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“What It Means to Be Free”: An Exploration through Verbatim Theatre

“What It Means to Be Free,” created and performed by Willow Lautenberg at United Solo, is a piece of documentary theatre that takes a look at one man’s experiences with mental illness, the criminal justice system, and the abstract concept of freedom. The theatre piece follows the arc of this man’s arrest and journey from the prison system to a psychiatric center, and to his eventual release and involvement in Challah baking with a local community. Through her portrayal of this individual, and the composition of many verbatim elements, Ms. Lautenberg asks the audience to reconsider the titular question of what it means to be free.

A simple set greets the audience as they enter the black box theatre: a folding chair is placed stage right and balanced visually with a utilitarian bed stage left. Up center there is a projection screen and in front of it, on a stand, a mysterious poster board partially filled with inscrutable designs. On the floor, there are fist‑sized pieces of something flat and white.

A projection announces the name of the piece, set over an abstract collage with the discernible phrases, “Court Requires” and “ARREST/ARRAIGNMENT,” as well as an element that might have said “soul.”

In the tradition of theatre makers like Anna Deavere Smith and Moisés Kaufman, everything performed is taken directly from the piece’s subject, whom Ms. Lautenberg is embodying. The text spoken on stage, the poems read, the collage constructed ‑ it all comes directly from the work and words of the person she portrays.

Ms. Lautenberg, who uses she/her pronouns, enters, already embodying her subject, whom the program identifies as male. This performer/character combination results in cross‑gender performance. Because every movement Ms. Lautenberg makes as this male character seems to define and highlight his particular brand of masculinity, the audience is faced with questions of what it means to perform gender. One repeated movement Ms. Lautenberg makes ‑ she lifts the back of her hand to her chin ‑ reads as practiced vocabulary and helps to establish the character’s physicality. But otherwise, her body seems tense and uncomfortable in the character’s skin, which invites further questioning of the difference between gender as performance and gender in performance. We hear two interlocutors in a Skype conversation. Ms. Lautenberg’s vocal track constitutes one unseen character, and her on‑stage performance makes up the other. At first, they exchange dialogue in equal proportions, but soon the off‑stage voice drops out, and the character on stage continues the conversation, reacting to unheard questions. At certain intervals, the lights change, the character takes a piece of the white material from the floor, removes their glasses, pitches up their voice, and, now embodying either a different character or Ms. Lautenberg herself, performs poetry written by the male character. The phrases are projected, line by line, onto a black background on the screen, and each poem finishes with a date stamp relating the time of the poem’s composition. These recitations are enacted with intensity and clarity, and offer a window into more discrete experiences and emotions than are directly performed on stage. The segments each finish with the actor placing the item, revealed to be a piece of a collage, into position on the poster board. This spell weaved by the two characters ‑ the subject of the piece, and this undefined, non‑bespectacled person ‑ is broken only a few times, with interjections by the original voice from the other side of the Skype conversation, which serves to remind the viewer of the interviewer’s (and the audience’s) voyeuristic presence. Though the performance does not present a clear emotional journey, certain themes develop over the course of the composed conversation. The character had been arrested, after having acted under the influence of voices in his head. He had gone to visit a girl with whom he seems to have had an obsession or preoccupation, at night, without her knowledge. She wakes to find him sitting on her bed, telling her he loves her. He tells us that to plead insanity means to claim to have had no will at all. The sympathetic portrayal of the character draws out what may be perceived as flaws in the penal system. It evokes themes of helplessness or non‑agency, but this piece seems to stretch wider than that. From here, the narrative turns to an overview of his time at “Mid‑Hudson,” presumably a psychiatric center, where he struggles with the patience and self‑restraint it takes to be deemed worthy of release. He explains that his mixed‑media pieces, his art, help him to stay “sane.” As someone who struggles with Obsessive‑Compulsive Disorder, he is hard on himself. He seems to never be fully satisfied with his art pieces, yet he finds a way around this blockade. He makes prints of his collages and then covers up the parts he doesn’t like with poems. As he explains this, he pulls out a new piece of artwork that rivals the central piece in size and color composition. The show finishes when the temporal distance of the poems and the present is closed, and the final piece of the puzzle is put in place. This last poem is of hope and demonstrates religious faith, concluding with lines like “The sun is a window into God’s love.” The primacy of the collage metaphor and the hopeful conclusion suggest a thematic grappling and subsequent coming to terms with human imperfection and failure. This brings dimension and nuance to the performance. Although the generous portrayal of this character ‑ and inclusion of details such as the fact that he is not a proponent of President Trump’s border wall ‑ make the character perhaps relatable to the New York City audience, it would be interesting to see what else Ms. Lautenberg can do. The ease with which this reviewer was able to empathize with the staged character made the whole thing “too easy,” so to speak, and sucked significant energy from the work. What would a sympathetic portrayal of a disagreeable character look like? What could that dichotomy teach us as a public? After all this, what does the audience learn about what it means to be free? Perhaps it means simply to avoid imprisonment, or perhaps it means more ‑ to be forgiving of one’s self and of others, to look for beauty in contradiction and juxtaposition, to find faith or to find meaning ‑ or maybe it’s all of these things. So, to be free? Perhaps, this production by Willow Lautenberg seems to say, love itself is the key.

What It Means to Be Free Written and Performed by Willow Lautenberg Nov 2 at 6 PM Photo by Lala Thaddeus 2019 United Solo Theatre Festival Theatre Row 410 West 42nd Street New York City


EMILY TWINES is an interdisciplinary performance and technology artist with experience directing, writing, and designing/programming interactive theatrical elements, as well as acting and working both solo and in highly collaborative atmospheres. Emily is a graduate of the Theatre History and Criticism MA program at Brooklyn College and current Performance and Interactive Media Arts MFA pursuant.


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