How we depend on one another: 600 Highwaymen and The Fever

600 Highwaymen is one of the most talked-about companies to emerge in recent years from New York’s downtown theatre community. Hilton Als, the theatre critic of The New Yorker, is one observer who has heaped on the praise: “I wish to hear anything that 600 Highwaymen has to say”.

They aren’t actually highwaymen and there aren’t 600 of them; it’s the name under which Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone have created seven vitally original works since 2009. The latest is The Fever; it’s currently touring, and The Arts Center at NYUAD has had the good foresight to book it.

600 Highwaymen’s official summary for The Fever says it’s a performance that “tests the limits of individual and collective responsibility, and our willingness to be there for one another … The Fever examines how we assemble, organize and care for the bodies around us. Who will you be when our eyes are on you? What will we see when we all look your way?”

Browde and Silverstone had both worked in traditional theatre before 600 Highwaymen, but “the insularity of that world was very apparent to us” as Browde said in an interview recently. “We made a lot of choices early on about working against the insider-ness of theatre – not wanting to work with our friends or people who spoke the same language as us.”

Instead, they decided to use the conventions of theatre to bring people together – especially people who were strangers, and whose principal attribute was the fact of their humanity rather than their acting chops.

The method is summarised by Michael Silverstone: “In everything we’ve made together, the subject of our show is always the people onstage, and the witnesses – the spectators – are who create the story”.

The Fever exemplifies that – this is a genuine participation piece. That description will immediately deter many theatregoers who prefer to be observers, limiting their involvement to emotional reaction and cerebral analysis. But Browde and Silverstone want your physical involvement, too. Involvement at a very deep level is what you get when you find yourself drawn into their vision, taken by the hand, added to the nameless human community that The Fever builds slowly from a thread of story.

Written and directed by Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone in collaboration with Brandon Wolcott, Emil Abramyan and Eric Southern, the production starts with the description of a fairly mundane party that develops from camaraderie into friendly interaction between comparative strangers. These exchanges become a series of bonding exercises, a poetic evocation of our dependence on each other.

You think that sounds contrived, sentimental, mundane, even unimaginative? Prepare to be surprised. This is theatre at its most elemental, a sort of secular communal rite. Most theatre these days is concerned with words and sophisticated constructions like ideas, politics, information; The Fever doesn’t attempt to intellectualise, just to build a feeling that increases in intensity as the performance progresses – the feeling that there’s an irresistible vitality in community, that we can support each other (literally, as a physical act on the stage, as well as emotionally) and make the most of each other’s existence.

One reviewer likened the effect to “a faith-healer’s way of getting people to trust them no matter what they do”. Faith might be the appropriate reference; Browde and Silverstone believe in people, in their capacity to support each other up and make it possible to bear or celebrate what life brings.

“It’s a fascinating piece of work” said the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones (under the headline “The Fever is audience participation gone rogue”). And the New York Times reviewer summarises it neatly: “The Fever seeks to break down those unseen walls we all put up around us, to acknowledge that we are all here. Together. Now.”

The Fever is at The Arts Center at NYUAD for performances as follows:

Wednesday 8 November: 3pm
Friday 24 November: 3pm and 7pm
Saturday 25 November: 3pm and 7pm
Sunday 26 November: 7pm
Tuesday 28 November: 7pm

And now the bad news: there are only 80 audience members per show, so not surprisingly it’s completely sold out. But there is an online waiting list and a standby line at the door; check the website for details.

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