Articles by

<Alexis Clements>

10/25/12 9:00am


  • Paula Court

Near the end of our chat, Annie-B Parson asked me why I thought it was important to talk with artists about their creative process. Whether she intended it, I sensed some resistance in the question, a resistance I think she shares with other artists and that I, as a playwright, have felt, too. I think it’s good for certain aspects of a process to be inarticulate or unarticulated. Not because it preserves a romantic notion of mystery or prevents people from having access to the work, but because there is such a drive in our culture to tabulate and quantify and dissect every thing that we do—and much is lost in that process. A great deal ends up being oversimplified or made overly complex when we insist on getting the arts down in words or numbers. The inability to put it into words, the failure of language alone, is precisely why we so often turn to the arts for other modes and means of expression.

Inarticulateness is of particular interest in the new show on which Parson and Paul Lazar are collaborating with playwright Sibyl Kempson, Ich, Kürbisgeist, which opens today at The Chocolate Factory (co-comissioned with PS 122). I stopped by at the tail-end of one of their rehearsals last week to talk to them about the show, whose dialogue is written in a language that Kempson invented and which no one in the world, except those involved in the production, speaks—or has any knowledge of.

Parson and Lazar have been making work together as the Artistic Directors of Big Dance Theater for over 20 years. They’re also married. Big Dance Theater has gained an international reputation for creating thoughtful, surprising, and rigorous dance theater work that often brings together seemingly incompatible material, as they did in their 2004 work Plan B, which combined the secret recordings of Richard Nixon with an obscure figure in early-1800s German popular culture, among other things. Another commonality in their work, as seems to be the case in this new work, Ich, Kürbisgeist , is how they often seem to enjoy feeling like outsiders looking in on a culture or subject that they are not familiar with.

Parson touched on this idea in an interview with BOMB magazine in 2007, when discussing Big Dance Theater’s piece The Other Here: “We’re tourists in a sense to Chekhov, and to folk dance, and to Japan. We’ll always try to remain in this observing, learning stance; we like to bring that out.” In my own chat with them I asked both Parson and Lazar what that was about for them—that desire to observe and react to the unfamiliar. Lazar related an anecdote that the playwright Sibyl Kempson had told him, about being in a foreign country. “She really enjoyed letting the language wash over her—it liberated her from the verbal back and forth.” He went on to say that he enjoyed the unfamiliarity with the language in Ich, Kürbisgeist because it allowed him to “play this game where the odd surfaces of the language induce a more sharp and playful listening.”

Parson, a choreographer by training, spoke about a similar experience related to seeing dance: “As you watch a new dance piece, you amass a new movement vocabulary.” She and Lazar went on to walk more about the idea of being a “tourist” in a variety of settings, but what seemed to come across most clearly is that, for them, there was a value in the experience of having to acknowledge one’s own ignorance—that it freed them up to gain new information that may not fit with what they already knew or that may do something familiar in a totally different way.

09/19/12 1:07pm


A playwright writes her play, prints out a nice clean copy, mails it off to the theater, and her job is done. The theater takes it, sprinkles a little fairy dust on top, et voila, presto change-o, a beautiful, Broadway-ready production emerges ready for all the world to behold.

Not really.

First, it can take years to write a play, and then it can take another set of years for it to reach production. And in most cases, the playwright (when she’s a living playwright) is intimately involved in every step along the way, even in the production, from auditions to rehearsals to design meetings. And when the playwright is very, very lucky, the show gets a second production, or a third, or more. Even in these follow-up productions, the playwright typically follows the script to each theater and each rehearsal. Writing a play is just the beginning for playwrights.

Last week I chatted with writer Lisa D’Amour at Playwrights Horizons, the Off-Broadway theater where her show, Detroit, is receiving its third production and its first in New York, this one directed by Anne Kauffman. D’Amour gave me a backstage tour of the theater before we sat in the empty theater ahead of the night’s preview production, talking about what her daily life is like while working on this show.

This production is very different from the work for which D’Amour is best known in the theater community. She has for years created work that blends theater and installation art—it’s often site-specific, outside of traditional theater settings, and plays with narrative and structure. In those plays, she typically works with her long-time collaborator Katie Pearl; together they operate under the name PearlDamour. Detroit finds D’Amour taking on a different role—acting as the playwright, instead of the playwright/director/fundraiser/producer/sometimes-designer/collaborator/tour manager role that she usually shares with Pearl.

