Olmsted's Book on Conspiracies Adapted for the Stage

By Loren Michael Mortimer - Most people experience academic history through books, seminars, or the occasional documentary. But Kathy Olmsted, professor and chair of the History Department, recently had the chance to see her book REAL ENEMIES transformed into multimedia performance art at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival.

Conspiracy theories, as Olmsted's book notes, have been an essential component of American politics since the founding of the Republic. Early versions tended to involve outsiders and foreign influences—masons, Catholics, and British kings. But the twentieth century saw the nature of such theories undergo a major shift.

After World War I, conspiracists began focusing their attention on the federal government. The JFK assassination and Watergate gave credence to their theories, undermining public trust in government and animating the antigovernment rhetoric we see in contemporary conservative politics.

Sensory experience

The transformation of Real Enemies from scholarly monograph into performance art began when composer Darcy James Argue saw his girlfriend reading Olmsted’s book. After reading it himself, Argue began to think more deeply about the nature of conspiracies. How, he wondered, might they be presented in a compelling visual and sonic narrative?

“Real Enemies” creates a powerful sensory experience through video, set pieces, and an original score. Argue’s eighteen-piece big band, aptly named Secret Society, stands around an illuminated clock face as images and sounds from great American conspiracy theories—Red Scare, the Illuminati, Edward Snowden, and alien sightings—are vividly projected on stage.

Furious ambition

Intrigued to see her scholarship woven into a multimedia performance, Olmsted was in the audience at the Harvey Theater on opening night. “Near the show’s end, the narrator reads a mash-up of Richard Hofstadter’s ‘Paranoid Style’ with some words from my conclusion,” she says. “It was surreal to hear my work read in that context.”

“Real Enemies” has received positive reviews. The New York Times called the show “a work of furious ambition that feels deeply in tune with our present moment—even as it suggests linkages through history, true to the subject at hand.”

Elsewhere, The Guardian praised the production: “It doesn’t just want audiences to understand conspiracy thinking…It wants them to engage in it.”

“Real Enemies” is an immersive multimedia experience grounded in empirical social science. The interplay of moving images, light and sound disorients audience members in order to reveal the complex social psychology of American conspiracism. New York theatergoers have a unique opportunity to experience raw history delivered with all the emotion, tension, and sensation of the very best performance art.

Learn more about Kathy Olmsted and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.