Ever fancy yourself a politician? Perhaps a much-beloved mayor, or a city councilor staunchly shepherding your hometown along? If so, seize the chance (no campaign necessary) at City Council Meeting, a new participatory performance created by Mallory Catlett, Jim Findlay, and Aaron Landsman. Produced by HERE Arts Center but staged in a selection of NYC high schools, the piece replicates a real gathering of local government—starring you, the audience, reading verbatim transcripts of actual assemblies from towns across the United States.
This sounded like a great idea. We’d appreciate the texture of participatory democracy by immersing ourselves in its daily workings: awards ceremonies for years of near-invisible public service, ratification of meeting minutes, testimony from merchants about the value of the ficus trees downtown. Sitting in the fluorescent-lit auditorium, watching fellow spectators take to the podium to impersonate politicians with great seriousness, was quite amusing.
The transcripts, from meetings in North Dakota, Arizona, California, and Oregon, among other places, contained a mixture of entertaining procedure and colorful cranks. (Video monitors at the sides of the stage zoomed in on speakers—our own local-access TV—and alerted us to changes of location.) The transcripts also posed pressing questions in the guise of disputed technicalities: In a Houston meeting, for instance, questions over a church’s obligation to a flood protection fund pointed at the contested status of religious organizations in this country. Findlay, Catlett, and Landsman took us to post-Occupy Oakland to dispute police violence at protests, and to New York City for a fight over changes to standardized testing.
As it unfolds, though, City Council Meeting becomes wearying in performance and troubling in its assumptions. Without any particular issue at stake in our own theatrical assembly—we hopped from one transcript to the next with little fanfare—there wasn’t much to keep us invested. We were going through the motions but deciding on nothing at all, reading dialogues rather than having them. Deliberate boredom can be artistically powerful, but here, the artists’ attention to format over content—meeting routines, not narratives—backfires, leaving us less ready to care when, eventually, real high school students take the stage to tell us about disturbing changes to standardized testing in our own city.
More worrying, Catlett, Findlay, and Landsman couldn’t seem to settle on their piece’s purpose. Perhaps we were meant to see that local government guarantees our places in a democratic society—that small-scale, bread-and-butter organizing is the heartbeat of political participation. If so, why not bypass the theater and bus spectators to an actual meeting of New York’s local government? And why assume we haven’t been to one already, that downtown theatergoers must be taught a sense of civic engagement? Instead, it seemed, small-time government is charming because it is quaint, obsessively procedural, and a natural outlet for kooks to broadcast petty insanities. (This point is driven home when a cranky attendee plunks a pile of used condoms onto the podium, illustrating the need for park cleanup in his town.) Wavering between cutesy and preachy, City Council Meeting never quite reaches resolution.