We can’t tell you much about 600 Highwaymen’s new show, The Fever, without spoiling the experience. Woolly Mammoth Theatre cryptically calls it a “spellbinding examination of how we assemble, organize, and care for the bodies around us,” performed “in complete elaboration with the audience” that “tests the limits of individual and collective responsibility and our willingness to be there for one another.” We caught up with co-creators Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, partners in life and art, who won an Obie grant in 2014 and were named artist fellows by the New York Foundation for the Arts in 2016.
Here’s what you should know before attending their 70-minute show, playing October 23-November 4 at Woolly Mammoth.
What will audiences walk into?
Michael Silverstone (MS): This is a story about a group of people who come together to enact a story. Each of these individuals are different, and yet together as a unit, there is an innate ability for them to see one another.
Abigail Browde (AB): Past that, we can’t really speak about what the audience will experience because the show hasn’t happened yet. The show is made every night with the audience, and to that end, it is always in a state of being written.
at Woolly Mammoth Theatre
October 23 – November 4, 2018
Details and tickets
What initially inspired you to create The Fever?
AB: The piece started as an adaptation of The Rite of Spring, which is, broadly speaking, about a group of people and an ancient ritual. We have used that story to cut right to the heart of some important questions. Who are we, as a community? Who is at the table? Where can we find our confidence together? How much can we lean on each other?
MS: We knew we wanted to work with an iconic work; we had been working with Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and the idea of adaptation felt really fitting for us. The actual narrative of The Rite of Spring—people coming together to enact a ritual, and the idea of a virgin sacrifice—didn’t really click with us. But there’s something so human, even pack animal-like about the story—people coming together to nurture the collective—and that instinct felt ripe to us.
AB: There was a point in creating this show in which we almost quit. In some ways, the questions we were asking felt too large, too unwieldy. But then we just kept going. It was a scary process, but it also felt really right.
MS: I do think it’s important to say that audiences won’t see anything that resembles The Rite of Spring. Sometimes we pick starting points that are a bit out of our reach because it makes for the most interesting dig.
How did you develop the show?
MS: We started making the show in fall 2014. In the beginning, it was Abby, myself, and our three core collaborators. We had a lot of performers who were helping us, too. But unlike our other shows, we made it largely away from our home, which is New York City. We would set ourselves down for several weeks at a time in places like North Adams, MA, Tempe, AZ, and Colorado Springs, CO. We would work pretty much on our feet. What was great about a nomadic development such as this is we couldn’t get too lost in our own heads. We had to work on our toes, and be continually responsive.
How did the two of you come to work together?
AB: We met in a history of avant-garde theatre class in 2001 at New York University’s Tisch Drama. We started working together in 2009 and have made eight shows together.
Where did the name 600 Highwaymen originate?
AB: We performed our first few shows without a company name. A company name didn’t strike us as very important. Over time, we started to feel that the work we were making should have a name of its own. We decided on 600 HIGHWAYMEN. The words come from two sentences in Waiting for Godot. We put the two words together and we liked the way it felt, the size of it, and the sense of intrigue. We also liked that it didn’t sound like your everyday theatre company, which satisfies us because we don’t always think of what we do in traditional theatre terms.
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What strengths do each of you bring to the artistic partnership?
AB: We write and co-direct our shows, and once a piece is finished, it’s hard to parse who did what. I tend to be a starter who can deal with a blank page. Michael is better at seeing the bigger picture. He’s our divining rod; he has his ear to the ground for what the piece is trying to be. In terms of our process, we’re always trying to find a new challenge.
The Fever was made in close collaboration with three designers: Eric Southern, who has designed lights and a few sets for all of our shows, and musicians and sound designers Emil Abramyan and Brandon Wolcott, who wrote and perform the 61-minute musical score of our show, The Record. We also made the show with some incredible performers. In many ways these collaborators all became incredible dramaturges for the piece.
Where do your pieces start?
AB:Michael and I approach each piece from an internal place. We don’t always know what we’re doing while we are doing it. We work from a more instinctual and mysterious and personal place. We certainly don’t work from any sort of social agenda. In fact, the decision to have the audience involved with the telling of the story was barely a decision. It was actually an accident. But we’re often waiting for accidents just like this. Once it happened, we knew it was right.
Are there any connections between The Fever and your other works?
MS: Each of our eight shows is completely different from one another, and this is because Abby and I have an aversion to repeating ourselves. It’s as if we’re constantly starting over. That said, I think all of our shows are attempting to get back to something that feels somehow ancient. What are the stories that need to be told, and how can we create space in our lives for seeing and being seen? It’s completely primitive. Theatre is a place where we can go to find something we’re looking for, or live deeper, or practice something together. Even just sitting together these days—sitting in the dark with strangers—there’s a feeling of real possibility there.
How does the mission of Woolly Mammoth match up with your artistic vision?
MS: I think we’re both interrogating the ways in which theatre can be part of our civic society, and we’re trying to ask questions that feel important and timely. I think we’re both trying to make experiences that shift audiences somehow. Abby and I work the way we do not because we’re experts at it. In fact it’s the opposite; we are just like the audience, we’re trying to shift ourselves in some way. We’re trying to learn something. This means that the work is, for better or worse, always a kind of experiment. I think Woolly Mammoth, as an institution, also embraces this type of experimentation, this type of risk.
How does it feel to bring the show to Washington, D.C. audiences in 2018?
It feels tremendously exciting because Washington, D.C. in so many ways in feels like the ultimate place for this show. Not only are we huge fans of everything Woolly Mammoth, but the fact that we’ll be in our nation’s capital—and at this moment in time—feels really right. There are a lot of very ripe questions within the show, and I think placing these questions in the context of our nation’s capital feels very fitting. This doesn’t mean audiences should expect an intellectual or academic piece of theatre. Far from it, in fact. But I do think the show is trying to repair something that feels a bit broken right now. Or at least very much in the air. D.C. is a kind of center to this country, but it’s also a town like any other, working itself out.