The Creative Act of Memory Building

by Brian Sonia-Wallace

I meet with Arianne MacBean, the director of The Collective Memory Project, on an overcast LA morning at the Ford, where she and her company are in rehearsal. It’s unnervingly quiet here during the day, the only sound the wind through the trees, underscored by the drone of traffic from the 101.

Arianne MacBean (top far right) and The Big Show Co.

Arianne tells me that The Collective Memory Project performances will be intimate, with the audience sitting up onstage right next to the performers. At each show, audience members will be invited to share memories of their own on notecards, which will be incorporated into the performance right before their eyes. This way of working, creating text and movement at the same time, is a specialty of Arianne and her Big Show Co., which she founded in 1998.

Three years ago, a friend of Arianne’s, an advocate for military veterans in TV and film, approached her with the idea of leading some writing workshops with veterans. What emerged from those workshops at Bob Hope Patriotic Hall was the through line of what would become The Collective Memory Project: the connection between memory and survival. The veterans explored how memories help us survive or how they hinder us, in battlefields literal and metaphorical throughout our lives.

U.S. veterans and The Big Show Co. performing in a workshop.

“My wish is that I can forget all my memories,” one veteran reflected at a recent rehearsal, “because I’m so in the moment, in the dance.”

“I want to be in others people’s memories,” said another, “and forget my own for a little while.”

The performance at the Ford will feature a mix of work from three years of development alongside moments that exist solely that night inspired by the audience. Arianne calls the process, “a creative act of memory building.”

She describes the format of the show as a series of problem solving games where the problem never gets solved. Working with audience memories, the performers must find new ways to solve the theatrical challenges that form the foundation of the performance. There is no one right way to traverse collective memory.

The Big Show Co.’s goal is to have audiences see themselves in the action onstage. “In sharing memories,” Arianne says, “we literally give them to each other.” I am reminded of neuroscience research on storytelling that suggests that when we’re listening to a story being told, our brains literally mirror what’s going on in the brain of the storyteller – synapse for synapse. 

By coming together, veterans, actors and audience members enter this shared space, if only for a short while. In this way, the act of sharing memory transcends individual identity to become a communal experience. 

Many of the veterans involved in this project are artists in their own right, eager to share both joy and tragedy. Their collective hope is to bridge the divide between former service members and the public, to create a platform for dialogue that dives deeper than the headlines.

The Collective Memory Project takes place at the Ford on June 28 & 29. For tickets and more info, click here.