What if we redesigned our social contract? In a theatrical experiment, Miranda July invites strangers to discover the possibilities of a new society
When Miranda July first walked on stage at the Walker Art Center last October, she said nothing for several moments. The long drawn out pause put the audience on edge, until she broke the silence and addressed them with a bold proposition: “What if you just stayed? You didn’t go home? Maybe this is it. Me. You. Us. What if we voted to permanently reside in the theater as members of a new society?”
The multi-talented artist’s new performance, called New Society pushes the limits of collaboration and audience immersion to explore the current state of our social contract. A chorus of approval kicked off what would be an hour-long exercise in accidental community, one that felt less like “Lord of the Flies’’ than E pluribus unum. In participatory dialogue, she and the audience lived out the experience of what it means to belong, and what binds us together in a collective whole.
In typical fashion, July used her spontaneous, up-close, anything-goes spirit to foster intensely positive experiences of human connection among strangers. At one point, there were as many people on the stage as there were in the seats, and July was just another face in the crowd. Under her guidance, audience members debated guidelines for the new nation, settling on a form of currency and a constitution with laws drafted by spectators.
Yet the hierarchy was clear. “In terms of government, I feel comfortable being the leader,’’ July stated blankly. Without question or disdain, the group obliged to her requests – the first of which was to create a patriotic anthem, to be composed and played by a volunteer at her command throughout the evening. She went on to describe a caste system where those in the front rows achieved lofty social status and those in the back lapsed into poverty.
July deftly tapped into the struggles that inevitably arise when humans attempt the messy business of living together. And through her lyrical, disarming, and poignant art, she toyed with human fragility. Occasionally the theater was plunged into darkness to evoke nightfall - intensifying the awareness of the passage of time in a room full of strangers, and the loved ones left behind. By mining the banal and mundane in togetherness, July created an experience that felt both personal and universal.
Ultimately, July’s innovative artistic experiment exposes the complexities of community and governance. Yet it equally liberates with a sense of possibility. As the Boston Globe stated, “She opens our eyes to the myriad ways societies form, cohere, change, fracture, and maybe persevere over time,” reminding us of the responsibility we share in designing a meaningful social contract. In the end, strangers leave as neighbors – transformed from a fractured culture toward a renewed faith in the common good.