January in New York is Mardi Gras for contemporary performing arts. For three weeks we battle the viruses we caught over the holidays and face the harsh winter cold to take in as much performance as our wallets can handle. With the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) descending upon the city the first weekend of January, a chain reaction of festivals is set off for established and mid-career artists—from The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival to P.S. 122’s Coil Festival to HERE’s Prototype Festival. And the Manhattan offerings have only expanded in recent years with Abron Arts Center’s American Realness Festival and now New York Live Art’s Live Artery presentations. It’s overwhelming and glorious and exhausting.
But for all their supposed edginess and contemporary boundlessness, these Manhattan-based festivals cater primarily to national and international artists whose work has garnered a certain amount of sheen or is positioned for commercial or touring viability. Not that any of these works are geared for a Broadway production, but the cultural cache of the organizations presenting these festivals often keep unpolished work or self-producing local artists far from their stages. With the shuttering of Incubator Arts Project in 2014, we saw the demise of their essential Other Forces Festival, and it appeared as if, once again, self-producing local performing artists were to be left out in the cold, only spectators—albeit appreciative ones—to the cavalcade of January performances.
Thankfully, however, last year Brooklyn responded with the Exponential Festival, spearhead by the magnanimous, ever-ambitious, and tireless producer/director/curator and connector-of-all artists Theresa Buchheister. If you are a performing artist who moved to NYC in the past decade, chances are Theresa helped you book your first gig, or someone you know reached out to Theresa to help you book your first gig. Individuals like Theresa move through the field often unappreciated, their roles defined not by an institutional presence but rather by their own drive, compassion, and prowess at staying unattached and nimble for the sake of the work itself.
These very qualities are particular to the ethos and driving force of the Exponential Festival.
“The intent [of the festival is] to foster community between artists and venues in Brooklyn, feature self-producing New York-based artists, and support rigorous work that is not commercial nor exclusive,” co-founder/co-director/co-curator Buchheister says. “I think my personal goal with the festival is really to encourage folks to make art with the resources available and to support each other in this endeavor.
Unlike the Manhattan January festivals, each cordoned off to a particular institution, the Exponential Festival is sprawling and democratic, connecting small to mid-sized Brooklyn presenting organizations to individual artists and small performing groups under a single umbrella. And additionally, unlike performances on Manhattan, the festival’s aim is not altogether geared toward APAP, but rather an end in itself, providing a community-engaged forum for new work by local performing artists that otherwise may not be presented. At a time when performance feels less and less dangerous, and non-profit organizations resemble the economic disparity of corporations (e.g., BAM is too big to fail), the Exponential Festival is necessary to the landscape of performing arts in New York.
With the support of Buchheister and her curatorial team, each of the eight venues presents one or more works throughout the month of January. Which means there are an astonishing twenty-five productions, plus panels and parties, happening over the course of four weeks. Although Buchheister acts as a curatorial “bottleneck”, venues make decisions on their presentation with her guidance.
In the case of theater-maker Nic Adams, his poetry performance work Icarus in the L.E.S. was selected for inclusion in the Brooklyn Gypsies: One Catches Light Festival at JACK. Adams, also a curator for the Exponential Festival, pitched the idea of crossing the two festivals together for the sake of the work, expanding audiences, marketing, and sharing practices between the Brooklyn enterprises.
In this way, each performance in the festival has a different story, arriving very much in the way one does at a holiday dinner table: you’re there, you’re hungry, and there’s space.
Choreographer/dancer Leslie Cuyjet’s inclusion in the festival came by way of her current residency with Chez Bushwick when they proposed she present her work-in-progress at Center for Performance Research. “I’m not too familiar with the Exponential Festival, but seeing the lineup and list of venues that I love and have visited over the years, I’m glad there is a Brooklyn-centric festival to join the fray with the January APAP mashup,” Cuyjet says.
Self-producing work in New York continues to be the plight of individual artists who lack financial or cultural capital. Although the Exponential Festival provides a free venue, a box office split, and marketing, festival artists still have considerable producing responsibilities and challenges. For Adams’s Icarus project, he launched an Indiegogo of $500 to support paying his collaborators—a small sum in comparison with other crowdsourced projects, but still necessary. The Exponential Festival doesn’t have an answer, nor seemingly does anyone else, on to how to combat the negative dollar sum equation of self-producing, but that may not be the point.
“I do think that sharing resources, volunteering time and skills, and trying to make space affordable is the thing that this festival is doing, in an effort to support art without money,” Buchheister says. “[Money] is part of the sustainability of existing and it is also the frequent corruptor and/or disruptor of art and artists. I am not glamorizing the struggle. It sucks. And I do all sorts of things for money. But, I have personal issues with treating art that I care about as a monetized item.”
For Cuyjet, this narrative of sustainability plays directly into her creative work, which would not be happening without the support of CPR’s residency and her day job.
“I keep circling around the role of privilege and class and its influence on the existence of art and culture in my life,” Cuyjet says. “[My work is] inspired by the notion that as a black woman who grew up with education, access, and support, I lack the language to identify how my narrative fits in the greater story of blackness, black dance, or black womanhood, especially today.”
When prompted with the sustainability of the festival, Buchheister responds, “It is hard to say if it is sustainable. I hope so. My hope is that folks focus more on the art and less on selling it.”
And this may be what sets the Exponential Festival apart from the Manhattan festivals more than anything else: resourcing energy and materials to make the work with and for the community; the reward neither recognition nor monetary, but the work itself.