Saturday, May 7, 2011

#Spotlight: A Conversation with...THE ORANGE HATS' Benjamin Lundberg


Ben Lundberg talks about wearing that famous hat.
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I first met Ben Lundberg and his colleague (and Culture Future blogger) Guy Yedwab at the Theater Tweetup back in March, which some of you may remember reading about.  It was there they first told me about their project called The Orange Hats, which archived audience response to live performance. 
This intrigued me, being someone who is also steeped in audience response, albeit from a different point of view.  This led me to meet up with Lundberg once again, and about a month ago, we sat down for an interview.  
Here, Lundberg talks about "origins, current happenings and archiving." 
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Beginnings.  The Orange Hats have come a long way since their inception back in the summer of 2009.  Around that time, the Grahamstown National Arts Festival was taking place in Johannesburg, South Africa, where Lundberg was studying abroad.  The festival,  Lundberg explained, is comprised of a Fringe festival and the Main festival.  A s with many festivals around the world, a lot of the shows' successes or failures ride on just 50 words or so of critics who attend marathon viewings -- in Grahamstown's case, undergraduate journalism students.  The fact that weeks of artists' hard work depended on being judged in this context struck Lundberg as wrong, and a conversation with friend and colleague Megan Godsell about what he called the "critical culture" sparked an idea for a vehicle that would provide a different kind of critical response.

Under the support of the National Arts Festival, they put their plan into action that June and July.  After the Festival ended, The Orange Hats moved onto the University of the Witswatersrand that August, which was where Lundberg happened to be studying.  Some of the project's earlier work that first summer started off as experimental, with participants writing personal responses and even "in character" responses.  By the time Lundberg came back to New York City, he started archiving on his own before taking on Guy Yedwab as a fellow Orange Hatter in August 2010.    

Mission The Orange Hats, so-called because of the brightly colored headgear used as the group's signifiers, aim to archive audience responses.  "What it's really about, "said Lundberg, "is saying that real conversations happen after performances that are never documented."


Thanks to Lundberg's project, much post-show dialogue has been documented, with the group inserting their own take whilst also keeping it at arm's length for the viewer.  The intention always to make the viewer think, giving a well-rounded take on what the audience experienced.  The Orange Hats' videos also try to cater to the aesthetic of each show it covers, whether by the music playing in the background (such as their American Idiot video), or by graphics (NYU Tisch's Fighter).
 




It's more about: how can we perform criticism or perform a discussion?  What is a performative way of transmitting conversation to a wider audience?  That's what the project was about.



Audience.  When it comes to what he has learned about audiences as a "silent observer," Lundberg noted that a few things that struck him.  He found that the older the audience, the harder it was to archive.  "People of a certain generation are not as comfortable being on camera," he said.  Of the ones that do, tended to range from "parental" responses ("Oh, everyone did a great job!") to those that were more honest and unabashed.


As far as larger experiential observations, Lundberg noted: "I don't think I would have become as interested in this project if I wasn't inherently somebody who engaged in criticism a lot."  Because of the fact that he archives others' responses immediately after a performance, Lundberg does not get to engage with his own feelings.  "What's interesting," he said, "is that it gives me at least twenty minutes of pause where I'm not obsessed with what I think about a show, where that's not my main focus.  I have to listen to [others' responses], because we ask questions...because we're trying to open a conversation, so I really have to be part of that conversation, even though I'm a silent part."   

Branching out.   As of October 2010, The Orange Hats expanded their project to Lundberg's alma mater, New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.  Initially, he sent a letter to Tisch's Undergraduate Student Council, starting the branch as a club.  The Orange Hats: Tisch would archive undergraduate performances at the school.  The group would also act as an incubator for members during their 4-year stay at the school, serving as both a mentoring and teaching program, "in which students get to see a lot of theatre and ask questions about audiences and arts criticism."


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See more archives here, &
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