An interview by Joanna Spinks, March 2013
Gideon Lester is Director of Theater Programs at Bard College where he chairs the Theater & Performance department and curates theater and dance at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts. He also co-curates the interdisciplinary arts festival “Crossing the Line.” He worked at the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.) from 1997-2009, as Acting Artistic Director, Associate Artistic Director, and Dramaturg. From 2009-2012 he taught at the Columbia University School of the Arts, where he created the Arts Collaboration Lab in association with PS122. Lester’s many translations for the stage include Marivaux’s Island of Slaves and La Dispute, Brecht’s Mother Courage, Büchner’s Woyzeck, and two texts by the French playwright Michel Vinaver, King and Overboard. His stage adaptations include The Master and Margarita Bard SummerScape 2013), Amerika or the Disappearance, adapted from Franz Kafka’s novel, (A.R.T. 2005), and Wings of Desire (A.R.T. and Toneelgroep Amsterdam, 2006).
SPINKS: Can you speak a bit about how your education and your previous work at A.R.T. have led to your work as co-curator of FIAF’s [French Institute Alliance Française] Crossing the Line festival?
LESTER: My training is as a dramaturg, which is a kind of literary position in a theatre. I came out of an English Literature undergraduate program [Oxford] but I’d always done a lot of theatre and I wanted to come to the States for grad school. But I didn’t want to direct and wasn’t an actor and I found this thing called dramaturgy, which seemed like a good idea because it seemed as though it might combine my interests in theatre and literature. I got a scholarship and came––I thought just for a year––and never went back to the UK.
S: Where were you at grad school?
L: A.R.T.’s Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard. It was a wonderful program because I got to work with many professional directors, playwrights and actors there. When I graduated Robert Brustein, the A.R.T.’s founder and Artistic Director, asked me to stay on for a year as the dramaturg, and one year became five. Then Robert Woodruff arrived as Artistic Director, and I became his Associate. After five years Woodruff left and I became the acting artistic director for three years. So I spent fourteen years in that organization. For me there was really always just a natural continuum between dramaturgy and artistic direction, which I would never in the past have called curating. Curating is a word we’ve appropriated from the visual art sphere. ,When I finally left A.R.T. I was invited by Carol Becker, Dean of Columbia’s School of the Arts, to start a kind of pilot interdisciplinary program, the Arts Collaboration Lab. The school has graduate programs in Theatre, Visual Arts, Film, and Creative Writing, but they’re very separate. My task was to create a space where students from different disciplines could work together. This was a natural extension of what I’d been doing as a dramaturg and artistic director, where much of the job was bringing artists together and helping them shape their conversations. So I had some skills, but Columbia introduced me to a whole other set of artistic vocabularies, since I was suddenly working with sculptors, composers, screenwriters, and so on. It was challenging and wonderful. At Columbia I also started a residency program with PS 122 developing projects at Columbia that would then be shown in COIL, PS 122’s new works festival. One of the projects that came out of the Collaboration Lab was included in Crossing the Line two years ago. [Crossing the Line’s curators] Lili [Chopra] and Simon [Dove] then asked me if I would start working with them on the festival. Because they both come from a dance background, and I come from theatre, they felt that I would compliment the curatorial team. Then at that point––almost as soon as I started working with them––Bard called. And at Bard I do several things: I’m the chair of the undergraduate Theatre and Performance program, but I also curate theatre and dance at the Fisher Center.
S: Do you teach as well?
L: Yes, I teach theatre. So as at A.R.T., and as at Columbia, I both teach and have a professional producing, artistic directing, curatorial practice. And I’ve always worked with institutions that have been connected with universities or colleges, but also have had professional components. I now have two festivals — SummerScape at Bard in the summer, and Crossing the Line in the fall.
S: What is the focus of SumerScape?
L: It grew out of the Bard Music Festival, which for 25 years has been organized around the life and times of one composer. When the Fisher Center opened ten years ago the festival was expanded to incorporate opera, dance, theatre, film, cabaret. I program the theatre, dance and cabaret offerings. It’s a more classical festival than Crossing the Line…
S: The categories are clearly separated.
L: Yes, I program theater and dance as distinct from each other, whereas Crossing the Line is post-disciplinary. We don’t talk about genre, we talk about artists.
S: So between teaching and your professional career, have you found the time to go and view works to be included in next year’s festival?
G: Yes, next year’s festival is done and we’re working on projects for 2014. Ideally we should be programming two years out because artists’ schedules get very busy. Fundraising also needs to begin well in advance of the festival.
S: How is Crossing the Line funded?
G: It’s primarily supported by FIAF, and by individual donors, corporate sponsors and foundations. We also create many partnerships with other arts organizations. For instance, last year Habit was co-presented with PS 122, Faustin Linyekula was co-presented with The Kitchen. We have different arrangements with all these institutions. Sometimes we’ll split the artistic fees, sometimes it will be a purely promotional relationship and they’ll market it, sometimes we’ll split box office income––it really depends who we’re working with and who is the lead presenter on the project.
S: Does part of CTL’s mission include presenting emerging artists?
L: The festival has a balance of emerging and mid-career artists and some well established artist too. Our focus is on new forms, so artists who are either working outside their traditional discipline or who are engaging in some kind of cross-disciplinary practice, or who are exploring physical location in a new way. We try to present work that wouldn’t easily find a home somewhere else.
S: I’m curious whether you wouldn’t bring an artist to New York because they’re not established enough.
