Director/choreographer Yanira Castro is no stranger to creating works that are large in size and/or scope. In her 2011 production of Paradis, she transformed the Brooklyn Botanical Garden into a performance site, guiding the audience on a journey through an expansive dreamscape. Her 2013 production of The People to Come included the creation of an extensive audience-generated archive, culled over many months and across the map, which the performers used to create a multitude of short, original performances, rehearsed in real time, and then performed for a live audience on multiple stages in a single site.
Yanira Castro’s newest endeavor is perhaps the farthest reaching yet. She began in 2016 by collecting over a hundred hours of recorded interviews with an eclectic group of performers selected through a uniquely democratic casting process. In 2017, Castro is completing this process as she is about to regale us with an unprecedented trilogy of works, under the common title CAST, STAGE, AUTHOR, simultaneously premiering in September in three venues (The Chocolate Factory, Abrons Art Center, The Invisible Dog Art Center) across three of the New York City’s boroughs (Queens, Manhattan and Brooklyn, respectively.) Last month, Rail contributor Ivan Talijancic conversed with Castro to gather some insights on this project as she was entering the final stages of preparation for the upcoming world premiere.
Ivan Talijancic (Rail): We are about to witness a trilogy you have been working on for some time now, which will simultaneously premiere in three venues across three of the City’s boroughs, which, I am quite sure, has never been attempted before in New York City. How did this ambitious idea come about?
Yanira Castro: It started with saying I wasn’t going to be ambitious this time. I wasn’t going to make a three-part structure. I was going to be “simple.” I was going to build something modularly, in pieces, as I went. I have to say, it almost always starts that way. I have a tendency to make connections and create hybrid situations that sprawl. And I pursue them to a fault.
I am also lucky to have collaborators who see this instinct (and laugh when I say it is going to be simple) and dig deep. With this one, because I was asking questions about representation, it started off with this “simple” idea to record as many performers as my Jerome Foundation grant would allow talking about the “onus” of representation, the responsibility of it, the weight of it—or their connection (or not) to it. “Representation” is a loaded word and once we got going, it was clear that we would have a trove of material. It started growing from there. In being attentive to our conversations, a larger form began to emerge. It couldn’t be contained in one piece.
Rail: If I recall correctly, it all started with the interviews you conducted with your cast members just over a year ago. Was there ever a moment where you thought: “s***, I can’t believe I am doing this.”
Castro: More like “what the f*** am I doing?” I didn’t know what form it would take. I start a system going—two four-hour conversations about casting (eight each for fifteen performers)—record them, photograph them, document them, bring cookies, bring water, make sure it takes place in the same room each time. And then from there, I trust things will emerge. And they do. I just don’t always know the form they will take; although I have a guiding word or image. I knew there would be a table and a microphone. I knew I wanted to create a series of tasks. I knew language would play a big part. I mean, we were talking for over 100 hours of recorded material.
So I trust the system we are building will lead to something, especially if I can be attentive to it and try not to shape it but instead to be a witness. I trust the shaping will happen. I don’t so much trust that the attention will happen. So that is where I put my conscious energy. Or try to, anyway. Does that make sense?
Castro: Real listening is hard. I was exhausted by the end of the three months of talking.
Rail: So, it began with hours and hours of interviews. How did the work evolve from there into its soon-to-be-premiered three-part presentation?
Castro: Part of the reason for building the system in the way I did—or the scenario—was to question a few things: 1) The role of casting in performance. Why these individuals in front of another group of individuals? What is this about: the watching of some? Why do we put ourselves in front of others? Why do others put others in front of themselves? Who do we put in front and how do various people hold that space? 2) Questions about authoring. This is a real problem I have, the question of authorship. The concept of singularity—this person who has something to say—it makes my skin crawl. How to tear down this cultural idea is big for me, revealing the multiplicity in the perceived singularity? 3) The control of the image. The performers spoke a lot about transformation, the process of “something occurring” by passing through the liminal spaces. In theater’s case: the wing, the backstage, the light.
So, as a result of these questions and the conversations with the performers, CAST, STAGE, AUTHOR emerged.
I want to also say that I am well aware that I was stepping “outside” of my “medium.” Here I was a “choreographer” doing “devised theater.” I am well aware of that history and part of me was floating outside of the doing and thinking: “why this?” The “holy f***” part. But like I said, I can follow instincts to a fault.
Rail: Although your recent works have taken distinctly different forms, one could say that a common thread is an ongoing investigation of the dynamics between the spectators and the performers/performance. With CAST, STAGE, AUTHOR, you are ratcheting up that exploration to the next level.
Castro: Am I? I don’t know.
The audience is going to be there. I think about them and wonder what they think about this whole mess—the mess of theater. I wonder if they wonder why they are there, what their role is, what culture is giving them to look at, what part they play in what they see, what they interpret, what they form.
Doesn’t everyone wonder? I mean, why are you sitting there! Maybe it is just a night out. Human beings have been doing this since we can remember. We stand in front of one another and dance and speak and are part of a live interaction. When I go into a performance I feel (sometimes) like I am slipping into a continuum, a line that goes way back. I want us to feel that in the room. I want us to feel the act of our watching, the act of watching over the history of watching. I guess, for me, it is the closest to sacred that it gets. And I can’t believe I am using that word.
Rail: I love that! Well, you certainly have created large-scale works in the past. But this time, your audience—if they choose to experience the trilogy the same day—will see a performance, and installation, and a one-on-one exhibition, traversing Queens, Manhattan, and Brooklyn.
