Go Deeper

Kill Me Now: Q&A with Melanie Stewart and John Clancy

Posted August 17th, 2009

At Melanie Stewart‘s new show Kill Me Now, you, the audience, will get to decide the fate of aspiring dancers during a live “reality” competition. The stakes will be high, folks, so you better be prepared.

In order to make sure you were fully briefed, we sent reality TV superfan Andrew Zitcer to sit down with Melanie and her collaborator John Clancy. Here is what they told him:

1. Every performance is different. Of the eight performers, six are “competing,” and the results depend on you:

Melanie: The selling point is that the audience chooses the winner. It’s not a rigged show. It’s scripted but there is always a different outcome.

John: The performers might be judging or competing; they are architecting this thing but you can’t script it out.

2. No, really, they depend on you. Your vote counts:

Melanie: Someone came to one of the performances, and they decided who they wanted to vote off. There are different ways to vote someone off but there is one time that whoever is quickest to shout somebody off gets their wish . . . the rules don’t make any sense—anyone can be thrown off at any time.

3. The most talented people on reality shows are not the winners.

John: It’s not about being the best, it’s about being the most popular—it’s fairly random.

Melanie: [Talent is] not quantifiable, can’t be judged, they are really judging their popularity. The randomness of all of it is what we are living in—pushing us to want to strive. The show is a comment about the value of winning and what it means to win.

After the jump: What it means to win!

4. Most times, people on reality shows don’t know what they are competing for. [I always assumed it was a million dollars . . .]

Melanie: We did research—nobody really knows what the prizes are on the reality shows.

John: The prize is winning!

Melanie: At some point, the value of the performer and what they have won doesn’t match up – winning doesn’t feel so good—and the audience has gotten themselves into something that they didn’t plan for.

5. Philly artists are not naturally competitive.

Melanie: When you work with artists, it is not in their nature that much to be competitive. Young, commercial dancers can be competitive, but I am working with seasoned professional performers – that’s not why they do this.

6. But competition is part of an artist’s life.

John: There is something for Mel and I both, a little older and working—you think about the unspoken competition that is out there, getting the grant, getting the gig, and all that. It’s not a comfortable fit to be working as an artist and working competitively . . . to imagine creative people as a sport to tear each other apart is the worst thing I can imagine—[we examined] that sense of how do we compete and what makes us compete? There is the sadistic pleasure of judging: thumbs up, thumbs down.

7. There is something very sinister about reality shows.

Melanie: Reality television is depression-era television. A depressed culture that seeks escape, they want to imagine themselves winning. We researched how reality television reflects our culture.

The dance competition is only a device to get at what the show is about: the nature of competition and capitalism. The dancers are all attempting to please the audience in order to win. They want adoration, approval to get to the next stage. So what does that mean in art and commercialism, what does that mean? Nobody knows what anybody wants, it’s all an illusion.

8. Everybody wins(?) in the end.

John: I’d like people to walk away thinking, “Wow that’s my life!” We want people to have a fun time, but when they walk out of the theater the show is still with them, they see the show reflected in what they see around them.

Melanie: The audience loves participating. My hope is that they are just with us, and they feel us, really feel us. That participation—clapping and voting—to be with us, so that when we arrive at that final place, they can be there, with the winner, at the end.

Kill Me Now opens at Live Arts on Friday, September 4 and runs through Monday, September 7, at the Arts Bank.

–Andrew Zitcer

Photo by Alan Kolc.