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A more conventional work, Detroit has followed a fairly conventional path to production, though in the 21st century, fewer and fewer plays follow the path that decades ago was standard for successful playwrights. D’Amour wrote the play in 2009, then had an informal first reading in a friend’s apartment. Soon after, the play ended up in the hands of someone at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, and they decided to organize a reading of their own. By fall of the following year, Steppenwolf was mounting a production. After that there was talk of a transfer to Broadway. The play became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. Then, this spring, the play made its way to London’s Royal National Theatre, and opened officially yesterday at Playwrights Horizons here in New York.

08/03/12 9:30am


The stakes always seem so high in New York City. Too high. For many young artists presenting their work on stages, in galleries, or elsewhere, there’s a sense that this is an all-or-nothing town. You get one shot, at very high expense (living costs, venue costs, advertising and public relations fees are much higher here than elsewhere), and as someone who isn’t a celebrity or backed by a large institution, you’re likely to have small audiences. Add to that the expectation that the artwork you create not only needs to meet outsize financial goals, but also needs to serve some kind of common good or have important things to say about the world, or else engage in serious aesthetic or theoretical conversations with other works of art that, in the vernacular, push the field forward.

Therein lies the rub—it’s not often that artists or their audiences really get to enjoy seeing the work. Beyond the above, for audiences, there’s the earnestness of a lot of new work by young people, something that can be scary when it results in heartfelt or ambitious work that falls flat or lacks coherence, because you want them to succeed and it just feels bad when it doesn’t, so you spend the whole time feeling uncomfortable and wanting it to end. Then there’s the intellectually tough or highly abstract work that even at its most brilliant requires a lot of engagement from the audience. There are certainly rewards to that kind of work, and I’m a big fan of a lot of it, but I bring it up here because I don’t sit back and relax when I see those works: I’m trying to actively open to the experience, paying close attention, attempting to parse what I’m seeing.

All of which is to say, it’s a rare and special treat to see a good show that’s just a lot of fun and isn’t overly complex or overly aggressive in packing itself with messages and ideas and commentary. In other words, it’s not that often that you get to go see a show that’s just a good time.

The Girl of the Golden West, a new play created collaboratively by the company Rady & Bloom, which is being presented as the final show in this year’s Ice Factory Festival at the New Ohio Theatre, is such a show. The play is adapted from an earlier Broadway play of the same name, written by David Belasco. In fact the play was such an enormous success in the early 1900s, that it was revived twice on Broadway, adapted as an opera by Puccini, rewritten as a novel by Belasco, and presented on film four separate times.

Rady & Bloom’s version is a tight 75 minutes, with the story being told primarily through song. The cast is compressed to four main players and three instrumentalists, who also take on occasional bit parts during the show, and the drama starts at an upbeat tempo from the first moments, barely resting until the very end. The story revolves around a bandit who travels to a tiny Gold Rush town in California, his love interest, his rival in love, and questions about whether or not he’ll continue his bandit-y ways or be reformed by love. One comically transgressive element is the show’s gender-bending casting: Starr Kwofie plays the town’s sheriff, and Brian Rady plays a barkeep as well as a sultry and high-spirited harlot. While all of the cast does good work in the show, Kwofie and Rady really shine, enjoying the chance to embrace and have fun with these Western archetypes, but also stretching a bit beyond the clichés not only of their characters but also of gender-bending itself.

As you can tell from the story description and casting, this is every bit the classic Western tale, and rife with all the attendant cultural stereotypes that come along with that about women, people of color, and morality. Belasco’s original may even have been partly responsible for cementing the popularity of the form and its archtypes in the American imagination.

But Rady & Bloom’s re-imagining of the work is playful, often tongue-in-cheek, and surprising in the ways that it manages to draw you in despite the simplicity of the story. There are a few false notes, particularly the awkward rap that actor Tom Hennes performs early in the play in his role as the bandit. And unfortunately, because the actors voices aren’t projected in the cavernous space of the New Ohio Theatre, a few chunks of dialogue are inaudible, particularly as the pace of the piece has the actors often speaking over one another. But you have to remember that we’re not on Broadway here—this is a downtown performance of a premiere (i.e. a largely untested play) by a small company given a very short run in a festival; this isn’t a multi-million dollar corporate-backed spectacle (thankfully that means it’s nowhere near the cost of a Broadway ticket). But it’s far more endearing for being what it is, and it’s an example why I will always prefer scrappy productions to slick products.

Rady & Bloom’s inventive and enjoyable work uses the ingenuity that theater people have been demonstrating for centuries: building a clever set with the resources they had, mixing in contemporary costumes that aren’t cheesy or overdone, and making use of the space and the material they had in some really clever ways. It’s a bit camp, a bit genuine, and mostly a good time.

