Eliza Baldi and Ben Mehl in Habit by Jason Grote, directed by David Levine, Crossing the Line Festival, 2012.

Eliza Baldi and Ben Mehl in Habit by Jason Grote, directed by David Levine, Crossing the Line Festival, 2012.

Crossing the Line Festival 2012 // FIAF, OCTOBER 2013

by Joanna Spinks

Director David Levine is known for his fusion of contemporary theatre with visual art, making his work particularly attractive to Crossing the Line curators.  I spoke with him on the sidewalk outside Essex St. Market, while the 8-hour production of his newest piece, “Habit,” ran inside.  Levine has used the huge space of the market to construct an enclosed, depressingly realistic environment of a lived-in ranch house complete with running water, a stocked fridge, and some bleak Halloween decorations. Windows and doors invite the audience to gaze in at the 90-minute saga playing out repeatedly on loop, telling the story of Doug, a drug dealer, Mitch, his younger brother, and Viv, a college dropout.  The day I was there, the cast included Quinlan Corbett, Matthew Stadelmann, and Stephanie Wright Thompson. They alternate days with a second group: Ben Mehl, Brian Bickerstaff, and Eliza Baldi.  Beyond sticking to their realistic text and to a realistic approach to acting without ever becoming surreal, actors are free to improvise.  They move among rooms of the ranch house, eating, using the bathroom, and even showering as they please.  Levine moves beyond realism and approaches the real. So, is it theatre? It looks like an installation but smells, sounds, and feels quite like theatre.  I spoke with the director to determine his intent.

Spinks:  Do you think that elements of theatre and art are breaking down and combining to transform performance today?  Are there any particular elements that must remain for a piece to qualify as theatre?

Levine:  That’s kind of what I was trying to ask with this piece. What’s the minimum you need to make theatre, if you take away all the rituals?  I think art forms are always borrowing from other art forms and I think it’s more a question of what people are curating these days and what people are funding these days.  So right now it’s an environment where you can actually do bigger work. You can actually make a piece like this whereas seven or eight years ago, as a theatre artist you might not have had the resources or been able to persuade people to let you try something like this.  And as a visual artist you might not have had the interest in what theatre does. So I don’t think there are any static boundaries right now in interesting curators, and I think institutions are becoming interested in different things.

S: Is there any work that particularly inspires you right now? Have you seen anything outside the U.S. that you wish could be brought here, perhaps for next year’s Crossing the Line?

L: What inspires me is mostly seventies performance––two or three pieces:  a piece by Adrian Piper called The Mythic Being, and an artist named Lynn Hershman Leeson who created a character named Roberta Breitmore in the early seventies in San Francisco.  She was this character who had a driver’s license, went and took out singles adds, got a job, all this kind of stuff.  But it was super secret stuff and no one knew it was happening when it was happening! It only exists through documentation, and to me those things were huge influences on what I do because I started off as a theatre director and I was always kind of fascinated by the American methody approach of vanishing into a character.  It’s just that my interests were always not so much in theatre. But in terms of what’s happening now, in terms of what I love now, Volksbühne in Berlin, which is pretty much the only theatre company I like anywhere.  The last thing I saw that blew my mind was a piece by Pierre Huyghe [part of dOCUMENTA, a festival of contemporary art that takes place in Kassel, Germany every five years], but it’s very site-specific, it’s unbringable – it’s like a dog and some shrubbery and sculpture and bees.

S:  Where are you working as a professor and what kinds of questions are your students currently exploring?

L:  I teach at the European College of Liberal Arts in Berlin, which has a partnership with Bard College. Right now I’m teaching a theatre class where I’m giving them all artist studios and I’m trying to get them to treat theatre as a studio-based practice.  They have these tiny studios and the idea is that you have to make work in those the way you would if you were a painter, etc.

S: Being a part of the French Institute’s Crossing the Line Festival, do you or your work have any ties to French culture?

L: Francophone family. My grandmother was Belgian.  I was born here but I also work in Berlin.  [We speak for a moment in French and Levine’s is perfect.  Brian Bickerstaff, an actor from the alternate cast performing Habit, approaches.]

Bickerstaff: It’s so weird to watch. I wanted to say hi but––hi, I’m in it tomorrow.

S: Are you exhausted on your day off?

B: I had the luxury of doing it once before at the Watermill Center.  It’s rigorous in so many ways.  It’s just mentally challenging. Once you get in there you just know where you are in the story, you’re not even thinking it’s the fifth hour, you’re just––this is where you are each time. Eight hours every day.  It’s nice to see them here now: to be able come back and watch a full cycle. It’s really nice to watch.  A guy in there asked me, “is watching this gonna fuck you up?” And I was like, “no, they’re two totally different shows.”

L: It’s different every single time and the companies have totally different styles.

S: What do you look for in casting actors for the rigor Habit demands?

L: You want someone who is conservatory trained, and you want someone who has been through a really American acting training so they think about objectives, they think about beats––because this is the kind of acting I’m into and this is the kind of script I commissioned to support that acting style.  But they also have to be good on their feet.  Classically trained in America means you do a lot of rehearsal exercises where you improvise in character, but the thing is you never get to do that once you leave because the production pressures on theatres and also the architecture of the theatre forces you to lock down the staging.  Because you know the audience has paid, etc.  But all this [Habit] is just one huge rehearsal exercise and so the actors dig it.  They’re trained to do this, they just never get to.  You’re listening, you’re responding.  You don’t have to fix anything; you don’t have to set anything.  I just wanted to keep everything I loved [about theatre] and get rid of everything that I didn’t love.

S: Besides physically transforming the traditional actor/audience relationship, what makes Habit anything but a realistic or naturalistic play?

L:  Well, it is a traditional naturalistic play.  That’s the whole point. That’s all I ask for.  They’re always set in ranch houses.  There’s always a certain set of marks.  There’s a relationship between the best American acting style and the textual supports for it.  The style is built for realism and you need a certain kind of play to enable them to kind of lift off with that technique.  So I was thinking, what’s the difference between real and realism? When they’re pissing, they’re really pissing.  When they’re eating, it’s cause they’re hungry.

S: Jason Grote wrote a realistic text…

L: Jason did an analysis of…he read every sort of American realist work and he did an average of what always happens in those plays.

S: It’s like a formula.

L: Yeah, well it’s not pastiche but he wrote something anonymous, which is what we wanted.  The other thing too, is that in order to conduct the rest of the experiment, you needed one thing to stay absolutely familiar.  If you walk in at the end, you don’t know where you are, yet it feels like an ending.  You have to be able to orient yourself a little bit.  What I want to draw attention to is how they’re riffing.  So if the text was really unusual then your attention would be divided; it would be too unfamiliar.  You’ve got to keep one thing familiar to explore the rest.

Environment and clothes designed by Marsha Ginsberg.

Environment and clothes designed by Marsha Ginsberg.


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.


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