11 September 2014

Theater That’s Out There!

[I’m always looking out for stories and reports about odd aspects of theater—new ways of doing it or new ways of using it.  Here are two brief articles, both from the New York Times, from earlier this year that describe a couple of strange notions of what theater is for and how it works.]  

by Melena Ryzik

It’s the unspoken fantasy of so many theatergoers: a highbrow cultural outing that, somewhere between the opening and the ovation, includes a nap. But most directors and performers conspire to, at the very least, keep their audiences awake.

Not so for a small but ambitious new show that opened last week in Times Square, “Dream of the Red Chamber: A Performance for a Sleeping Audience.” As its title suggests, it is meant to be absorbed by a slumbering crowd: Attendees doff their shoes and doze off in beds underneath the Brill Building. Around them, cast members in elaborate costumes act out scenes and gesture repetitively as their images are projected onto screens surrounding the space. The lights are dim; the music, constant and droning. The idea is for the spectacle to permeate the visitor’s subconscious.

Nearly 1,000 people attended in the first week, organizers said, half of them on opening weekend, when one show ran overnight, lasting 13 hours. The second and final overnight performance, on Saturday, runs from 5 p.m. till 6 the next morning.

The recent mania for immersive theater in New York and other cultural capitals has shown no signs of waning: Eager audiences expect to dance, dine, drink and exchange secrets and titillation with performers, sometimes for hours at a time. Now a new breed of experience seeks to stretch that artistic dynamic further, drawing spectators not just for lively participation but also to share their REM cycles and reveries.

Last weekend, the Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea held its fourth “Dream-Over,” in which each visitor is invited to sleep under an artwork that a curator has chosen for him or her, and then roused in the morning for a round of dream interpretation. (With tickets priced at $108, the event sold out.) And the British musician Steven Stapleton has been giving 12-hour “Sleep Concerts” in Britain, Ireland, Switzerland and Germany at which fans doze through ambient sounds and videos in what is sometimes billed as an “avant-D.J. somniloquy.”

“Sleepovers have become quite hot in recent years,” said RoseLee Goldberg, the founder of Performa, the New York performance art biennial, which offered an all-night symphonic installation in 2013. In a digital age rife with distractions, “people are trying to find as many different ways to rethink the audience and the intimacy” of live performance, she said. “It’s very much a question of the nature of theater itself, and how you get inside people’s heads. So, obviously, if you lay them out in a bed, there’s this romantic idea that you get inside their dreamscape.”

Although sleep-based performance has been common in recent years in Europe, in the United States “it’s the new frontier,” said Mark Russell, an international theater presenter and co-director of the Under the Radar festival at the Public Theater. “It is this sort of taboo — you’re supposed to be awake for art.”

Then again, Mr. Russell added with glee, “I think some shows are really wonderful when you’re half-asleep, and it’s washing over you.” Even when it’s not intended, “it is a legitimate way to experience performance.”

Daniel Varotto, 29, a film editor from São Paolo, Brazil, who is now living in New York, slept at “Dream of the Red Chamber” from midnight until 6 a.m. last Saturday. “Truly amazing,” he said, as he put his shoes and glasses back on afterward. “I was in between meditating and going through images, and also going through some of my nightmares as well. It gets in your mind in a way that you’re not really set for. They’re going into your dreams.”

The show, directed by Jim Findlay, a veteran theater director and designer, is an adaptation of Cao Xueqin’s 18th-century novel about Chinese aristocratic life, considered one of the premier literary works of the Qing dynasty. The staged version was developed over two years.

It began as so many experiments do: “We were joking” about making a play for audiences to sleep through, said Mr. Findlay, who wrote the script with Jeff Jackson. But they came to believe the production had real artistic merit, he added, especially in how it dealt with the book’s theme of questioning reality.

