Joe Heissan On “Celebrating Daniel Gerould’s Quick Change”, 3/14/2011

The Segal Center’s celebration of Prof. Daniel Gerould’s Quick Change:  Theatre Essays & Translations proved to be a justifiably crowded event.   If you didn’t reserve tickets in advance, chances are you didn’t get in.

The evening was divided into three parts.  It began with a staged reading of the English-language premiere of Andrzej Bursa’s one-act play, Count Cagliostro’s Animals (1957).  Originally written in Polish, Gerould’s translation was presented by members of Counterpoint; it was directed by Allison Troup-Jenson and performed by Jason Emanuel as Albandine, Andrew Vallins as Bartholomew, and Alenka Kraigher as Catherine.    The play opens with the sounds of stomping boots, and we soon learn that revolutionaries outside on the streets seem to be on the march against the Count Cagliostro.  These three characters are all being held captive in a basement by the unseen Count.  Each has been tortured by him in ways that have left emotional and/or physical injuries.  Throughout the play these three characters seem to support the revolutionaries, then switch sides, back and forth.  In the end, one of the three characters is dead, and as the other two hear more sounds of marching boots, there seems to be the suggestion that they may shift their support, yet again.

This staged reading was followed by a brief discussion between Gerould and Troup-Jensen.  Both agreed that this script seems particularly timely, especially given all the unrest in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the world.  Clearly these characters want freedom, but they are willing to adjust allegiances as their conditions change.

The evening concluded with a conversation between Gerould and Elinor Fuchs.  Fuchs is currently a professor at the Yale School of Drama, and had been a student of Prof. Gerould’s  at the CUNY Graduate Center in the 1990s.  Fuchs asked Gerould about the many resonances conjured up by the title Quick Change.  Gerould said that these multiple potential meanings were intended, but that the title grew out of an essay on Witkiewicz that is included in the collection.  From their discussion we learned about the diverse topics that this book explores, and how some of them came to be of interest to Gerould.  We also found out that the book was intentionally arranged, not by chronology or by subject, but to allow the reader to move around as s/he saw fit and discover recurring themes in these essays that play off of one another.

Quite a few people in the audience were current and past students or colleagues of Prof. Gerould.  I left appreciating even more the example he has set for so many of us through his teaching and his scholarship.  I also look forward to reading Quick Change.

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The Last Uncharted Territory—an Evening with John Guare

“American history,” I recently heard George C. Wolfe, director of John Guare’s latest play A Free Man of Color, say, “is not a well-made play.”  Last Monday before an enthusiastic audience at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center John Guare continued this thought in a free flowing dialogue with David Savran about his play, the poetry of theatre, racial stereotypes, and what it means to be American.

Directed by Wolfe at The Vivien Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center with all the visual excess Guare had wished for, A Free Man of Color employs the sexy, anything goes model of Restoration comedy to engage in an exploration, deconstruction, reassessment, and much more of the American dream.  Rich with references from the Country Wife to Barbara Bush (think Hurricane Katrina) A Free Man of Color tells of the life and times of former slave turned slave owner Jacques Cornet, played by the always exciting Jeffrey Wright, for whom Guare wrote the play.  Aided by his clever slave Murmur (in a nuanced performance by mos aka rapper Mos Def), fop Cornet indulges in fine clothes, maps, and women.  Lots of women.  Cornet is so hot; it only takes his signature whistle for the ladies of the town to drop on the nearest canapé.  The town is, of course, New Orleans, because where else in the US around 1800 could a black man celebrate his magic endowment?  What poetic truth that Cornet is such a libertine—after all the term originally meant “a man freed from slavery,” as David Savran discovered to his and Guare’s astonishment.

