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Bringing You Back to You: The Acme Corporation Finds Its Audience Through the Mail

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Attending a play during a pandemic looks something like this: sitting alone on a yoga mat in your living room/office/home gym at 10 p.m., a tiny MP3 player plugged into your ears, the room lit solely by a small plastic reading lamp clamped to a nearby bookshelf. You think of the time when, as a young child, you read picture books by the hall nightlight while the rest of the household slept. You are the only member of the audience, a moment of both liberty and exile.

The Acme Corporation’s newest production, The Institute for Counterfeit Memory, is a play that arrives in a cardboard box by mail. The contents of the box—including that MP3 player, that clip-on reading lamp/stage light, cue card diagrams, a compact mirror, a personalized letter, a glass jar, a 35mm Kodachrome transparency, a music box, and more—are carefully layered and arranged, allowing the audience to unpack the box/play according to the directions/script.

An instruction card reads: “You will need 30 minutes and a room that can get relatively dark and quiet. We recommend 8pm, but any time after dusk is suitable. When you are ready to begin please clip the reading light somewhere convenient and turn it on, then put the headphones in your ears, then turn on the device.” The audience member is a necessary participant in the production; nothing happens without them. They set the stage, move the props, and press the play button. 

 

The Institute for Counterfeit Memory questions the accuracy of our memories, the value of truth, and how memory itself may be even more subjected to commodification in “these uncertain times.”
Laurence Ross

The headphones from the box remind me of the ones international airlines give away for free, and I feel the closest I’ve been to air travel since March. Cabin lights dimmed, waiting for departure. Then, the first sound of the production comes through: a dial tone, another a relic of a past life.

COVID-19 seems to have given nostalgia a front-row seat in our thoughts as many of us long for what we’ve lost, for a return to “normal,” for romanticized “simpler times.” There are Zoom reunions and new group chats with old friends. We are rereading favorite novels and listening to high school Billboard chart-toppers. Ralph Macchio is on Netflix, somehow still playing the role of the Karate Kid 35 years later. We binge without scrutiny. The quotidian memories of the past acquire a patina of sentimentality that renders them special—and now we rush to preserve them before they, too, disappear.

The Institute for Counterfeit Memory questions the accuracy of our memories, the value of truth, and how memory itself may be even more subjected to commodification in “these uncertain times.” Here is the premise of the play: a company is selling memories. Since our memories make us who we are, the company advertises that through a process of artificial recollection, we can become more complete. “Bringing you back to you,” their slogan says, as if memories could be used to sculpt the best version of ourselves, like a cosmetic injectable filler or a chin implant. The company’s mission seems dangerous, as to search for the Fountain of Youth is to live in the past.

Through the headphones, the play’s narrator reassures us that sentimentality is normal and that we will get used to being alone. The line resonates particularly strong in this time of quarantine, uprisings, and political turmoil. “You will learn that you can get used to anything,” says the narrator, a thought grounded in both fear and desire. Is our pandemic reality a world in which we wish to get used to things, to find comfort, to settle on the couch with our gravity blankets? Or do we instead strive to substantively change reality?

If social media contains even a grain of truth, we say we want change. We say there is no going back. Brunch is over, says Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. We are exhausted by the stresses of COVID-19, but we are also sick and tired of the electoral college, voter suppression, systemic racism, and police brutality. We want to do something. We want to do more. “What would you do with limitless potential?” a commercial voice goads through my headphones. 

Here is a spoiler alert: Plots in the real world are never linear, neat, tidy, or clear. There is nothing resembling a traditional narrative arc in The Institute for Counterfeit Memory. In real life, a plot is something that can only be constructed in retrospect. We choose what to view as the beginning, middle, and end. Narratives can be a powerful tool but they are also, always, powerful artifice. “If things were just a little bit different, things would be different,” the narrator reminds us. “This is normal.”

 

The Acme Corporation’s power as a production company resides in its ability to remind the audience again and again of the inherent artifice of any play, of any story. Sure, director Lola B. Pierson and company may indulge in the academic thrill of meta-awareness. But the experimental nature of The Institute for Counterfeit Memory is not simply for the sake of experiment but to highlight all of our assumptions that make us comfortable and therefore passive, forgetful, and complicit. Anyone can make a narrative, which means someone else will make the narrative for us if we don’t. We would risk living in a world of someone else’s making. The Institute for Counterfeit Memory asks us to play a part, to take action.

Toward the end of the play, I am instructed to turn the handle of the tiny mechanical music box. There is no diagram for the music box, and the narrator tells me this is on purpose—I must remember how to operate a music box on my own, rely on my own agency. This metal-plucked fragment is so much less than the whole. I recognize the notes but cannot recall their larger context or the lyrics that should accompany them. I am frustrated that my brain will not use its memory to accurately identify the song. Then the lyrics click into place: 

Little darling, it seems like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun, do, dun, do, do
Here comes the sun, and I say
It’s all right

When times are dark, the sun readily and reliably symbolizes optimism. But those Beatles lyrics could also be read as advocating action over passivity. Hidden in those lines is the ultimate action verb: do. It is only through action—not the passive passage of time—that things turn out all right in the end. COVID-19 shuts down our public spaces, audiences can’t crowd into a theater, and in response, the Acme Corporation invents a new way to produce a play.

As a critic, I prefer to steer clear of binary judgment, as subjective judgment about art can be a bore. But it would also be dishonest to withhold the truth: this play made me happy. Not dance-party-happy or second-martini-happy or weekend-getaway-with-a-lover happy. But happy that the Acme Corporation has put a name to thoughts and feelings so prevalent during this pandemic. Delighted that the cast has seen and felt what I have seen and felt: loneliness, futility, distraction, fear, stasis, loss—and in spite of it all, endurance, hope. I’m happy, ultimately, to have company while we figure out how to proceed.

Boxes are on sale through October 15. For more information and to buy tickets, visit the Acme Corporation’s website.

 

Photos by Britt Olsen-Ecker, courtesy of The Acme Corporation/Lola B. Pierson

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