Among theater practitioners, there may be few cities as bifurcated as New York. To many, there is “uptown” and there is “downtown”, and the line at 14th Street can be as contentious as the Mason-Dixon. Of course, the downtown/uptown divide in the theater community is not only, or even mostly, geographical. To paraphrase writer/director and downtown standard-bearer John Clancy at this years’ Obies: “downtown is a state of mind.” Certainly, many “downtown” theater artists live and work uptown, but what does pervade the NYC theater world is a sense of isolation between “downtown” artists and the “uptown” audience who are eager to see new work, but often don’t know where to look.
Enter the Graduate Center at the City University of New York and their annual Prelude Festival. “Prelude is meant to be a bridge between academia and professional theaterÃ¢?Â¦we wanted to be a neutral space without our own agenda to present new, innovative work,” begins co-curator Frank Hentschker. “A place where people can meet.” Co-curator Sarah Benson adds, “As a theater person in this city, it feels really hard to get people in the same room. It can be a very isolating experience.” (Full disclosure: I am on Prelude’s Artist Advisory Board, participated in last year’s festival with Big Dance Theater, and am a friend and collaborator of Benson’s; in addition, this article was edited by Jason Grote, a featured artist in this year’s festival.)
Officially in its 4th year, Prelude is billed as “a mini-festival and symposium celebrating and discussing the very best of new and unconventional theatre being created by NYC-based theatre companies and artists.” Over the three days of the festival, some 20 companies and individual artists will present performances, readings, open rehearsals, and talks about their work, and engage in panel discussions.
Eric Dyer of Brooklyn’s Radiohole, a Prelude ‘05 participant, said of last year’s event. “[I was] Really surprised at the interest in the work of ‘downtown’ artistsÃ¢??and by ‘downtown,’ I don’t know what I meanÃ¢??coming from quarters that at least I, in my little sphere, don’t feel like I have much contact with. There were people there that I suspect, without Prelude, wouldn’t turn up at the Collapsable Hole to see us.” Looking towards the upcoming Prelude, David Herskovitz, artistic director of Target Margin Theater, another Brooklyn-based company, agrees: “We will have the luxury of talking it over with our audience. Prelude is a chance to treat our audience to a glimpse of what we are thinking, to involve new audiences in the work, and to learn from how everyone responds.” Director Mallory Catlett, who is helming Juggernaut Theater’s Oh What War, echoes that sentiment: “It is a great opportunity to bring the audience into this moment of our development. We will show work that is more refined but also show brand new ideas that represent points of departure for moments in the play we have yet to create.”
While last year’s festival hinged on the New York theater community within a global context, this year’s festival looks at theater inside the city itself. Benson is interested in “the way the city is structured, the way in which people go about making work [when] the conditions are so hardÃ¢?Â¦ what strategies have artists taken in order to do what they do and do it well?” The opening panel will look at this question directly, and a follow-up discussion hosted Rob Handel and Maria Goyanes of 13P will include a look at the many a varied new producing models that New York theater artists have adopted to successfully create and produce theater in this overwhelming and supersaturated city. One panel discussion, hosted by playwright and Little Theater curator Jeffrey M. Jones and Theater of the Two-Headed Calf’s Brooke O’Harra and Brendan Connelly will focus on curating mixed-bill events throughout the city.
In addition to the above, this years Prelude participants include playwright/director teams Thomas Bradshaw and Yehuda Duenyas, Nick Flynn and Bob McGrath, and the aforementioned Jason Grote with Sarah Benson, as well as works-in-progress by Will Eno, Charles L. Mee, and Jenny Schwartz. Venerable downtown institution PS122 will be represented by their upcoming festival of Argentinean theater, BaiT: Buenos Aires in Translation, along with the festival’s American participants (Jay Schieb, Brooke O’Harra and Brendan Connelly, Juan Carlos Souki, and Yana Ross). Performer Jennifer Morris will bring her The Divorce Project, directed by Anne Kauffman and featuring Morris’ collaborators from The Civilians. Cynthia Hopkins will entertain with her unique brand of musical theater, and talk about her new piece Must Don’t Whip ‘Em. Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist Dean Moss will present a work-in-progress. There will also be a number of generative ensembles that defy traditional definition: Mabou Mines, Ex.Pgirl, Joyce Cho, and TENT, among others (this is a partial list; at press time, not all artists were confirmed). At the closing party on Saturday, September 30, downtown luminary Taylor Mac will perform.
Hentschker and Benson hope this year’s Prelude will build on last year’s event, presenting the best of NYC theater to eager and engaged audiences. Early in our conversation Hentschker wondered out loud, “What is contemporary theater? What are people really working on?”
Prelude ’06 will take place from September 27-30 at the CUNY Graduate Center, 365 5th Ave., Manhattan. For info and reservations, visit web.gc.cuny.edu/mestc or call (212) 817-1860.
JAKE HOOKER is a Brooklyn-based live artist. His work has been seen at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater, the Bushwick Starr, the Chocolate Factory, and HERE, among others. He is pursuing a PhD in the theater program at the City University of New York's Grad Center.