How my Father sold my Mother

Brocade purchased with the enormous inheritance from his white father may have given Cornet confidence, but it doesn’t protect him from the tidal waves of history.  After the Louisiana purchase the racial mosaic of New Orleans is forced into a brutal division of black and white, and Cornet ends up on a plantation; an ending that David Savran called “a nasty, sad surprise.”  A Free Man of Color, so Guare, is a play about narrative.  Cornet is seduced by the illusion of writing his own play, but history simply kicks him out of the narrative and into the mystical white spaces that symbolize American ideals of freedom and their flipside: living in chance—the ultimate uncharted territory.  Tragic that Cornet’s hope “all men are created equal” was one of Jefferson’s sharp statements that didn’t find their way into the constitution.  By the way, a Jefferson whom Guare depicts to this audience’s puzzled delight as a pragmatic comfort creature with a sweet tooth rather than as an intellectual heavy weight.

How One Man Became an American

In response to questions about his writing process Guare talked about exhilarating research that led him to findings such as Napoleon’s confinement to a bathtub to alleviate his skin disease and the Code Noir, that mind numbing, insane set of laws prohibiting blacks from everything but labor.  Cornet reciting it with a mix of terror and amazement and Guare talking about it make two memorable moments in my personal theatre history.  I found myself equally fascinated with the roles of trickster slave Murmur and Haitian leader Toussaint Louverture (also played by mos), two men who fight for freedom with literally all they have.  Toussaint dies a miserable death in France, Murmur sells Cornet to gain his own freedom.  Easy to admire upright, courageous Toussaint, but Murmur?  His actions are human, all too human, those tragic decisions people make when oppression pushes them into an ethical cul de sac.  The “humanity of America,” said Guare, “is the nightmare of America.”  Mos’ diminished, guilty look on his final line “now I am a Free Man of Color, and I find that very nice,” came back to mind as I listened to the irreplaceable voice of John Guare alerting us to the high price of freedom.

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Prepare to Get Made

This is the true story of forty performing artists, picked to live in a house…OK, not exactly. But if the idea of a behind-the-scenes look at the “challenging and eclectic lives” of performing artists in New York City peeks your interest, the upcoming (and FREE!) Segal Center program, MADE HERE should be high on your list of priorities.

The “house” that these forty theatre, dance, music, and media arts practitioners have been thrown into is New York City, and the issues they confront range from the realities of maintaining a family balance within artist couplings, to the persistent battling with day jobs. All of these challenges are wrestled to the ground in the MADE HERE video series, which can be viewed next week at the Martin E. Segal Theatre.

At 3pm on Monday, November 2, view all of the MADE HERE episodes, and then, at 6:30pm, join the brains behind the project to discuss its development, goals, and some of the issues the series raises. On hand for the discussion will be Moira Brennan, Program Director, MAP Fund; Gabri Christa, Filmmaker/Choreographer and MADE HERE Artist; Andy Horwitz, Curator, LMCC and Founder,; Mikeah Ernest Jennings, Performer and MADE HERE Artist; Ginny Louloudes, Executive Director, A.R.T./New York; Helen Shaw, Theater Critic, Time Out New York; and Kim Whitener, Producing Director, HERE.

MADE HERE is a documentary series and website, split into seasons and organized around different themes: this month, MADE HERE explores Technology, with other areas of focus including Activism, Family Balance, and Creative Real Estate. Season One was rolled out from May to September 2010, and Season Two will premiere in Spring 2011.

The website is indeed an excellent resource for anyone interested in contemporary performance in New York, and the videos themselves showcase interviews with an impressive array of performing artists: Arthur Aviles, Jennifer Miller, Melanie Joseph, Elizabeth Streb, and Charles Rice-Gonzalez are among those interviewed for one of the Activism episodes, which engages a “civic dialogue about gentrification, class, race, neighborhood politics, and community building.” Marianne Weems, Anne Bogart, Taylor Mac, Ping Chong, and Toni Dove are just a smattering of the other interview subjects who appear in other episodes. The clips on their formidable and easily navigated website give a taste of these well-produced videos. Here’s one of them.

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In the Blonde Room

Authored by Sascha Just

Bourdieu and Deleuze’s ghosts sat in the wings during Simulation: Living the Simulacra, the last event of the seventh annual Prelude Festival of Contemporary New York Theatre and Performance. After an evening of presenting multimedia performance artists, Reggie Watts, Andrew Schneider, and Reid Farrington were joined by a group of performers and producers from the New York avant-garde theatre scene in a round table discussion about simulated realities and the challenges of mediatized live performances. What is “live” anyhow? Can a performance with two flickering TV monitors and a large projection in the back like Andrew Schneider’s piece CHNO2, “a hyper meditation on contemporary media culture,” be defined as live? Schneider toyed with the gap between audience, performer, and simulated reality by hiding between the spectators.

