Girls, Interrupted

600 HIGHWAYMEN, Employee of the Year, 2014. Rehearsal view, April 7, 2014. Photo: Maria Baranova.

ANY GOOD STORY has another stowed somewhere inside of it. A young girl is pushed out into the world without warning, before she is ready. Motherless, fatherless, and without a home, she is unprotected from the elements, from threat and harm, and must find her own way to the end of her life. This is the story of J, the heroine of 600 HIGHWAYMEN’s Employee of the Year, a humble, epic tale performed by five girls, all between the ages of nine and ten. Over the course of the performance Candela Cubria, Rachel Dostal, Stella Lapidus, Alice Chastain Levy, and Violet Newman take turns playing J, narrating the character’s life in the first-person present as though the events are unfolding right in front of them: J’s home burning down, her escape from her hometown, the birth of her son, her inevitable aging. The girls also sing plaintive songs written for them by performer/composer David Cale, sending their voices up and over the action as though hovering above. What is haunting about Employee of the Year—what gives the show its nuanced and shifting gravity—is that just beneath its surface is an elegy of sorts for this very fleeting moment of the young performers’ lives.

600 HIGHWAYMEN are writers/directors Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, who are also husband and wife. I first saw Employee of the Year in early August at Mount Tremper Arts, where I had the opportunity to watch the rehearsal process but little chance to ask questions. I met with the directors again in late September as they were revising and rehearsing the show for its New York premiere as part of the French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line festival. “It started with the journey myth,” Browde explained, noting that it was, unexpectedly, a reading by Elmore Leonard that helped to shape how they decided upon the girls’ distinct performance style, which seems almost as though they’re telegraphing their lines from elsewhere. “He read an excerpt from Get Shorty, and the way he read the dialogue was so unaffected and simple and beautiful, but clear,” she said. “He just heard the story as he was telling it.” I asked why they cast young girls to tell the story of J. “Because these are the people who should tell this story that’s all about transformation,” Silverstone said. “They’re pre-puberty,” Browde added. “They’re just about to change—to become the adults they will be for the duration.”

The word the directors never use—and never even seem to think about—is tween. Yet against the larger backdrop of American consumer culture, it’s hard to ignore how these young women in the role of tweens are the ne plus ultra of built-in obsolescence. In “consumer evolution” terms, tweens have been the youngest target audience to be encumbered with their very own celebrities, network shows, mall tours and more, and the tabloids are replete with stories of what becomes of a child star. (Even the Ivory Tower makes use of the figure of the young girl. See the recent American chic-ing of Tiqqun’s 1999 work of heady pulp, Preliminary Materials For a Theory of the Young-Girl, which peddles the poor things to exhaustion for their metaphorical value.) If Disney, which defined the tween demographic in the early 1990s, seeks to empower young girls through modes of purchase, Employee of the Year relies on a wholly different economy.

Whether working with trained or untrained actors, Silverstone and Browde have always rejected the schooled polish of the so-called professional—“the shellac,” as Browde calls it—in favor of encouraging a certain slippage between performer and character. “I don’t think you would hear the story without these girls,” Silverstone tells me, and I almost jokingly ask him which story he’s referring to: J’s or a fictionalized projection of the girls’ own. As we finish our conversation, the three of us walk together to their rehearsal space. The girls soon arrive, chatting about their weekends, and Browde calls them over to stand in a circle. They stretch, giggle, and repeat a line that begins “I wish to wish the wish you wish.” For a quick second, I think they’re practicing a bit of new dialogue—something tricky and rhythmic to play inside the “I” of J–until I realize it’s just a tongue-twister. They’re warming up for rehearsal—getting ready to get started.

600 HIGHWAYMEN’s Employee of the Year will run Wednesday October 15 and Thursday October 16 as part of the French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line festival.