They were inspired by a visit to “Dream House,” the composer La Monte Young’s enveloping sound-and-light installation, first conceived in the 1960s as an altered-consciousness experience. In collaboration with the artist Marian Zazeela, it has been open to the public in TriBeCa since 1993; last year attendance jumped 50 percent, to 80 a day or more, Mr. Findlay said, with ever-younger groups staying up to six hours.

In performances that run from late afternoon to midnight or dawn, “Dream of the Red Chamber” is presented in the unfinished basement of the Brill, the onetime birthplace of Burt Bacharach songs and other venerable pop entertainment. Admission is free, and people are allowed to come and go as they please. Passing through an empty storefront lined with static-y television screens, visitors descend into a room of white walls and billowing curtains and red twin beds. It seems a world apart from the blaring neon streets above.

The detached experience “becomes more heightened by what you left to walk into the space, and what you walk into when you leave,” said Sherry Dobbin, director of public art for the Times Square Alliance, a co-sponsor of the show.

Randy Weiner, the impresario behind site-specific immersive theater productions like “Sleep No More” and “Queen of the Night,” said he felt jealous when he heard about it. “Damn it,” he said, “they beat me to the punch.”

He added: “How do you break people free of the sort of conscious mind that we’re all used to exploring in our to day-to-day life? That’s literally the goal of every art piece.” He spent the next 10 minutes of an interview spitballing ideas for his own bedtime show.

Mr. Findlay said he was eager to explore the drama and perceptions within the third of their lives that people spend asleep. “I’ve been doing a little research on my own,” he admitted, “by purposefully falling asleep at other people’s shows.” He and Mr. Jackson worried that their staging might be too lively and disrupt snoozing, so they chopped up the narrative, allowing moments to happen randomly, the way a dream might be structured.

“The best is when people wake up and say, ‘Did this happen?’ ” Mr. Findlay said.

[Melena Ryzik is the lead writer of the New York Times Carpetbagger blog.  In addition to being a general assignment culture reporter, covering film, music, theater, television, visual art, and dance, Ryzik has chronicled cultural life in New York for the UrbanEye video series and written the UrbanEye e-mail, a daily events guide.  She joined the Times in 2001 writing for metro and investigative news, and got her start as a contributing writer for the Times column “Boldface Names.” This article was originally published in the “Arts” section of the Times on 17 May 2014.]

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by Anand Giridharadas

[This article was originally published in the “Weekend Arts II” section (section C) of the New York Times on 18 April 2014.  Anand Giridharadas is an author and newspaper columnist who writes for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune.]

I entered the thronged train and at once noticed the man with long hair. He stood near the center of the car, telling some story about some man who had come back into his life: “He leaned down. I could feel his breath on my face” and “I knew what was going to happen before he told me what was going to happen.”

His voice trailed off. A woman in braids, who until then had been standing and reading the ads overhead, walked over to the same place and began telling a story of her own. The longhaired man melted into the crowd.

It is a testament to the interestingness of the New York subway that this episode, which happened to be part of an art show, didn’t have to be part of an art show. And it is a testament to the behavior that public transit arouses in us that it took time to realize that the braided woman was speaking the same words as the man she had replaced.

Platform, a new series at the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn Heights, is inviting commuters who happen to be artists and artists who happen to be commuters to propose and show work inspired by the city’s subways and buses.

And what happens when you ask artists to do this? All of our strange manners, mores and phobias as commuters are played back to us, too perspicaciously to be denied.

Which brings me to preconceptions — preconceptions being the reason I didn’t realize that the braided woman and the longhaired man were speaking the same monologue.

That particular performance, titled “What Happened ...” and produced by the Modern-Day Griot Theater Company, was an exploration of all the assuming and back-story projection that occur on the subway: my assuming about your burqa, your assuming about my shoes, her assuming about his briefcase, all of us asking: Who is he? Is she looking at me or the window? What choices did she make to get that smell? Where is he getting off? Maybe, just maybe, here.