So, go enjoy it. Beers are only $4 to boot.

Rady & Bloom’s Girl of the Golden West plays again today and Saturday. More info here.

07/25/12 4:00am

Allison Kaufman: Temporary Arrangements
HERE Arts Center

There’s something deeply appropriate about this solo show of video and photography work by Allison Kaufman being hung in the intermediate spaces of HERE (through August 25), which is best known to most people as a space that shows a variety of performance work, from dance to contemporary theater to puppet work.

In the past decade or so there’s been a great deal of emphasis within the performance community on the liveness and ephemerality of the work, driven in part by a desire to communicate why having an audience present to witness the work necessarily changes the dynamic not only for the artists but also for those who come to see the performance. Much of the talk ends up highlighting the temporary community or shared experience created by those present, which cannot be replicated and sometimes bonds those people after the performance is over.

Kaufman’s work, though understood in this show primarily through the media of video and photography, is very much tied to performance and fleeting connections with strangers, which sometimes endure and sometimes don’t.

The bulk of the work on display—including a five channel video work, “Trust Falls,” that has been adapted for three flatscreens that face into the lobby/café space; a looping video, “Dancing with Divorced Men,” on a single screen downstairs, and a series of photographs in downstairs hallways, “The Divorced Men Series”—all show Kaufman either briefly interacting with or occupying the private space of individual divorced men. The interactions range from the two trying to climb into a large hammock in tandem, to her shaving one man’s face, to dancing either arm-in-arm with or opposite the men. In the photographs she is pictured with the men in ambiguous but intimate pairings that, to someone approaching with no background information, might appear to depict either a father and daughter, a long-married couple, or old friends.

Knowing that these interactions are only of a short duration and that the artist is entering the private space of these men, necessarily evokes questions about desire, discomfort, the rituals of men and women meeting for the first time, the limitations of our encounters with one another even when they last for many years, and also the generational differences in the rituals and boundaries of male-female bonding.

Kaufman’s lack of irony in these works, and her genuine openness to these situations, is what makes the work unique and affecting. She is never winking at the camera in these interactions, nor does she belittle her partners’ lives or spaces. That willing entry into uncomfortable and uncertain terrain in such intimate settings, paired with a similar willingness on the part of her partners, opens up the opportunity to reflect in earnest on what it means that we as humans regularly seek various kinds of partnership, and allow ourselves to be redefined by these relationships, knowing full well that they will eventually, if not quickly, come to an end.

Other highlights from the exhibition include a matrix of close-up photographs of upholstery that bear the traces of those who have used the furniture they cover, as well as a looping video titled “Friday Nights at the Guitar Center,” which depicts a series of men playing instruments at this popular musical chain store, offering performances for ambiguous audiences of fellow customers or staff.

There’s an obvious discomfort in these works, an obvious self-consciousness, as all the subjects are aware of both being on display and offering something very private to a relative stranger. But it’s the strangeness of the situations, and the way we read narratives into them, which evokes in the viewer a quiet desire for some short relief from loneliness; this allows the work to speak powerfully about the many ways we seek or reject connection with others.

Another highlight of the exhibition is that for less than $25, you can see Kaufman’s exhibit, catch a show in one of the performance spaces, and grab a glass of wine or a beer.

05/09/12 3:00am

Photos Alexander Berg

After a very well-received workshop presentation of Take What Is Yours at the New Ohio Theatre in October of last year, Erica Fae and Jill A. Samuels have now brought the show to 59E59. This multi-disciplinary performance work focuses on the imprisonment of Alice Paul, a leading suffragist in the early 1900s. During her time in prison Paul undertook a hunger strike, to which prison officials reacted by placing her in solitary confinement, and force-feeding and interrogating her. At a time when politics seem bent on marching us backwards, it seems worthwhile to reflect on the hard-won and bitterly long fights that others endured in the past and which continue today.

In late April I stopped by the Gowanus rehearsal studio where Fae and Samuels were putting the final touches on the show before packing everything up before moving into Theater B at 59E59 (the show runs through May 27). I was interested to speak to them about the process of creating the show, their first collaboration; and about how they’ve blended historical texts with elements of contemporary performance. Fae and I began the discussion, with Samuels joining us later.

Can you start by telling me a little bit about the show—what is it about, what happens on the stage?

