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11.08.11

Occupy Wall Street Goes Onstage

‘Occupy This’ brought together artists, comedians, and thinkers in Brooklyn to perform, raise funds for the Wall Street protest, and riff on what it means to the creative class.

Zuccotti Park in Manhattan may be the ideological and physical home of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but it was only a matter of time before Brooklyn’s creative class weighed in.

Last night, just over the bridge, at the Brooklyn Heights Cinema, on carpet covered in stars, a group of thinkers, comedians, artists, and performers convened to talk about Occupy Wall Street, because for “professional people with day jobs,” sleeping in a tent on concrete just isn’t in the cards.

“The time for staying home and clicking on things and eating stuff is over,” said comedian Greg Barris, the evening’s host. “The time to become better is now.”

“Occupy This” was the brainchild of Nellie Kurtzman, director of marketing for Disney children’s books and daughter of Mad magazine founder, Harvey Kurtzman. She compared the genesis of the event to the children’s classic fable, “Stone Soup,” in which a rich meal is made out of sheer goodwill. There was no formal rehearsal. Performers met for the first time just before the show. The programs and tickets were designed by a local firm, gratis. For production and the theater space, Kurtzman enlisted her friends.

“The answer is not to do nothing,” Kurtzman said. She has a theater background and she drew on what she called her strength—getting people together. Attendees, organizers, and performers agreed that the conversation was had in a relatively self-selecting group: Brooklyn dwellers in sweaters, NPR listeners.

“Occupy This” was less in the business of charting a path to the better than it was a vehicle for humanizing the crisis with story and humor—and a hard sell for visiting its mothership, Zuccotti Park.

“You can find something to be upset about at Occupy Wall Street,” said Martin Dockery, an animated-story teller whose message was simple: Just go down there; I went and it’s fun.

Like the protest, "Occupy This" pondered our country's shortcomings, but more systematically, and from a safe distance.

Fast Company senior writer Anya Kamenetz deciphered the 500-year history of the human economies that birthed Occupy; it was fodder for a magazine column she said got killed for being too complicated. She spoke of the web of human relationships on which barter was built, and how a fungible accounting was preferable to friends obsessing over who owes whom what all the time. In ancient empires, if the government deflated and the currency failed, all citizens’ debt was forgiven, and a new government completely replaced the broken one. This is the opposite of what happened in America, where only companies received amnesty, and everyone in office kept their jobs. Kamenetz cheered protesters for working outside the existing systems of education and policy, for the fluidity of their ideas and their willingness to act not like businesses, but like human beings, all the time.

Gregory Smithsimon provided context about how people use cities and how cities either meet or buck these needs. A sociology professor at Brooklyn College, he turned attention to the constant negotiation that is public space. Zuccotti Park is a bonus plaza, space that developers of the nearby One Liberty Plaza were required to add in the shadow of their skyscraper when they wanted to build more floors.

“Self-organized anarchy can really organize itself,” said Smithsimon of the protesters, whom he believes have compromised with the city at every turn. They cleaned up the park when the Bloomberg administration called it dirty, switched to smaller generators to cut down on noise, and finagled portable toilets amid complaints of urination in the streets. In Smithsimon’s view, both the city and the protesters have gotten what they want. He pointed to some 500 public-private spaces that could be occupied in the coming days and weeks.

Reggie Watts’s emulsion of the silly and the intellectual played well with the crowd. He’s as known for his large afro as he is for his improvisational comedy and songs. He called occupation “a flavor as creamy smooth as chocolate cake,” and though no one, least of all he, knows what that means, everyone roared.

“We work like sharks,” he said. “If we stop, we’ll sink. So it’s easy to overlook needs that are primal and, dare I say, spiritual.”

Mike Daisey, as he does, addressed the privilege in the room, calling himself and his audience a bunch of hypocrites. He implored that we admit this rather than make excuses for not participating in the protest and that we shame ourselves and our friends and relatives away from the miasma of corporatism, especially if we or they work for a bank.

Daisey’s solo show, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs has brought him much attention, as it is in part inspired by his trip to a factory in China where he said Apple products are assembled in unsavory conditions. His monologue was the punch in the gut, the realism and pessimism reminding the audience that even though they paid their 20 bucks for a good cause (proceeds go to the protesters and to MoveOn.org) showing up at a theater in Brooklyn is hardly enough to right the wrongs in our world.

“Everyone tonight has done an excellent job of jerking off into the darkness,” he said. “This is a war. We’re going to have to make some choices.”

Though the performers had little in common, their messages in tandem did what the event purported to do, which was to get people talking. The dialogue continued at a new neighborhood restaurant replete with a white marble bar and Edison bulbs. Performers mingled with audience members and answered their questions. Daisey’s muscle seemed to resonate most. Still, the show felt nothing like an energizing, disorienting walk through the tent-city stronghold in Zuccotti Park. There you'll find every type of person, and life seems vibrant—but also frightening. Like the tent dwellers, "Occupy This" pondered our country's shortcomings, but more systematically, and from a safe distance, where we all returned to our warm beds afterward.

Beatrice Aranow had just gotten back from Oakland, where she was helping equip protesters with bike generators and sources of renewable energy. She didn’t have the 20 bucks, so she was only let in at the end.

“I’ve been shifted,” said the freelance book editor who is currently unemployed. “I’ve never been less interested in experts than now. We’re all our own authority.”

Megan Shotwell, a teacher at an independent school, spoke to the tension of her own job. She doesn’t work at a corporation, but said the parents of her students are wealthy Upper West Siders who do.

“Maybe I’ll skip Thanksgiving and go down there,” she said.