like "hey guess what, there’s not going to be any press!" And I gave these preview interviews that revealed nothing. I was actually kind of impressed that it worked (other than a Boston Globe review of a preview show that ran before the press embargo).
Maybe it’s also valuable because it might talk people out of seeing the show if they think they might have to participate. I’m not much of a participator.
Does part of the value of performance art come from the audience having no idea what will happen?
I don’t think it matters that much; it is particular to this show. Every other show I’ve done I’ve publicized like it was a movie, and it’s fine, and I actually kind of like the idea of normalizing something that is a little scary to people. I like them knowing, okay, this is like a story.