Articles

Failure, Success, and Community in Contemporary Performance

Image from lolcats.com
Image from lolcats.com

Instead of writing a review or a recap of the shows I’ve seen or a critical essay about the tone of the APAP festivals in New York this year, I’m going to describe my night on Tuesday evening and some of what was going through my head during those hours. Because somehow, I think it might do a better job of capturing some the dynamics of this year’s festivals than analysis or plain description. I’m probably going to go on a bit too long and try to cover too much ground, but I am leading to a point, or two. So, you know. Do what you need to do. Take it with a grain of salt. Whatever.

The Beginning

Right. So. Tuesday night. First, I left my day job a few minutes early to hustle over to Dixon Place to meet my friend before the first show we were seeing. I mention this because, in case there are any illusions among Hyperallergic readers, generally speaking you do need a day job if you want to be an arts journalist or a playwright, and you especially need a day job if you want to do both. In case anyone at my day job is reading this — I’ve already made up those minutes I skipped out on.

As I was starting to write this, a post came up on my Facebook feed about the day jobs of writers, focused primarily on T.S. Eliot, but mentioning a handful of others who had or do have day jobs, including the well-known and much respected literary blogger Maud Newton. In the comments on the post, a performer I know mentioned that people are incredulous when she tries to tell them that one of the well-known actors in the Wooster Group has to keep a day job — no one believes her, the Wooster Group is too well-known, they tour internationally, it can’t be possible, it doesn’t make sense.

But it does make sense, it makes perfect sense. The vast majority of artists and writers that I have met or know, including a couple who are quite famous, have day jobs or night jobs or seasonal jobs or contract or commercial work that they do in order to pay the bills. And I can tell you, having studied the statistics, by and large that’s true across the board, particularly with artists who are creating work that is challenging to the mainstream in a significant way, and especially among those artists who work in performance that challenges the mainstream. Most artists earn only a small fraction of their income exclusively from their creative output (if you exclude teaching, administration, or commercial work). And anyone who will tell you differently is doing a disservice to themselves and to you and to young artists because they are equating success as an artist with earnings from art, which history can tell you is not the right measure for success, just as an MFA does not an artist make. But that’s another discussion entirely and I’m already digressing.

So. I left my day job to get to Dixon Place on time.

Opening Act

I met my friend there. He was inside and had already picked up our tickets for the first of two shows we were seeing that night. It was crowded in the lounge. We found a spot to sit for a few minutes before the show and talked about the flu, which both of us had recently recovered from. We joked about being in our Jesus Year — he’s already 33 and I’m about to be. In the middle of our conversation, someone who I participated in a large group show with back in 2007 waved and said hello. Etc, etc. Typical pre-theater stuff.

Ellie Covan at the bar in Dixon Place's lounge. From the DP website.
Ellie Covan at the bar in Dixon Place’s lounge. From the DP website.

They opened the house for seating and we all filed in. My friend and I found two seats upstairs. As everyone got settled, Ellie Covan came out to speak. Ellie Covan is amazing. I’m pretty sure that as soon as I saw her wry smile and her avian features, I turned to my friend and said something about how much I love her, even though she’s not someone I know personally. Below us Ellie was starting to give the pre-curtain speech that happens at all Dixon Place shows. It covers the fact that it’s a non-profit space that presents every kind of performance work and focuses primarily on showing works-in-progress, along with some commissioned works, and that the bar upstairs is there to help fund the shows and the space, so drink up, and come back for birthday parties and weddings and all the rest, because where else can you get a cheap and friendly drink in the Lower East Side anymore? Dixon Place, that’s where. (I may have embellished this part a little.)

Of course what Ellie didn’t say was that she founded Dixon Place back in 1986 and that up until the spring of 2009, it operated out of the living room of her apartment. And what she also didn’t say is that Dixon Place is really the only established performance space left in the city that deliberately shows works-in-progress or work that artists are still testing out — that critical moment in the process where you need an audience but you’re still not sure if what they’re doing is going to get. And the artists don’t have to pay rent on the space in order to do it. Plus, Dixon Place often, if not always, kicks something from the box office for the evening back to the artist. All of which, in the performance world in New York City, is exceedingly rare, and without Dixon Place (an org that puts on literally hundreds of shows by hundreds of different artists each year) it would be virtually non-existent.