Erica Fae, co-writer and performer: We wanted to make sure that we were true to the history in the piece, at the same time that we didn’t want to stay there. So, there’s a balance of historically accurate things in the design or in the way that the piece feels or even in the way that the performers are behaving, but it’s always balanced with contemporary elements—like the sound score and visual field. The text is all historical text.

What kind of historical text—journals or speeches?

EF: A lot of it comes from a publication called The Suffragist, which was a weekly publication that the National Women’s Party made at that time. Then there are transcripts from court trials, hearings before the Judiciary Committee, some newspaper articles, some interviews, and some of her speeches and other women who were suffragists at the time, whose speeches were put into print. And we’ve edited it quite extensively, both in terms of selecting which pieces we want to use, but then also in some of the dialogue scenes. There are two main characters—there’s Alice Paul and this character called The Man, and we’ve really woven source material together to create those scenes.

The visual design is really Jill’s—she designed the set and has created a field that is visually edited in a way that we feel partners with the way the text is edited. So there’s something quite cinematic about how the piece renders itself visually—that things are moving on the stage and we don’t know how they’re moving. The stage space is sort of the image of Alice’s cell walls opening and closing depending on what she’s going through, and that creates a kind of visual editing. I would say the tone of the piece enters a realm that has a very subtle magic realism, in a way, and sometimes it’s hard, cold realness.

When we were balancing the history, we were careful to not present just a historical story. I think about it that we’ve placed the personal over the political or historical—we’re really looking at this as an event that happened to this one woman. Though we use the name Alice Paul, and Alice Paul definitely was a real person, we’re also not in the business of trying to do a bio-play.

So, it’s loosely based on facts that are part of her life, but it’s not wedded to those facts?

EF: The facts are there, we don’t invent any romances. The main thing that we’ve done is we’ve given Alice some speeches that other suffragists spoke. Our Alice is, in a way, a symbol of the women of that movement. And again, in acting her, I’m allowing myself that room. I could go, wow, I really want to figure out certain things about her life and what she was really like and do all of that, but I thought, you know what, actually, we want to tell a moving story and so in certain instances I’ve allowed myself to look into the personalities of other key women in that movement and draw inspiration from their personas. Namely, Lucy Burns and Rose Winslow and Inez Milholland, who are three others who I’ve really looked at in composing this character of Alice.

She’s a kind of composite, then?

EF: Yeah, we talk about her as a composite character, absolutely. And also The Man is also a composite character. He plays a man who comes to interview her, which happened many times to Alice in jail. What could be said about his role is that he’s representing a male viewpoint of these women at that time, and he has a real arc—he has a transformation in the play, he doesn’t end the play with the same opinion that he begins with.

We have three other actors involved in the piece and they do a lot of physical movement in the show, to kind of make Alice’s cell come alive.

Are they actual human characters, or are they metaphorical?

EF: They play the guards and the nurse in the cell, but they also are often unseen—sometimes we only hear their voices.

Kind of like a Greek chorus, in a way?

EF: Yes. Sometimes I refer to them as Company. The other thing that play is doing is it cross-fades, in a way, between these conversations with The Man and Alice re-inhabiting key moments in the suffrage movement. The frame of the piece is that it’s set in jail, she’s on a hunger strike, and from that structure we’re really allowed to watch her fray a bit and to relive things in a way that is not naturalistic, per se.

A key thing for me about that piece, actor-wise, is that I do play more characters than just Alice. A really important distinction, I feel, is that it’s not just Erica the actor playing Alice and then playing so-and-so and so-and-so—all of the characters are processed through Alice’s perspective. So it’s really Alice playing all of them. I view it that I’m playing her the whole time and that she fractures into these other memories or visions because of the state of being she’s in.

04/11/12 4:00am

Photos Sarah Holcomb

Have you ever seen a performance with over 300 puppets in it? Have you ever seen a puppet perform surgery? Welcome to the world of performance and puppet artist Theodora Skipitares who has been making work for the stage since her beginnings in the thriving performance art community of downtown New York in the 1970s. Her influences and interests have ranged from early female Body Artists to Indian epic narratives to the stem cell scientist Doris Taylor, among others. Her newest piece, Prometheus Within, which is being presented as part of La MaMa’s 50th anniversary season (April 13-29, 66 E 4th St), brings together a number of currents that have coursed through her work for years. I spoke with Skipitares by phone one morning while she was at work in her studio to learn more about her career and her latest work.

