Prelude to What's to Come

10/01/2010 10:30 AM |

Prelude.10, this year's iteration of the Prelude festival, marks the seventh year of this interdisciplinary conference. Positioned in the midst of the tidal wave of shows that marks the beginning of the new theatrical season each September, the festival seems to want to set a tone, or ask big questions for the year ahead.

In her introduction to the festival, printed in the program for the event, Morgan von Prelle Pecelli, one of the event's co-curators, speaks of the festival's desire to address the question "Why does live matter?" She ends her description by indicating that the festival is a call to attendees "to Wake Up." But I wonder who this provocative call is meant to awaken, as the performing arts, specifically interdisciplinary, fringe, and experimental performing arts, have never seemed more awake than they are today (at least not for the past few decades). Nor have there been more performers attempting in earnest (though certainly not always successfully) to remind us of what is unique about live performance and also struggling with questions of how to sustain it. And with New York's glut of performance festivals, it's hard to imagine why this festival stands as out as a stronger wake up call than the others, but as I type this, the festival is ongoing, so I can't fairly draw a conclusion quite yet.

All that said, the Prelude festival is unique for three important reasons: the first being that all the events of the festival are free; secondly, the focus is not on presenting complete and polished performances, but rather excerpts of work in progress; and finally, the audience is a mix of the public, practitioners and academics. There are other events that have one or two of the above elements, but as far as I know there are no others that combine all three. And few of the festivals that aim for a mixed audience actually succeed. On the first day of the fest I sat near to, variously, Kristin Marting (the artistic director of HERE), a woman from the general public who simply enjoys attending performance events, a group of CUNY grad students, and also a couple of writers and a freelance director.

The format for this year's festival is different than years past. Each day begins with a couple of "activity" sessions led by different artists. Thursday included a writing workshop led by members of the Joyce Cho writers group, as well as a presentation by the Live Writers, who are attempting in some way to mashup the live experience with the world of social networking. The latter seemed more like a cheeky exercise that treats the live experience as secondary to an edited document they are going to generate from the hours of materials they are recording throughout the festival, putting the live attendees in a vulnerable position that borders on feeling used. In that regard the Live Writing project seems a strange answer to von Prelle Pecelli's overarching question for the festival.

“Activity” continues to have an open interpretation throughout the fest, Thursday started off with an interactive performance event still in its early development—Lush Valley, created by Kristin Marting. Friday's activities will include Joe Silvosky talking about "Creating Analogy Simulations" followed by Kimon Keramidas of Bard College's Digital Media Lab giving a "crashcourse in performance, digital media and the Internet." It's exciting to me that these sessions are open to the public (with some members of the public actually attending) and free—a more genuine method of literally expanding a dialogue with the audience about how and why this work is important or interesting.

These activity sessions are then followed by four performance excerpts each evening. All the performances are of works in progress and the artists involved represent an exciting cross-section of contemporary performing artists ranging from Penny Arcade to Ishmael Houston-Jones. One of the highlights from the first day's performances included the collaboration between Alec Duffy of Hoi Polloi and writer Sylvan Oswald. As they described it, the piece is taking its first baby steps toward completion, so I'll refrain from too much commentary, but Oswald's smart and rich lyrics/poetry mixed with Hoi Polloi's approachable performance style and music made me very excited to see what shape the piece will eventually take. At Friday's performance DJ Spooky and Reggie Watts promise to make the live audience happy they showed up.

These performances are followed up by roundtables where some of the day's artists sit around and speak on a given topic. This part of the day (at least on the first day) was a bit problematic. There's a growing tendency inside and outside the arts to put creative types in a room together in the hope that something useful will come of it, but the general and tangential nature of the discussion—the first day's topic was communication in community, in exactly those broad headings—felt frustrated and lacked insight. The take away there seemed to be that stimulating provocative dialogue is an art form all its own, and that it's not enough to put interesting people in a room together, there have to be specific questions and specific problems to address. We'll see how the rest of these discussions go in the days ahead.

Taken as a whole, the Prelude Festival is a great (and free) chance for those inside and outside the performance world to get a taste of things to come, and to interact with one another in a more open and less product-driven format. For the public, you get the rare opportunity to participate in meaningful ways not only in the performances but also in the process of creation. I recommend it to those who can attend.

(photo credit: Prelude 10)