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A Time to Grow Our Souls

On the Foundry Theatre’s New Book A Moment on the Clock of the World

Miss St. Speaks

In the second act of Ariana Reines’ three-act play Telephone, commissioned and produced by New York City’s Foundry Theatre in 2009, the character Miss St., played with frantic, searing clarity by Birgit Huppuch, has been locked away in an asylum for her apparently acute schizophrenia. What I most remember of this performance is my rising sense of panic at watching Miss St. try to make herself understood. She seemed so certain she was making complete sense, yet what was coming out of her mouth was complete gibberish. And it was clear that, unless we in the audience could understand her, she would live the remainder of her days straitjacketed in this cell.

For twenty-five years, the Foundry, which announced in early October it was closing, raised provocative and timely questions with innovative theatrical productions, public dialogues, and deep community engagements. The Foundry’s critically acclaimed, award-winning, radically innovative, intersectional practice brought together artists and stakeholders from other communities to unpack and reimagine issues of contemporary social and political resonance. A company without a permanent theatre, the Foundry performances were liable to pop up anywhere—from a bus rolling through the South Bronx, to people’s living rooms, to traditional venues like the Public Theater and St. Ann’s Warehouse, sometimes also touring widely in the United States. The New York Times described the Foundry as “a mainstay of the downtown theatre scene...responsible for some of the most artistically ambitious work seen in New York.”

an actor onstage

Birgit Huppuch as Miss St. in Telephone. Photo by Pavel Antonov.

Huppuch’s Obie-winning performance in Telephone is indelible for me, as are so many moments I’ve had with the Foundry over nearly twenty years of engaging with the company. I attended the plays. I ate at their Free Range Thanksgivings. I was part of their delegation to the World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya. I presented their work at Arena Stage. But it’s Huppuch’s performance that stands out for me now, as I close the cover on A Moment on the Clock of the World, the new book by the Foundry’s co-founder Melanie Joseph and her editor David Bruin about the remarkable journey the company has been on.

Joseph, my friend and teacher, has spent her career teetering on the edge of the sort of abyss that swallowed and imprisoned Miss St. She’s been so far out in front of the field for thirty years, in a place the American theatre—with its templated, collectively bargained language, practices, and values—can’t reach. And she’s been urgently trying to make herself understood—about what she sees, what she’s learned, and what we could dream, make, become, and do if only we could follow what she was saying. She wasn’t entirely alone; there was an ever rotating cast of Foundry colleagues coming in and out who each, for a time, joined her struggle to make the central ideas understood.

[Joseph’s] been so far out in front of the field for thirty years, in a place the American theatre—with its templated, collectively bargained language, practices, and values—can’t reach.

But our collective understanding remained incomplete, and we were fine with that. We heard and saw the words, lauded the remarkable performances and the brilliant dialogues, and we made a kind of meaning of those accomplishments for ourselves, as a field, that allowed us to celebrate the company but stay rooted in our own, less radical, less challenging, more comfortable confines of the known world. Sometimes we cheered Joseph on as some sort of mad genius, sometimes we shook our heads and sighed, “there goes Melanie….” She was a unicorn, the Foundry sui generis. We could not be expected to leave our routines to join her quest to transform the planet. As a community of artists and makers, most of us have never really understood what time it was on the clock of the world.

Now, the Foundry has stopped the commissioning and production of new plays and public dialogues. Joseph has released a book—a collection of essays from various authors that makes startlingly clear not only what was accomplished but, more crucially, what was attempted. In Moment, she and Bruin have delivered a full-throated, utterly clear, nuanced, and inspired portrait that feels every inch a Foundry project. Miss St. has finally found the way to decode what she’s been trying to tell us and has set herself free.

a book cover

Cover of Foundry Theatre’s A Moment on the Clock of the World. Book design by Benjamin English.

An Invitation to Consider

On the book’s front cover is an open book of matches, one match missing, with the title scrawled out freehand. This recalls the very first Foundry production, W. David Hancock’s The Conventions of Cartography, for which the company mailed matchbooks instead of postcards.

