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  • Next day, same place After Godot in New Orleans
  • Paul Chan (bio)

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Scene from Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, Louisiana, November 2007. (Photo by Tuyen Nguyen)

In November 2007, artist Paul Chan, working with the Classical Theatre of Harlem and with Creative Time, a public arts group—both New York City organizations—staged five free site-specific performances of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, in two New Orleanian neighborhoods destroyed by the flooding caused by the levee breaks during Hurricane Katrina. The performances were part of a larger project that also included a fund to help local rebuilding and reorganizing efforts, and a series of dinners, lectures, classes, and events that unfolded throughout the city during the fall of 2007. The project was entitled Waiting for Godot in New Orleans: a play in two acts, a project in three parts ( ).

Some weeks ago in New York, a woman came up to me and introduced herself. She said her name was Linda, and she wanted to tell me how sorry she was that she didn’t get a chance to see Waiting for Godot in New Orleans last November. “That makes two of us,” I replied. “I didn’t see it either.” [End Page 2]

We both laughed. Linda didn’t need an explanation. But if she did, this is what I would say to her:

Yes, I was there. But I didn’t see it either because I was too distracted. It was difficult to focus on seeing the performances when I had to concentrate on all of the other parts of the project. Christopher McElroen, cofounder of the Classical Theatre of Harlem and the play’s director, said to me at one point that the play was the smallest component and our biggest headache. He was right. More than right, he touched on the true scope of the project. We wanted the play to work—to work brilliantly even—on those streets, in that city. But to imagine that the play was the thing is to miss the thing. We didn’t simply want to stage a site-specific performance of Godot. We wanted to create, in the process of staging the play, an image of art as a form of reason. What I mean is that we wanted to use the idea of doing the play as the departure point for inaugurating a series of causes and effects that would bind the artists, the people in New Orleans, and the city together in a relationship that would make each responsible for the other. The project, in other words, was an experiment in using art to organize a new image of life in the city two years after the storm. For instance, a large part of the project was simply spending time in New Orleans. And this came about because people told us we had to experience the city as they did if we wanted to do the play right. So we listened, and spent the entire fall there. I ended up volunteering to teach art courses at two universities, the Classical Theatre of Harlem rehearsed and held workshops in different neighborhoods and schools, and Creative Time hosted dinners and panels. Our presence in the city in turn generated curiosity and talk. And this talk in turn generated more ideas—about what we should do and not do with the play. The more we listened and followed, the more the city talked and took an interest in what we were doing. In time, this talking and listening changed every aspect of what we initially imagined Godot was going to be. And in turn, the people we were working with in the city shared in the responsibility for making the play happen: they saw that what they told us had real consequences. Understanding that words and deeds have real consequences and that these consequences have to be addressed and dealt with, if the words and deeds in fact matter, made the play concrete for everyone on and off that stage—or in our case, that empty...


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