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I should have known, when the entrance was locked, that I was in for a weird night. I was just 10 minutes early for the third D.C. performance of Brian Feldman’s txt, and the house manager was waving my partner and me away from the glass door of the American Poetry Museum. Maybe the show’s canceled, I thought. It was the night of a big football game, I was told—the night the Patriots may or may not have used 11 not-firm-enough balls to clinch the AFC championship—and theaters have closed for far more dubious reasons than a sports tournament.
Turns out the manager was just readying the concessions spread. But America’s No. 2 pastime did cast a shadow over the night’s performance: In addition to my partner and me, there were two other people in the audience. One was Feldman’s friend. The other ran the venue. At most performance art exhibitions, being part of a small crowd is a treat: It feels more focused and personal (“intimate,” in industry parlance), and shorties like me can actually see the stage. But when I saw the rows of empty seats at txt, I panicked—because I, with the rest of the tiny audience, had to write the show.
txt has no script, no storyline, no blocking, no master plan, no filter—just Feldman, a Deanwood-based artist, at a desk, scrolling through a Twitter feed on his phone. Each audience member is assigned an anonymous throwaway account, and whatever s/he tweets, Feldman reads out loud.
Most performance art includes a participatory element—the art happens in the space between performer and audience, shaped by reaction, awareness, and the act of watching. There’s no correct takeaway to be had, just as there are no two people who’ll bring the same experiences and predilections to bear on a single performance. But in txt, the participation is the performance. “I think this is a little more accessible than traditional performance art. It’s not confrontational. It’s more of a team effort,” Feldman says. “A lot of the stuff I’ve seen lately has been super serious, and this skews more toward the funny stuff, Mel Brooks-style.”
For a show made possible through some of today’s most commonly used and socially isolating technology, txt’s atmosphere is surprisingly warm: At the performance two weeks ago, string lights hung over a small stage backed by full bookshelves; Feldman’s desk held a flowerpot and a colorful, hand-painted coffee mug. When Feldman walked behind the desk and sat down, we all looked around—at him, at one another, at our phones—waiting for something, anything, to start. I began to sweat and, unable to suffer silence in the presence of others, broke the ice. “Hi,” I tweeted, displaying the kind of nuanced creativity one would expect from the arts editor of an alt-weekly newspaper. “Hi,” Feldman said.
And après moi, le déluge. Tweets ran faster than our feeble minds or fingers could manage. By the time I’d type a response to one person’s line, another would jump in with something totally unrelated; the logistics of the platform (sending delays, 140-character limits) informed the show’s absurdity. One or more of my fellow tweeters kept bringing Feldman back to uncomfortable small talk: “I’m kinda hungry.” “What the hell is this place?” “Oh my god we could all run for the door.” Another went off on a tangent about a hallucinating caterpillar and Kanye West, apropos of nothing, totally capsizing my efforts to get us all on one page and make up a coherent damned story.
txt felt like a non-hierarchical group project, and we’d all been given vastly different assignment sheets. I silently judged the person who tweeted “Wouldn’t it be weird if everyone just started randomly jumping up and down,” hoping that bit of inanity didn’t come from my partner’s phone. (It took all my willpower to keep from glancing over at her screen.) With the rest of us silently typing away, Feldman sounded like the gauchest person at a dinner party—asking questions that no one answered, spouting out M-for-mature-rated nonsense, blabbering on in a thousand different directions. That frustrating, delightful unpredictability is part of the point. “I didn’t want to put too many restrictions on it and say, ‘hey everybody, we’re coming and writing a mystery story,’ or ‘this is a themed adventure, choose your own adventure novel kind of thing,’ because nobody in the audience wants it to be,” Feldman says.
At one previous show, an audience member had Feldman say the same thing every few minutes (“very Ionesco” by Feldman’s estimate). At another, someone tweeted row after row of the smiling-pile-of-shit emoji, which Feldman dutifully read aloud, one by one. (“Poop emoji. Poop emoji. Poop emoji.”) The best sequences in our show were serendipitous, as if a thousand monkeys on typewriters had accidentally happened upon a storyline. “I like my wife,” someone tweeted, a millisecond before “but I wear underwear anyway,” a holdover from a separate train of thought, came through.
Feldman doesn’t do anything halfway: He brought BFF, a one-on-one “friend-building” exercise, to Capital Fringe in 2012 and currently offers it every single weekday. He’ll perform txt, which premiered in February 2009 at Orlando’s Kerouac Project, each Sunday in 2014, save for Super Bowl Sunday, Oscars night, Mother’s Day, and the first night of Rosh Hashanah. “If no one shows up, I still have to do it,” Feldman says. “I’ll stare at the house manager, and she’ll write things. I have to get all…48 shows in this year, at least, just so I have some kind of momentum or false momentum to push me along.” Though he’s become known for his performance art, Feldman has a background in theater. He approaches all his of his projects from that angle, but favors more conceptual pieces for their human insight. “In a traditional play, going through the rehearsal process, you’re always trying to find the real moments,” he says. “Here, everything is real and immediate.”
As such, a pre-show disclaimer read by the house manager (it was supposed to be delivered by Siri, but the manager’s device wasn’t cooperating on the night I attended) warned the audience that the show might include coarse language, explicit themes, or offensive content. An experiment in where the human mind goes when it’s unfettered by codes of accountability or coherence, txt can bring out the latent rabble-rousers in the crowd. “Most shows, at the end of the show, I pretty much stand up and say, ‘thank you all, you sick fucks,’ because there are some very demented people,” Feldman says. “Once people have that veil of anonymity, they really go all out.”
When two latecomers entered the room halfway through the performance I attended (we were six strong, now!), I decided to experiment with the form. “New guys TELL US YOUR NAMES,” I tweeted. Feldman read it with appropriate gusto (part of the joy of the show was hearing my hastily composed lines spoken by a true man of the thee-ay-ter), and the two fellows quietly obliged. A few minutes later, I tried again. “Doug, call out your favorite sauce!!!!!!” I think Doug said “barbeque,” but I was laughing too hard and feeling too guilty about the unamused look on his face to hear. My co-conspirators joined in. “Doug have you ever killed a man?” “Doug have you ever been to a Turkish prison?” “Doug did you sell secrets to any enemy combatants?” Doug fell silent.
Feldman says someone ends up getting picked on at every show (sorry, Doug), and our small group once brushed against some racist material. “That guy in the front looks like Kevin Hart,” one person tweeted, referring to a black man in spectacles who looked exactly nothing like Kevin Hart. (Hart’s non-dopplegänger could have tweeted it himself, of course.) No matter what the tweets read, Feldman’s committed to speaking them. “I’ve said some of the funniest things in my life thanks to this show,” Feldman says. “But I’ve also said the most terrible, horrible things.” His devotion to form is admirable, but words have real power, and it’s impossible to levy a trigger warning against every possible trauma scar.
Still, if the project’s purpose is to reflect reality, to bring something like the anonymous free-for-all of Internet comments onto the stage, stripping away hate speech or personal attacks would neuter it of meaning. The possibilities for trolling, social experimentation, and group self-regulation would make this show a golden case study for modern communication scholars.
txt delivers all the breathless, anything-can-happen anticipation and nervous laughter of an improv show, but without any of the pressure to make a funny that makes a crappy improv troupe so agonizing to watch. Like a sex party, it was both exhilarating and exhausting, and it seemed to work best when we all synced our wavelengths. But at times, it was even more fun to just sit back and watch.
716 Monroe Street NE Studio 25. $15-$20. (202) 249-0253. brownpapertickets.com