Contemporary Performance Practices in COIL & Under the Radar Festival
January in New York is an incredibly busy time for performance lovers. With the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) in New York City, artists and hosting institutions take advantage of the fact that international presenters are in town to possibly book them for touring gigs. Exposure is the name of the game, as well as the hope of attracting more mainstream audiences to encounter less commercial, more experimental, and originally devised forms of theater, dance, and hybrid performance. Whereas in APAP artists might get 15 minutes to showcase a work, these festivals offer the chance to see pieces in their entirety. This year they included Under the Radar (UTR), now in its tenth year, co-curated by Mark Russell and Meiyin Wang, COIL, PS122’s annual winter performance festival curated by Vallejo Gantner, American Realness, highlighting contemporary dance curated by Ben Pryor, Other Forces, presented by The Incubator Arts Projects, among other shows. Although I’ve yet to go to Edinburgh in the summer, it’s known for being a mad rush of events, performances, artist talk-backs, panels, and parties with too much to see in too little time, which is exactly how these past few weeks can feel. I therefore decided to focus on only COIL and UTR, two festivals I have covered in the past and chose to attend again this year.
As part of its mission, UTR hosts a two day symposium tailored for performing arts presenters that centers on devised, artist-centered, and interdisciplinary theater and some of the issues pertinent to presenting this line of work. Keynote speakers were invited to give a statement titled “From Where I Stand” about the state of the field and its future. Joseph Haj, Producing Artistic Director of Playmakers Repertory Company, urged the audience to stop using theater’s fragility as an excuse to produce bad work. “Are we making the work that we most want to make?” he asked. What are we waiting for? Better times? It was a provocation to see theater’s fragility as its strength, and challenge arts administrators to operate in as much risk as the artists they produce. Performance artist and Director of Performing Arts of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Marc Bamuthi Joseph spoke about the “curatorial activist” strategies he is currently implementing at YBCA, where curating is an “intentional pedagogic practice” meant to cultivate a future more than develop an audience. Joseph’s statement in particular addressed a desire to engage not only with new work, but also with new presenting models that challenge conventional and outmoded theatre going practices. As the performing arts continue to expand and broaden, it is exciting to hear a curator speak about creating art as opposed to witnessing it (Joseph’s words: “provoking art”), openly questioning existing paradigms, and welcoming new approaches to how “contemporary performance” might get produced, distributed, and circulated.
Out of UTR’s 16 shows, I was able to catch 600 Highwaymen’s The Record, a music filled movement meditation led by Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone with 45 “non-actors” who perform for the first time together on a stage; Lola Arias’ El Año en que nací |The Year I was born, where nine Chileans born during Pinochet’s dictatorship recount their past through vivid storytelling, reenactment, and animated lectures; tg STAN’s JDX- a public enemy, an actor-centered adaptation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People created twenty years ago by this experienced Belgian troupe; and Roger Guenveur Smith’s Rodney King, an improvised spoken word piece depicting King’s personal disintegration after the riots that were sparked after his brutal beating by LAPD cops and the policemen’s subsequent acquittal.
In a sense, just these four shows were testament to the incredibly wide range of performance approaches artists continue to engage with today, be it compositional scores in time and space, the art of the monologue, documentary text, and a search for a distinct presence, “real” people and “real” stories, presentation over representation, a retelling of history, the play of fact and fiction. I noticed quite a few of the shows offered were solo shows (six to be exact) as would be the case with COIL as well. The oldest and most established of the troupes was tg STAN, an incredibly vibrant company particularly in their commitment to truth on stage and non-formalistic acting that feels real and “in the moment” with the audience. Memorable bits of JDX were when the cast commented on the action, or us, in Dutch, and often repeated scenes and addressed latecomers as well as the empty seats after intermission. I am not sure why this particular piece though, which premiered over two decades ago, was chosen. Rather than feeling timely and pertinent, I was frustrated that a troupe I saw back in the mid 90s was only now being “discovered” by New York City audiences. Somehow, it felt relevant but not contemporary. But as UTR’s mission is to “offer a crash course in theater,” perhaps it was wise to feature a company that by now has made theatrical history everywhere else.
600 Highway Men was the talking piece of the festival, and with its large mass of diverse people on stage—spanning all ages, heights, weights, races, ethnicities, and genders—all gesturing carefully in a heightened state of presence, gazing directly at us, it certainly sparked my curiosity. At first glance the product had a high resemblance to a successful Viewpoints exercise played to music. But after speaking with some people in the ensemble, including one very bright 10-year-old, what seemed most remarkable was the process the creators Browde and Silverstone use: creating an intricate performance score through visual renderings where absolutely nothing is left to improvisation, other than the discoveries of timing and rhythm by the “non-performers” performing in real time on stage for the first time after limited rehearsals. It is intriguing enough, and I would like to see more shows by these artists to gain a sense of what their larger body of work will express.
