Negative Liberty / Positive Liberty: Interview with Playwright Christopher McElroen

Negative Liberty / Positive Liberty
“Negative Liberty / Positive Liberty” is a new play that will be presented at The Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn from March 18 to April 18.

“Negative Liberty / Positive Liberty” is a new play that will be presented at The Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn from March 18 to April 18. This socially distanced performance-installation explores the famed British philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s historic 1958 lecture/essay titled “Two Concepts of Liberty: Negative & Positive.” The essay—and the play—artistically distill how the concepts of liberty can be used rhetorically to control and repress individuals in the name of liberty itself. This will eventually, and inevitably, lead to violent conflict. The show is all of ten minutes long and is a personal single-viewer experience.

“Negative Liberty / Positive Liberty” was created by Christopher McElroen who is the Founding Artistic Director of the american vicarious.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you initially get interested in writing and what most appeals to you about plays?

Christopher McElroen (CM): Referring myself as a writer might be disingenuous to actual writers…The extent of my writing is the adaption and framing of preexisting material. In this case, Isaiah Berlin’s 1958 lecture, Two Concepts of Liberty. I’ve simply attempted to frame his arguments within our current moment. And to invite folks into a space to learn something
about Mr. Berlin while reflecting on their liberty. As for plays, I’m attracted to the exchange of art and ideas, within a shared physical space, between a performer and an audience.

MM: How did you break into the industry and establish yourself, especially in the realm of site-specific work?

CM: If I’ve established myself, it’s to the extent that I get to make work I find interesting, with collaborators I admire, while still paying my rent on-time – most months… If I did have a break into the industry, it was someone being kind enough to allow me to sweep the floor of a theatre on the Lower East Side. It was an education and access to a community of artists. And at that time, all work was site-specific on the Lower East Side. There were very few actual theatres. Folks simply made work where they could.

MM: What inspired “Negative Liberty / Positive Liberty” and how much research into history did you do for it?

CM: Negative Liberty/Positive Liberty was inspired by the events of January 6, 2021, a photograph by Anthony Barboza and conversations with my collaborators. We researched Isaiah Berlin, his personal history, and his lecture. I also shared the conversations I had with a number of folks, ranging from civil rights lawyers to the gentleman who sits outside my subway station. I simply asked all to offer their thoughts on the word “liberty”.

MM: What do you think is the most profound thing about this show?

CM: If there is a profound element to this work, it’s not mine. It’s Isaiah Berlin’s critical thought on concepts of liberty, thoughts that were influenced by his life experience and by witnessing the extreme brutality of politically motivated violence at a very young age. His lecture offers insight into our collective world moment; a moment where we continue to witness a retreat to the flawed ideas of nationalism and paternalism. World history tells us, rather profoundly, that this rarely ends well.

MM: How tough was it to write this to be a short ten minutes?

CM: You can listen to Mr. Berlin’s lecture. It takes about six hours or so. He dictated it, complete with punctuation, on seven records. Distilling the printed lecture, which is fifty pages or so, proved a bit easier.

How does performing for one person at a time change the dynamics of the presentation?

CM: From the viewer side, I believe it has the capacity to distill an aspect of theatre to its essence – reduce the exchange of art and ideas between a performer and an audience to an intimate exchange between two individuals in a shared space. Or at least that’s my hope.

MM: What is some of the best feedback you’ve gotten about this piece thus far?

CM: We’ve yet to open, but the work has come a great distance from its initial idea. This is credited to the thoughtful feedback of a team of trusted collaborators that include performers Sarah Ellen Stephens and Olivia Gilliatt, scenographer Troy Hourie, video designer Adam J. Thompson, sound designer Andy Evan Cohen, lLighting designer  Lucrecia Briceno, production manager  Neal Wilkinson and producer  Erica Laird, among others.

MM: What other projects are you working on right now and what themes might you like to address in future works?

CM: Negative Liberty/Positive Liberty is the second performance installation in a series of five that seeks to distill theatre to its essence – an exchange between a performer and an audience within a shared space. Each installation is motivated by aspects of social distance, social distance not limited to the physical space between us, but rather an exploration of the ideals that unite us and the realities that divide us. The five installations will premiere individually, and then be presented collectively across a geographic span to highlight the distance between various communities in a single town or city.

MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?

CM: My ultimate goal is to remain healthy! As for anything else, I’d like to thank you for your thoughtful questions.


Tickets to “Negative Liberty / Positive Liberty” are free. Reservations for specific entry times can be made at