“Everybody has crutches,” multidisciplinary artist and performer Bill Shannon says in Crutch, making its world premiere November 11-19 at the virtual DOC NYC festival. “Some of them you can see; some of them are invisible.”
The title is both literal and metaphorical. The Nashville-born, Pittsburgh-based Shannon has been called “Crutch” since he was a kid; he has required the use of crutches most of his life because of the degenerative bilateral hip deformity Legg-Calvé Perthes disease. A skate punk, Shannon designed a unique set of crutches with rounded bottoms and developed a career as a dancer, choreographer, and visual artist that combined the crutches with skateboards, public intervention, and neuroscience.
The film follows Shannon, who recently turned fifty, for twenty years; it is directed by Frontline veteran Sachi Cunningham (the two have known each other since grade school, and she once dated his brother) and capoeira documenter Vayabobo, aka Chandler Evans. Crutch incorporates footage from throughout Shannon’s life with new interviews with friends, colleagues, family, dance critics, and Shannon himself, who speaks his mind onstage and off as he travels from Pittsburgh to New York City, California, and Florida as well as England, Australia, Canada, Finland, Russia, and Spain. The film is structured around Shannon’s visit to Camp Perthes USA, where children with the disease can participate in sports and other activities while learning to embrace their disability.
In such exhibitions and live shows as “The Evolution of William Foster Shannon,” Touch Update, and Traffic: A Transient Specific Performance, the onetime Easter Seals poster child has developed not only a unique choreographic language but also his own terminology to describe what he does, including such phrases as “gestures of help,” “the weight of empathy,” “reflections of enquiry,” and “the ambiguity of disability” that drive his practice, which is anchored by interaction with the public. The film is available online through November 19 and is accompanied by a Q&A with Cunningham, Vayabobo, and Shannon. Shannon, who is sheltering in place with his family in Pittsburgh, took some time away from the opening of the film and a conference to discuss Camp Perthes, the art of provocation, the pandemic lockdown, and more.
twi-ny: There’s a lot of old footage of you in the film, including your childhood and teen years. What was it like going through your archives to find the material? Is it difficult to watch footage of yourself of the years when you did not need the crutches? As a viewer, those transitions are deeply affecting.
bill shannon: I have had the privilege and joy of a father who studied film photography in the ’70s and was very technical in his approach. Then my brother was a very talented artist all around and he took great photos in the mid-to-late ’80s, and also my good friend Brian’s photos and videos from the mid-’80s into the ’90s had a big presence as well. Digging it all out, scanning it all was a long, drawn-out process because I never throw anything away.
twi-ny: At one point in the film you talk about how your work involves looking at people looking at you. Have you seen the final cut of the film? What do you think of it in that context, now that another level has been added to that relationship?
bs: I have seen it. It’s very meta, yet also there are not enough details within the doc to really sink into the meat of the public street work in terms of language and phenomenology. The doc does get the message out in a clear way, though.
twi-ny: The scenes of you at the camp are very emotional, both to you and the audience; the look on the kids’ faces as you talk to them and dance are just beautiful. What was that experience like for you, especially since there was nothing like it when you were their age and dealing with the disease?
bs: The experience was very moving. My kids got to meet other kids with Perthes and have more info on what I went through. This was also a case of the film documenting its own impact on my life. The camp for kids with Perthes was through connections that Sachi and Chandler made in the process of looking for others with Perthes to interview. They then organized the visit and flew me out there with my kids. I wish I had had something like the camp at the time I was a kid; I think it would have shifted my worldview and sense of belonging.
twi-ny: You’ve performed all over the globe. Are people’s reactions, particularly when you descend stairs or fall to the ground in a public place, the same everywhere when it comes to their opting whether to become good Samaritans? Have their reactions changed over time, regardless of where they are? I remember that in a promo piece for “Touch Update,” you specifically ask the question “Can people change?”
bs: There are regional variables. There are variables in what “falling to the ground” actually looks and feels like. Reactions are very diverse and also context dependent. I do believe that people change. The international diversity, say, between Mexico City and Novgorod, Russia, or Cairo, Egypt, are vast and fascinating.