Arias’ El Año en que nací, a piece whose very essence lies in documenting history, felt the most pressing. Based on the life stories of the performers standing before us, we come to understand the complexity of present day Chile by bearing witness to these past micro-histories. Over the last decade, Arias’ work has increasingly embraced factual presentation of documents (images, toys, postcards, shreds of clothing) on overhead projectors, where the set and props are based on necessary objects—in this case lockers, high school desks that doubled as rifles, a large ladder, loudspeakers, electric guitars, amplifiers. Performers devise task-based games to drive the action. For example, as one of them recounted how his father was part of the marines, he orders the rest of the ensemble to line up in order of their parents’ political ideology: Left on the left; left of center; right. This results in discussions on the intricacies of what constitutes radical or conservative agendas, and questions what it is we value more: ideology or action, especially since many of the group’s parents were exiled from Chile during Pinochet’s regime while others, like the wife of the police chief, had tea with Mrs. Pinochet, even though “she did not necessarily believe in his policies.”
El Año en que nací grew out of an earlier project called My Life After (2009) where Arias developed this concept of staging history via personal narratives and staged six actors born during Argentina’s military dictatorship who reconstructed their parents’ youth. We can see in Arias’ work a strong influence coming from Argentine director Vivi Tellas, whose Proyecto Archivos has been dedicated to this blurring of boundaries between reality and fiction and a commitment to individual histories.
The pieces used their fragility to their advantage, and I got a sense of urgency not so much for creating “a product,” but for expressing something unique only possible via this live and hybrid platform we call “contemporary performance.”
Whereas UTR focused on presenting already made shows that have premiered elsewhere, COIL 14, which felt more cohesive than last year, commissioned individual artists to premiere their work at the festival. The pieces used their fragility to their advantage, and I got a sense of urgency not so much for creating “a product,” but for expressing something unique only possible via this live and hybrid platform we call “contemporary performance.” The works featured this year crossed numerous disciplines including video art (Reid Farrington’s Tyson vs. Ali), film (Jeremy Xido’s The Angola Project), autobiography (Brokentalkers’ Have I No Mouth and Okwui Okpokwasili’s Bronx Gothic), dance (Heather Kravas’ A Quartet and Tina Satter’s House of Dance), digital art (Phil Soltanoff’s An Evening with William Shatner Asterisk), poetry (Mac Wellman’s Muazzez), and even included the tenth anniversary of the wonderful performance series Catch!. The Catch event, which features short works-in-progress took over two entire floors at the large Invisible Dog Center in Brooklyn, and had the festive young atmosphere of an inebriated party filled with camaraderie that celebrated what was forthcoming in the upcoming season.
Two of the pieces I saw, Bronx Gothic and Shatner, stood out for their sheer originality and integrity. Both successfully created new live art forms to house their content and offered tour de force solo performances: one by the virtuosic and fearless Okpokwasili playing two versions of her childhood self (the ego and alter ego; the innocent and the impure) and the other by a reconstructed frame-by-frame Captain Kirk who lectured us on art and science. For An Evening with William Shatner Asterisk, written by Joe Diebes with systems design by Rob Ramirez, Soltanoff catalogued every single word Shatner ever said on the original Star Trek series and then, along with his collaborators, re-positioned the phrases and shots so that together they would amount to telling us something compelling about the nature of art and the nature of science. They create a moving TV puppet, with hundreds (or so it seems) of Shatner’s utterings, manipulated with ultimate grace by a figure in a black suit played by Mari Akita. The result is surprisingly human, humorous, and evocative. The more we engage with this incredibly alienating creature, the more he begins to unveil rather deep and honest truths about what art is and why it matters, especially because it never takes itself too seriously with phrases like: “Art is the unexpected experience of a phenomenon” and “Art happens in the present because it doesn’t know it’s going to happen.” Of course, you have to imagine a pause between words and syllables, the digitalized voice of Shatner speaking, and a different frame for every word uttered. It is a manifesto of sorts where the marriage of form and content come together beautifully.
Influenced by West African griot storytelling and the letter-writing tradition in Victorian Gothic novels, Okpokwasili begins Bronx Gothic before the audience arrives. She is in a corner, with her bare back to us, lit by a lamp that highlights her large shadow against the white curtain that delineates the space. She is shaking. Non-stop. Every inch and muscle of her body. One by one. Her memories are already haunting her, we understand later, and have taken control of her body, now vigorously trembling and piling sweat, consumed in an almost trance like state. “I wanna share something with you,” she whispers to us over a mike stand with no mike as if the twenty minutes of gruesome “quake movement,” as the script calls it, did not just happen, “a note passed between two girls, at the tender age of 11, one of which was me.”
Okwui’s talent is a rare one. She seems to possess a unique ability not just for physical endurance, but even more so of empathy—so much so that the people, feelings, situations, memories, and scenarios she embodies are her. She is able to channel numerous energies at once. She carries vulnerability and strength in just one move. She conjures pity and fear in a mere glance. Her tall slim regal figure can be small. Her tiny whisper, grandiose. She powerfully plays with this gaze (of performance, of gender, of race): sometimes she is looked at, a victim, she performs for us; other times she observes us, and then she looks past us. Her presence constantly shifts from being there to being here and there, to being someone else over there. Her entire performance felt urgent, rigorous, detailed, mesmerizing, and wholly prescient.
An Evening with William Shatner Asterisk and Bronx Gothic, each in their own way, embodied the qualities these festivals aspire to: developing compelling, original artist’s voices that in turn create new and engaging forms of live art, which before January, I did not even dream existed. I can only hope that a boomerang effect takes place, where such compelling forms of devising performance not only proliferate in festivals, but are also taught at the undergraduate level in conservatory and training theater programs around this country. What are we waiting for? Better times?