Music comedian Reggie Watts offered a very different approach to engagement with space and absent and present realities. Singing and dancing next to his tiny piece of electronic equipment atop a bar stool (and before an ecstatic audience), he evoked models, imitated and twisted familiar tropes—belting out a soulful romance, for example, while actually complaining about dwindling artist funding. Like a record that spins a little faster, then again a little slower Watts distorted styles and modes, only to reveal their clichés. Through his mocking eyes the light wood paneled Elebash Hall became the Blonde Room, a representation of all that is blonde meaning white—perhaps bland. Or better yet, a model for a neutral space in which simulations are created, everything is possible, even that happy “Goldilock state where,” as Watts informs us, “one wants to be.”

We are a species that likes to simulate, Watts argued at the round table, so there is a chance that we are only simulations, too, living in a simulacra. This begs the oldest possible question: If the edges of what we see are currently being rendered, then who is simulating us? Too bad turn table acrobat, composer, and visual artist DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid (aka Paul D. Miller) was still plodding across the melting North Pole and so could not give his unique spin to the play with presence, memory, and (re-)creation of reality. A high tech artist without internet connection may be an oxymoron, but DJ Spooky’s adventure on a replica of the flagship with which Amundsen sailed into the ice almost one hundred years ago, embodied the topics of the evening only too well. In keeping with the theme, Co-Curator Morgan von Prelle Pecelli masked DJ Spooky’s absence with projections of his footage and diary entries, filling the Blonde Room with the mysterious silence of uninhabited locales. As much as I enjoyed and admired the other performances pieces as contemplations of simulacra, strangely the few images of the pole projected into the dark made me experience the simulacra most powerfully.

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dressing room discourse

Authored by Visnja Rogosic, Fulbright Visiting Scholar

The dressing room conversation with Morgan von Prelle Pecelli, the co-curator of Prelude 10 – on the spectator-performer, individual-community, scholar-practitioner and past-present relations.

VR: Reading curator’s and dramaturge’s notes, I have found many references to historical avant-garde and neo-avant-garde history of performing arts, however, no reference to Prelude’s immediate past. What is the relation of Prelude 10 to the previous ones?

MPP: It’s smaller, tighter and more compact. That said we did shift a couple of things. In 2008 I was the dramaturge and worked closely with Andy (Horwitz) and Geoffrey (Jackson Scott). It was the first time we really tried to structure the flow of the days. In 2008 we were talking about the form: performance art versus contemporary dance, the difference between the white cube and the black box practice… And in 2009 we were looking at the different practices through which the art is getting made: hybrid practices, political practices – where political was a lower case “p”, more human political, etc. The question in 2010 is why live experience is so important to all of us. To some extent there was a through line of the last three years. We kept talking about audience engagement and participation. To me, that’s really the question about live. It’s not so much the question of live versus mediated, I’m not interested in that divide, I’m interested in what is it that draws audience members to become alive, wake up, participate, engage and become thoughtful human beings and why is that an important thing that they are socially engaging with each other, whether it is through live human contact or whether it’s through mediated contact. It’s still a living being activity. The artwork that we all produce is the kind of work that asks audiences to doubt the world that they live in, to question it, to come together with each other into dialogue as opposed to other aesthetic practices that confirm the world and help you to forget your day…

VR: In relation to that, for the first part of the program – “Communication” – you chose communitarian over individual form of communication, and I am particularly interested in two aspects of your choice. The first is the reason for affirming the egalitarian concept of community by referring to Turner’s concept of “communitas”, which seems rather risky, given that in the past decades the world has witnessed the failure of both artistic and political egalitarian endeavours. The inability to establish and maintain egalitarian artistic collectives in the 1960s and the disintegration of a number of communist political systems during the 1990s are probably the first things to come to mind. Also, with “communitas”, you evoke very important issues such as audience elimination, social activism and the primacy of community over the individual which is as big a question as the “egg or chicken” one. So, if it is the egalitarian community that you want, what do you need it for? What’s the aim?

