THIS SUMMER, artist Lars Jan began rehearsals for his staging of Joan Didion’s essay “The White Album.” Like the essay, Jan’s stage work is about the nausea and swelter of 1968 — a swirl of student and worker protests, the rise of the Black Panthers, and class and generation clashes, all watched by global audiences. Jan spoke with theater historian Kate Bredeson, whose book Occupying the Stage: The Theater of May ’68 comes out from Northwestern University Press in November, about the theater and protest of 1968, and how both are approaching this topic in 2018. They discussed the role of theater in activism, and their interest — as artists and scholars (Bredeson teaches at Reed, Jan at CalArts) — in thinking about 1968 in the current political moment. Jan traces his longstanding focus on Didion’s essay and his early impressions of 1968 and how these collide in his present stage research. He and Bredeson share a fascination with what Bredeson calls the Theater of May ’68 — the way theaters and artists invented new ways of making theater as a way to engage in political action during the May events in France. Jan and Bredeson touch on the month-long occupation of the Odéon theater in Paris during the French May ’68 protests, and also the July 1968 world premiere of The Living Theatre’s Paradise Now in Avignon. With 1968 in mind, Jan’s The White Album recites Didion’s essay verbatim, while provoking the roles of spectator and spectacle. The White Album is co-commissioned by Center Theatre Group and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and will premiere at the International Festival of Firsts in Pittsburgh in October. On a break from rehearsals during his artist residency at UCross in Wyoming, Jan spoke with Bredeson about their mutual longstanding passion for 1968, theater, and the path toward a possible better world.
KATE BREDESON: You said that you’ve been thinking about 1968 for a while. What was the initial draw? When did you first hear about the events of 1968?
LARS JAN: I heard about 1968 in high school, and it was around the same time that I read Joan Didion’s “The White Album,” which is the piece of writing that I’ve returned to most in my life. It’s a piece of writing whose meaning has changed quite profoundly for me over the years. I’m really interested in the first sentence: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” As a young person, who wasn’t quite an artist yet but was starting to head that way, what I thought it meant was that we’re agents of meaning because we create stories. As I’ve gotten older, the other edge of that has become, “We create intricate delusions to get by.” I think both of these things are true. Didion walks that tightrope in the essay in a really beautiful way. 1968 — and the late ’60s in general — is when a lot of young people were really the engines of political and social movements on many fronts. Their youth was part of what allowed them to ask questions that other people hadn’t really asked before. At the same time, it also lent them a quality of naïveté. And Didion’s essay, itself written in the years following ’68, reminds me of how, when I look back at the ’60s, I see all this potential energy, all this promise. Then it kind of evaporates. It feels like so much potential progress just hit a wall. And I never really understood why. I’ve been scanning the news and being a frightened human in the last few years, thinking about something like Ferguson or Occupy or some of the momentum around Bernie Sanders. It seems like those movements were closer to the movements of the late ’60s than anything that had happened in the intervening years.
I agree. When I started working on my book in the early 2000s, when we went to war in Iraq, it was coming from a place of looking around and asking, “Why aren’t we shutting the country down on a large scale in the way that happened in the ’60s?” So my continued inquiry into 1968 came out of a place of frustration and feeling like we could do more in the face of war and oppression. I agree with you about Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and some of the recent activity in the past couple years feeling a bit like the momentum in the ’60s — the current ICE protests remind me of this too. This year there’s been a steady stream of articles comparing 2018 and 1968, because of the renewed interest in putting-your-body-on-the-line protest.
I think the reason why, in response to The White Album, I made an image of riot police in the shape of the numbers 1968 is because I think a lot more people are going to be protesting in the coming years than have in a long time. I think we’re going to face what a lot of the protestors did then. For example, the San Francisco State College strike is a protest that Didion mentions briefly in “The White Album.” What the students found is that a bunch of police came on the campus and started hitting kids in the head. And once you realize the powers that be are willing to inflict violence on a body of people who are gathering peaceably in space together — and realize that the powers that be regard people speaking their minds and gathering together peaceably as a threat — I think the consciousness that comes from that encounter is something that we’re staring down the barrel of right now.
I want to go back to the question about audience. Given that audience was such a preoccupation of the artists of the Theater of May ’68, how are you thinking about audience as you approach making your work?
The way the show works is that there’s a room with a big glass wall on stage, which is sealed, and inside that room a performance, made up of audience members, happens. Outside that room, Mia Barron is performing “The White Album” word for word. So the other audience that’s in the theater and sitting in seats, they’re seeing Mia perform, and behind her they’re seeing this kind of house party start to grow. It starts with a couple people and some more people come in, and there’s some dancing, and maybe there’s some conflict and some other things happen that you might imagine happening at a party. I’m taking the late ’60s and putting it into a parable of a party. I’m interested in there being multiple levels of spectator experience inside the controlled environment of a theater space. So, in this production, there are two different shows that are happening at the same time, and both audiences are aware of one another. Toward the end of the work, the space becomes porous, and there’s a conversation that’s initiated between the audiences. We’re going to build our audiences by offering free tickets to groups of young people wherever we perform. I hope to instigate a generational conversation that will be played out through the audience configuration. I want to know what can actually be transferred from the past to the present that can be a tool that we use to continue the work of the most vital questions that were raised in 1968 and continue today. I would like the show to be a space in which that theatrical and experiential conversation could potentially happen.
