Pieces of America: A recipe for collaboration
“I’m fascinated by the notion that in this day and age everyone carries a small piece of ‘America’ inside them, a tiny concept or visual reference, often involuntary. And I’m at once repulsed and delighted at just how easily I feel connected with those ideas, which are often linked to capitalist ideals, of freedom, saturation, desire, individuality. So this is a piece about the ideas and images that we call ‘American’ and, for me, about a complicated personal attachment to both the land and ideas of the United States.”
– Rajni Shah-
Reading Rajni Shah’s words above, I found myself instantly drawn to the concepts at the heart of Dinner with America. I was curious about the ‘pieces’ that people might carry within. Are they a burden? Or an unconscious cache? Wedged in the cavities of consciousness, and creeping occasionally to the surface in response to a trigger: a sound, a scent, a vision. The sight of an iconic American face perhaps, captured on a silver screen, or a world stage. The bitter waft of black diner coffee left too long to percolate.
And what about me? Do I carry a piece of America within? Delving into the recesses of my sub-conscious I find not one piece, but numerous shards scattered in disarray. A jigsaw with pieces that will never join up; the image they convey will always be gappy, and tantalisingly incomplete. My childish glee at discovering ‘Swiss Miss’, a sickly hot chocolate complete with ‘just add water’ marshmallows, which would arrive every Christmas, dispatched by faraway American friends. In 1980’s Ireland...that was hot. The tales of starving wretches boarding famine ships bound for Ellis Island, taught at school…a promised land which would both sever them forever from kith and kin, and give them their one desperate chance at survival. Timing the lift to the top of the Twin Towers on a teenage trip to New York - it took almost two minutes, just as the cheery lift attendant had promised. My righteous, impotent fury at the war-mongering of recent times. My desire to travel to the Rocky Mountains with my father one day – a landscape which he has always marvelled at, but never touched.
Dinner with America is an ideological and literal feast. The audience is invited to dine out, not only on sumptuous dates and chocolate, but on the ideals, concepts and contradictions of a vast and complex landmass. This notion intrigued me and led me to wonder how one might go about conceptually ‘digesting’ a country in one sitting. The joke that begins ‘how do you eat an elephant?’ ends with the suggestion ‘in small bite-size chunks’. This would seem like a sensible attitude to employ when attempting to digest a continent. But what would those chunks be comprised of? Where would one harvest the ingredients?
As a writer with SPILL: Overspill I have been given an opportunity to collaborate with Rajni Shah – to engender a conversation and see where a meeting of minds might lead. Exploring how one might gather ingredients for a conceptual gorging on America, we decided that I should ask the audience members of Dinner with America for ideas. To enquire what fragments of America they might lug around inside….
On the first night of Shah’s performance, I set up a little ballot table outside the theatre space. People were generous with their contributions; casting their folded up votes, or humouring me gracefully as I canvassed for their thoughts whilst they queued before entering the venue. A few days later, Rajni Shah too gave me a long list of her ‘pieces’ to add to the pot. Armed with these fragments, I hope to devise a means of combining them; a recipe perhaps for feasting on America in a positive, receptive and palatable fashion. What ‘flavours’ might complement one another? How could they be combined? In what ratio? In what order should they be served?
A crush on Obama
Check back here this Sunday to read the recipe...
Mary Kate is a freelance writer on performance and live art, based in London