Reviews NYCOff-Broadway Published 6 October 2015

The Extra People

French Institute Alliance Française ⋄ 25th-26th September 2015


Molly Grogan

The French philosopher and critical theorist Guy Debord coined a term, the society of the spectacle, to describe our modern existence, one he saw as merely a representation of authentic social interaction. “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all life presents as an immense accumulation of spectacles,” he wrote in 1967. “Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”  I’m not sure Ant Hampton’s The Extra People has Debord in mind but it struck me as an almost explicit exploration of his theories.

Billed as “immersive performance,” The Extra People isn’ t actually immersive theater. Shows wearing that label are all about “atmosphere” – often strange, unfamiliar, even spooky – and an “experience” for audiences. The Extra People has a much more challenging agenda. In fact, as the 15 participants get geared up – zipped into high-visibility vests, made to stuff tiny earbuds “as deep as possible” into their ears, issued face masks and warned that they will mostly be in the dark and will have to crawl around on all fours – the realization dawns that what is coming might not be very entertaining – or even safe?

The Extra People is rather dangerous actually, not to the public, but to notions of representation and participation, ideas which Hampton has been exploring for the last decade in a  series of pieces known as Autoteatro. In this work, as in The Extra People, performance is made by delivering recorded directions to audience members, which explains all the concern over the proper positioning of our earbuds. Once the sound comes on, we are in the control of  the authoritarian, automated voice of a child: our guide for the next 90 minutes.

The time will seem long, as the voice orders us to enter Florence Gould Hall, sit in the seats, stand, raise arms, write numbers on papers, move around the stage, watch our feet, touch a wall, kneel, cover ourselves with heavy moving blankets, and on and on. Some directions result in collective gestures (we all draw a picture of the lines on our left palm); just as many lead to individual movements, but these usually advance the group dynamic. The voice teases us too, telling us not to listen to a different voice – one we are surely all hearing coming from inside us – asking why? and what is the point? After over an hour of taking orders, I do start listening to that inner voice, which makes me miss a cue, leaving me in a brief panic. But nothing happens, and we eventually exit into the theater lobby. There, a video is rolling, vaunting a system of automated directions delivered through headphones to warehouse workers. The evening is rather unceremoniously over.

Hampton writes in the program notes about his fascination with extras, in their roles “both assigned and assumed” as they take place “within the various games of power and powerlessness.” The Extra People certainly raises the uncomfortable sensation of being at the service of a bigger “something” we might call a show and we might call life, which together is shorthand for Debord again.  Were we pretending to be extras in a play only written in the mind of Ant Hampton or were we miming the actions of those workers in the video? Or, had we had just enacted a metaphor for Debord’s theories? I might be way off the mark but for a moment it felt like this participatory-based show that works from a mostly blank slate was indeed a kind of immersion, plunging us deep into the defining social and economic reality of our times: empty, disconnected, monitored, vaguely menacing and very public: on a stage, in fact. As we prepare to leave, another group enters and the show goes on.

The Extra People is an obvious meditation from the inside on theater, performance and role-playing, but that video, as well as other hints during the performance, also nudge us to consider how human experience is defined by spectacles of economics, markets, or the latest viral video.  Theater that can get us to check our devices and accoutrements of status at the door and ask ourselves these questions, is quite an accomplishment. Perhaps, like Debord’s theories, it will prove the harbinger of things to come.

Molly Grogan

Molly Grogan covered French and international theater for 20 years in Paris. She has written on theater for The Village Voice and American Theater and managed an Off-Broadway theater company. She is a translator of fiction and non-fiction with a Ph.D. in Francophone postcolonial literature and a Masters in social linguistics.

The Extra People Show Info

Directed by Ant Hampton

Written by Ant Hampton

Show Details & Tickets

Running Time 90 minutes


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