So, Ellie gave her pre-curtain speech. And as she was wrapping up and talking about drinking at the bar, she made a sidelong comment about the show that we were about to see — something about the fact that we may want to drink or talk or both afterwards. This was the second night for the show, which only ran two nights, and clearly Ellie saw or caught wind of the first performance, and in her way, she seemed to be giving us all her opinion about what was about to take place, or at least hinting at it, with barely disguised sarcasm. I chuckled, but also got a little worried.

After she left, the lights went down and stayed down for the first few minutes. The show, titled The Curators’ Piece (A Trial Against Art), was a collaborative work created by two Croatian artists, Tea Tupajić (director) and Petra Zanki (dramaturg), and a group of European and American performance curators — in this instance two Norwegians (Sven Åge Birkeland, who is based in Bergen and curates a handful of festivals in Norway, and Per Ananiassen, the artistic director of Avant Garden in Trondheim), a German (Florian Malzacher, one of the programmers for the festival steirischer herbst in Graz), an Estonian (Priit Raud, co-founder and artistic director of Kanuti Gildi SAAL in Tallinn), a Latvian (Gundega Laiviņa, a manager and curator at the New Theatre Institute of Latvia), and Vallejo Gantner, who is the artistic director of New York’s Performance Space 122 (PS 122) and the one who chooses the shows for the COIL Festival, and who came to New York by way of Australia and Ireland. The Curator’s Piece is touring to the various festivals, including COIL, as well as the spaces that the curators mentioned above are in charge of in their respective countries and it includes additional festival and venue directors as it travels.

Image from an earlier iteration of Tea Tupajić and Petra Zanki’s “The Curators’ Piece (A Trial Against Art)” with Vallejo Gantner speaking to the audience, and seated (from left to right) Gundega Laiviņa, Florian Malzacher, and Per Ananiassen. (photo by Monica Santos Herberg)
Image from an earlier iteration of Tea Tupajić and Petra Zanki’s “The Curators’ Piece (A Trial Against Art)” with Vallejo Gantner speaking to the audience, and seated (from left to right) Gundega Laiviņa, Florian Malzacher, and Per Ananiassen. (photo by Monica Santos Herberg)

Let me give you a rough description of the show. The opening consisted of the curators or festival directors or artistic directors or whatever you want to call them doing word association in the dark. Word association. Like that thing shrinks or people leading lifeless brainstorming sessions do — i.e. I say a word then you say the first word that pops into your head. I can’t remember specific examples from the night because … because. But, it was in the order of “art” followed by “fart” or “heart.” I can’t remember. Needless to say it went on too long.

This was what a group of festival directors who spend their careers championing contemporary performance came up with as a stirring rebuttal to claims that the arts are failing society …

Then Vallejo, now in light, did a short speech touching on why he thought art was important, because the whole show was set up to somehow be a defense of art against claims that it had failed to save the world (a bizarre premise that lacked any real stakes for those involved, because it was so out of proportion and artificial). Vallejo seemed uncomfortable up there. He stumbled between reading the paper in his hands and memorization and a couple of off-the-cuff comments. Then the lights went down to low blues and two of the other curators came out and read aloud a scene from a Greek tragedy. This was what a group of festival directors who spend their careers championing contemporary performance came up with as a stirring rebuttal to claims that the arts are failing society — a monotonous reading of a random scene from some Greek tragedy? If I remember right it was Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, but it pretty much doesn’t matter what it was. This garbled and half-hearted reading of a scene from a piece of ancient literature, with no interpretation, no movement, no anything, was the only invocation of actual artistic work during the entire hour and a half of The Curator’s Piece. Needless to say it felt patrician and deeply out of touch for a group of people who, in principle, are directly tied to the business of challenging traditional artistic paradigms.

Following that, there was a sort of inquisition, in which five of the curators fired questions at Vallejo. Questions like, what is your curatorial vision for the COIL festival (no clear answer ever came back on this one), or how do you manage traveling abroad so much and running a venue in New York (it’s difficult, he said), or do you make more money than the artists you show (yes). None of the answers were surprising to anyone working in performance in New York. And, in fact, all six of the curators used almost identically vague but marketing-oriented terms and phrases when asked to describe the work they want to show: something they “haven’t seen before” or that was “brave” or “risky” or “innovative.” Each repetition felt more leaden.

