They're the friendliest cultists you're likely to meet. The New Settlers have invited us into their compound to get to know them, their beliefs, and practices before an event that they call the Rift or the Shift occurs, which they believe is any minute now. A new plane of existence will split off from the one we know, where they plan to build a New America, one that keeps the promises that they feel the existing America has made and broken.
The New Settlers are a creation of the San Francisco experimental theater ensemble Mugwumpin. The group's latest collectively-devised performance piece, The Great Big Also, is an immersive experience that requires a bit of audience participation. Identifiable by their matching glasses and the symbols patched onto their vests, the cultists chat up the visitors before the show in Z Space's lobby, accentuated with homey furnishings to make it look more like a group dwelling. There are bookshelves and comfy chairs, a chore wheel listing labors both domestic and spiritual ("chaos semantics," "stillness/vibration") and photos of American visionaries from Ben Franklin to Walt Whitman and Malcolm X.
Each Settler takes a group of visitors into a different side of the theater space, which has been transformed into a large boxlike maze of rooms with walls of white fabric. The friendly hosts ask the visitors to gauge their willingness to fight and maybe die for the possibility of this New America, and then each group is split up into different rooms. As the only person in my tour group to report absolute unwillingness to sacrifice for the cause, I was placed in a room by myself, expecting to be grouped with other "no"s, but my first cellmate was a definite maybe, followed by a couple people who got really into actively questioning the characters around them.
Although uniformly upbeat and zealous, the eight sect members have distinct personalities. Ann (Natalie Greene) and Emma (Stephanie DeMott) have a guarded sweetness about them, while Victoria (Madeline H.D. Brown), Walter (Joe Estlack) and Benjy (Michelle Talgarow) are intense, take-charge Type A personalities. There's a hint of doubt and fretfulness in Susannah Martin's Rachel, Frederick (Wiley Naman Strasser) has a wild-eyed intensity, and Little Peace (Michael Mohammed) is more blissed-out.
The New Settlers wander in and out of the rooms, doing mysterious exercises, reciting seemingly random numbers, singing in wordless harmony, spontaneously confessing their invariably sad stories of life before they found their purpose, or demonstrating (but not quite explaining) some of their practices. Occasionally one of them will issue pronouncements from a high balcony; when Victoria starts reciting a group manifesto, the others keep interrupting her to nitpick the phrasing.
I wondered if there might be consequences to rejecting the promise of a new world, and honestly I still don't know the answer to that question. Certainly different things go on in different areas, and much like greener grass, the transformation may always be more profound on the other side. There are times when nothing may be going on in your room, and you often find yourself eavesdropping on what's being said in other rooms, contrasting it with what you've been told.
The primary experience is one of confusion. Are the seemingly random numbers that people recite simply to illustrate that "to experience the Rift is like we've won Mega Lotto," or is there more to it? Why is that guy convulsing? What's going on here? Little if any of this will ever become clear, but the experience is as fascinating as it is elusive. Two people have a conversation with cardboard signs and in interpretive dance. Someone else seems to become possessed, putting the others into a panic because this wasn't in the plan. Sean Riley's imposing set transforms around us as the evening goes on. A single bulb hanging above each room flashes and flares in Darl Andrew Packard's lighting design as ominous noises rise up in Theodore Hulsker's soundscape.
When I caught the show in the last preview before opening, I found myself watching director Christopher W. White a lot, and it took me a long time to realize that he wasn't playing one of the cultists. Sure, his glasses didn't quite match the ones the others wore, and I didn't see the same symbols on his clothing as everyone else's. As the others moved from room to room greeting people and doing their mysterious exercises, he just stood in the corner of one room watching intently and making notes in a big book. These were almost certainly director's notes toward opening night the following evening, but at the time he looked like some mysterious silent higher-up in the group. "What's his story?" I thought, and waited to see what would emerge. But of course White was part of the show, just as everyone present was. In a show like this, everyone present defines the experience, not just witnesses it. Like the New Settlers, we become a community of intrepid explorers in search of meaning.
The Great Big Also runs through March 24, 2013 at Z Space in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit mugwumpin.org.
All photos by Pak Han.