by Lily Mooney
photos by Tingyu Huang
I know I never write you letters. Just now, I didn’t know how to start. I thought, in this order, “‘Hi Mom’?... ‘Dear Mom’?... ‘Dear Joanne’?” and then I settled on the greeting above because it was the most neutral. I’m keeping it neutral because I love you.
I went to a show last Sunday called Time With People, composed by a man named Tim Parkinson, put up by a Chicago performance collective called a.pe.ri.od.ic. The performers are experimental musicians, not affiliated with The Neo-Futurists, but the show felt Neo-Futurist to me. Musicians performed it, but it moved theatrically, though without characters or a setting. The stage was covered in a layer of dry garbage in which the performers trudged, danced, and rested. It described itself as a “trash opera.” (Remember the couple of years where you wouldn’t stop telling me to make a feature-length documentary called Stains?) You would have liked the show. It would have made you a little uncomfortable, and once you got used to that it would have made you laugh. Many of the people in the audience wanted to laugh, I think, but they weren’t always sure if they should. A lot of moments in the show perched precariously between achingly funny and searingly sad.
(One example: early in the show, there was a vase of lilies atop a cardboard box that doubled as a side table. At some point, the box moved and the vase ended up on its side on the floor. The toppled flowers stayed there for the rest of the show, slightly in front of the enormous trash pile, as if to continually introduce it, or explain it, in its own exhausted language. The performers moved, talked, and lived around the vase, never picking it up.)
There was so much trash. It was a spectacle. It was a thing. It was exciting to see what I knew was a clean, newish stage floor almost entirely covered in paper and plastic waste. In a way, it neutralized the implicitly elevated space of the stage, brought it into our world, our level. Before the show I saw an audience member toss their own garbage onto it, a maybe-important, maybe-meaningless moment of participation. If you had been there, though, the trash might’ve just stressed you out. And it did that to me too.
Over the course of the night the trash took on many qualities, many forms. The piece, Time With People, was a progression of movements -- performance movements that corresponded with different ways of physically and emotionally moving through and interacting with the garbage. There was a prologue, and a dramatic entrance by the ensemble into the trash; there was a moment where they cleared space for themselves inside the trash, almost ignoring it; sometimes they picked it up and made sound with it. It was a tide the performers pushed against, a landscape they traversed, and a refuge they nestled inside. But regardless of which metaphor was at play, the trash was always an impassive counterbalance to their activity; it was more than them, it was before and after them, it surpassed and surrounded them. Which is, I suppose, how waste and wastefulness inhabit the planet, no matter how well in the developed world we try to hide it. That was the one thing the show didn’t do with the trash -- it didn’t hide it.
Sometimes the people hid inside the trash. For most of the show the performers had an even, non-emotive performance style, so it might be more accurate to say that the performers, the people, hid inside themselves -- this kind of hiding not a bad thing but maybe a generosity on their part, or a necessity of the piece. No moment in the show felt individualistic, or character-driven, which may have alienated some of the people in the audience, but honestly it made me feel at ease. a.pe.ri.od.ic moved as a group; even in the moments when two or three individuals spoke text or moved with more feeling, it always seemed that the performers were embodying “people,” rather than themselves. Most of the text in the show was spoken not for the sake of drama, but for the rhythm or the sound, alongside a drum beat. It made an evocative verbal trash out of words and meanings.
Sometimes I couldn’t listen because there was so much to look at. Occasionally I would remember that the show was music, or was made by musicians, and when I did I made a point to close my eyes. Many of the sounds in Time With People -- often incidental, not overly controlled or contrived -- contrasted the vivid, messy, overwhelming visual. I heard rustling as people moved across the cluttered space; the thud of a hand striking hollow plastic; the clack of a dropped object hitting the floor. From this, more traditionally musical or rhythmic moments emerged, played out, and then receded. Some of these scenes were very active and overtly funny: for example, the first half of the show built towards a ‘party’ scene where performers traveled in a wide circle at the periphery of the stage, making repetitive movements; at center, performers wearing headphones spoke descriptions of the sounds of a busy crowd. Downstage, close to the audience two women strummed and prodded guitars while reading from the book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. (The use of this book was a joke in the show, but you should read it -- you’d like it.) The scene that moved me the most came later and was much quieter, as the entire ensemble lowered themselves into the trash bed and murmured rhythmically in unison after intervals of silence. When this started, a clock at the back of the stage blinked a time -- 3:40 -- and as they continued, darkness encroached. A gong began to sound, and I got lost in these sonic embers: soft, imperceptible words and garbage in human hands, evoking a long feeling of ending, until I noticed the time on the clock again -- 3:50. The time that had passed for me was both more and less than ten minutes.
Before seeing the show, the title Time With People felt generic to me -- maybe strategically so -- a way of describing something with flexibility or neutrality, since the phrase could be used to describe almost any social event or theatrical show with human beings at its center. But after watching, it feels like the intended meaning was to highlight the use of time and people as materials and to emphasize time embodied by the trash. This was another moment something felt funny, and true, and sad, and good: that the room and all of us in it are time, used well or wasted; and people, in spite of a supposed agency, are there only to assist. I know it sounds bleak, but I think if we’d been at the show together, I would tell you this in person as we put on our coats to go, and you’d like it a lot.
(Of course: it’s good that Dad didn’t see it. He wouldn’t have seen what was funny; he would’ve felt what was sad, and then, to overcome that, he would’ve made fun of it. I think you’d watch the show and feel like one of the people; he’d watch it and fear that he was more like the trash. I don’t think this is an intention of the piece, or that he’s even close to the intended audience, but writing to you now, I can’t help but think of him.)
Say hi to Yaya for me, and please tell her about the show. She would’ve cackled through the entire thing.