There was another, but thankfully shorter reading from the Greek tragedy. And it all ended with more questions, this time delivered via the theater game, “Zip, Zap, Zop.”

Interlude

(from photobucket)
(from photobucket)

I couldn’t help but think about the last time I played that game, just a few blocks from Dixon Place at University Settlement, once a week for 12 weeks. I had been coming out of a period of feeling a bit burnt out and unsure of how to proceed with my creative work, so I had decided to focus on other people. I volunteered to run a performance workshop at University Settlement, where I had presented a workshop performance of one of my own plays a few years earlier with their Performance Project and had been back a number of times since for a variety of reasons. The participants and collaborators in the workshop were a group of older primarily Cantonese-speaking women, and since I was new to that kind of environment and eager to learn and get out of my own head, I was encouraged by my mentor in the process to study up on the methods of the now-deceased Brazilian artist Augusto Boal, whose work has underpinned decades of community-based theater projects, known to many as Theater of the Oppressed.

I used the game “Zip, Zap, Zop,” as part of a warm-up for the group in each session, including the time right before they shared their creation for an audience when the workshop culminated in a public performance. But because those sounds weren’t natural for the group, we replaced them with the Cantonese words for 1, 2, 3, dubbing our version of the game, “Yut, Yee, Saam.” The purpose of the game is to help actors focus their attention, their energy, and to increase their awareness of their bodies and the space around them. And you’ll find it used anywhere from high schools to the rehearsal rooms of the most famous acting troupes. But there, in Dixon Place, watching these curators end their show with a variation on this game, I couldn’t help but think about Boal, and that group of women, and wonder if they used Theater of the Oppressed techniques to build this show. Which just made me think — do they believe that curators are an oppressed group?? It was a half-sarcastic thought, but there it was anyway.

And in the midst of this silly and, in that context, pointless, game, when one curator asked another if he looked forward to performing again and the curator being questioned replied, “Yes, and I look forward to it.” I pretty much had had more than enough of the whole thing.

Speaking Parts

During all those questions, not one of them brought up anything about the disparity of opportunities for people of color or women or disabled artists or any other group (despite the fact that everyone on the panel was of European descent and there was only one woman). Though they pointed out gross disparities in pay, they never asked questions about why that’s the case or what it would mean to change it. They danced around the notion of risk, and suggested that they were risking their own professional reputations if the shows they presented didn’t go well, but never once did they think to mention that artists participating in these festivals are taking an enormous risk (financially and professionally) that could have career-long effects if the show doesn’t work and the bookers or producers who come decide they’re not ever going to be worth their time, or they get a horrible review in the Times that sends every presenter running. A festival director is never taking a risk like that in their job. Never. One or two bad shows in a program of ten shows isn’t going to ruin anyone’s career — it’s par for the course. But the consequences for the artists who made those shows that didn’t hit can sometimes last for years or longer.

And then, for that curator to say, yes, he looks forward to “performing” again. Well, that was just a slap in the face to every artist that any of them have ever presented — artists who spend years developing their craft and months preparing each show. His hubristic response gives truth to the lie that all that’s involved in presenting something on the stage is to simply walk out and do whatever pops into your shiny little head and demand that people pay for it. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and someone who makes their living presenting real performance work ought to know that better than anyone.

(from Anti-Oppression Baby Animals)

It also points out the massive mistake that surrounds this whole fad for curation across all of the arts and beyond, where everyone’s a curator and every curator is also an artist. Let me be among the minority who say that everyone is not a curator and being a curator is not the same as being an artist.

Curators within the arts, like arts journalists, are entirely reliant upon the existence of a ready pool of artists who make work at their own cost and under their own steam before the curator ever comes to know them. Without the art there would be no curators, without the art there would be nothing to write about in the papers or on the blogs. Curating, like arts journalism, is a secondary endeavor that depends upon the existence and ready cooperation of the primary practitioners — artists. And any curator who begins to make the mistake of thinking that they are responsible for the creation of the work they present or that they have a right to claim ownership of the work they present is making the same kind of error that a boss who decides to take advantage of his employees is making.