MPP: I’m sitting watching Rich Maxwell’s show “Ads” recently – it came out in January. There was an audience of seventy people but there were no live performers on the stage at all, it was entirely virtually created so that you were watching video of one person talking about their beliefs, or their relationship to the world in some sort of way…

VR: Not performed somewhere at the same time, but just projected? Cinema?

MPP: Cinema! But it was so stripped down, so simple. There was such a raw simplicity to the way that Rich directed, the way that the language came through and the way these people were just standing totally emotionally naked on stage, that you really were brought into it but not in a way that you forgot everybody else around you. In the normal movie theatre you forget there’s anybody else, you forget you have a body and you are lost in the movie, and that’s true for a lot of theatre as well. In this scenario the lights were up on the audience just a little bit, so that I could see who’s around me and feel them and hear them laughing and hear them responding. Because they were the only living energy in the room, I became really super aware of how I was connected to the people in that audience who I know very deeply, the people who I don’t know so deeply, very aware of what we all shared together when we were responding, or when some were responding and others weren’t, and what that meant. It reminded me of why I leave my apartment where I’m watching the video all by myself. It’s still more likely that I will go spend $25 to go see the piece to the theatre with sixty other bodies around me. So that’s the real crux of it. There is a social activity to it, even if you go by yourself, even if you’re actually an audience of one going through an installation piece where you’re the only person who can be the audience at that time and then somebody follows you ten minutes behind. There is still some kind of social interaction going on there.

VR: Such as gathering and dispersion of audience before and after the performance?

MPP: Yes, that social connecting is part of humanness and art being alive. Am I going back to Marxian definition of human? Definitely. I’m not, however, necessarily trying to go to a capital “S” socialist – just remembering that this is a social activity as well. It is dangerous because it can be used to indoctrinate us towards all kinds of directions.  I think this type of work is constantly saying “is that the social reality you want?” rather than saying “this is the social reality in which you live.” And that is also our relation to the avant-garde – to question it rather than just reproduce it.

VR: If Prelude is about both, community and participation, it seems that the way the theme of the second day – “Provocation” – is elaborated in the program, assumes a certain inequality between the performer and the audience, focusing on how performer might provoke the audience. Do you think that chosen projects also question the way audience provokes performers, changes their “mental picture”?

MPP: The interwar period avant-garde in Europe or Alfred Jarry even before – the way they talk about them in the biographies – were creating provocations but the audience was pushing back quite viscerally, throwing stuff, fainting. What depresses me a little bit, is that every time I go to see a show here, particularly the ones that I think are quite mediocre and boring or the ones that are provocative, is that everybody sits quite docile and doesn’t respond. And I feel that there is some aspect in which the audience has given up its power to respond, to provoke back, to engage the performers in ways that performers didn’t anticipate or plan for. What is going on with Ann Liv Young right now is fascinating; she is getting censored by PS1, to my understanding of what’s going on there. What she’s been doing with that character Sherry is really getting into people’s faces. She is creating situations where she has no control over how that person is going to respond and she is pushing that envelope so hard that people are actually responding and getting in her face and getting upset about it. Even those of us who are making provocative work, aren’t trying to construct a particular response in the audience and we don’t expect them to have any other response than the one we have. I’m not sure what to do about that, except try and have that kind of conversation with audiences. I focus on the subtle provocation practice that does not say “you should go do this, think this”, they just make you start to itch. It’s still up to the audience member. They still maintain a level of autonomy to create the meaning from the work, to create their understanding from the work and also to create whatever direction they shift in. So the provocations aren’t proscriptive, they are encouraging somehow.

VR: How does the liminal university surrounding influence Prelude?

