Traveling with Ben and Simon can sometimes feel a little bit like having Pippen and Merry in tow. Simultaneously fun and exhausting.
The trick is to keep them moving, which is how we found ourselves walking around Calton Hill in Edinburgh one day last week. In addition to the National Monument and other various important markers, the hill boasts gorgeous views of the city, but we were primarily there for the winding paths and free space to run and be loud. We were working off a couple of hours of being quiet on a train ride before going to sit in a restaurant.
Several signs in the park indicated that there was an exhibition somewhere with free admission. Ben wanted to go and see what the exhibition was and I was happy to let him lead us along until we found a building that seemed in comparison to the old towers around the park, somewhat contemporary. Or even temporary. The white box building resembled a trailer that could be carried off at any moment by a strong wind. Lots of buildings are under construction in the winter in Scotland since it is not the tourist season, so we thought maybe the regular entrance to the exhibition was closed for construction and this structure was a provisional substitute.
Ben opened the door to reveal a girl sitting at a desk a small hall. “Is this the entrance to the art museum?” I asked.
“Oh yes, come in,” she answered. “It’s right through here.”
She picked up two folders from a stack and handed them to Ben and me. I assumed they were descriptions of the exhibits, a sort of guide to the collection. I followed Ben into the next room, which I thought was still part of the temporary entrance.
Inside the small room was a large palette of water bottles, wrapped in plastic. The top of the plastic had been ripped open and several water bottles had been pulled out and were scattered all around the room. Some of the bottles on the floor were empty, but lots of them were still full. You noticed the water bottles immediately because they were in your path to the next door. You had to be careful not to step on them. In the corner, there was a man sort of pacing back and forth.
“Oh hello.” he said when he saw us. “We’re just about to begin rehearsing in here.”
“Ok,” I said, continuing on through the room.
He was wearing exercise clothes and there was a yoga mat rolled out on the floor next to him. He went on to explain that he was part of an art collective that was being performed around the city and that it ran on donations alone. I had noted already that there was a large donation box on the desk where the girl welcomed us in.
I nodded, but I was still kind of continuing through the room, trying to get to the door on the other side, though the room was only about 12 by 12 feet.
He was still talking, but I was only barely listening. Something about the performance was only fifteen minutes long but there was a bit of language and we could leave at anytime.
I muttered something like, “Yes, yes, well perhaps we will come back, but we’re going on through to the art museum.”
“Oh this is the collective. Right here. This is it.”
I looked at him with what I expect was a puzzled expression at being told that this small room that seemed to be a trash receptacle for water bottles was the art collective for which there were signs posted throughout the park.
“Beyond that door is only offices. Yes, this is it,” he kept explaining, “We’ve been here for several weeks now and next week we’re moving to a new location. The play is about momentum and the audience can participate if you want. And of course if you need to leave before it’s over, that is fine too.”
Oh, we’re the audience. I was catching on. Slowly.
I looked at the boys, “Well, should we sit down?” They were more quiet than they had been all day. There was a small bench on one side of the room, so we took our seats. I assumed more actors were coming because the man had said, “We’ve been rehearsing.”
But almost as soon as we sat down, the man changed from speaking to us conversationally to what seemed more like a scripted speech, which was my only indication that the play had in fact, begun.
He started jumping up and down, much like the beginning of an exercise class. He handed us each a water bottle and told us we really needed to stay hydrated. Something to do with momentum. He was shouting directions and I kept wondering if we should get up and exercise. I looked at the boys like, “Do you want to do the jumping jacks?” but I only got blank faces back. They opened their water bottles and took nervous sips.
In between segments of exercise, there was a monologue about some sort of investment plan gone wrong. He would be telling us how he had invented a fool proof plan for investing in people and it was brilliant and then he would go back to shouting exercise commands. Back and forth between the investment monologue and momentum exercises he went.
I was beginning to wonder if fifteen minutes had passed when I realized that the folders we had in our hands contained the script of the play. I only noticed this because Ben was following along in his.
Why do we have the scripts, I thought. Are we supposed to be entering the scene? Are we doing it all wrong? Were we meant to be exercising and participating?
At this point, I thought back to when Ben had opened the door and I had popped my head in and asked the girl at the front if this was the art museum, and I wondered how many times a day she had the opportunity to beckon people into this room to be bewildered without warning. I started wondering if it was an experiment. Was someone was recording our reactions and trying to determine how likely it is that people will get up and participate in a play without being instructed?
Then I recalled that the man had told us twice that we could leave whenever we wanted, and it was while I imagining the likelihood of the three of us standing up and walking out while he was in the middle of doing a plank on the floor and ranting about his being misunderstood that I began to get tickled.
You know how in a moment that seems so very serious, if you get tickled, you can almost not help but laugh. Soon I was biting the insides of my cheeks trying not to laugh. Sideways glances at Ben and Simon’s wide eyes were too much. I opted for coughing really hard in an effort to maintain my composure.
By the end of the piece, the man’s face was all red and he was saying that he had not had anything to eat in a week and that we could drink the water but he could not. It was all a jumble of nonsense and just keep up your momentum and such. I glanced out the windows at the green hill we had been walking on just a little while ago. Goodness, I thought, we were just trying to go for a walk.
Simon had finished all his water by the time the man suddenly stopped speaking. I considered for a fleeting moment whether or not we should clap. Instead I think I just said, “Well, um, thank you.”
He apologized for getting confused at the end because he was moderating the language for the young ones.
“Oh I’m sorry about that.” For some reason I felt the need to apologize for wandering into the collective with children, even though there were signs all over the park encouraging us in that direction.
We got up to leave, but he was still speaking. I thought we might have to walk out while he was still talking after all.
“Sometimes people just grab hold of the script and start directing me. Telling me what to do.”
“Yeah, it’s great. People can get really involved if they like, saying, “Ok do it again trying it this way.””
I would not be one of those people.
“Well, thanks again. What should we do with our water bottles?”
“Oh just throw them anywhere.”
Simon’s eyes brightened. Throw them? Anywhere.
Simon lobbed his empty bottle in the general direction of the loan actor as hard as he could as Ben and I were walking out the door.
Luckily for him, an empty water bottle doesn’t have much momentum.