Which is to say a very potent power dynamic is at play in the relationship between the curator/presenter/journalist and the artist. At least some part of many, if not most artists, seeks a modicum of recognition, acceptance, and/or some notion, however small or personal, of success. And curators/presenters/journalists, in some measure, can help artists feel that they have gained those things. But a curator making a claim on the artistic output of those whose work they present is essentially demanding a favor for opening those doors. In the worlds of journalism and business there are legal and contractual checks put into place that help prevent people from taking advantage of those power dynamics. Certainly those checks fail regularly, but they provide a mechanism for recourse when things get out of hand. But things are a bit messier in the arts for a variety of reasons, not least of which being that some curators and journalists actually have genuine artistic careers and most artists end up having to take on the business side of their work at least once in their careers, if not throughout — the categories are messy. But it’s important never to forget that those power dynamics are present.

And a simple testament to that is the fact that the room was packed for this presentation. These curators didn’t have to convince a festival programmer to place them in the line-up, the curators in the show had all already agreed to use it simply by participating. They didn’t have to hustle to market the show or convince people they were worth listening to — they could rely on the fact that the power that comes with their positions would draw an audience of artists and colleagues regardless of what they did, simply because they control something that hundreds of people want access to. It was never a risk that they might play to an empty house, as it is for so many artists who take on festival performances. And my guess is that they didn’t bear a single dime of the production costs for the show, leaving that the Croatian artists who wrangled them.

It’s like when your boss calls a meeting to tell you what’s on their mind, despite the fact that it’s largely irrelevant to your work and you have fifty other things on your to-do list anyhow. But you show up anyway, because you can’t be sure if he won’t say something you should hear, and your position as his employee kind of obligates you to show up at the meetings he calls.

By and large, the show lacked honesty, candor, depth, and rigor. It was a failure, but it was a disingenuous failure. The show set itself up with the question of how to defend art against those who say it’s meaningless and purposeless, but they never really took the question seriously and never looked much at all beyond their own experiences or viewpoints. It was hard to tell what the Croatian artists who helped build the show intended with it. Was it all meant to be artifice? Was it meant to mock the curators, or try to make them literally feel what it’s like to put on a performance in their own spaces as some kind of lesson? It almost doesn’t matter, having seen the result and understanding that the curators supplied the words themselves.

In one of the few moments that seemed honest and attempted to earnestly address the question of art’s importance to humanity rather than a small group of festival directors, Gundega Laiviņa, the woman from Latvia, who earlier in the evening revealed that all the artists she works with make more money than she does (the only one on the panel in that position), described the experience of trying to access unofficial art while living under Soviet rule — trading novels that had been copied down by hand or tapes of music that had been overdubbed so often that she could barely hear the notes. She said that having even those rough versions of ideas and culture that the state hoped to deny out of existence was part of what made the time bearable for her. She did not seem to say it with nostalgia or an intention of pandering to Western Cold War ideals. She said it plainly and without affect. It felt truthful. And it stood out because so much of the rest of it felt like repetition and artifice and bullying.

Reflections

When the thing ended, my friend and I left to find some food. I usually try to get at least two blocks away from a venue before talking about a show because you never know who is within earshot and things can be taken out of context or be needlessly hurtful to other people when things don’t go well in a show.

I think I made it a little over a block away before I said something. It was too much to stay silent. I believe I may have repeated the phrase “Are you fucking kidding me?” more than once.

My friend pointed out that maybe it was an attempt at theatricalizing the usual achingly dry panel discussions that happen during arts festivals around the world. It was a valid point and something I hadn’t really considered while watching the thing. But having been to or read about so many panels and discussions about the state of the arts, I’m definitely among the group that feels we may be tapped out on the notion that a panel is an effective way to address or surface problems — at least not in the way that they are generally put together — comprised entirely of people entrenched in their power. Not to mention, because the curators never really took the premise seriously and never really did any of the work of elaborating the issues that face the arts, at least in the US.