I know that you started your performance work with people like Richard Schechner, who founded The Performance Group, and Omar Shapli of Section Ten, but I wanted to get a sense of what brought you to them in the first place—what brought you to performance?
I was born and raised in San Francisco, and I did my undergraduate work at [the University of California,] Berkeley. Then I came to New York for grad school to study theater design and film. I thought that I would be a theater designer—that was in the early 70s. So, I found myself going to NYU and living nearby in the East Village, and it was very close to SoHo, and what was happening in SoHo at that time was simply astonishing. I found that my courses at NYU in design were confining, but if I took literally a ten-minute walk south, I could find the most amazing collaborations and the most interesting interdisciplinary experiments. And in a way that became my parallel education. So, I continued to be very interested in and involved in the performance scene that was developing in SoHo out of the art world. When I finished my degree I worked briefly as a theater designer, but then I simply got a studio and started working on my own work, which actually originally had been sculpture, but sort of transformed into performance art. It was just so attractive because people were breaking boundaries right in front of you and there was an utter openness about it.

So that’s what I began to do, and in a couple of years I began to do solo performing. But that came to an end point. I felt that I wanted to tell stories that were not autobiographical anymore, that I was interested in working with other people, but I didn’t know how. Basically there came a point, this is in the early 80s, where I had about thirty little self-portraits, and they were very realistic. I would say they looked like Egyptian or archaic Greek full likeness of me. One day I just took one of them and took a saw and cut it at the elbow, and I cut it at the shoulder, and I re-stitched it, and then I put a long thread on one hand and put it up by the ceiling and I realized that I had made a puppet figure, but I knew nothing about puppetry. I had kind of stumbled onto using a figure for performance and it became another character in my work. So, I began to populate the stage with likenesses of myself and then at one point there were so many on stage with me that I actually made an exit and became the director. And I found that I didn’t miss the performing that much, I much preferred arranging and composing from the other side.

That led to bigger subjects and, also, I just began to discover things about puppetry that other performers who had been working in puppetry must have known for a long time—that there was just a marvelous freedom of scale. With scale you could basically tell any story you wanted with an economy of means. The thing that most attracted me to puppetry was that the puppet figure was empty and neutral and innocent and honest and it would tell the truth better than actors would tell the truth. And as I began to become interested in documentary material I just found that the puppets were the perfect vehicle for that.

04/06/12 4:00am

Newspaper Fiction: The New York Journalism of Djuna Barnes, 1913-1919
Brooklyn Museum

I can’t say precisely why the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum chose to put up a small exhibit of writing and artworks by the truly inimitable Djuna Barnes (through August 19). Maybe it was because of the dearth of women in the Hide/Seek show, maybe it was the Brooklyn connection, or maybe it’s just because she’s a fascinating person. Whatever the case, make sure to save a little time for examining the hilarious, revealing, and incredible works of hers now on display.

Barnes is a rare bird in so many ways. Born in 1892, she was the second of eight children born to a maniacal and abusive father who was also a failed artist, and a mother who managed to liberate Barnes and three of her brothers to New York City in the 1910s. Djuna took up art classes at Pratt but had to quit in order to help support the family. From there she made the best move of her young life: she got herself a job as an illustrator and writer at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, once one of the most popular papers in the US.

Djuna went on to write reams of journalism, often illustrating it herself, and conducted numerous much-lauded interviews for major New York publications. Moving from Brooklyn to Greenwich Village to Paris and back to the Village, she always ran with an artistic and literary crowd, and was a member of what was, at the time, a largely invisible community of lesbians.

Termed by some as “newspaper fictions,” her articles would never appear in print today, at least not as journalism. Her relationship with fact was loose at best; she used fictional elements to capture a mood, an atmosphere, and provide a narrative that a reporter never would. In one article about a new dance hall, she makes up the character of a dandy who arrives and, losing his pretentions for the evening, enjoys a soda with a shopgirl with whom he would otherwise be unlikely to speak. The narrative paints a picture of the place that hooks the reader, adds intrigue and life, and gives a breathless impression that couldn’t be captured without introducing a bit of fiction into her facts. That said, there are reasons why this kind of journalism would never meet muster these days, and the wishful and sometimes uncomfortable ideological undercurrents in some of the writing are dated for a reason.

In some ways, Barnes comes across as a progressive 1920s lesbian version of Geraldo Rivera. She inserted herself into all sorts of situations, undergoing force-feeding similar to what suffragettes in the UK underwent in prison, hanging out with the first captive gorilla to survive (not for long) in the US, and reporting from the front lines of the sun-streaked throngs at Coney Island. But always beneath the set decoration and frenetic energy there’s a desire to draw attention to the daily lives and realities of people rarely discussed in the dailies of the time. Sure there is sensation in some of her work, likely driven by her real need to support herself financially, but also there is a will to uncover the daily dealings of a city and a country undergoing tremendous change. Her writing, more than anything, reflects a rapacious and imaginative mind responding to a teeming city that is only ever barely able to understand its own humanity. You can’t help but daydream what it would be like to have a writer like her responding to the city we live in today.