MPP: I feel like we should be thriving in this half way space between the university students and the scholars and the professional practitioners but I think we haven’t quite nailed it and that’s why we keep playing with its format. From what I’ve seen in the last few years (and I could be wrong – we don’t have any real data, so this is just an impression) –is that the practitioners are there but the scholars and the students aren’t… I have no idea where they are or what they’re doing. They don’t seem to be fully engaging even when we have brought them in our panels. We have not figured out how to really key in and perhaps some of it is that the focus is on the professional practitioners. The focus of the festival is to provide content but we are also trying to provide engaging conversations about that content. It is a preview of work that is to come – all the shows are going to be which is amazing. It’s a huge trailer for the contemporary performance theatre sector for the whole year, which is phenomenal.

VR: It’s a new genre in fact…

MPP: Yes, but it can’t just be that and I think particularly because it’s in a university setting it has to have also this base for the community to come together and talk to each other.

VR: Do you feel that’s missing?

MPP: There’s definitely conversation, people come and talk about all kind of things and those conversations go on and beyond and they happen afterwards but it’s all the practitioners coming together. The scholars, the writers and the students aren’t engaging in that conversation. There are two totally different worlds and they never meet, in spite of the fact that the writers are writing and the students are studying these practitioners but they aren’t actually talking to each other ever.

VR: Do you think that’s a general problem, because I see it in Croatia all the time…

MPP: It’s a huge problem here. I work at PS122 and we just co-edited The Live Art Almanac Vol. 2 with Live Art UK and Performance Space in Sydney, Australia and they wanted practitioners’ writings, their own voice, not scholarly articles. We had a hell of a time getting any US based artists to submit anything because they are not used to writing about their own work or thinking about it in those kinds of ways because they don’t talk to the scholars. And I think they’re suffering for it. The reviewers don’t understand them, the journal articles don’t really talk about them, there is very little communication happening around the artists beyond the show. And it’s not about inviting the audience to check out the work in progress and give feedback – it is having conversations with them about that kind of work, about politics, about anything, anything…

VR: And what’s relevant will eventually come out…

MPP: Exactly. That’s why we shifted from the panels to a round table. We kept having the panels where artists were speaking in monologues and it was starting to drive me nuts after two years. It’s an experiment where eight to ten of us are sitting around the table and, by the fact that we are facing each other, we’ll have a conversation. It forces the audience out of it but hopefully the audience will have a richer experience because maybe some drama will actually happen.

Edited by Arwen Lowbridge

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Prelude past & present

Authored by: Visnja Rogosic, Fulbright Visiting Scholar

What follows is a sequence of short excerpts from an equally short conversation with the Segal Center’s Executive Director & Director of Programs, Frank Hentschker (creator of Prelude Festival) and Director of Academic Affairs & Director of Publication, Daniel Gerould.

Its sole purpose is to collect some of the reminiscences, wishes and decisions that eventually amalgamated into Prelude 10. Also, since every leap starts with a counter movement, sketching out the meanderings of previous Preludes comes just in time for this year’s festival.

We live in the postmodern world of accelerated history where, as Pierre Nora reminds us, history and memory are separated, resulting in the development of archival memory that relies completely on preserved traces of the past. The role of the feverish blogger archivist is therefore a common (and hopefully useful) one, in spite of the fact that, with the increasing number of archives, its institutional and conservative responsibility has been significantly reduced.

VR: Could you tell us more about the history of the Prelude – how the program developed throughout the years, was it curated from the very beginning, has it always been of experimental nature, etc?

FH: The first year when I started working for Martin E. Segal Theatre Center I thought about what is doable, in the sense that you have to build the house with the stones you have. Obviously we are a university and don’t produce shows, but our mission is to bridge academia and professional theatre – international and American. We do a good job presenting international programs and I felt strongly that we also had to promote and support local New York artists. I once visited a Kennedy Center event which was called “Page to Stage” – those were just readings but they opened it up to anybody who did anything. It was an interesting idea to me and I thought about how we could do something similar here.

At first we collaborated with A.R.T./New York (Alliance of  Resident Theatres NY). We put out a call and about 20 – 25 companies were interested, so we invited them. Next year it jumped up to a hundred submissions and I said we would have to curate it, but A.R.T./New York felt that, since they were a supporting organisation, it should be done by a lottery – they didn’t want to say no to anybody who was their member.