For the sake of expediency and the misplaced hope that writing this stuff down would somehow save us all a little trouble in the future, let me summarize the issues across the arts, as I’ve come to understand them over the past couple of years:

  1. The ongoing and systematic exclusion within the arts of poor artists, people of color, women, queer and trans artists, artists with disabilities, and artists following non-traditional paths (career changes, older artists, artists working outside of institutional settings or funding models, etc) is pitiful and unacceptable in the 21st century.
  2. Federal money in the US continues to decrease and the arts industry hasn’t come up with compelling arguments or points of leverage to counteract it, while local and state-based government initiatives are presenting both interesting positive alternatives and also dire negative examples.
  3. Private money is an issue for many reasons. It has been an issue since the Medicis, and before that, and will continue to be an issue, forever. Regardless, people will also keep using it in both good and problematic ways.
  4. The nonprofit model in the US can lead to corporate mentalities that are more interested in preserving institutions than supporting art and artists, and that risk homogenizing and de-politicizing art.
  5. Arts organizations and institutions of all kinds and every size within the US are generally more inclined to pay those who run the institutions and administer its programs than they are to pay the artists whose work they present.
  6. The suggestion that we can or should convince Americans to adopt a European arts funding model is an absolute red herring, particularly given that many European countries are starting to adopt American funding models.
  7. Artists of all kinds can, will, and do continue to make work despite all of the above issues. This has been true throughout history and across civilizations and cultures, it will continue to be true, for as long as humans exist. And some of those artists will and have created groups and organizations that defy each of the above problems, at least in some way.

Also, as a quick follow-up to that, let me offer a couple of simple and easy suggestions for things that curators/artistic directors/festival directors can do today, right this moment, that would benefit themselves, artists, and society without them having to change their job descriptions or having to sit through more panel discussions or waste time and resources putting on “performances” that almost entirely avoid real issues and ultimately denigrate the artists they work with. The suggestions are these: stop participating in #1 and start dealing with #5 within your own institution, immediately, if you haven’t already. The rest of the issues will gradually start to shift for you and the artists you work with simply by focusing on those two, which both involve attainable goals that don’t require you to revamp your entire organization. And if your response to not dealing with #1 is a bunch of excuses, then let me assure you that they are just that — excuses.

So, after the show, my friend and I grabbed take out from a nearby restaurant and sat on a bench on Chrystie Street, right next to the M’Finda Kalunga Community Garden, with the cars passing in front of us, the cold air blowing, and the rats rustling in the leaves behind, waiting for a safe moment to pop out and grab our leavings.

Eventually I got off my soap box and we caught up about other things. Life things. Friend things.

Not so many months ago I had been sitting at a bar after a different show with this same friend swapping stories about going through a period of deep uncertainty and self-doubt around our artistic work. A couple years ago I had burnt myself out for what seemed to me at the time like not a lot of reward, and he, after the inevitable denouement following a flurry of successes, was asking questions about what might or might not be next. We hit these periods at different times and in our own distinct ways, but it felt good to be able to share that with someone else who seemed to understand. A week or two after that night at the bar, I decided to go to a panel discussion organized by The Field with the title “A Seasoned Process: Sustaining Creativity & Weathering Change.” Afterwards, I wished my friend had been there with me and told him as much.

It was one of the few panel discussions I’ve been to that wasn’t about the state of the arts or money issues or any of that. Each of the artists on the panel had been making work for at least two decades, some longer, and as the evening revealed, each of them had gone through at last one period (years long in one case) of deep questioning about the value of what they were doing, about how and if they should keep going. The artists speaking didn’t romanticize that period of questioning or separation, they didn’t flip it easily into a triumphant narrative of redemption. But they did each come back to their work in their own way, with at least a slightly different perspective. It was a reminder that sometimes it’s only by stepping away and stepping far outside of the arts that you can begin to come back in, that you can gain perspective on what you’re doing there in the first place — imperfect and messy as the whole thing is.