03/29/12 3:24pm


Target Margin Theater’s annual laboratory continues through April 7 at the Bushwick Starr. Alexis Clements checked in this weekend and sends this report.

It’s surprisingly rare to see a group of artists enjoying themselves while doing their work in public. In private, anything is possible, but when they’re presenting their work for the public, artists can often be very serious, or, more precisely, very stressed out and nervous. They could be stressed out for any number of reasons: worries about whether or not everything they’ve been working on for so long and at some personal expense is going to pull together; anxiety over what the audience will think; questions about whether or not anyone is actually going to show up; concerns that if someone really important does come that they may not see the work in the right way or think of the artist as serious or important or worth their time; along with all manner of other nagging thoughts about money or relationships or family problems that they may have avoided while working on their art.

So, it’s unique to find artists playing freely these days. It’s also rare to find settings where artists are willing and able to exercise a real sense of collegiality—experimenting openly, trying out new artistic relationships with collaborators, and accepting that some things they try out may not work but that they’ll learn something anyhow.

This little pre-amble may make it sound as if I’m painting the annual Target Margin Theater (TMT) lab as something of a utopia. It’s not that, by any means—and it’s certainly not the only open playground for artists in the city. But still, it was kind of really great to walk into the Bushwick Starr, grab a PBR for $3, sit down and watch some artists plying their trade and enjoying it.

It made me think of something the scholar Ellen Dissanayake wrote in her book Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Came From and Why: “Play in animals (including humans) is an appealing and quite mysterious behavior. It occurs in many species in which animals play naturally, without being taught… They seem to play for play’s sake, for sheer enjoyment and intrinsic reward.”

This isn’t to suggest that the only thing going on at the Lab, or anywhere else in the art world, is play and play alone. There’s real work in most artists’ process, and many reasons—biological, psychological, ethical, philosophical, intellectual, economic, etc— why we get involved with and go see art in the first place. But some chunk of it does have to do with transcending our daily lives and just messing about a little—putting on a bathrobe and pretending it’s a royal cloak, or even engaging in darker forms of play that involve testing limits and looking into dreams and fantasies and fears. Few little kids who get bit by the artist bug have any concept of what the realities of life as an artist are going to look like and all ways that becoming a practicing artist complicates and fractures the experience of making art. There’s something more primordial in it, something we lose sight of in a world that tells us that in order to be anything you have to be a “professional” at it. And something about this year’s TMT Lab really evoked all that for me.


Every year TMT chooses a specific niche in performance and art history to focus on, based on what its next big upcoming production is. So, ahead of their 2010 production of Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real, the Lab was comprised of little-known works by Williams. Ahead of 2008’s production of Aristophanes’s Frogs, they did a Lab comprised of many of that writer’s works. The Lab is not just an academic exercise, it’s a chance to pull works out that haven’t been dusted off in ages, that wouldn’t merit, perhaps, a full-scale production, but are worth another look in a smaller setting. And, importantly, it’s a chance for artists TMT knows of and is interested in working with to mess about and get to know each other better—to stretch their legs a bit. Not to mention it provides TMT audiences with some rich context when they walk into the big show later in the season. It’s a thoughtful and smart approach that elevates the ideas and the artistry in a way that a lot of one-off productions could never accomplish.

This year’s theme is Futurism and the Russian Avant-Garde. I asked John Del Gaudio, TMT’s Managing Director, who led this year’s lab with the artist Kate Marvin, about the impetus behind this year’s focus and he said that it’s not only related to their upcoming production of Uncle Vanya, but also to a culminating project in 2014 that will involve an original piece, created by TMT, that will land at the intersection of the Russian Avant-Garde and Yiddish theater.


You don’t need to know about Russian Futurism or Russian history in order to see the shows. Having not beefed up on my history before going, I missed a number of the jokes in the puppet re-enactment of the Bolshevik Revolution, but the grandiosity, ridiculousness, and beauty of the paper puppets (not to mention the fact that it went on for only 20 or 30 minutes) gave me plenty of opportunities to enjoy the show. But feel free to Wikipedia it up ahead of time, if you prefer to nod knowingly at all the appropriate moments.