twi-ny: How has Pittsburgh been dealing with the pandemic?
bs: Pittsburgh, like most places, has its share of individuals who are pretending it’s not real. Pittsburgh allowed for kids to go back to school, which in my opinion is a very stupid move. It sucks for the kids during a time in their lives when social interaction and bonding with friends is everything. Youth are further pushed into the screens, and it’s really sad.
twi-ny: If you’re not going out much, do you miss the interaction you usually have with the public? The film focuses on how much you crave making those connections.
bs: I am feeling extremely out of sorts lately for a variety of reasons. Having some contact with the streets, with the world would mean so much to me. Working this week as part of a conference, I am reminded how much I rely on my physical presence and in-person communication to build trust and understanding with others. When it’s Zoom and text, I lose a lot of my tools.
twi-ny: One of the people in the film calls you an “agent provocateur.” Would you agree with that assessment?
bs: My mom called me a provocateur. It is true but not the “agent” part. That’s what cops do when they join BLM demonstrations; they become agent provocateurs and burn shit down and vandalize to give protesters and the cause a bad name. I wouldn’t want to be associated with the agent part, but being a provocateur, someone who provokes, is accurate.
twi-ny: Your art has progressed from skateboards and crutches to multimedia, multidisciplinary shows involving cutting-edge technology and neuroscience. What’s next for you?
bs: I really don’t think so much about what is next. Next will happen to me. I am here today in the moment and trying to solve problems that I have identified out of solutions I came across yesterday.
In my June 21 review of State vs. Natasha Banina, I wrote that “the future of online productions might be best represented so far by Arlekin Players Theatre’s State vs. Natasha Banina.” Part of the Cherry Orchard Festival, the forty-five-minute solo play is an online adaptation of the Boston troupe’s version of Yaroslava Pulinovich’s Natasha’s Dream, which deals with mental illness and, perhaps, murder. The extraordinary interactive work — the audience serves as a jury — is directed by company founding artistic director Igor Golyak and stars his partner, Darya Denisova, who is brave and mesmerizing as Natasha. What began as a handful of live performances has blossomed into a virtual national tour, with Arlekin teaming with arts organizations around the country to put on the play, complete with an integral talk afterward in which Golyak and Denisova are likely to reveal some of their theatrical secrets.
Among the play’s countless fans is Mikhail Baryshnikov, who is bringing the production to the Baryshnikov Arts Center (online, not in person) on October 12 and 14 at 8:00; tickets are free with advance RSVP. The October 12 show will be followed by a talkback with music critic and Beginner’s Ear founder Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, while the October 14 postshow discussion will feature actress Jessica Hecht, who is planning on working with the troupe soon. As they prepare for the BAC shows, Golyak, who runs the Igor Golyak Acting Studio, and Denisova, who teaches there, answered some questions about their sudden success and the future of theater.
twi-ny: For those previously unfamiliar with your company, you have staged innovative adaptations of The Seagull, Dead Man’s Diary, and The Stone, among others, that create unique relationships between audience and performer. When you were looking for a play to take online, what was it about Natasha that made you think it was ripe for virtual reimagining?
igor golyak: First of all, the subject matter of systems failing young people felt really relevant today, so the theme was definitely an inspiration. This is generally how we approach text at Arlekin; I want to have a discussion with the audience about subject matter, not a lesson plan, but pose a question around a point of pain in me and the collaborators.
twi-ny: Natasha has become a viral sensation, one of the most-talked-about and widely praised online productions during the pandemic. What has that experience been like?
ig: The experience has been overwhelming. Being an immigrant theater with our accent not just in language but in the approach to the theater, we feel understood.
twi-ny: Darya, during the show, you call out some of the names of the people watching, but you can’t see them over Zoom. What’s it like giving such an intimate, courageous performance without a visible audience?
darya denisova: Actually, there is a seventy-inch monitor right in front of me, so I do see the audience at certain points. It is very inspiring when audience members choose to keep their videos on; I get to see their facial expressions, their emotions, and how people change during the course of the performance. This makes the connection between me and the audience very real.
