There is a cultural phenomenon called Burning Man. Ten days of “radical freedom” in the Nevada desert, an economy of gifts, a massive party, fantastic art installations. This show is about that, but only so far as it’s a setting for the competing and overlapping narratives that form the collective cultural memory of Burning Man.
Creator/performer Norah Paton gathered the text for the show from an extensive series of interviews with burners over the course of several years, including one of the Burning Man founders, Larry Harvey. The fact that she has conflated, overlapped and spliced them together to create a more potent cast of characters and more impactful stories is acknowledged, and part of the point. It reflects the hollowness of both the festival’s ethical posture, and the desire of its participants to seek out and consume an authentic transformative experience.
Thematically, the tension between the idealized myth-making narrative we weave, and the truth we perceive behind it when we look closely runs strongly through all the characters and the show itself. All the design elements, like the ever-present club beat that pulses throughout the show, remind us of the fragile, thin, and hollow reality of the story we’re telling ourselves about the moment we’re in. Just take a look at Brie McFarlane’s review about the set. The story we’re telling is always brittle, and doesn’t bear contradiction in its particulars. Paton explores what happens when one optimistic “true” narrative runs up against another that contradicts it that throws a sharp shadow across its flat façade.
Paton’s performance is also spot on, giving form to the human voices she has drawn and shaped from the chaos of Burning Man. Her voice and physical work truly bring these words into distinct and specific individuals before us on stage. The things these people say in what seems largely to be attempts at candid self-reflection makes me think about how much self-awareness we can have. I look at them and see what they aren’t admitting, and I wonder if there is a place in even special cultures where we can let go of our postures and excuse making and just be humans in that moment together.
If we can, it will be in moments of honest and deep engagement with our present reality, and Burnt offers plenty of opportunity for these.