‘What if you are part of a play and you don’t know who else is starring with you?” That was one of the teasers for “Experiment America” at the Institute of Contemporary Art on Friday, part of the weekend’s Emerging America theater festival. Instead of being asked to turn their cellphones off, participants were asked to turn them on, so they could receive text messages alerting them to performance opportunities all over the ICA’s four floors.
It was an evening to expect the unexpected, and the unexpected struck early when, around 7:30, lightning caused a temporary power outage in South Boston. The starting time was pushed back from 9:30 to 10, and the sold-out show went on. Once everyone was inside, it became clear that, without Internet capability, text messaging would be problematic. But theater artist Mikhael Tara Garver (who created and directed this “Experiment”), and her more than 50 collaborators created their own electricity. You could hardly tell the performers from the audience members. Which was the idea.
On the third floor, outside the Barbara Lee Family Theater, a woman in a navy-blue suit and a bellhop’s cap was handing out battered old suitcases. Mine contained a clock, fake sticks of dynamite, and a scroll detailing the bombing of the Federal Office Building at 26 Federal Plaza in New York City on Sept. 19, 1969. The screens in the Mediatheque read, “What kind of artist are you?” I answered a few questions about favorite animals and activities, was told I was a squid (as opposed to, say, a hamster or a seahorse), and was directed to meet with the other squids at the elevator at 11:12 p.m. In the lounge area behind the Mediatheque, a performer who looked like Sarah Jessica Parker was engaging in conversation and then slow dancing with an attendee while his date sat on a sofa and read a magazine. A man in a scally cap asked whether I knew the password. “Squid,” I said.
Walking through the Founders Gallery, I was caught up in a dance with four performers (one of them the man in the scally cap) and then given special admission to a closed-off gallery. I met with the other squids and was taught the squid dance by a cloaked and hooded squidmaster. Some text messages seemed to be getting through, as people started to gather in the theater and receive cues. A large group in the seats yelled, “I’m Spartacus!” Other groups walked into the performance area and acknowledged the thunderous applause. Outside, performers in old-fashioned bathing suits were getting blasted by a man with a hose.
Somehow I missed out on the puzzle pieces, the red tickets, the party hats, and the chains of blindfolded persons entering restrooms, but I didn’t feel shortchanged. “Experiment America” was never about technology; it was about how people connect. And they did. At 12:30 a.m., when the “performances” were winding down, the dance party was just getting started.