by Leah Keith, Jessica M. Petschauer, and Lina Yang
Contemporary artists are reevaluating the impact of a globalized community on human experience: questioning the world we are in the process of creating. In 2003, Frank Hentschker sought to find a platform to showcase these profound investigations through the PRELUDE festival that presents artists who are at the forefront of the New York City theatre and performance culture. Highlighting the best of new and unconventional theatre and placing artists’ work in conversation with each other, the Prelude Festival gives audiences a taste of the works that will be presented throughout the New York season.
The programs notes from this year’s festival described PRELUDE as “a place to discover what voices are shaping the future of theatre and performance in NYC, to observe, engage, commune, and critique.” PRELUDE provides the unique opportunity to preview what art visionaries are working on and hear the artists informally discuss how and why they create their work.
THE MAN BEHIND THE FESTIVAL
Frank Hentschker puts together a team of curators each year to assemble the artists and works that will be presented each year. The artists who present work at PRELUDE are curated into tracks based on the work’s themes and the media utilized in their work. The curators consider PRELUDE a starting point for a dialogue between recent trends in multiple arts discipline, incorporating performative lectures and theory, installations and performances within performances. Works presented are newly devised, or a repurposing of preexisting works, events, or texts as the basis for performances.
Described as being “indefatigable and inspiring,” Frank Hentschker provides some insight into his inspiration for starting the PRELUDE festival; what he looks for in his fellow curators and how works featured in the festival impact the art and culture scene in New York:
Ten years ago, I started the PRELUDE festival because I felt that we did quite a lot of international programming at the Segal Center, but there was not a space for New York-based artists to show works in process in the city. The inspiration was to provide a space for emerging artists to come and show something in process, and then to engage in dialogue surrounding their work. I also wanted to create an atmosphere in which New York-based artists could come and connect to each other and develop a further sense of community. The people I ask to curate the festival are people who are immersed in the scene, who are emerging and want to do something new, who bring energy to the project, and who are connected to the pulse of the zeitgeist. As The Segal Center at the Graduate Center CUNY is hosting a festival that extends beyond the scope of the university, I feel that it is important that our curators come from outside the academic world. PRELUDE curators always have a real knowledge of the contemporary New York performance scene and a strong interest in collaborating, can communicate well with artists, and have a clear sense of artistic vision. PRELUDE always presents work that is one step ahead of what is being produced at established downtown venues. We present work in early form that very often goes on to bigger venues. In the past, we have presented developing work by artists such as Brendan Jacob Jenkins, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Young Jean Lee. For example Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play “We are proud to present a presentation…” was presented as a reading at PRELUDE 2011, and was recently produced at Soho Rep to high critical acclaim.
For PRELUDE12, Frank and his fellow curators invited artists to create and perform a manifesto on their views regarding the wilderness in which avant-garde art currently exists. Another feature of this year’s festival was works that incorporated cinema into live performance art. PRELUDE artists also presented pieces that explored the role music plays in live performance art and defined the relationship of authenticity and participation in art through works that stir conversation and discussion. This year, as the curators searched for artists to feature, they discovered what the program called, “a strong presence of absence.” Many of the city’s best creators, hindered by a lack of funding and a forced reliance on touring for income must work far from home, leaving a hole at the center of the New York art community. PRELUDE12 explored how emerging makers are creating in spite of an absence of accessible space, lack of money, and without the prestige of a major premiere.
A WORD WITH ONE OF THE CURATORS
Caleb Hammons is one of the invisible hands, assembled by Frank Hentschker, behind the PRELUDE Festival at the CUNY Graduate Center. Like the artists that were featured in the festival, Hammons is a resilient, bold curator unafraid of challenges and redefining performance art. By day, he is the producer at SoHo Rep, but, as is the case with many arts professionals, he wears many hats as a producer and curator of avant-garde performance art. This past year he was one of the curator’s of this innovative festival. He shares with us his vision of the PRELUDE festival and what it’s like being an artist in New York in today’s cultural and economic climate.
Lina Yang: What is the vision of the PRELUDE Festival and what is its purpose?
Caleb Hammons: The festival has been around for 9 years and initially was envisioned as a performance-heavy platform for bringing a survey of current artistic practices into the academic institution and integrating academic and artistic practices. I actually produced the festival in 2011 and was then asked to be one of the co-curators for 2012. This was my first year curating and my co-curator, Helen Shaw’s, second year. Prelude has traditionally gone through 2-year cycles of curators and while the mission and core of the festival never changes, the shape and scope of the festival is always shifting and changing based on the curator’s involvement. Over the years, Prelude has morphed into and out of leaning more towards performance festival and more towards symposium. I would say our festival was more a performance festival (we more that doubled the number of artists involved from the previous year), the idea being that the work itself should initiate the conversations and discourse to be had during and after the festival. PRELUDE, as I said, is a survey of the current New York moment. That’s its purpose: a one-stop shop for the performance and academic community to come together and dissect what’s happening now.
Yang: How did you go about the curatorial process?