We used the lottery for one year but I felt it was not really appropriate for us. Daniel and I discussed inviting a curator to help us, so it was not just the academics doing a survey from the ivory tower, but also someone who was a part of the scene to help us find artists and put together the dramaturgy of the festival.

We first chose Sarah Benson who at the time worked for the Writer/Director Lab at Soho Rep Theatre. For two years she became my co-curator and Prelude became really well known. A lot of significant artists have shown their work here – Young Jean Lee, Pavol Liska, Branden Jacob-Jenkins. We had our finger on the pulse of New York theatre but also tried to have a mixture with a traditional avant-garde like The Living Theater, Marina Abramović, John Jesurun, Richard Foreman. The main idea was always to present excerpts of work that will be shown in the next season, offer a chance to talk to the artist and also cover bigger themes like ecology, new media, blogging…

I decided no curator should be longer with us than two years, because we don’t want to have a look of an insider job, so after two years Sarah left. It became a very big festival – three days of companies and panels, which is enormous amount of work and it’s just at the start of our season. Next we invited Andy Horwitz, who worked for PS122, and Geoffrey Jackson Scott, who worked for the New York Theatre Workshop. One was into performance and the other was more inclined to plays, so they could talk to each other and lift a little bit more weight from our shoulders. For two years they were curators. In 2008 we invited Morgan von Prelle Pecelli to be the dramaturge but they worked so well together that for 2009, all three served as curators. This year Morgan is alone and next year it will be someone else.

VR: If the intention of the Prelude, as its name suggests, was to present the upcoming shows of the New York scene, why did you decide to concentrate solely on its experimental/avant-garde practitioners?

FH: We felt that Broadway, and even some Off-Broadway theatres which almost function in the same way, are quite well known, know how to reach their audiences and don’t need our support. But we do think that the downtown scene – PS122, Chocolate Factory and others – is a unique scene that is not well known. Also, these artists are the ones who often come to our international events. Prelude is in a way cutting edge, experimental, asking formal questions and doing research in a laboratory. It’s about ideas and future, what university could and should be about. We also want to energize the campus, the building, the students, possibly also faculty. Another thing is we want to create long lasting connections with the international theatre community because the work of New York artists often doesn’t travel so much. So there is always something called the SPOTLIGHT – Argentina, Japan, Polland – this year is Catalonia.

VR: How does the university context, non-commercial and offering protection in a way, influence the nature of the manifestation?

DG: We don’t charge any admission which has great effect in the audience we attract: younger people, people who don’t go to the theatre as a question of prestige. If we started charging admission, then we would have to start changing the program in order to be sure that we got the people to pay. That’s a major aspect of this protected environment.

VR: Why did you choose to have such a compressed program scheme?

DG: We have chosen the format and the time for our programs that works. A more leisurely one isn’t a format for New York where everything goes fast and people have little time. Few times when our discussions have gone on I don’t think they’ve been as good, so I think that limitation of time really fits the city and the pace of things. The fact is that within this building any night there are fifteen competing events.

VR: Are you able to present the program which could not be done or would be more difficult to organize elsewhere?

FH: Prelude is a hybrid – it’s changing all the time. First we would have plays and then a discussion after wards, then we decided to have plays, discussions and an additional big theme. Last year we had different artists come together and talk about their work. We have done workshops before, but never had this kind of participatory working sessions that we are focusing in 2010. We want to do things that would not happen somewhere else.

Also, this is where we try a little bit to gain the trust to reflect about theory, to think about theatre. One has to admit that there is a slight anti-intellectualism – in the downtown scene there are people who take pride in the fact that they don’t want to explain their work – which is a great American tradition, but there is also a great European tradition to really intellectualize what you do and so this is our contribution. There are lots of talks, but artists often don’t have a place where they can say something or it might not be taken as seriously because it might not be refined, but we do feel their voices are of importance and influential so we want to create discussions.