twi-ny: One of your fans is Mikhail Baryshnikov, and on October 12 and 14, you will be performing the show for the Baryshnikov Arts Center. You have been able to essentially tour the show online, creating a new model, collaborating with organizations across the world. How did that come about?
ig: We work with two amazing touring producers, Sara Stackhouse of BroadBand and Maria Shclover and Irina Shabshis of the Cherry Orchard Festival Foundation, who have strategized around how the show lives and where it is presented next. It is an incredible feeling being able to present the show in different languages with subtitles live to an audience across the globe. We are not only touring with theaters but also with film festivals, which opened a new door to virtual theater. We don’t know where this is going and what’s next, as this has not really existed before, but we are eager to find out.
twi-ny: Do you find audience reaction different depending on which organization you are partnering with? Do the reactions change with the geographic location of the organization?
ig: Great question; yes it does! We have had only one not guilty verdict with an all-immigrant audience. However, I will say that all our audience members are sophisticated theatergoers, and the discussions that take place postshow are extremely thoughtful and lively.
dd: The audience reactions are different at every show, and so is the connection. I don’t think geographic locations matter — Natasha’s story is universal; it could happen anywhere.
twi-ny: You mentioned different languages. The play is sometimes performed in Russian. Does it feel different compared to when you do it in English?
ig: Yes, the play in Russian feels a little more authentic; being artists from that part of the world, we really know the character. The character, not the language, is sometimes difficult to translate. I can’t generalize, but in Russia, people view for example drunks or alcoholics as having a difficult life and feel more pity for them maybe because they can relate. In America, I feel it is more black and white. So I guess what I am saying, Dostoyevsky couldn’t have written Crime and Punishment here in the US. I don’t know if it is good or bad, probably good, but these are just my subjective observations. By the way, these are the questions that an immigrant from Russia grapples with their whole life.
twi-ny: What has the success of Natasha meant for Arlekin? At a talkback that I attended, you noted that on the other side of this, you were going to continue exploring technical innovation over the internet in addition to in-person productions. What do you see as the future of the company, especially now that you have a global fan base that goes far beyond your fifty-seat theater in Boston?
ig: Glad you asked. In addition to our in-person live theater, we will be announcing the creation of a virtual theater stage with its own season in the coming days. Stay tuned for a press release.
twi-ny: That’s exciting. When you’re not at home, what do you like to do? Have you gone out much during the pandemic?
dd: I teach acting privately, and I really love what I do. Having a toddler and a dog keeps me outdoors most of the time, which I love.
twi-ny: Igor, do you go out much?
ig: Not enough. It is getting to me. I just came from a meeting at a coffee house and realized that people are not two-dimensional. Revelatory!
Who: Mary Esther Carter, Richard Savery, A.I. Anne, Janet Biggs
What: Final presentation of “SO⅃OS: a space of limit as possibility”
Where: Fridman Gallery online
When: Thursday, July 30, $5 for access to all twelve performances, 8:00
Why: In July 2019, I experienced multimedia artist Janet Biggs’s workshop presentation of her work-in-progress performance of How the Light Gets In, an extraordinary collaboration at the New Museum exploring the ever-growing relationship between humans and technology, with singer and dancer Mary Esther Carter; machine learning program A.I. Anne; composer and music technologist Richard Savery; drummer Jason Barnes, who lost an arm in an accident so uses a robotic prosthesis; marathon runner Brian Reynolds, a double (below-knee) amputee who is fitted with carbon fiber running prostheses; and violinists Earl Maneein and Mylez Gittens.
The Pennsylvania-born, Brooklyn-based Biggs has traveled to unusual places all over the world for her video installations, including a sulfur mine in the Ijen volcano in East Java (A Step on the Sun), the Taklamakan desert in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China (Point of No Return), a coal mine in the Arctic (Brightness All Around), the crystal caverns below the German Merkers salt mine (Can’t Find My Way Home), and the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah (Vanishing Point). She’s also all set to go to Mars after several simulated adventures.