Hammons: Well, we approached the term “performance” from a wide spectrum. As long as it engages a live audience it was considered performance. When Helen and I started to talk about artists we wanted to include in the festival, we realized that an overwhelming majority of these people didn’t really have anything ready to premiere in the coming year. There were a great deal of ideas coming from these artists, seeds you could say, so we realized early on that the festival would showcase the very early stages in the creative process and have a more in-process feel than some years past. In previous years, like the year before for example, there were twenty artists who were showcasing work. All of their projects were in the final stages and nearly ready for unveiling. This year we were really working with a great deal of work that was not ready for a full-on presentation. That actually ended up meaning that the festival became much larger in scope. We had over 50 artists versus the 20 from the year before, and the majority of the pieces were from artists that didn’t have a platform to piece together their puzzle. We were able to use the festival as a launching platform for a lot of great ideas. We also ended up creating a platform for work that was decidedly and purposefully smaller in scale. There are so few outlets outside a gallery setting for works such as smaller multi-media performance pieces, video art, and solo, manifesto-esque pieces. We realized that they needed a larger, theatrical platform.
Y: In your curatorial statement you talk about how the performances at Prelude are little appetizers of artists’ work, like little bite-size portions. So you feel that was the case this year even with the works in progress?
H: I think that it’s usually true of Prelude every year, because we have limited space and only three days. At the end of the third day, the goal has always been that the audience would get a glimpse at what is happening in New York and the art scene at the present moment—what artists are making, what they’re thinking, and how they’re doing it. However, in juxtaposition to last year’s PRELUDE11, these works were often short snippets of a larger piece. The 2011 festival was ripe with longer showings of pieces that were ready to be full evening-length works, having already been developed over the course of two months, three months, four months, or six months plus. This year it was more about what was driving (and impending) the creation. As a result, it became more about a survey of process rather than the final product.
Y: That actually brings up a really interesting socio-economic trend that you call in your curatorial statement as the “presence of absence.” Could you explain what you mean by that and how that influenced the artists that were chosen to participate in Prelude?
H: It’s a concept I think about a lot. Like many performing arts professionals, I’ve experienced this idea of “presence of absence” in my work often. Prior to SoHo Rep, I worked with Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company for 4 years. We’d always considered ourselves a New York-based company but were very rarely here and rarely working in New York, and when we were working in New York, it was usually on the early stages of development for a new piece. Most of the engagement with the public happened outside of the city, as well as the process of creating our work. We were rooted in a more global community. When on the road, I had a desire to come back and share what I learned from traveling and presenting work on a national and international scale with New York audiences and the performance community here. I think that a lot of artists and companies are like that. It has become a financial necessity, in many cases, for artists to travel outside their home base to develop and present work. Contemporary performance often develops in non-traditional and experimental structures, and those structures can not always be fully supported at home. It can be a very long process, and it is a very involved process. It’s about sustainability. Earlier in 2012 I was chatting with some New York-based artists who hadn’t shown work here in several years, but had been very active abroad. They were concerned about how to remain a part of the community at home. I think that’s where the desire to be present in absence is coming from. We wanted to showcase how these artists are making digital works, such as videos and podcasts, in an effort to remain a part of the local AND global conversation when they’re transient.
Y: Like a globalized stage in a globalized world.
H: Exactly, so that artists are not just making a trip somewhere to showcase their work, but they are able to share that with audiences back home as well. As the curators, we wanted to highlight work from New York artists created outside of New York, but still very accessible to us here. For instance, one video we screened, Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Screen Test No. 7 (Shizauoka) was made in Japan. It’s a rehearsal video, a glimpse of the process of making their work while away from home. By capturing this and sharing it online, Nature Theater offers the opportunity for a person from Belgium, from New York, or wherever, who is interested in this work to get a peek into that process.
Y: We wouldn’t have a globalized world without technology. The festival showcased the trend of artists incorporating technology and media into their work. What is the importance of cinema and why did you showcase it in Theme: The Future of the Cinema is the Stage?
C: Historically, there is an overlap amongst the history of avant-garde cinema and avant-garde performance, and looking at how that manifests in a modern day context seemed to be a good proposition for the current moment. In commercial theater there is a trend of adapting the Hollywood blockbuster into a large-scale live event, but it has also been happening quite a bit in the avant-garde, downtown scene as well. There is also the slightly tired and over-done conversation of video on stage, so the question becomes: how do we transcend that and ask new questions? It came to be more about shared vocabulary and techniques of cinema and theater as opposed to simply incorporating elements. Drawing from the language of cinema and putting that into a live context is one thing, but questioning technology’s influence on our work and how we perceive it’s influence on he experience of “liveness” is also ripe for conversation. The artists at Prelude are examining how theater and live performance stay relevant in our ever-changing, ever-expanding technological society.
Y: Was the festival site specific in nature and why did you choose to do it at the CUNY Graduate Center or more generally, in an academic setting?
H: Because the festival is produced by the Segal Center, they produce and fund it, the space was a given. The festival was founded to be situated in an academic context, to attempt to bridge the gap between the academy and the artists.
Y: So if you had a choice, where would you put this festival? Would you still umbrella it under an academic setting?
