Patriot Act: Political Performance After 9/11

I grew up in the U.S. in the go-go Reagan Eighties and started doing activism (in the anti-apartheid and environmental movements) long before I got serious about making performances. So I suppose my first performances, at marches and rallies and canvassing door to door, were political. For most of that time I was still trying to be a "serious" actor, taking classes and enduring the scrutiny of people who decided that I was or wasn't one thing or another too much or not enough for their purposes. Once it became clear that I did not have the energy to sustain the narcissism that a commercial acting career requires, I began making experimental performances. However, despite my background, I never considered using overtly political content or themes in my work.

Photo: Anthony DeVito
Photo: Anthony DeVito

Arguably the luxury of separating performance content and methods from their political implications is only possible in a country like the U.S., whose wealth and size support the illusion that such things are distinct in the first place. The fact is that before 9/11 I had a low opinion of "political performance," because—in my view—such performances often fail as both performance and politics. However, after 9/11 it became clear to me that if artists did not make political performances, politicians, military personnel, and terrorists were more than willing to fill the gap. I no longer felt I could justify making work that was wholly "personal" without exploring the larger implications of being-in-the-world. As with so many things after 9/11, the frames that might constitute "being" and "world" were stretched beyond my ability to immediately comprehend them. My search for ways of being-in-the-world through performance led me to propose a cycle of work based on performing public documents. I christened this project, and the subsequent affinity group I assembled to execute it (only half-jokingly), "Concerned Citizen."

The idea for performing public documents came from a sense that there are foundational texts in U.S. American life, and that these are largely invisible despite their influence. Under this criterion, the USA Patriot Act was a natural place to begin. The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act is the most invasive law ever passed in U.S. history. Its text is available for anyone to read, but is written in such an opaque style that it is almost completely incomprehensible. Despite the enormous power it has to alter the shape of the basic rights U.S. Americans most cherish (privacy, freedom of expression, and association and the presumption of innocence, among others), almost no one has any idea what it actually says. I wanted to mobilize this document through performance and viscerally animate it for our audiences.

I lead Temporary/Industrial Arts, a performance collective of artists in different media, to explore making work with others in a collective structure, and Patriot Act became our focus. In January 2004 fellow performance artist (the Lovely and Talented Miss) Toni Silver and I set out to investigate the USA Patriot Act. We began by asking ourselves: Why make this work? And why perform it now? These questions are an essential part of the process for us because they allow both the ego driven reasons for making performance (I want to be seen, noticed, praised etc.) and the political ones (this issue is important, people should know about it, etc.) to become part of the work. We decided that these motivations must be in dynamic relationship for our work to be successful. Performing is pleasurable for us and we want to be seen and liked even though we are using a frightening law as the basis of our performance. This paradox allows for pleasure to be part of our work: an ethic of joyfulness cast in opposition to the deadly earnestness that stifles the theatrical (and, I would argue, political) efficacy of many self-styled political performances.

The year began with a period of intense research, working toward assembling a script. Transitioning between our wide-ranging analysis of the USA Patriot Act and our piece Patriot Act was the most challenging part of the process of creating this work. The law itself is so vast that we decided to focus only on the sections of the act that we found most personally frightening. Our fear began to describe the shape of the piece as we made it. It became clear after living with this material for several months that an outside eye, unfamiliar with the multifarious ins and outs of the act, would be useful. I invited Nina Mankin to be our dramaturge, and together we began a process of rewriting the text again and again so that an audience who hadn't had the benefit of six months of research might understand it.

In 1991 I'd heard the Living Theatre's Judith Malina speak about the relationship of the performer to the audience at the Bread and Puppet Theatre Festival. She debunked the various ways in which performers imagine themselves to be very different from their audiences and finally asked, "What is the difference between us and them? We are prepared and they are not prepared. So our work then becomes—how do we initiate the creativity of those who are not prepared?" In this spirit, we cultivated an ethic of generosity, using our humor as well as our anger about the frankly disturbing implications of the Patriot Act with our audience.

Toni and I decided that this work should have its own performance language and began to define a style we termed "hypervaudeville", which utilized the archaic performing conventions of vaudeville-partner comedy and sketches, musical numbers, etc., and bent them around the hard shapes of our text. Despite the tricky language of the law we felt that it was important to hear it, if only to illuminate how purposefully murky it is. This became the basis of our first "bit," as I rattled off the text of the Patriot Act's Section 206:

Joe: Sec. 206. Roving surveillance authority under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. (Clears throat) "Section 105(c)(2)(B) of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (50 U.S.C. 1805(c)(2)(B)) is amended by inserting `, or in circumstances where the Court finds that the actions of the target of the application may have the effect of thwarting the identification of a specified person, 'such other persons,' after `specified person'."
Toni: I'm sorry, what?
Joe: I said," Section 105(c)(2)(B) of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (50 U.S.C. 1805(c)(2)(B)) is amended by inserting `, or in circumstances where the Court finds that the actions of the target of the application may have the effect of thwarting the identification of a specified person, such other persons,' after `specified person'."
Toni: Yeah. Still not getting it.

We went on to re-explain Section 206 using simple language, blackly funny asides and a flashy tap dance number. This irreverent juxtaposition of modes became our aesthetic and a model for the rest of the piece.

We premiered Patriot Act in June 2004 at One Arm Red, an alternative space in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn, NY. This run gave us hard information about which parts of our script worked in performance and which didn't, and we started cutting and rearranging. What began as a simple housecleaning turned into a major overhaul, and in the end we struck and rewrote a quarter of the script and revised the structure before our subsequent Manhattan performances.

The willingness to completely change a script that we'd worked so hard to create in the first place came from our belief that the uncertain political moment we are in requires of us fluidity in our responses to it. For example, I had written a joke about my teenage nemesis, Ronald Reagan, and then he died in the middle of our run. We questioned whether or not to keep the Reagan joke as it was, alter it to acknowledge his death, or strike it entirely. In my solo work I'd always enjoyed a certain ambiguity that allows for multiple reactions from my audience. This project however impressed on me the importance of being explicitly understood since our goal was to educate as well as entertain the audience. Ultimately we decided to cut the joke because however people reacted—with horror or glee—at a joke about Reagan so soon after his passing, it would have taken us too far away from our stated purpose, to illuminate the Patriot Act. Being strict about this helped to make the show economical and politically pointed.

The process of making and performing this work has been a rich experience, both politically and artistically. The "Concerned Citizen" project continues as we explore other public documents that contour American lives and we are performing Patriot Act as often as we can, rewriting and changing it to keep current with the shifting U.S. American political landscape. The U.S. presidential election in November will frame the next version of this work, as we wait to see who wins and what he will do with the enhanced surveillance powers of the USA Patriot Act. Fingers crossed.

Joseph Shahadi is a performance artist and leader of Temporary/Industrial Arts, a multi-discipline performance collective. A 2004 Performance Studies Award winner, he is a Ph.D. candidate in Performance Studies at New York University.