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and the Festival after-party spot is…

a lovely place called the archive bar!

this place is a gem (amidst an otherwise lackluster selection of loud midtown bars which somehow all seem to be either karaoke, Irish or sports themed.)

join us each night after 10pm to hang out with the festival artists and celebrate with festival staff, supporters and attendees. everyone is welcome.

and volunteers get drink tickets, if you can spare a few hours to help make Prelude.10 happen

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Help make Prelude.10 happen!

We are looking for a few outstanding souls to help us out during the three festival days.

What do we need? Dependability, elbow grease and a fun attitude

What do you gain?  Hanging out with some of the coolest artists in NYC,  networking possibilities, creative connections to be made, Prelude.10’s love for life

Here’s what we’re looking for help with. Slots are currently open for all shifts on Wednesday 9/29, Thursday 9/30 AND Friday 10/1.

Set-Up Crew
(Activity Sessions and Markets – think carrying tables & chairs & small boxes, etc.)
Time: 2-5PM

Run Crew
(For the fastest change-over ever.  Nothing huge, just needs to happen quickly.  Also serves as break-down crew for activity sessions & markets)
Time: 6-9PM

(Greeting people in the lobby, answering questions, directing traffic)
Time:  TBD…either the marathon slot from 3-9PM or choose between 3-6:15PM/6-9PM

Ideally, we’d love to have volunteers commit to one full day (2-9PM) at Prelude. If this isn’t possible, we have shorter shifts available as well.

If you’d like to help out, please send an email to

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Prelude 2010 is coming

We are excited to finalize program details and get ready to launch our new Prelude10 website soon!

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The Lowdown on “Highbrow/Lowdown”

Tuesday night’s colloquium on David Savran’s new book was simply a gas–as a jazzman might say.  Upon walking into the Segal Theatre we were greeted by William McNally’s live piano ragging of Gershwin (who figures prominently in the book) and other tunes from the era.  So the party had started long before the reception…

That said, it proceeded to be a very heady conversation–no surprise given the seriousness of the author, “guest star” Professor John Graziano (Emeritus of the GC Music dept), and their interlocutor, recently anointed Dr. Kevin Byrne, who just completed his dissertation on minstrelsy under the aegis of these very same men!  David joked up front that he now felt it was he who was “defending” under questioning from his former student.

Among the topics discussed:

-What is/was “Jazz”?  Prof Graziano at one point did grace us with a formal mini-history of jazz as it grew out of ragtime, which spread the country after the 1892 World’s Fair, etc…But David’s book is premised on the observation that “jazz” (by the 1920s at least) was an incredibly and confusingly fluid category.  At one end you have “race records” of small ensembles of largely anonymous African American ensembles.  At the other you have bourgeois band leaders like Paul Whiteman rearranging the same tunes for white dance clubs.  And there’s also composers from Gershwin to Aaron Copland providing their own “riffs” in the classical concert halls with full symphonic orchestras.  All of these pieces at some point merited the label “jazz” in the popular press–which David takes as justification to consider Jazz as a broad “structure of feeling” (in Raymond Williams’ formulation) pervading US culture in the 20s.  (Thus a musicological argument over what jazz is and isn’t is not really in the book’s purview.)

-Jazz and Race:  This naturally led into exchanges over the racial significance of all this “crossing over” and “covering” of musical style, as well as what music means to different audiences.  David provided a wonderful aural illustration of the different ends of the jazz racial spectrum by playing two different recordings of WC Handy’s “St. Louis Blues”–one a “race record” by blues legend Bessie Smith, the other a dance-hall arrangement by Paul Whiteman’s band.  Same tune–two vastly different pieces of music.  Smith’s vocalization was slow, infused with pain and melancholy yet powerful size.  (“Tragic” was Kevin’s apt description.)  The Whiteman instrumental version was downright toe-tapping.  Quick-paced, jaunty, with even a Latin/”habanera” maraca-shaking interlude to really confuse things.  You could of course see this as the kind of cultural appropriation we later came to know in early rock ‘n’ roll (with Elvis and Pat Boone “covering” and cleaning up the earlier work of black artists).*  And you could see the “love and theft” argument of Eric Lott (regarding minstrelsy), where white musicians–and audiences–flock to this new music for its exoticism while simultaneously claiming it as their own.  In either case, the broad spectrum of the popular jazz movement was there for all to hear in these two recordings.

