As I write this column, it is still January. Sunlight is scarce, but it is a luminous time for performance in New York City. This is in part because every year, January brings with it the Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference, with thousands of presenters and producers from around the globe arriving to exchange ideas, attend showcases and engage artists for their upcoming seasons.
Taking advantage of this convergence of performance professionals, a number of festivals run simultaneously—including the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival; P.S. 122’s COIL festival; tsbpMGMT and Abrons Arts Center’s American Realness; NYC Winter JazzFest; and globalFEST, an evening-long, multi-stage marathon of world music. And this year HERE Arts Center, in collaboration with Beth Morrison Projects, launched the PROTOTYPE Festival of new opera and new musicals. In addition to these official performance fêtes, entrepreneurial artists who are not included in any formal context often book their own spaces and make the NYC trek to participate in one of the nation’s unique arts confabs.
Just as seasonal change highlights the machinations of nature and time, this year’s vast mixture of work spotlighted new possibilities with respect to time, place and the nature of nurture in theatre today.
Bright and early on one Sunday morning, I attended a 35-minute dance-theatre piece based on fabled jazzman Jelly Roll Morton’s seven-part “Murder Ballad.” The piece was created by the talented Los Angeles–based Poor Dog Group, one of those aforementioned entrepreneurial companies. From the piece, I learned tha01t Morton played piano in the brothels of New Orleans, often singing songs from the perspective of the women who worked there. In his “Murder Ballad,” recorded in 1938, Morton sings the words of a woman whose man is cheating on her; she threatens his lover, then murders her, and consequently winds up in jail. The song goes on to evoke the narrator’s day-to-day experience in prison. Two dancers interpret the dark story through a striking and memorable collage of movement, while Morton’s epic track plays and his lyrics are projected through supertitles.
Within a few hours of leaving The Murder Ballad, I was seated at the Public Theater attending Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times: Episodes 1-4, a 10-and-a-half-hour marathon. Produced by Soho Rep, this piece is based on a recorded telephone interview of company member Kristin Worrall, in which she talks in detail about her growing up. Taking her words chronologically and verbatim, the performance celebrates, through song and movement, the banal and beautiful moments in one woman’s life. And it manages to make music out of all the tiny details, including the “ums,” “likes” and “y’knows” that find their way into everyday conversation.
As I emerged from the theatre—remembering that my day started at 11 a.m. with a 35-minute performance and ended at midnight after an approximately 635-minute one—I wondered which theatre experience would reverberate more in the days to come. I recognized that the cumulative effect of Life and Times could not have been achieved in less time; Murder Ballad could not have been performed in more than the time it took, especially since it is the choreographed expression of a particular piece of music. Both shows deal with the day-to-day details of a woman’s life, leading me to imagine what it would be like to have them formally on the same bill, rather than paired through happenstance.
In addition to playing with notions of time in the theatre, January’s performance mash-up—especially the PROTOTYPE Festival, which focused on chamber-sized operas—inspired new reflection on places and spaces. Opera has a reputation for being long, larger than life, and best experienced at a distance. Prototype gave attendees a chance to encounter new opera and musical work in the most intimate of settings—and, in some cases, with short running times. A Washington Post article declaring that “Red Curtain Opera is out, and Black Box Opera is in” was quoted frequently during the festival.
Of course, red curtain opera doesn’t actually have to be out in order for black box opera to be in—they can quite nicely co-exist and even be mutually supportive, particularly when a festival such as PROTOTYPE makes it possible for this new opera “lifeform” to gain visibility and traction. Recognizing the benefits of productive co-existence and mutual support is another revelation that comes with January’s theatrical bounty. All of the work mentioned here—as well as the many not mentioned—came about in part through the efforts of organizations, producers and presenters (often in combination) supporting and encouraging artists and ensembles. Nature Theater of Oklahoma has received ongoing nurture from producing theatres in the states as well as Europe; HERE’s dedication to developing artists and their work led to a new opportunity for artists to bring their operatic visions to a wider audience; Poor Dog Group has long been nurtured by CalArts, where its founders were students.
Marc Masterson, artistic director of California’s South Coast Repertory, is quoted in this issue’s cover story, “Group Think,” on the subject of nurture—in this case, the growing phenomenon of resident American theatres inviting ensembles to work and perform under their institutional sponsorship. The intention of this mutuality, Masterson says, is not only artistic collaboration but “to provide resources [these ensembles] might not otherwise have, so they can do things they’ve never done before.” We’ve been witnessing just such an outcome—a thought-provoking burst of ambition and originality. As with the changing season, one can sense the prospect of even sunnier days ahead.