Robert Quillen Camp has always been fascinated by the ways that abstract, transcendental things get incorporated into a capitalist economy. Three years ago, he collaborated with Philadelphia's Pig Iron Theater Company to write an experimental performance piece called Pay Up. Audience members paid $15 a ticket, got five singles back upon entering the show, and then had to buy their way into individual scenes. Each of the eight scenes took place in a cubicle, although everyone only had time to see five, which added a burden of consumer choice to the show. To increase the tension, Camp said, the funnier scenes got more expensive as time went by. "The whole thing is set up like this big monkey lab," he explained. "The audience is the monkey."
Camp's new performance piece, The Group — put on under the auspices of his four-year-old company, Dodeska Performance Ensemble — had a similar impetus. But in this case, Camp is packaging and merchandising spirituality, rather than art. When audience members enter the second-floor garret at San Francisco's Climate Theater, the staff serves them coffee and makes a big deal about it. Everyone gets a name tag that says "Hello my sickness is..." with options ranging from low self-esteem to weight issues to AIDS. Over the course of the piece, these absurdist devices will seem less and less funny. The implication is that we enter the room carrying some kind of horrible pathology of which we're probably unaware. Our group leader — played by actor Ryan Eggensperger — has the diagnosis and the cure.
The Climate Theater looks like an attic that was stripped of hope chests and dresser dummies. A musty chandelier hangs from the ceiling and the stage is virtually barren, but for one oriental rug. A red-haired woman sits at a lofted sound booth, twiddling knobs and clicking the mouse on her Macintosh laptop. Below her lies a circle of folding chairs, each with its own set of headphones. The room is dark and insular, and the pink paint on a Folsom Street thrift store, glimpsed through the south window, looks almost assaultive. Eggensperger strolls jauntily around the circle, issuing commands through a tiny microphone headset. He looks like an off-duty corporate powerhouse type: pinstripe pants; sleeves rolled up; sensible patent leather shoes. He is quick and lithe, but speaks in a soothing therapist voice that oozes seductively through the headphone speakers. He is telling us to give ourselves over to the Group.
For anyone who has ever participated in self-help or group therapy programs, this performance piece might be familiar. Eggensperger uses the same evocative voice and abstract, sermonic language of established self-help gurus such as Tony Robbins. The headphones connect both to his mic and to a soundtrack overdubbed with ambient noise and other actors' voices, which serve as a kind of Greek chorus. They turn the group into its own self-contained world, where Eggensperger is both God and the voice in your head. "The joke is there's no group at all," explained Camp, a native New Yorker who came up with the idea about a year after moving to El Cerrito in 2006, and has been developing it ever since. "It's really about individual selves and we kind of isolate everybody and put them in their own little world. 'The Group' is really a fiction."
Camp said he's attracted to anything that promises "a more fully felt life," though he admits to being an interloper in the world of spiritual self-empowerment groups. He didn't grow up religious; he's never joined one of these programs; Camp's communion with divine powers was limited to Rhonda Byrne's blockbuster book, The Secret — which he read for research purposes — and a couple of Buddhist texts he pleasure-read on his own. In spite of — or maybe because of — that secular upbringing, the playwright gravitates toward stuff that provides a belief framework. "We need answers, we need a system of meaning to understand tragedies in our lives," he said. "When you don't have religion, you look to somebody to figure it out for you."
Like Byrne's Secret, or the EST workshops of the '70s, The Group has its own made-up jargon that serves not only to legitimize its philosophy, but also separate the people in that world from those outside. Most of it starts out pretty corny: Eggensperger tells us that we're all "dog thinkers" (meaning, presumably, that we're naturally very reactive). He says we need to steer clear of "O.P.P." (i.e., "other people's pessimism"), and shed our "overselves" in order to access a "deep self." "It's a total dumb joke at the beginning, then we repeat it so much that you get really inured to it," Camp explained. "With 'dog thinking,' it's sort of easy to think that could be a real thing in my real life."
Eggensperger, who studied theater at NYU but also attended a Buddhist university in Colorado, is the glue that holds everything together. Trim and svelte, with searing brown eyes and an infinity sign tattooed on the inside of his left wrist, he inhabits the lead character so fully that it's hard not to buy into the whole thing. Eggensperger said he researched a little by watching video clips on the web site of San Francisco's Landmark Forum, but a lot of his monologue comes from a really heartfelt place — which is why he has such an easy time making eye contact and interacting with audience members. "The only thing I can do is be completely genuine or it would be silly," the actor explained. "I have to come from that genuine place but filter it through this ridiculous language."
His earnestness and charisma help endear him to the audience, creating what's ultimately the creepiest thing about The Group. He promises to rescue us from dog thinking; he creates a "secret ritual" during which heavily synthesized meditation music comes wafting in. He even permits us to take a break and perhaps get to know one another, or check our voice-mail (cue in elevator music). Though he acts completely unaware of himself, Eggensperger renders The Group into a calculated act of seduction, which, said Camp, is what's most unsettling about groups, in general. "You know there's a hard sell going on," he explained, but you're still game.
It's that aspect of deception that's kept Camp away from empowerment groups, even though they fascinate him "I'm really scared of going," the director admits. "Probably in the same way that people are scared of going to a performance art piece like this one."
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