On the book’s back cover, Joseph and Bruin write:

A Moment on the Clock of the World is an invitation to consider what it means to make the world, together. It collects the voices of artists, social justice practitioners, cultural critics, and public intellectuals whose own inquiries intersected with the award-winning company throughout its history. The title of the book recalls renowned activist and philosopher Grace Lee Bogg’s call for a new kind of activism: ‘Now is the time on the clock of the world to grow our souls.’ This book gathers together hard-won insights of its ‘moment’, one that exists on the continuum of ever in the (r)evolutionary human project of making the world.

Moment, then, is not the history of the Foundry—which is instead gathered impressively on their website—but a rangy consideration of the questions that burned, and still burn, at its core and animated every moment of its productions and dialogues.

In form, the book is another manifestation of the Foundry as radical idea. It’s a collection of essays authored by people familiar with their work over an arc of many years of involvement, each invited to consider their own journey with the company. And, along the bottom quarter of the pages, is Joseph’s contribution. A footnote, she calls it, though it stands alone as a piece of writing and never directly addresses itself to the essay riding above it. True to form, the founder has tried to place herself in relation to the entire conversation, not in the center of it. And, equally consistent, her singular vision grounds every single page: the footnote starts on the cover of the book. This is an inquiry that was going on before this book and will go on after this book; one that is still being unpacked by the woman who lit the first match.

a drawing of people and an elephant

The Blind Men and the Elephant. Reprinted from A Moment on the Clock of the World.

New Yorkers, audiences, and artists alike struggled throughout the decades of the Foundry’s producing life to pin down what it was. Like the blind men struggling to explain the elephant, a graphic that appears in the pages of Moment, the Foundry’s approach to its mission was too expansive, too ungainly to get your arms around. But here, in this book, its full shape and substance is discovered one essay at a time. And it is revealed, in the end, to be a heffalump—just like Joseph always said it was.

Some authors in the book speak of the Foundry as a theatre company, some as a community organizing effort, some as a career move, some as a core value, some as a world. Alisa Solomon, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, sets the reader straight in her gorgeous opening essay, “Inventing the World: A Quarter Century of Foundry Plays”:

Among its many community events, dialogues, World Social Forums participation, pre-Thanksgiving feasts for hundreds of guests, activist conferences ... the Foundry has been, after all, a theatre company, with the primary purpose of making art. The relationship between that art and these other endeavors—which I hesitate to call ‘other,’ for they have been fundamental to the Foundry and profoundly attached to its art-making—is complicated, sophisticated, and hard to describe in the shallow terms of American discourse about art and politics.

In form, the book is another manifestation of the Foundry as radical idea.

Rolling in the Deep

The discourse about art in Moment does not settle for shallow. From Joseph’s first conversation with her co-founder and mentor—the brilliant radical democratic intellectual and Harvard professor Cornel West—which is revisited here by both West and Joseph in Moment’s pages, she was calling for the radical engagement of artists in the (r)evolution. From her position in the footnote at the bottom of the page, she writes:

I am so pissed off at Aristotle, for taking on Plato in the terms he did in The Poetics. For choosing to defend the value of art to a city-state but nowhere defending the artist as a participant in its creation—as a citizen…. This hegemonic argument has poisoned the well for artists—and democracy—for nearly 2500 years. Aren’t you sick to death of arguing the value of art?

Art’s value, and the value of artists in world-making, is a given for the Foundry, and the book doesn’t waste the reader’s time making that case. There are so many other urgent considerations to take up. There is deep wisdom in these pages; for instance, for theatremakers yearning for an alternative to hierarchy. Vision is lonely, and the visionary longs for companions in the wilderness of ideas. The further outside the settled realm of ideas one’s vision sits, the lonelier—and more singular—it is. Joseph has been out there all along, aching for partners and unable to fully delegate the vision. She has spent all twenty-five years of the Foundry experimenting with, and failing at, models of shared leadership. Moment makes space for her, and for many of the people who experimented with sharing it with her, to lay bare the attempts and the learnings. The accounts are moving, generous, and clearly rendered.

