Dallas — Disturbance plays with the “party guests” (the audience) and allows us to play in return. An immersive experience rather than a play or a show, it requires active participation — no sitting on the sidelines. Actually, there is no sitting at all during the hour-long performance. While it is true that the audience actively participates in the event, it is also true that we experience the event as voyeurs. This show both plays to the social media culture of influencer society, while deconstructing it. Herein lies its appeal as a flighty, fun party event and/or as a serious social commentary. You choose. Not a fan of binaries, I chose both.
Upon entrance to the Sweet Tooth Hotel — which is not a hotel per se, but an art installation in the Victory Park area of downtown Dallas — neon party lights flash, there is a huge wall of images of candy kisses (the kind that have message like “Be cool” or “Love is great”) while someone hands out the real deal from small paper cups and wine circulates in plastic champagne glasses with a tiny flash light at the base. Flash and flashy stand out as key, as over the top and campy. Just relax into it and play along.
Sugary to the max, youthful cast members (there is no printed program, but I was told there are eight cast members) in futuristic and kitschy, glimmering costumes, engage us in selfies, asking “What is your Instagram handle?” To which I and my partner for the evening, TheaterJones’ Michael Warner and I uniformly responded “I don’t have one.” Met with a wide-eyed glare, the response was “Why not?” Blink. Blink.
Arts Mission Oak Cliff manager Anastasia Muñoz along with Jencey Keeton, Jeffrey Colangelo, and Taylor Cleveland scripted a story line for Disturbance that engages with the installation, conceptualized for the space by Sweet Tooth’s Jencey and Cole Keeton, with original music by Keeton and Cleveland.
Once inside the party space, billed as the Discotech, each participant is handed headphones with three channels: there is 1990’s dance music in some, and narratives and more music in the others. You chose which channel to tune into, while meandering into and out of eight or nine — I lost count — spaces with various installations. Oh, and if the bathrooms count, and they should, add two. My selfie in one of the bathrooms posted onto my Facebook page and an image of me laughing while sitting on the Oscar throne garnered me more likes than ever before! So, yes, the influencer part works.
While we are all mingling about, amazed by the plethora of eye-candy stimulation, it becomes evident that each of us is alone — yet together. One has no idea which channel the next person is tuning into, and there is no order in which the rooms are visited. Actually, after roaming through each one the first time, I thought “OK, is this it?” Then I roamed again, realizing that there were nooks I had overlooked the first time, and even in the same spaces, different people occupied them with interactions different from before. Just like in real life.
I must confess, after reading Erin Ryan Burdette’s interview with Muñoz about Disturbance, I felt a bit apprehensive. Was I going to figure out the story? What if I do not get it? My social anxiety abated once I realized that it didn’t matter whether I got it. As a subjective experience, there is no right or wrong.
Getting into the party mood with the dance music was not the problem. The constant selfie and picture-taking is not my thing, but I flowed with it. There was a costume room into which one of the performers coaxed me to help her put the finish touches on her outfit. More selfies. Jeffrey Colangelo put an old-school disposable camera in my hands while posing inside a magnificently, white-wrapped Mercedes Benz, saying: “Are you sure you got a good one? I won’t be able to see it until it gets developed at CVS.” Yeah, I got one. I hope!
On the serious side, the installation and running narrative on avatars created to a woman’s image in her youth played to social anxiety on aging. The images of women’s faces — not men’s — prevailed here. Looking around on media night, most of the participants of about 30 were in their 20s and 30s. I was told that audience capacity is 50. As a mature woman, this constant social bombardment of youthful images rings all too familiar. The social pressure imposed on women to remain youthful is a billion dollar industry. Thinking about creating a humanoid avatar onto which upload my memories, myself, goes into the futuristic (is it still in the future?) world of (hopefully benevolent) artificial intelligence. AI may well serve future generations, ones in which the notion of aging and even dying may become obsolete.
Getting back to the deconstructive angle, as a spectator/participant one is caught in both the enjoyment of the spectacle and the simultaneous awareness that this is a spectacle, and an alienating one at that. Why alienating? Each participant is wrapped up inside the bubble of her or his own head (through headphones, cell phones, and multi-media choices to be made while physically moving). Each participant is posting away and increasing their social capital. Alone. Together.
Guy Debord, the French social theorist and philosopher, outlined the contours of this phenomenon in his landmark 1967 book, The Society of the Spectacle. A critique of consumer culture, mass media and commodity fetishism, Debord cleverly theorized contemporary alienation, cultural homogenization (currently known as cultural and economic globalization), way before the advent of Facebook Instagram, the cellphone and laptops. This piece speaks to both the phenomenon of the spectacle and its critique.
One aspect that did strike me as dissonant was the ending. It makes sense to keep the ending open; however, it felt like something was missing, not closure necessarily but a better conceptualization of letting the audience know it was time to go.
My final vote: it was a fun event that later gave me something to think about. Wonderful that there are Dallas artists pushing the bar of what performance experiences can offer our cultural landscape. This performance is for arts enthusiasts who enjoy being in what seems like utter chaos.
» Teresa Marrero is professor of Latin American and Latinx Theater in the Spanish Department at the University of North Texas. She is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and is on the Advisory board of the Latinx Theater Commons. She is co-editor with Chantal Rodriguez (Yale) and Trevor Boffone (U. of Houston) of the anthology ENCUENTRO: Latinx Performance for the New American Theater (2019, Northwestern University Press). Her Spanish-language play, La Familia, is published in Teatro Latino: Nuevas Obras de los Estados Unidos (2019, available on Amazon). She is working on her third play, Second-Hand Conversations with Irene, which pays homage to two women with dementia.