This rampant assuming, occurring in silence, relying so heavily on semblances, inspired Stephanie Bok, the writer of “What Happened . . .,” to wonder about the distracting force of appearance. “If somebody who looks different from somebody else says the exact same words, is our preconceived notion going to affect what we hear?” she said, when asked about the idea behind the performance.

The answer, at least for this flawed soul, was a sheepish yes. The “he” in the story must be a lover in the case of that fetching woman doing the telling. Maybe “he” is the father of the man in the Muslim cap who took a turn at the tale. In the case of the white Southerner with the Kevin Spacey “House of Cards” accent, the “he” sounds like a former business partner coming to take revenge.

The performance poked sharply at our prejudices. Then again, we spend so much time facing one another on the subway, and have so little to go on. The show called to mind a friend who tends to stand near people who look Chinese to him when he’s on packed trains heading toward Chinatown, expecting that they will get off at Grand or Canal Street and reward his profiling with a seat. Having tried his trick, I can attest that it is frustrating when people turn out to be more complicated: “Why would that guy go to NoLIta?”

Pharah Jean-Philippe, the theater company’s artistic director, said the performance’s purpose was to suggest the sameness that lurks beneath the faces on our commutes. “Everyone wears a mask on the train, and you don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “But what happens when everyone drops the mask, and we all have the same stories?”

This April 10 show at the Transit Museum, housed in an out-of-use Court Street subway station, was the first in a series of “programs created by the public for the public.” The next is scheduled for June 25. The 10 people selected for the first show (out of nearly 40 who answered the open call for proposals) were mostly working artists, albeit many who pursue art as a side hustle.

There is a modern fashion in the arts to blur the boundary between performer and audience. And so here were artists, who ordinarily were the audience for what happened on the transit system, briefly becoming performers: playing the system, as processed by their vision, back to us.

“Neil,” another performance in another decommissioned subway car, explored the boundaries between personal and public space on the train. How much looking at a fellow rider is too much looking? At what hours, and in what circumstances, is it O.K. to touch — thigh against rush-hour thigh, shoulder blade against strap-hanging elbow?

The performance consisted of a woman in a cavernous dress made of paper, printed with headlines heralding Neil Armstrong’s moon landing, dancing a strange, ethereal, almost alien dance. The dancer (and choreographer), Shandoah Goldman, was accompanied by a man who at first seemed improbably stylish but turned out merely to be French.

Trailed by the man, Julien Delbassée Leflon, Ms. Goldman stepped over the laps of her audience, seated on the car’s benches; flicked her fingers in their faces; twirled glacially around the poles; lurched toward this window, then that one; and climbed onto a seat as if to escape through the roof.

She had promised herself beforehand to do the piece precisely as choreographed, even if that meant entering space where people were sitting. They would have to deal, because contested space was the point of the show.

“We’re very close in a subway car, but there are a lot of norms around keeping in your space,” Ms. Goldman said. What happens when you challenge those norms?

Sure enough, a fascinated horror crept across many faces in the car. People got that look they get when the subway break-dancing men dangle from the ceiling, and the commuters are happy to hear that the men don’t do drugs, but they still don’t want someone falling on their heads.

And yet, as another pair of artists suggested in their performance, it is precisely this contact, this possibility of mutual space invasion among very different souls, that makes the city’s transit system so thrilling and vital — and worthy of artistic processing.

Jamie Benson and his partner, Andrae Gonzalo, arrived in New York from Los Angeles two years ago. Their dance routine that night, “Party To-Go,” was a tribute to a transit system they have come to appreciate as perhaps only displaced Angelenos can.

Seeking to breathe joy and exuberance into the tedium of subway rides, they wore gray maintenance-man onesies and pranced on and around a subway bench, going underneath, coming out the other side, hovering over the wood in eerie stillness.

However bleak public transit may seem in New York, they said, it has the power of being a shared experience — even for those who can afford better. Their Californian past has taught them to appreciate that.

“If you tell people in L.A. you’re riding the bus,” Mr. Gonzalo said, “people are like: ‘Are you O.K.? Do you need help?’

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