-A key “lover” and/or “appropriator” of black jazz (depending on how you see it) was George Gershwin, whom David was eager to spend some time talking about.  I think one of the most significant accomplishments of David’s book in the field of Theatre Studies is making the case for a musical composer as a major American dramatist.  It’s telling that when the Gershwin brothers’  Of Thee I Sing became the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize (in 1931) George was the only one of the collaborators not awarded the prize, since music was clearly considered incidental or just background to the drama.  David points to the complex “through-composed” scores of several Gershwin musicals as evidence of the composer’s intense involvement in the dramatic structuring of his shows.  Graziano also emphasized the sheer harmonic uniqueness of a typical Gershwin song–“surprising” the listener with its modulations–and how, in the live theatre, that has dramatic import as well depending on the song’s placement in the drama and the character singing it….But since Gershwin’s career is perhaps best known for its attempt to win “legitimacy” for jazz in the concert hall (with Rhapsody in Blue, etc.), David’s interest in him also involves this compelling story of one artist’s striving for cultural consecration through this often controversial genre of jazz.

-Speaking of “consecration,” then there’s Eugene O’Neill: the dominant American playwright of the era and, arguably, still today.  O’Neill, it turns out, hated jazz.  But that makes him an even more ideal subject of David’s study because he came to represent kind of the “anti-jazz” in the American theatre.  Those who recoiled at the spreading influence of jazz in the culture took refuge in O’Neill’s aspirations to the high-modernist European theatre: highly aestheticized, catered to a highly educated and self-selecting audience, and concerned with “the popular” only in the sense of “the primitive.”  David said that his interest in O’Neill’s reputation (more than even his work) was a starting point for the whole book.  He concluded that, basically, even if O’Neill hadn’t existed, the drama critics of the time would have invented him–so ready were they to “advance” the American Drama above the popular forms of melodrama, musicals, and vaudeville.  Critics, therefore (like George Jean Nathan and Gilbert Seldes) also emerge as major players in Highbrow/Lowdown.

-Finally, the discussion turned to the nature of audiences and how the book approaches what it calls “the making of the new middle class.”  Here David acknowledged his debt to various sociologists (from Pierre Bourdieu to C. Wright Mills) in finding both methodologies and language to theorize audiences and audience-creation.  It turns out the 1920s offer a similar challenge to such research as earlier eras, since there were none of the convenient “audience surveys” and demographic studies we have gotten used to in the last fifty years.  One source David ingeniously turned to was Emily Post!  (Her etiquette book from the 1920s conveniently focuses extensively on how proper people should behave at a Broadway show.)  Audience and class structure become essential to Highbrow/Lowdown because of this fight for the soul, if you will, of the American theatre over whether it will be a jazz theatre or an “art” theatre.  (Or both–David provides many examples of adventurous highbrow jazzy experiments, like John Howard Lawson’s Processional.)  It’s not a coincidence to him that as Broadway became more middle class, it became less jazzy.

What I came away with most from the evening was something not necessarily in the pages of Highbrow/Lowdown itself, but something that is always evident in studying with David or listening to him speak about the subject.  And that is his free admission of the important–and often neglected–role of pleasure in theatre studies.  Part of his attraction to the form of the musical in recent years, it seems, is an embrace of the pleasure induced by musical performance as a totally valid and quite serious element of theatre.  He prefaced his remarks Tuesday night by noting how rarely he feels pleasure attending the New York theatre nowadays; it is too concerned, he said, with prestige.  And so it was not hard to infer that the loss of “jazz”–whatever that means–in our dramatic arts is a lamentable one.

*The appropriation model also reminds us of the more recent cultural migrations of Hip-Hop.  While he defers to others in analyzing the significance of Hip-Hop, David often references the debates around it as an analog to the cultural and racial tensions (“culture wars”) that once erupted over jazz in the 20’s.

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