Dreaming Up New Roles for Performance

08/17/2011 4:00 AM |

People are talking a lot lately about socially engaged art. I recently attended a talk on the subject by Nato Thompson, the Chief Curator at Creative Time—the organization responsible for organizing numerous public art projects in the city. In anticipation of their upcoming Living as Form exhibition at the Essex Street Market in the Lower East Side, he discussed how art creates new forms, some of which suggest and even demonstrate new ways of living in the world.

It seemed like the perfect entry point not only for the Living as Form exhibition, but also for other activities happening around the city recently, where organizations and groups that have been creating and supporting socially engaged art for decades are trying to figure out how to talk to and engage with emerging artists who want to start everything fresh. Both the veterans and the newbies recognize the importance of finding ways of making tangible and sustainable change in the world, but they’re still trying to figure out how to listen to and learn from one another.

The most interesting example of such an intergenerational mash-up is the Dream Up Festival, happening right now at the Theater for the New City (TNC). While this is only the second Dream Up Fest (through September 4), TNC’s history of producing work that seeks to have a direct impact on its communities is long and well documented. Since 1971, TNC has done everything from founding the Village Halloween parade with Ralph Lee to starting a program aimed at children living in homeless shelters and helping to launch the careers of such artists as Maria-Irene Fornés, Richard Foreman, Jean-Claude van Itallie and Mabou Mines.

With Dream Up, TNC is responding to cuts in arts budgets, trying to offer a platform for artists in the city and beyond who are losing opportunities elsewhere. Participants all cite the theater’s history as a major reason for their interest in joining the festival. The dancer and choreographer Jesse Phillips-Fein has been watching that history build over time: “I have been seeing work there since I was a kid in the late 80s and early 90s. Every year my family sees the annual Bread & Puppet theater production, one of my oldest inspirations for politically engaged art.” Meanwhile Milos Sofrenovic, a Serbian performance artist and director based in Austria, only has the recorded history as his beacon, this being the first time he’s ever presented work in the US.

The work being performed this year is promising, like Puerto Rican artist Aravind Enrique Adyanthaya’s La Mano: Tales of the End of the World, which he said was inspired by the apocalypse, aging, and “living in Puerto Rico, where sometimes you feel that public policies are madness, that the sun engenders visceral violence, that the island is too small, and fluid reality is the only survival tool.”

We interviewed a handful of the artists involved in the festival, as well as TNC's Executive Director Crystal Field and the Festival's Curator Michael Scott-Price. These brief thoughts will give you a picture of some of the realities the artists participating in the fest face as arts budgets continue to shrink, along with some insights into the work they are presenting.

One Comment

  • Theater for the New City, Crystal Field, Executive Director
    Dream Up Festival (Michael-Scott Price,Festival Director/Curator)

    in association with The Great American Play Series and L.B.Productions

    John Steppling’s ‘Dogmouth’
    directed by Stephan Morrow


    Kendra Leigh Landon
    Stephan Morrow
    Ray Wasik
    L.B. Williams*
    *appears courtesy AEA


    Sam Charny
    Billy Marshall
    Joseph Serrano

    Theater for the New City (155- 1st Ave. @10St.).
    Tickets – $12
    Students/Seniors $10
    Reservations : 212- 254-1109

    Performances : Aug 21 – Sept 1, 2011.
    Sunday Aug 21 @ 2PM
    Wednesday Aug 24@ 9PM
    Saturday Aug 27@5PM
    Sunday Aug 28@ 5PM
    Wednesday Aug 31 @ 9PM
    Thursday Sept 1 @ 7PM
    AEA approved Showcase

    “Does an underground mafia of Viet Nam vets really exist hoboing around on the rails and is it as large and powerful as it is portrayed by journalists – or is it a media creation drawing the heat for every murder on the rails from Arizona to California? And has the leader of this group become a changed man – and dedicated to his nineteen year old pregnant girlfriend? Or is he an unrepentant racist criminal bent on plotting to murder a rival over a deal that went sour. When he visits a black man – is it to buy a dog or to kill him? These are the things that come up in John Steppling’s dark and controversial play ‘Dogmouth’. The fact that he also deftly manages to place ruminations on death and dying, the brutality of existence and the survival of the fittest on the streets of Phoenix, not to mention the breeding of dogs – in the middle of it – is what makes this play dark and riveting, and which takes us far beyond just dog fighting and mysterious murders on the rails….” Stephan Morrow, Director
    “Art is not your friend”. – John Steppling