The most important thing to understand about Futurism in Russia is that the absurdity, expansiveness, and darkness are the products of paranoia in a culture that has for so long lived under the control of outsized totalitarian rulers. The Russian writer Masha Gessen described it well in her essay Paranoiastan:

When you live, as I do, in a country where things just seem to happen because they do, with no apparent plan or reason, you can do one of two things. You can accept that bad things happen to good people, bad people, and in-between people at random. This is difficult. Most of us don’t like to live with the idea that we could get arrested or killed or kidnapped at any moment. So we make up explanations, not so much for why someone has been nabbed, as for why we haven’t…The point is to convince yourself that you are safe. So, welcome to the world of the truly paranoid. Paranoia, according to Freud, is a hyperrational system within a given framework. The system makes sense; it’s the framework that’s crazy.

It’s no accident that Futurism created under fascist regimes. It was hyperrational in its irrationality, it was totally reactionary, and it toying with violence and the inane while laying waste to linear narratives. It was aggressive in its ambition to overthrow art-making—so aggressive, in fact, that the majority of Russian Futurists either ended up entering establishment politics after the Revolution in 1917, or being persecuted by the new government. Revolutionary endgames, as we’re all learning from the so-called Arab Spring, are far less clear and coherent than their initial strategies for overthrow.

So, with all of that in mind, it’s well worth the hike out to the Bushwick Starr to see a few shows, if you’re willing to just relax and roll with it. The night I was there I saw not only the puppet re-enactment I mentioned above, but also an absurdist chamber opera that was both funny and dark, a choreographed and tightly acted theatrical meditation on time, love, and death, and a surprising dance piece on failed attempts. It was a pleasure to be there.

02/01/12 6:00am

At a time when there’s frustration and much debate around how to classify, support, and produce innovative new performance work while maintaining a loyal audience, the small downtown theater Soho Rep seems to have developed a model that works pretty well. This season marks their 35th anniversary; after starting it with the critically acclaimed Elective Affinities, which they co-produced with Rising Phoenix Repertory and piece by piece productions, they’re just opening their new show, Marius von Mayenburg’s The Ugly One. It will be the play’s New York premiere, co-produced by The Play Company and directed by former Soho Rep Artistic Director Daniel Aukin. They’ve also published The Soho Rep Book, which tracks, “warts and all,” the theater’s activities over the past three and a half decades.

In January I sat down with Sarah Benson, the current Artistic Director (third in a string of Brits who’ve run the place since American founders Marlene Swartz and Jerry Engelback passed the torch), at Soho Rep’s offices to get a better understanding of how she ended up in this particular little corner of the city and how the theater has managed to thrive at a time when many others are struggling.

Ain Gordon, in his piece in the book, says that Soho Rep’s work is “bridging performance forms and playwriting.” Do you feel like that’s accurate?
I feel like that’s accurate and it’s been really conscious in my programming, to straddle those worlds. I think it changes the way that we look at playwriting and it changes the way that we look at performance, to have those two things side by side—to have a Sarah Kane play in the same season as Nature Theatre of Oklahoma; to have John Jesurun and Dan Lefranc; and Cythnia Hopkins and Young Jean Lee. I think that including more performance forms in the programming enriches the vocabulary for an audience; it encourages a more performative way of looking at everything we do.

How do you build a season and why do you choose to focus on such a select number of shows rather than a more traditional theater season?
Well, I think that decision stems back to my predecessor Daniel. He made the choice to do fewer things better and to pay artists more. And that was a philosophy and an ethos that I really supported. You know, our budget is under $1 million, and that covers the theater rental, the office rental, all the salaries, and all the shows. So, we have a small budget. And I feel like we're supporting work that's very distinctive and has its own voice. Our job as a company is to really unify around that voice and support it to the strongest extent we can. I feel like the only way to do that is to really throw our resources behind every show we do. The other model is to spread it thin and to present a lot of stuff and there's definitely merit to that. But I think one of the things that is unique about [Soho Rep] is that we're able to support brand new artists that don't have a track record and support that work to a greater extent than companies of a similar size, because of that choice. We're able to go do a Greg Moss play or a Young Jean Lee play or a Dan Lefranc play or a Nature Theatre of Oklahoma piece—we're able to take on a project that's very distinctive, very specific, and really producorially demanding and it doesn't have to be a name.

Of course I would love to be doing sixteen shows a year. I mean we just did a strategic plan and we talked a lot in that about growth and what growth is and we would like, ultimately, to be able do more shows. But we want to be able to do them really well and support the artists as well as we can and really follow through on the vision.

