Writer, teacher, and “performance enabler” Aaron Landsman is currently curious about a particular set of hours: 2:50-5:10. While he attaches no modifier to these numbers in his performance text Night Keeper, audience members in attendance at his recent showing of the work in the Rudolf Nureyev Studio at Baryshnikov Arts Center quickly understood his preoccupation with the after-midnight as actor Jehan Young brought down the shades in the large studio. Two women fanning themselves to ward off the late-June heat seemed particularly grateful for this respite from the day’s sun. Situated in near-darkness, illuminated only by a clip light throwing brightness against a cool stone wall, Jehan began to read Landsman’s text to a crowd assembled against a long wall while some viewers chose to sit in chairs arranged in pairs throughout the massive room:
“Maybe you’re 9 years old? Maybe 8. Maybe 10. You can’t fall asleep.”
From this position the 9 or 8 or 10 year old is privy to their parents’ television set playing a late-night talk show. From this position, more acutely, the 9 or 8 or 10 year old learns how to use restlessness as an opportunity for oblique communion. It’s an inciting moment: the discovery of a very foundational intimacy with the self mediated by the comings-and-goings of close creatures who become mysterious by virtue of their present, yet hidden activities.
Over the course of the monologue, accompanied by guitarist Norm Westberg’s exquisite live loops—built through improvisation in the rehearsal room with a few pre-mixed samples at the ready—a child’s first brush with restlessness becomes an adult’s quiet battle with insomnia, heroically reclaimed as “night keeping.” And in the in-between space of this journey, the restless child and sleepless adult/parent become conversational companions (the dialogue performed with light characterization by Jehan) as the piece toggles between observations made between the aforementioned space of 2:50-5:10 by the lone adult and more playful episodes initiated by the precocious kid.
“What was it like when you were as young as me?”
“That’s actually a really long time ago.”
“It used to be that when we wanted to reach someone we had to be in the house, attached to a wall by an umbilical contraption called the telephone.”
Sleeplessness opens the floodgates of memories temporally near and far, often blurring the distinction. For anyone who has ever been haunted by a particularly searing experience, something that happened ten or twenty years ago can feel, as they say, like yesterday. But Aaron is not so interested in recounting traumas as he is in marveling at the changes he has witnessed in himself and the world. His memories live in the lovely banal, so plain they invite audience members to recall the nights they have spent in foreign beds, been kept awake by the sounds of garbage trucks, and tracked the revolving doors of their overpopulated apartment buildings. In that way, the piece is a love letter to the city dweller. And I am that.
In Aaron’s project those memories become sites on a map, replacing chronology with association. In Night Keeper, he physically realizes this idea by creating a movement score in collaboration with Jehan that travels through the audience. During the showing that I’ve been describing, I served as Jehan’s assistant—a fellow night keeper, albeit a quiet, lurking one— bringing her chairs and striking a light to build and collapse Aaron’s short scenes. The performance ended with a short commiserating exchange between the two of us—man, this job, am I right?—preceded by a dance of smartphones constructed by choreographer Hilary Clark with the assistance of David Guzman, who taught me and Jehan the sequence the day before the work was presented to the public.
I performed this text myself in 2020 at the Chocolate Factory in an earlier work-in-progress showing, so I am familiar with Aaron’s thinking and writing. But the better verb might be whittling, as Aaron continues to sculpt the text in small fits of subtraction, generating bursts of text to be cut, cut, cut as he listens to their resonance in the room. At the top of my script, I made a little note, eavesdropping on Aaron in conversation with Norm as they discussed a contrapuntal relationship that had begun to emerge between Jehan’s delivery and the musician’s guitar. I heard Aaron say: “It brings out a sentimental quality that I think is kinda scary-good.” In the dimmed lights of the Nureyev, designed by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, I liked contemplating what makes sentimentality scary and good. In the final moments of Night Keeper, opening her gaze out to a rapt crowd of fellow night keepers (spoiler: we all keep the night), Jehan reports in tones even and poignant: “We sag with moisture. Our arms are hoops. Regrets lullaby us.” I cannot say I understand the steps of her logic, but there are traces of tears and shapes of holes in her prosaic musings. And no one’s pillow is a stranger to those marks.
Jess Barbagallo is an actor/playwright. His work has been presented at Dixon Place, La MaMa ETC, New Ohio Theater, Poetry Project, Performance Space New York, the Ontological-Hysteric, Experimental Theatre Wing at NYU, The Brick, and Abrons Art Center. He has performed with Big Dance Theater, Half Straddle, Theater of a Two-Headed Calf (and its Dyke Division) and The Builders Association. Film: Christmas on Earth/Joe Ranono’s Yuletide Log and Other Fruitcakes; The Puzzlers 1+2. TV: "Law & Order: SVU." In August, he will direct Sylvan Oswald’s Pony in Portland, ME.