L: There’s always a question of whether there’s an audience. Sometimes we’ll present a work because we really love it and we don’t know if there’s an audience, but we want to be able to introduce an artist in New York for the first time. We know there may not be a lot of people coming to see it. It’s a question of balance. We’re not interested in ten smash hits, but it probably wouldn’t make sense for us to do ten small pieces by completely unknown artists because we wouldn’t be able to get a critical mass of attention for the festival. There is certainly work we can’t afford: the budget is modest for the festival. We have to be quite strategic in the way we build partnerships. If something’s really getting too expensive then we’ll sometimes defer it to the following year so that we have longer to be able to fundraise for it. It’s hard in New York to get peoples’ attention because there’s so much going on and there’s so much noise; there’s so much advertising and we’re very reliant on the media to get the word out and to help us.
S: Do you, Lili, and Simon have separate duties in curating the program or do you make all decisions together?
L: We make the program decisions collectively, but we each bring ideas to the table. For instance I think it was my idea to work with Lotte van den Berg, but Simon already knew her and had worked with her years before. In our case, three heads are better than one. I have a stronger background in theatre and they’re introducing me to a lot of other kinds of artists. When the selection’s been made, we divide up the projects between us and we’ll each take the lead on some of them. As Artistic Director of FIAF, Lili is the chief administrator, but the three of us have a pretty equal voice. We generally don’t argue, it almost seems miraculous. It’s inevitable that we have different emphases and different tastes, but I think we’re all very curious about seeing work that otherwise we wouldn’t have necessarily encountered.
S: Is Crossing the Line different from COIL and Under the Radar?
L: Yes it is: both of those are really theatre and performance festivals, and we’re cross-disciplinary. I don’t think COIL would do a visual art piece, they don’t do so much music: it’s ultimately about performance. And also they’re January festivals: they’re showcases designed to coincide with the Arts Presenters conferene. There’s also a question of location: UTR is at the Public; COIL is PS 122’s festival. Although CTL is hosted by FIAF, unlike those other festivals it’s really city-wide. Our focus is on artists in relationship with the city; a lot of our work is site specific.
S: I felt like Vallejo Gantner’s Curators Piece in the COIL festival could have been in Crossing The Line.
L: I suppose so, though since Vallejo was in it, it was pretty specific to his institutions.
S: What is coming up in CTL 2013 that you’re most excited about?
L: I think Pascal Rambert’s piece (Une (micro) histoire économique du Monde, dansée) is amazing. This coming year we’re working with Nature Theater of Oklahoma for the first time. We’re doing the next two episodes of Life and Times, 4.5 and 5. We’re working with Ernesto Pujol, a site-specific performance artist who’s doing a huge, ritualistic project in St Paul’s Chapel, which lasts 14 hours and involves 24 performers.
S: I love the festival’s Lecture/Performance series in which information is presented as performance. Will that continue this year?
L: There will be some lecture-performances and discussion, yes. There’s also an increased emphasis on socially engaged practice, which means artists working with community groups, with non-performers, to explore some of the most pressing social issues of our time.
S: Is that a criteria for all pieces in the festival?
L: No, it’s an emphasis. Particularly in this period of economic hardship, artists are engaging in conversations with the public about what it means to live in our city at the moment. A lot of our work is focused on direct engagement between community groups and artists.
S: I’m thinking about the Ubu Repertory Theatre in Soho that no longer exists. Do you think there is an audience today in New York for a new space for French and international performance in addition to FIAF?
L: Are you thinking about starting one?
L: The question is always where the funding would come from, and if there’s really space and support for a new idea. You also have to decide whether it’s better to infiltrate and take over a venue that already exists. The economics of New York are very complicated, and I there are a lot of spaces that could be activated in more interesting ways. But between New York Live Arts and The Kitchen and PS 122 (when it reopens) and Dance Space and FIAF and Baryshnikov and BAM, there’s no shortage of spaces. There’s a lot of competition here, both for resources and for artists. There are plenty of cities that don’t have international presence that should. I lived in Boston for 14 years and I was always amazed that there was really no international series there at all. I mean there’s nothing. The ICA [Institute of Contemporary Art] has a series; Emerson College has a series but it’s mainly American work. There’s never really been a successful international festival in Boston. It’s pretty striking that a major city like that doesn’t have a venue that is regularly presenting international work. Without huge amounts of money it’s very difficult to break through in New York. Crossing the Line couldn’t exist outside the institutional structure of FIAF. So I certainly don’t think it’s impossible but I think in a way it would be better––it would be easier––to start working at an institution that already has performance and then try to make it braver, more experimental, more popular, better funded–– than to start from scratch at the moment, as a first step.
S: I’ve stolen this last question from the Curators Piece: What kind of art would you die for?
L: All the participants said they wouldn’t die for art, and I agree. I guess I would die for freedom of expression. But, I think art becomes very interesting in environments where there isn’t total freedom of expression. I was just in Hungary last week and the country is becoming very restricted, very right-wing. There’s a lot of censorship and several artistic directors have been fired in Budapest in part because they’re too liberal. Art becomes very important in times when it’s hard to speak openly. Some of the greatest art of the twentieth century, at least in theatre, took place in Poland, Romania, Hungary, and the Soviet Union under totalitarian systems of government. So my sense is that art doesn’t need anybody to die for it. Art will find a way to speak what needs to be spoken.
Joanna Spinks is a Masters of Arts student in French at Brooklyn College writing her thesis on Artaud, Foucault and Lotringer. She is translating Sylvère Lotringer’s Fous D’Artaud for Univocal Publishing and curates the series TROPISMES at JACK, in Brooklyn. As well, she will be performing in Pascal Rambert’s Micro Histoire and assisting Fanny de Chaillé on her production of La Bibliothèque: both events will be presented as part of the Crossing the Line Festival 2013.