H: My main goal in curating this festival was to capture a survey of the current artistic moment in New York. It’s difficult for a festival like this to happen without having an institution housing and supporting it. There is a lot of infrastructure and many resources needed, which institutions can bring. The overlap of academia and artistic practice is important to the goals of the festival, though I do sometimes wish we weren’t so confined and defined by the physical space, especially as artists are making work in and for less traditional spaces.
Y: Could you elaborate on the Themes: Manifestos and Return of the Singspiel?
H: We, the curators, had a desire to minimize the number of panels and discussions in the festival and really focus on the work, hearing directly from the artists via the work they were making. The idea for manifestos came from that. It was a way to have a conversation about the field, about the work, but to have it via the work itself. We didn’t want the Prelude Festival to become a symposium. After all, it’s a performance festival. Some of the manifesto pieces we commissioned, by asking those artists to make a performed manifesto about theater today. Some were pieces that had been performed before. These pieces could create and continue conversations that could happen long after an audience saw the work. In Return of Singspiel, we wanted to look at how artists today were exploring music’s role in theater and theater’s role in music. I think most of the pieces in this theme were super hybrid forms that could not be defined by “that’s a musical,” “that’s an opera,” or “that’s a concert.” These artists were reviving and redefining music performance and the long traditions of music’s influence on theater. We primarily, in this theme, grouped the showings together because we wanted to explore the unique juxtapositions created when showcasing these varied explorations of form side by side.
Y: How has working for Soho Rep and other theater organizations informed or shaped your tastes and artistic practices?
H: I like discovering unexpected insights into how to make theater, why make theater, and what it looks like. I like to constantly ask myself why theater now and why community now. I think I am constantly fascinated by work that is hard to define, and so I think I am, I’ve been, constantly trying to figure out how to define it. So that is the type work that I constantly seek and follow. I read somewhere that you should never define yourself against something else. I feel like most forms of avant-garde performance art and theater is always being defined as “not this” or “not that,” but that isn’t actually helpful. Maybe it doesn’t need to be defined, but I’m interested in continuing an exploration into creating a vocabulary and context around work that’s difficult to define.
The PRELUDE.12 Festival presents snippets, readings and works-in-progress from artists who define and redefine the downtown experimental performance aesthetic of New York City, providing an overview of the upcoming season. This includes works by established companies such as the Wooster Group, the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, and Big Art Group; recognized individuals such as Sara Benson (Artistic Director of Soho Rep), Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (playwright, dramaturg, and performer) and Jeff Larson (video designer of Big Dance Theater and Adjunct Professor of NYU); as well as up and coming artists such as Eliza Bent (playwright/performer pursuing an MFA in Playwriting at Brooklyn College) and Leah Nanako Winkler (current member of Youngblood and an affiliated artist at New Georges).
Big Art Group is a New York based performance group that combines language with multi-media elements, ranging from rudimentary to sophisticated technology, to examine and free the audience/performer relationship. The company was founded in 1999 by Caden Manson and Jemma Nelson and began as a small local underground performance group. Today, Big Art Group is an internationally recognized ensemble, with regular performances in Berlin, Paris, Rome, and Belgium, as well as throughout the United States. Mr. Manson and Mr. Nelson are also frequent contributors to performance journals, having written articles in PAJ, Theater Journal, Mouvement, and Theatre Heute.
At this year’s PRELUDE.12 Festival, Big Art Group presented a manifesto titled “After Spectacularity”, based on their essay of the same name that was recently published in Theater der Zeit’s new book, Performing Politics: Politisch Kunst machen nach dem 20. Jahrhundert. It was a meditation on “the meaning of spectacularity and its relationship to live performance in an age of media, video games, and slipping of the digital and the real” and consisted of a woman reading the essay with no multi-media or technological element to the performance at all, only an extremely large plastic bag (the size of the performance space) that was slowly being inflated during the duration of the manifesto. The bag was inflated to the point that it was invading the space of the audience, perhaps representative of how digital media is invading our lives and blurring the line between reality and virtual reality.
On the other end of the artist spectrum is Eliza Bent, one of the up and coming artists who presented work at the PRELUDE. 12 Festival. Currently an MFA playwriting student at Brooklyn College, Eliza (also a journalist and performer) made her playwriting debut at PS122 as part of the Underground Zero Festival in 2009, with her 60 minute multi-media performance piece, She of the Voice. Since then, she has been producing consistent work at PS122, Dixon Place, the Brick Theater, and the Bushwick Starr. Her co-production Black Wizard/Blue Wizard (created with Dave Malloy) was presented as a work-in-progress at PRELUDE. 12 Festival. The production will premiere in June 2013 at the Incubator Arts Project. Described as a “musical fantasia depicting an epic duel between two opposing wizard philosophies in a mundane age”, this performance combines electronic music and live video technology and explores the question of how instant access network technology affects not only our lives, but our soul.
Both artists examine the role technology and multi-media have on everyday lives. While these artists also embrace the use of technology in performance, whether low or high tech, the subject matter of their performances predicts that too much dependency on the digital world in “real life” is detrimental to the essence of what makes us human.
Leah Keith, Jessica M. Petschauer, and Lina Yang are MFA candidates in the Brooklyn College MFA in Performing Arts Management.