One of the things that I’d be interested to hear you talk about, which I’m interested in too, is this relationship between art and activism. In her book, May ’68 and Its Afterlives, Kristin Ross looks at the way May ’68 has been interpreted and how official narratives of ’68 strip the events of their violence, their relationship to the Algerian War, and other omissions. It’s a reminder that it wasn’t all “The Age of Aquarius.” But she also says that May ’68 was not “an artistic moment.” During my research, I realized that many people view the Odéon occupation as this frivolous carnival, and the work of the theater artists is left out of the narratives. It couldn’t really be serious because it’s theater, right? I mean people are very into the May ’68 posters, but the actual theater and performance is something that’s been left out of the long view histories of May ’68, which is where I’m hoping to make an intervention with my book. What are you thinking about in terms of making theater as part of your activist practice? Can you talk about what you see as the role of theater in what’s going on in the world?
Bodies in space: that’s our specialty in both theater and in protest. I was reminded of this when I watched Spike Lee’s film of Roger Guenveur Smith’s A Huey P. Newton Story — a show I saw in person when I was a student. And he says something along the lines of, “Like you, I’m a lot less active than I used to be.” He’s talking about protest, not jogging. He’s talking about pushing, probing, and provoking the system. Sometimes I hear people complaining about theater; they say, “It’s an echo chamber, it’s a bunch of people who are progressive and intellectual and there’s no ground to be gained there.” But we all have a really long way to go in terms of changing our own behavior to align with our ideals — which is the hardest thing. I think that’s something that can happen in the theater. The artist’s work is to move the energy around in a room among large numbers of people, just as in protests. I think of my work as a counterpoint to our increasingly screen-based lives. I have an inclination toward technology, but ultimately I’m interested in live audiences. And more so than audiences, I’m interested in live gathering in any form. I lived in Japan for a while when I was in my 20s and studied Bunraku. I learned about this form — and I’ve never seen this and I don’t even know if it’s a good translation — but it’s a festival where the intent, as I understand it, was to get the people who were watching the parade to join. Which reminds me a lot of the Living Theatre’s 1968 production of Paradise Now. The song the Japanese festivalgoers sing is something like, “The dancing fools and the watching fools are the same, so why not dance?” I’m trying to move people from watching to participating, and that’s why I’m making this show in a theater. I’m also trying to plant a seed for thinking about that transition in the broader culture, and I’m also just trying to do that myself.
Paradise Now ends with: “The theatre is in the street. The street belongs to the people. Free the theater. Free the street. Begin.” The scholar Miriam Felton-Dansky writes about Paradise Now as an example of what she calls “viral performance,” in which, like the way Antonin Artaud talks about The Plague, the goal is to infect the audience, and the power that theater holds to be able to do that in a way that our screen-world cannot. This idea of theater leaving the theaters and inviting people along is very intoxicating. Which makes me want ask you if your show is going to end with a street parade …
Feel free to ask because I have no idea! I’m working with an audience on stage to sculpt the performance with them but I’m also trying to empower them and create something that takes on a life of its own. I believe in controlled chaos, and one of the goals is to figure out if it’s possible to pass on some of the energy that I feel to a small group of people that are in this immersive performance on stage, and then to see whether they’re interested in passing that on to the bigger audience outside. I’m also interested in failure. I think there’s something to be learned from trying and not achieving, as we’ve been discussing.
There’s a lot of debate about the successes and failures of ’68. Have you had any experiences of people who were around in ’68, who have expressed interest in the work or have contested your vision of that time?
I was formed by people who were making art and whose personalities as artists were formed in the late ’60s — a lot of my mentors in particular. A good friend of mine, who was in his late teens and early 20s during the protests at the Democratic National Convention in ’68, doesn’t like Joan Didion, and he doesn’t like the essay. He was saying, “I’m all about the things you’re talking about. Why use this essay as a lens to talk about those things? Because she’s not really a champion of the most interesting things that happened at that time. She had blinders on and she missed a lot.” My answer to him was that she’s pound-for-pound one of the best writers, ever. She’s also an American icon. And it feels important right now to connect to a woman’s voice. I think she is admittedly a fallible, unreliable narrator. And she admits it. I appreciate the fragility, questioning, and self-doubt. She knows that she doesn’t get everything just right, because who does? Every narrator is unreliable, and this is true of artists and historians. But I think it’s something about her ability in this very short format to ask these huge questions about the role of the artist, about how to live in a time that doesn’t make any sense. One of the most alluring motifs of the essay is the idea of the stranger at the door. How do you open the door to a person you don’t know, and welcome them as opposed to reacting with fear? That’s a question I ask myself, and I’m struggling with, and I want this work to be about that, and I actually think that 1968 has everything to do with that question.
There is that line in the essay, “I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.” There’s something in that essay about the feeling — and I’ve heard this in other contexts too particularly in the lead up to the summer of 1969 and the Manson murders — that there was a particular saturated feeling. Theater artist Judith Malina says in the summer of ’68, she felt like they were “on the brink of a volcanic revolution.” And I’m interested in the combination of exhilaration and unease. And if there’s a giant feeling of being unsettled how do you open your door?
Right now, this idea of home, and safety, it’s not about Vietnam, it’s about down the block. We’re still living in that place through a different lens. It’s not exactly like Charles Manson; it’s a lot worse than Manson. There’s so many Mansons and they all have guns.
We have active shooter drills at the college where I teach. Every time we produce a play in our department, we have to do evacuation plans with the students and the ushers and it’s terrifying. That constant threat …
I think part of the strategy is to reinforce the terror. That’s why, in spite of the mania, I want to take a leap of faith and open the door and find a way to be welcoming in spite of some probability that things might go the other way. It’s like I just want to dance as opposed to watch. That’s what my company’s adaptation of “The White Album” is about. I want to dance, to participate. That’s the direction that I want to head.
I want to head there too.