Vallejo’s a smart guy. I don’t begrudge him anything, honestly. I interviewed him for a different publication a couple years back, and it’s clear to me that he takes his role seriously, that he’s genuinely invested in the artists he champions, that he’s really working in earnest to find ways to better compensate his artists — as he pointed out during the piece, unlike the American Realness festival, he does pay something to the COIL artists. And I think he’s aware that there’s still room for improvement on issue #1. I laugh thinking about the night that he and his wife showed up to Dixon Place, when it was still in Ellie’s living room, to see a very brief excerpt of a show that I was putting together back in 2008. I never dreamed that he would actually accept my invitation to attend, and I had no idea what I was inviting him to. It’s a story for another time, but the upshot of it is that I remember thinking he was a pretty good sport about it. Which is ultimately to say that I can only assume that on some core level he, like a lot of us involved in downtown performance, are ultimately fans of the form, and that he wants to help it succeed — whatever that may mean.

Back to the Show

Yum. A Hot Toddy. Have one. They taste good and help you feel better. (photo and recpie from Elena’s Pantry)

When my friend and I came back into Dixon Place after finishing our dinner, we saw some of the curators from the earlier show standing around chatting with each other and a couple of other people. I didn’t see Vallejo among them. I got a Hot Toddy to warm up and stave off a relapse of the flu, and we eventually made our way back into the theater.

Sitting there on the seat was the season brochure for Dixon Place. Tom Murrin was pictured on the front. Tom Murrin, who has been referred to as the “fairy godfather of downtown performance” and who I first met through an ex. Tom, who encouraged me, like tens or more likely hundreds of other artists, to just book a show, to just get up there and make work. Who made sure I had knew Leslie Strongwater, who ran Dixon Place’s programming for a few years. Who came to see my shows and goodness knows how many other people’s shows under the guise of his position at Paper Magazine and because he seemed to be ceaselessly excited to see people’s work. Tom, who I went to see a couple of shows with as I started to more regularly take up arts journalism, which led me one night to stop off at his artist’s studio/apartment and it’s mad cacophony of materials and work. Though I barely knew him and only for a short while, I still look up to him, despite his death last year. I look up to him for his wide open heart and his overflowing generosity.

Most people who spend that much time seeing performance just grow tired and more than a little hard. He could see the most ragamuffin production and still come away with a smile and something kind to say. It didn’t seem to me that he was uncritical, he knew what worked and what didn’t, from what I gathered in my few conversations with him, but seemed to purposely maintain an openness to potential and an appreciation for the fact that time and practice could make a performer of anyone, and that a performer was capable of bringing great joy and brief moments of wonder and understanding into the lives of just about anyone — as he did during his epic round-the-world journey, making shows on the streets from scraps of garbage and whatever he had with him. And I look up to him because he help open the door for me and a lot of others, in some sense similarly to the way Ellen Stewart opened the doors of the theater she founded, La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, to Tom, when he was a working as a young lawyer but has a desire to try out some ideas for a couple plays he’d been dreaming up.

I’m taking all these diversions to mention conversations and experiences with other people not to name drop or exaggerate my stature, but because I’m not sure I ever totally believed I would ever feel like part of an artistic community. Certainly I hoped that some day I might, or understood that as something artists did, in theory. But I’m not sure I ever believed that would be case for me. I was intimidated by the whole thing. I didn’t think I was cool enough to play with the big kids — though my ambitions were to be one of them. And mostly I felt like I had to earn my way in or be invited in by someone else. I never imagined that simply by being present while I was carrying on my work I was in fact becoming part of the community, in my own way. I could try to get into the politics and personal history that might have left me with that impression, but it’s really beside the point. The point is that if I felt that way, others must feel it as well, and perhaps much more keenly.

And I don’t know what artistic communities in Paris in the beginning of the 20th century or New York of the 1970s were like. I wasn’t there. There’s a shit-ton of nostalgia around them. Though the reading I have done about them leave me with the suspicion that the artistic community I am a part of is far more fragile and less interactive than others. But as a poet and painter who has been at this longer than I have pointed out to me while I was still in the process of writing this yesterday, smaller communities and connections exist within each of the niches of the arts where the ties are sometimes stronger, and those are perhaps the most important links.

Which is to say, genuine, slow-growing, and amorphous communities that find ways to allow and encourage new people to come in, who give them space, seems to be at the heart of all this.