Castro: Two performances and an installation which has a one-to-one element. Yes. Nuts. They inform one another deeply and also could have nothing to do with one another.
Rail: You created a monster!
Castro: A Hydra.
Rail: Indeed! While it remains to be discovered how the audience will interface with the trilogy, there is a rather unique way in which your performers operate within these works, dating all the way back to a wholly unconventional casting process. Can you share a few insights on that subject? How the piece was cast, and the agency that your cast members have in terms of decision-making during the show.
Castro: For a piece that was asking a question about representation, casting was a challenge.
At first I thought they should all be people I don’t know. But I would still then have to ask someone and on what basis would I do that? I must admit I felt guilty not asking people who have worked with me for a long time and who have been so dedicated to the work. Plus, I felt that if I did not have conversations about casting with people who I had cast, that there was a way I would be letting myself off the hook, or something I would intentionally not be giving space to in the work. So, what finally happened is that I asked people who I had worked with in the past and invited them to invite whomever they wanted. Also, some people approached me when they heard about the project. And so, from a variety of ways the cast formed. The first time I met some of them or had an extensive conversation with some of them was as part of our recorded conversations.
Decision-making during the show—there is a pretty large system at play in CAST that both limits and imposes and frees. The text is being created by an algorithm designed by Stephan Moore and myself to give new text to the performers each night. And each night the performers don’t know what role they will be given or who they will be performing with. So, who is the cast? No one knows until they arrive at the Chocolate Factory for CAST or Abrons for STAGE. They don’t know who will be making decisions alongside them. And they may have had very little time rehearsing with particular individuals. And never in that configuration. And certainly never with that text. There are tasks imposed on top of the text or score. And there is a time-structure that is putting pressure on the whole thing.
So, that is limiting and freeing.
Rail: Yes—just like democracy.
Castro: YES—just like democracy! Thank you for saying that.
There are many ways in which power is given and undercut. Stephan and I created an algorithm but we don’t know what it will spell out. The performers have tasks and in the live moment they are interpreting on the fly.
I mean, that is what we are doing, right? We are mirroring, practicing civic structures. The Greeks understood that super well. Theater was a civic function.
Rail: It is one of the aspects of this work that I particularly appreciate—how the awareness of one’s agency as a performer, or as a spectator, implies one’s agency as a member of a civic society—the idea of citizenship.
Castro: This is what is exciting and terrifying to me. I don’t know what will happen. Anything might get said and done and it could be revealing in ways I am afraid for it to be revealed. Or, it could fall flat in ways that my personal aesthetics may be concerned about. But ultimately, that is not the point. I think that is why Kathy [Couch, the installation and lighting designer for this production] and I keep recreating theaters. I mean how many ways can we put together platforms and chairs? Apparently infinite.
Rail: Well, we all seemed fairly confident about how this most recent presidential election would go down. And look where we are now. So, I’d say, you are in a great place!
Castro: Well, the question of representation is definitely civic. Who is in front? Right now it is a horrific shit show. Who is in front? I mean—that’s gotta change. 2018 can’t come quick enough.
Rail: Theaters are places where lights are dimmed, and one can dream. Anything can happen.
Castro: Anything can happen when someone is watching. It provides pressure. In the pressure something happens, something emerges. Because someone is looking. Anything can happen, if allowed. The lights are ancillary, they provide focus, but your eyes can do that for you. And dreaming—who is dreaming? the performers? the directors? the audience? There is already so much work in that simple act of watching. But all that formal theater language is about a control of seeing.
Rail: I want to switch gears a bit, from the creative aspect of making to the producing aspect. What are the challenges of putting on large-scale works such as this one in the current arts economy?
Castro: I think different people navigate the system in different ways. The short answer is I don’t know that I will pull it off without debt. The long answer, to my experience, is grant funding in particular and producing schedules don’t line up. I don’t know if I will receive the money I have applied for until I am well along my path of making. Because I have a show lined up and I have applied to this and that and the other, I hope I may get a certain percentage of grant funding and budget to it. But the answers come very late in my process so it is often (unless I get lucky) a moment of crisis. When these sources don’t come through, you still have a show. In our case, a trilogy. We did a Kickstarter to at least ensure the artists got paid. But I still had a materials problem.
I also, of course, went back to Kathy and Stephan and looked at what could be done under a smaller budget. Things got cut. But I am still in the red as of our conversation. So, I am trying to figure out that hole while making the work. I don’t think this is new but I do think it is getting more pronounced.
Gratefully, this project is buoyed by many individuals. Not least, all the artists I get to work with. They build this project as much as I do and their dedication to the hydra is humbling. But also to the presenters—Brian [Rogers], Lucien [Zayan], Jay [Wegman] and now Craig [Peterson], who have been immensely supportive of this project. Knowing how difficult it would be from the get-go, they have provided the best possible situation, providing residencies on the run up to the performances and not putting any shows in between, giving us the ability to leave our work up and ready to go. It is invaluable to have planned this with them so carefully. I feel very lucky to have gotten this support from them. It is rather extraordinary and a testament to their dedication to artists.
Rail: Thank you for this illuminating conversation. I can’t wait to see what you’ve cooked up.
Castro: My pleasure. Thank you!
IVAN TALIJANCIC is a founder and artistic co-director of WaxFactory, a New York-based interdisciplinary art group. He is currently completing his first feature film, 416 MINUTES, and regularly writes on the arts for BOMB, London-based Bachtrack, and the Brooklyn Rail.