In his essay, “A Reflection on Making Together,” RJ Maccani quotes the anti-colonialist poet and political organizer Amilcar Cabral who urged “Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories.” Maccani, himself a social justice organizer, was for a time a Foundry co-leader with Joseph and contributes two pieces to Moment. “If we don’t try to tell the story as it really happened or as we really experienced it, then we’re not making the biggest offer to who comes next,” he writes.

Yale professor Anne Erbe also spent years as a co-leader of the Foundry, as producer and dramaturg on plays, convenings, and events, and ultimately ending her tenure as a member of the board. “The level of rigor Melanie brought to the analysis of the mundane has been unparalleled in my life,” she writes. “Whereas others might counsel ‘pick your battles,’ the Foundry’s was a war on all fronts. And I get it—the internalization and replication of oppressive systems is perpetuated in the automatized details of everyday life.” Erbe’s essay is particularly moving, as she has gathered a number of people who went into that war with her to try to unpack what they’d been through and what they still carry of that time.

[Joseph] has spent all twenty-five years of the Foundry experimenting with, and failing at, models of shared leadership.

Are We There Yet?

The essays in Moment make a compelling case for the world Foundry was attempting to make and artists’ place in it, but they also reveal a heartbreak: there has been no groundswell, yet, of artists joining in the making of that world. That “yet” is important. Carl Hancock Rux’s essay “The Economy of Hope” reminds us that even as the Foundry is sunsetting its production of plays: “One goes on struggling with despair and searching with words and keeping words at bay, ultimately succumbing to the power of language and its ability to conceive thought, to speak a thing, and by doing so, to make it true,” he writes. “The Foundry posits a heroic society, daring to create its own future.”

“Yet” because simply ceasing the production of plays and conferences doesn’t mean the Foundry’s a past-tense thing. Joseph often says, to the people who ask her why the Foundry is closing, “How can an idea ‘close’?” In her footnote she elaborates:

Here’s what’s true: the Foundry has stopped making plays, dialogues, and community programs that have been the material demonstrations of its mission, and as of now we consider this book the last of those productions. But you can’t really close a mission—at least not one like ours.

As a means of investigating the question “To what end permanence?,” Diane Ragsdale’s essay of the same name juxtaposes the transition at the Foundry with the startling announcement by renowned Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCD) in 2009 that it would stop making and touring work upon the death of its iconic founder. MCD planned to do one final two-year tour and then exit stage left. (Moment is, to my mind, the Foundry’s equivalent of that final tour.) Like MCD, the Foundry has put considerable energy into archiving their work and with that, and this book, the flame will still draw interested moths and heffalumps to engage and wrestle and learn. You can hear in these pages the voices of the former staff and former interns, carrying their own inner fires—first lit by Joseph—on into their own careers. Here, also, are many of the artists who forged their own productions at the Foundry. Hancock Rux, Aaron Landsman, Alice Tuan, Taylor Mac—all still very clearly lit from within by the Foundry’s vision of the world.

Mac contributes a hilarious fictional interview between “Taylor” and “Taylor as Fran” (as in Fran Lebowitz, the author, public intellectual, and subject of a Martin Scorsese documentary). I hope one day to see Mac perform this one. (At one point, “Taylor as Fran” offers, in classic Lebowitz form, “The best thing about going to the opera is that, when you wake up, you are at the opera.”) The whole book, in fact, is funny and furious, poetic and analytic, a primer and a prayer. It’s a stroll down memory lane for some of us, and a torch lighting the way to that world that Joseph is still calling out to us from, inviting us to join her.

Moment is many moments. It is the moment you read it. It is the moment its authors wrote it. It is the twenty-five-year moment of the company. It is the millennia-long moment of humans’ struggle for justice and beauty and connection. It is a moment on the clock of the world. It is what we make of it, both the world and the words within.

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