Standing Out

From Peggy Shaw's "Ruff." (photo by Michael Conti)
From Peggy Shaw’s “Ruff.” (photo by Michael Conti)

So there, with Tom Murrin’s image beside me as I sat down to see the second show of the evening, Peggy Shaw’s Ruff. Ellie came back and did a more relaxed and standard version of the pre-show speech, and the show started.

It was everything you could ever hope for from a performance piece or any work of art — it was vulnerable, honest, magical, surprising, moving, full of an unfamiliar perspective that shows you another way of looking at the world, joyful, sad, well-crafted.

And talk about community! Peggy Shaw co-founded the WOW Café Theater, as well as Split Britches. Both WOW and Split Britches have been presenting work for three decades, most of it by queer artists, and much of WOW’s is specifically aimed at creating space for women and trans people of color — precisely because those voices and bodies are so rarely represented in even the downtown arts world. A veteran performer with the kind of chops you only earn after three decades of making work, Shaw is clearly used to making something from nothing on the stage, and doing it with sincerity and humor, as so many downtown American artists are. And at 68, there she was in front of us, presenting a brand new show, having recently endured a stroke.

I spent all that time describing the bad show to you but I’m resisting describing Ruff in too much detail. Partly because it didn’t have a simplistic structure that can easily be put down on paper. But mainly because it worked. It was a whole instead of a bunch of parts.

And there was a whole community of people in the show with her. Lori E. Seid was keeping an eye on things as the audience was filing in. Ellie Covan appeared in the band, playing accordian, along with Vivian Stoll, and five others. In the audience, were other performers and artists, like Becca Blackwell who I had just seen in the fantastic production of Seagull by Half Straddle, Jill Dolan was up in the front row. And who knows how many other people who have worked with Peggy or seen her before or learned from her or worked with Split Britches or WOW, or just came because it sounded interesting or meaningful to them.

It’s the Peggy Shaws and the Tom Murrins and the Ellen Stewarts and the Ellie Covans who are at the heart of an arts community. The understand what it means to make their own work, who make space for themselves and others when it’s absent elsewhere. They’ve each helped me, directly and indirectly, just as they’ve helped thousands of others. It’s not a Polly-Anna moment, it’s cutting away of a lot of the other stuff and trying to see how the space that downtown occupies came into being in the first place.

How different that Curator’s Piece would have been if Ellie or Peggy, or Tom or Ellen, had a hand in it.

Peggy Shaw’s show was an utter success. And her presence, and that of those like her, answers the question of how the arts influence and change people, in small and large ways.

From Peggy Shaw's "Ruff." (photo by Michael Conti)
From Peggy Shaw’s “Ruff.” (photo by Michael Conti)

My friend and I left the theater, both relieved and happy to have seen something great. Becca Blackwell was standing outside about to smoke a cigarette and, like a schoolgirl with a crush, I said something about really liking Seagull, which I meant, but always feels so funny to say when you don’t really know someone, even though you’ve seen their work a number of times and really admire it.

We went our separate ways at the subway station, my friend and I, and my train eventually rattled it’s way over the river. And, of course, sitting within my line of sight in the train car was a young woman, an unconventional beauty, mouthing the words to a script she had resting on her lap, her face shifting quickly between smiles and feigned surprise and sadness or some variation on those themes, as she silently read the lines to herself, completely and utterly absorbed.

Go see something if you can get tickets before the festivals end. C’est Du Chinois was great. Half Straddle’s riff on Chekhov’s Seagull is funny and bizarre and wonderful, even if you don’t know your Chekhov. I would recommend Ruff, but I believe it’s already sold out for the rest of the run — maybe you can get in if there are cancellations or try to convince them to bring it back very soon. Annie Dorsen and Anne Juren’s Magical not only builds on the revisitation of feminist performance art that is so present in New York right now, but also offers you chance to view a performer who displays a deep maturity and control in her craft, so you’ll definitely leave with something to talk about. Unfortunately some of the performers from American Realness who I would recommend, particularly Neal Medlyn and Trajal Harrell, have already closed their shows, but you can still catch a couple things there. Outside of the official fests I’ve heard good things about Tar Baby.

Look here for links to most of the fests and here for a daily calendar. There is so much. Chuck a few more suggestions into the comments if you made it this far and have seen other things.

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