01/10/12 9:46am

Moe Angeles in Sontag: Reborn.

  • Moe Angeles in Sontag: Reborn.

In a society obsessed with self-actualization and finding one’s “passion,” it’s rare to see real glimpses of the wrenching struggles that some people go through while attempting to create a persona and a life that lives up to their ideals. Not to mention the pressures to mesh those ideals with the norms our society imposes in the form of vocation, class, race or ethnicity, sexuality, and religion. Self-actualization often implies that there is a single and stable self to be realized, to be found, and the project then becomes to live fully and only as that idealized self, controlling, ignoring or purging your errant desires and failures to live up to those lofty aspirations.

The Builders Association‘s new show Sontag: Reborn (in the Under the Radar Festival through January 15), depicts, in a rich polyphonic production, the ways in which the young Susan Sontag attempted to build a regulated self, despite the messy, confounding, nonconformist and indomitable elements within her.

The text of the play comes primarily from the late Sontag’s recently published early journals. The excerpts from her journals and writing that are in the show illuminate Sontag’s journey into adulthood, beginning with her enrollment in the University of California, Berkeley, after graduating high school at the age of 15, and then following her through her marriage at 17 to Philip Rieff, the birth of her son when she was 19 and her ongoing academic pursuits, which spanned numerous schools in both the U.S. and Europe, leading up to her arrival in New York City in her late 20s. Tied in with all that are discussions of her early relationships and affairs with a handful of women, as well as a couple of men other than Rieff, and the way in which the discovery of her rich and undefined sexuality both clashed with and ignited her intellectual pursuits. In the play, as in her journals, Sontag writes after her first romantic and sexual experience with a woman, “I have been given, in part, permission to live.”

Sontag: Reborn incorporates live performance and projections of a taped performance along with additional video projections. The live performance features a young Sontag, jotting and jostling through her intellectually formative years, while an elder Sontag is projected onto a scrim above and to the right of the younger woman. The effect of the elder looking down in judgment, editing and chiding her younger self, perfectly evokes the constant inner critic that Sontag seems to have grappled with throughout her life. Both depictions of Sontag are performed by the deft and rigorous Moe Angeles, who lends a high degree of humanity to a persona that in words can sometimes seem to reject its own humanity entirely.

By animating the written struggles of Sontag through live performance, The Builders Association, shows so poignantly the way in which any idea ultimately is born of a flesh and blood person who is fallible, full of foibles, and at least occasionally wracked by dysfunction. The rebirth of the title seems to come in many layers in the play—she is being reborn from her death in 2004; through her intellectual and sexual development she is reborn as an entirely new person; and through the self-creation of her writing, she rejects an accepted fate of any kind and births a new self of her own making.

In Reborn, The Builders Association represent the elder Sontag primarily as detached, dismissive and reproachful in response to the younger Sontag’s awkward, earnest, willful, and befuddled actions and ideas. But both selves are cut through with an intellectual intensity that is simultaneously embattled and beholden to the body in which it is contained.

Sontag, in Reborn and in the journals, seems to want to be something that no human can be—a living idealization, and she never gives up the project, at least not during the years depicted in the show. And it’s that undying ambition to be more than what she is that makes her seemingly aloof life into a very human story.

Her determination to live according to abstract notions about her role in the world, combined with her inability to accept certain parts of herself, is something many people struggle with, even when those abstract notions are in the more familiar guise of religious and political ideals.

While on the page her words may seem humorless, on stage, in Angeles’ capable hands, it’s that very humorlessness that provides careful and funny notes of reflection. She was only 15 when she went to Berkeley, and at 17, after only ten days of dating, she married a man eleven years her senior. Who but a teenager would enter into such an agreement so sure that she was making an adult decision?

The subtlety of Marianne Weems’ direction contributes in no small measure to the work’s success. Angeles’ hemmed in physicalizations, along with the voice she adopts and the repetitions in her motions—particularly the smoothing out of the pages of each journal as she starts anew—evoke a hopefulness and beautiful naïveté. Naïve not as a negative quality, but as the mark of an understanding that we can sometimes make things come into being simply by willing and working for them to be so.

This show portrays, above all else, a person with an urgent desire to live, and a willful determination to be and do something she believes to be meaningful. But it also seems to warn of the negative and destructive forces that too strong a commitment to an ideal can bring about. We laud happiness and realization of the self, but when that realization has to fit a certain model, there are downsides.

Sontag: Reborn plays at the Public Theater as part of the Under the Radar Festival through January 15.


(Photo: James Gibbs)