Dallas — AT&T Performing Arts Center continues the Off-Broadway on Flora series with 600 Highwaymen and their original work The Fever. Michael Silverstone and Abigail Browde joined forces to create this company, one that specializes in original works that break expectations of theatre-making and reflect on contemporary experience.
600 Highwaymen’s (a nod to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot) work aims to illuminate the essential components of theatre: human presence in a shared space. While 600 Highwaymen presents plays that are nontraditional, Silverstone and Browde emphasize that the work they create is accessible to all. It’s not intended to be an edgy, avant garde experience, but one that grounds the audience and performers in their own humanity.
Theatre should be considered a tool available for all people, not just those designated as professionals or “insiders.” It was created as a community driven entity with a real, practical purpose. In an age where some people may interact with a screen more than with real people in the world, theatre’s fundamental element of a shared experience is more vital than ever.
Silverstone has roots in Austin and Browde originally hails from Albuquerque, N.M. Silverstone and Browde met as theatre students at NYU; Silverstone notes, “We knew each other there but didn’t really get along.” After graduating and working independently, they became a couple in New York. “Abby was directing and creating her own plays and I was working with playwrights and also with prison theatre.” They realized that they actually wanted to create theatre together, specifically productions that break out of the typical modes of play development.
600 Highwaymen has been creating original performances since 2009, with many works that experiment the limits of theatre making. Silverstone notes, “We weren’t following anybody’s rules; we were doing it the way we wanted to. It was opening up all of these cool ideas that we wouldn’t have discovered if we worked with institutions.” In each piece, 600 Highwaymen breaks away from theatrical conventions, revealing humanity in motion.
They began rehearsing in a Brooklyn basement, creating small-scale plays with tiny budgets and tiny audiences. Browde notes, “Theatre is a really inconvenient art form. It requires other people, it requires space. Because of that — the impossibility of it — theatre feels more magical than ever. And the communal aspect feels more necessary than ever.”
In 2012, Silverstone and Browde moved to Austin to continue their work outside of New York City. There, they created This Great Country, which served as a turning point in their company’s history, leading to larger scale projects and eventually international tours of later work.
To give an idea of the kinds of work 600 Highwaymen creates:
- This Great Country is a site-specific deconstruction of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman with a company of 17 individuals varying in acting experience. The cast included performers of different ages and ethnicities playing the same roles. Silverstone comments on the experience, “It was the biggest thing we had made, the shows in New York were really small with three to four people. It was hard for us to go back to New York because we knew we wouldn’t have that kind of scale.” The first production took place at Lucky Bingo Hall in Austin, and then it was produced again in an abandoned shopping center in the NYC Financial District—in the shadow of the World Trade Center.
- Employee of the Year utilized a company of five girls under the age of 11 to tell the story of a woman’s life and rebirth. Imagine these young girls playing ages 3 to 80, a reverse memoir coming from the mouths of babes.
- The Record utilizes a company of 45 performers, but the cast meets each other on the night of the performance. Each performer rehearsed individually with Silverstone and Browde with their own individual score of actions. Due to the response to this show, 600 Highwaymen was invited to present The Record around the world (with a unique cast in each city).
The Fever premiered in 2017 at The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, through a long gestation process of roughly two years. 600 Highwaymen initially aimed to create a contemporary adaptation of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring, but the work and current circumstances took the piece in another direction than a traditional adaptation. Browde says, “As we kept working on that, we were interested in the idea of ritual and the idea of people coming together. I think there’s something about using theatre as a communal tool that all of our work explores and we knew that we wanted to push it in some way but we didn’t know what it was going to be.”
This directive appears frequently in their creative process, as Silverstone and Browde actively turn away from conventional methodologies. As for the adaptation, Browde notes that at some point the “fictitious storytelling” aspect of the work seemed troublesome until they realized that ritual and sacrifice found in The Rite of Spring were actually quite contemporary ideas. “It felt like the piece was in conversation with a sense collective responsibility and who we are together.”
Since 600 Highwaymen’s work has taken them across the world for long periods of time, Silverstone and Browde note that their geographical disengagement from their own community during 2015 and 2016 inspired them to make a creative response. Browde notes, “we wanted to be present; we wanted to be participant in our democracy; we wanted to contribute our bodies and our spirits to our society.”
Silverstone adds, “I don’t know how it is [in Dallas], but right now in New York things feel sort of scary. There’s a kind of tension in the air no matter what side of the line you’re on. It’s a kind of boiling point that we’re sitting in…I think the show is a kind of balm to help us deal with that, to calm us down a little bit and be OK.”
The Fever may seem simplistic at first sight: there’s an open pink floor, few visible theatrical elements. Through the course of the evening, the entire space is transformed, engineered by Silverstone and Browde (who are in the show). Silverstone notes, “There’s music that takes over the space, lighting design that transforms the room and all of that works to wake up the collective spirit.”
Without giving too much away, the entry point of The Fever concerns a party — “one we’ve all been to and we’re all guests of,” Silverstone says. “We talk about having beers, it’s very accessible. It’s actually all about you and all about all of us and the definition of who we are in 2018. The show is tailor-made for the people in the room, whoever you are you’re welcome and a part of the story. The whole idea is that everyone feels comfortable.”
The unique structure of The Fever emphasizes the audience’s presence in the performance. Silverstone notes, “Rather than being a cast of characters that you’re meant to empathize with the cast of characters is us together in this room…Even though we’ve performed that show a 100 times all over the world, each night is completely different.”
Browde notes as a final thought, “The heart of what makes theatre theatre is all of these people in a room together. When we come together and experience something together, to me that feels like more precious than when we started. I think we continually fall in love with the form over and over again.”