What can it mean for a show to be “performed in complete collaboration with the audience”? That’s the announced promise — or threat, if you flinch at the prospect of being roped into the action — of “The Fever,” a 70-minute show by the Brooklyn troupe 600 Highwaymen that starts Tuesday at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
“We hate audience participation more than anybody,” says Michael Silverstone, who created the piece with his wife, and 600 Highwayman co-founder, Abigail Browde.
But the couple, who met as New York University undergraduates in a class on the avant-garde, likes shaking up the basics of theater. In “This Great Country,” they acted out “Death of a Salesman” with 17 civilians they recruited in Austin, having people swap the part of Willy Loman. In “Employee of the Year,” they found a quintet of 9-year-old girls to perform one woman’s long life.
“The Fever” tells the story of a dinner party. The audience is roughly 70 people seated in a square, with the actors among them. Everyone becomes part of it. “What evolves is ‘ritualistic communal storytelling,’ ” the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones wrote in his review.
“Nothing is embarrassing,” promises Woolly artistic director Maria Manuela Goyanes, who met Silverstone, 37, and Browde, 36, as neighbors in Brooklyn and saw their earliest projects (the first was in 2009) in a local church basement. “It’s welcoming and inclusive. It is trying to create community, to remind us of our humanness.”
That seemed critical as the show was being made, in 2015, but only after Silverstone and Browde suffered a major case of writer’s block. The piece had been commissioned by Manhattan’s Public Theater, where Goyanes was director of producing and artistic planning. Silverstone and Browde started with Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” but weren’t sure what to do with it. They took a pause and released the performers they’d brought in to help develop the material, forgetting that a public workshop had been arranged. Then a friend called wanting tickets to that sold-out event.
“We were freaking out,” says Browde, speaking with Silverstone by phone last week from Ireland as “The Fever” was being performed at the Dublin Theatre Festival. “We don’t have anything.”
But they had an audience, so they decided to show up and make something with the attendees. The result was “ugly” (Silverstone’s word) but intriguing enough to indicate how something could be shaped. As they worked with composers Brandon Wolcott and Emil Abramyan and designer Eric Southern, the 2016 presidential campaign infiltrated the project’s DNA.
“The temperature of the country changed, or was revealed,” Browde says. “The feeling of polarization and fracturing increased.”
“That was the place where it felt like a great moment for theater,” Silverstone says. “I got chills. It seemed like something has to be mended now, and I think it can happen in the theater.”
“I can’t think of a better thing to think about now than seeing other people in space as human beings, and not as some of the labels we all use,” says Goyanes, who is in her second month as Woolly’s new artistic director.
The current season was chosen last spring by retiring artistic director Howard Shalwitz, but Goyanes is using this two-week slot in part to test Washington’s appetite for experimental work. (“The Fever” toured last spring at the University of Maryland, where “Employee of the Year” appeared in 2015.) Yet in a twist for the decidedly grown-up Woolly, Silverstone and Browde’s unconventional show is accessible to audiences as young as 8.
The name 600 Highwaymen comes from an apocalyptic speech in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” and if it doesn’t sound like a theater company, that’s intentional. “I guess I kind of think of us as a band,” Browde says.
They never wanted to be bogged down by the administration, fundraising and logistics of being a company running a building. Instead, they have performed everywhere from bingo halls to shopping malls. “Places that have more civic life to them felt more inspiring than black boxes,” Browde says. The duo is as interested in visual arts as in theater; Silverstone uses the term “portraiture” to describe their work.
Their artistic connections are increasingly prestigious. They have worked with David Byrne on “Theater of the Mind”; been booed in Salzburg, Austria, for their adaptation of Hungarian playwright Odon von Horvath’s early-1930s work “Kasimir and Karoline,” which was cast in part with immigrants; and are working on projects for arts groups in Buffalo and Philadelphia.
Yet going back to that meeting in college, Silverstone says, “we strongly disliked each other.”
“For many years,” Browde adds.
“For many reasons,” Silverstone concludes. “It was an experiment: Could we be a couple and work together? And then we got married.”
Silverstone was directing and Browde was performing and creating her own work when, Silverstone says, they melded their creative “dissatisfactions” and looked for new ways of approaching theater. So now, what are their respective strengths?
“I think I’m really good at making friends with strangers,” Silverstone says. “I’m able to get them to share things with me. I have great success getting people to sign up for months of rehearsal for no reason.”
“Staying productive,” Browde says. “I can keep making, keep working. I don’t get discouraged too easily.”
They don’t like to repeat themselves, and as “The Fever” shows, they are willing to fly blind, to literally throw away the script. “You’ve got to go into a dark room,” Browde says of their philosophy, “and hunt around for a light switch.”
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. 202-393-3939. woollymammoth.net.
Dates: Tuesday-Nov. 4.