With the economic shitstorm showing no signs of clearing, innovative escapism comes courtesy of The Citizens Band, a politically-charged, cabaret-esque dance troupe led by trapeze artist and filmmaker Sarah Sophie Flicker. The Panic Is On, Citizens Band’s sixth show, will open this Thursday (October 23-25) at New York’s Henry Street Settlement, transcending mere death-and-taxes monologues. The show features an allegorical take on the nation’s social, economic, and political meanderings, reinterpreted through flamboyant showmanship and flush with lace and rubies reminiscent of Victorian and flapper fashion. We caught up with Flicker to converse about the political undertones of her upcoming show, what she really thinks of Tina Fey, and how exactly the word “consumerism” translates into a costume. Maybe it’s not escapism, after all.
So how’s your day going so far? It’s cold. You know it’s supposed to be the coldest winter we’ve had in years.
Your troupe, The Citizen’s Band, is performing for three nights this week. The story takes place in a bomb shelter, right? Well, yeah, it’s all sort of a metaphor for what our country is going through right now. It starts with this very lavish, over-the-top party sort of celebrating, in our mind, what has gone wrong with our country. We have a song called “Gasoline” about excessive spending and consumerism, war, and all the things we’ve gotten ourselves in a pickle with. And a big sort of musical stock market crash, explosion slash attack happens, and we all end up in a bomb shelter together — all walks of different American lives, and we have to band together to find a way out, find some hope, and hopefully some compassion for each other, and a changed country, metaphorically speaking. That’s what the show’s about in a teeny weenie nutshell.
For The Panic Is On, how did the concept come about? Obviously our economy isn’t doing so well right now, but were there any specific inspirations that went into the show? Yeah, definitely. We’ve been working on this show now for a year, and we keep amending it as things change in the political landscape. I think we’re feeling a lot more hopeful right now than a year ago, for obvious reasons, but it sort of came about as a general metaphor for where we are as a country, for all of us feeling trapped and stifled. And what better metaphor for that than a bomb shelter?
Karen Elson and The Cardigan’s Nina Persson are in the show. What’s it like working with them professionally and personally? We’ve been working with both of them for a while now. Karen’s a founding member of the group. I’ve been working with her for four years, and she’s one of my best friends. They’re both incredible. They’re both such professionals. Nina takes hilariously copious notes during rehearsals. None of us can ever remember our choreography and have to ask her. And Karen’s just the best. She’s such a hard worker, just rolls her shirt sleeves up and goes for it. They’re both so insanely talented, so I enjoy working with both of them.
What is the best thing anyone’s ever said about your shows? It sounds so self-important, but a lot of people definitely said it was important, and that it made them think, but I also love the fact that some people come and feel like they get the political message, and feel really inspired and full of a lot of hope afterward. There are some people who come, who think it’s beautiful and miss some of the message, but really enjoy the costumes and the dancing and the contortion pieces, so it’s really a mixed bag, and we try not to be too dogmatic. We aim to be very glamorous, so we get a lot of different kinds of comments. The coolest thing to me is that we have between 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds who come to every single one of our shows, and it just makes me so happy that there are young people who are excited about what we’re doing.
The Panic Is On covers topics like war, immigration and xenophobia. How would you translate fear-mongering into an outfit in the vein of The Citizens Band? The store Geminola is my favorite in all of Manhattan, on Perry Street. We work with Lorraine, who’s been doing our costumes for the better part of this year. One of the songs is all about fear-mongering, and somehow that ended up being a huge sort of black, really tattered, lacy ball gown with a huge spider web hairpiece on top; that’s how that character’s dressed. We’re definitely not super-literal, and during that song, Elizabeth Newton is on trapeze during all these spidery scary aerial things, so that’s how that one goes.
And consumerism? There’s a fur coat sort of in the vein of a Sarah Palin wearing over-the-top-fur, but her aesthetic is not of now, it’s really 1880 through early 1940s; we’re sort of interpreting everything with an eye to the past that’s going on now. We all have fans made out of money, and there’s a lot of throwing of money around and over-the-top excess. There’s a lot of showgirl outfits and rhinestones — all the general things you think of when you think consumerism.
Immigration? Rain Phoenix plays a [Russian] movie star who comes to America and ends up as a housemaid. So she’s sort of wearing a tattered, Russian-looking doll dress with a maid outfit over it, sort of like a babushka, but with the trappings of a maid on the top.
And how would you interpret xenophobia? There isn’t any one character that embodies that. I suppose Ian Buchanan’s character, he’s sort of like this patriotic slash Halliburton head slash Dick Cheney character, although he’s dressed in like a suit with tails with an over-the-top patriotic vest, patriotic tie, and a top hat. It’s kind of like grotesquely over-the-top Uncle Sam.
Can you tell me about the design process, and sort of conceptualizing the attire on stage? We generally have a color palette we work with in every show, and we all have characters, so we usually just sit down with Lorraine, who owns Geminola, and we talk through what each character’s about. There’s some of us who have four costume changes, so it’s a process, and so we spend a few days putting all the outfits together.
With the state of the economy, what’s the first thing that you would sell? What do I have that’s worth anything? I know a lot of people are selling stocks. I’m not sure that’s the right thing to do right now, but if you get desperate that’s usually what people go for. I would be very careful if I had to part with my showgirl costume collection, but I suppose I would do it if I had to.
Have you been watching the debates and the Saturday Night Live skits? Yes, I’ve watched all of them.
Any thoughts that you’d like to put on the table? I’m an Obama supporter. I feel like in the last few weeks, the McCain campaign has gotten pretty ugly. I think Tina Fey’s a genius. A hundred of us are going to Ohio three days after the shows are done to get out the vote, and we’ll be there through the election, so I’m just hoping that we can somehow help win Ohio, and I’m feeling pretty positive about an Obama victory. I think we all have to not take that for granted and make sure every single last person votes.
Do you have any fears if Obama were to get elected? Yeah, I think any politician is going to be inevitably disappointing, because in order to be a successful politician, there are so many constituents that you have to placate, so I’m sure that anyone who, for example is as liberal as I would want them to be, wouldn’t be elected in the first place in this country. I think anybody who ends up being the president is going to disappoint people, because you can’t possibly make everyone happy. Then it’s not a democracy.
Do you have any predictions on where our country’s headed in terms of the general state of affairs? It depends on who’s elected. No matter who’s elected, I think they’re inheriting a really messy situation, and that things are not going to get better in the next year or two. I think we’re in it for a tough couple of years. But I also think that there’s a lot that we can learn about ourselves as a country, and as humans. After 9/11, we were asked to go shopping, so maybe now it’s time to actually make some changes in our lives, make some sacrifices and on a happy note, maybe that will be a really positive thing for our country. Hopefully we can do enough of that kind of stuff where our international image will change, you know. People will like us in the world again, and we can like ourselves again.