While I was intrigued by the idea of Employee of the Year, a new work by 600 Highwaymen (600HWM), in which five girls under the age of 11 tell the tale of a woman’s life from age 3 until around 80, I was also a little bit ‘Eh…’ I was unconvinced that children could possess the maturity or understanding of older human behavior (particularly its darker aspects) to play this convincingly.
Employee of the Year was commissioned by the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) for its annual Crossing the Line festival, which presents interdisciplinary works and performances with the goal of engaging the public with the artist in a significant, critical and thoughtful way, and while I had my reservations about the premise, this piece doesn’t disappoint.
On a stage empty save for a large carpet, a lone tween performer introduces us to the lead character, J, as a 3 year old. At 17 her house burns down killing her mother. This event defines the rest of her life: the discovery that she is adopted and the direction her life takes. So begins a quest to answer the question she has always been asking: ‘Where’s my mom?’, as well as the unspoken ‘Who am I?’ Her consuming obsession to find her mother and, in so doing, herself, leads her through destitution, near rape, discovery of new family members and motherhood. As she says herself her life has had in it “a lot of blindness.” Finally, at age 80 she finds her long-gone mother in the form of an old Employee of the Year photo hanging on a bookstore’s wall and, on exploring, her mother’s house she finally gets the closure she so has so desperately searched for, and is finally able to tell us: “I’m not looking anymore.”
I’m drawn to companies that have an unconventional edge to their methods, and 600HWM’s husband and wife team – Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone – fits this bill. They readily admit to placing casting calls in a variety of mediums and willingly auditioning anyone who turns up, from the professional actor to those with zero experience. The result creates a fascinating chemistry on stage which, perhaps because of the instinct and innocence of the inexperienced performers, allows theater to get back to its rawest roots: a dynamic exchange between performer and audience.
Silverstone confessed to me post performance in the foyer when I chatted with both him and Simon Dove, one of the producers of Crossing the Line, that the five girls all aged between 9 and 10 years were given some structure but also some freedom, which he says makes “the unpredictability of not quite knowing what’s going to happen each night, terrifying.”
What is remarkable about this piece is not so much the material itself but the ability of these young girls to tell this story with such proficiency that it transcends both their age and gender. As they relate the dark and unsettling experiences of loss, disappointment and constant emptiness in this tragicomic life, you are transported visually and emotionally, helped, in great part, by the performers’ constant physical expressiveness. There is also a power to their vocal delivery and together they create a unified character’s voice using their own voices but with similar intonations and inflections. What’s more, the girls were clearly enjoying themselves, reacting to the audience’s laughter with their own; Silverstone clearly he trusts his cast, and with good reason.
During our conversation, he also said that when he and Browde started the process, they did so with performers in their twenties. “We felt we had to go younger so we went to teenagers but that didn’t feel right. So we tried it with pre-teen girls, partly because they are on the brink of adult life, and when we did, we knew it was right.” The idea of having young girls on the edge of adolescence, with adult life not far beyond that, relating the life journey of a tragic heroine was a smart move. The reality is that we are hit with so many events in our teenage and adult years – particularly the toughest and the most precious – for which we are completely inexperienced and where we often have nothing more than our inner child’s instinct with which to guide us. It made me realize, in fact, my expectations of child actors may have been wrong this whole time. After all, when you want to relate stories of new situations where innocence and lack of experience are at play and you want them to be transportive, who better to relate that to us, than children?