During the pandemic lockdown, Biggs has been hunkering down at home with her her husband and occasional cinematographer, Bob Cmar, and their cat, Hooper, but that hasn’t kept her from creating bold and inventive new work. On July 30, she will debut the site-specific multimedia performance piece Augmentation and Amplification, concluding the Fridman Gallery’s terrific “SO⅃OS” series, cutting-edge performances made during the coronavirus crisis that incorporate the empty gallery space on Bowery, delving into the feeling of isolation that hovers over us all. (The program also features Daniel Neumann’s Soundcheck, Luke Stewart’s Unity Elements, Abigail Levine’s Fat Chance, Hermes, and Diamanda Galás’s Broken Gargoyles, among others; a five-dollar fee gives you access to all the works.)
In her third conversation with twi-ny, Biggs takes us behind the scenes of her latest innovative, boundary-pushing project.
twi-ny: You’re so used to traveling. What’s it been like being stuck at home?
janet biggs: Working on the performance has been a saving grace for me — to have something to focus on that feels exciting. But it has also had its share of interesting challenges.
twi-ny: How did it come about?
jb: I was asked by experimental sound artist and audio engineer Daniel Neumann if I would be interested in doing a performance for the series he was organizing for Fridman Gallery. The premise was that he would set up the gallery space with audio mics, projectors, and cameras, clean the whole space, and leave. The performer would be given a code to the lock on the gallery so they could safely enter the space by themselves and perform within shelter-in-place guidelines. During the performance, Daniel mixes the sound remotely from his home and livestreams it.
I loved his premise, but I don’t perform. I direct. I said I was eager to figure out a way to direct from home and send both a live performer and an Artificial Intelligence entity into the space. Both Daniel and gallery owner and director Iliya Fridman were excited about my proposal and gave complete support to the idea.
twi-ny: And then you turned to Mary Esther Carter and Richard Savery.
jb: Yes, I reached out to Mary and Richard, both of whom I worked with on the performance you saw at the New Museum. Happily, they were up for the challenge.
twi-ny: Which led you back to A.I. Anne.
jb: Richard has been working on expanding A.I. Anne’s abilities and neural diversity. A.I. Anne was trained on Mary’s voice and named for my aunt, who was autistic and had apraxia. Since the performance last year, A.I. Anne has gained more agency through deep machine learning and semantic knowledge. The entity can now express and respond to emotion. We are also using phenotypic data and first-person accounts of people on the autism spectrum for vocal patterning.
We want to explore neural diversity and inclusion in creative collaborations between humans and machines. Our challenge was how to get A.I. Anne in the gallery so she could perform live. A.I. is a disembodied virtual entity. Richard lives in Atlanta. While A.I. Anne is autonomous, Richard needed to be able to receive a single audio channel of Mary’s voice from the gallery and then send back a single channel audio response from A.I. Anne. With strong wifi and the right software, our tests from Atlanta to the gallery have been successful, so keep your fingers crossed for Thursday.
twi-ny: What was it like collaborating long distance?
jb: I’ve been having rehearsals with Mary and Richard for the last couple weeks via Zoom. We have been able to work out the choreography remotely and even developed some new camera angles due to the constraints of cellphone cameras and apartment sizes. The percussive soundtrack that Mary will dance to was generated by EEG sonification, the process of turning data into sound. Richard developed a process where he could use his brainwaves to control a drumset, creating a kind of brain-beat.
And lastly, I’ve been editing video images. Some will be projected on walls in the gallery and some will be a video overlay, run by the streaming software so that we essentially will have multiple layers of images and live action. If all goes well, I think this will be a pretty exciting performance.
twi-ny: Is that all? You don’t exactly make things easy for yourself.
jb: I’ve been to the gallery myself to see the layout and make some staging/lighting decisions. I will send Daniel a floor plan marked with my staging decisions and a tech-script. Daniel will set up the space (projector angles, lighting, camera and microphone placements) during the day on Thursday and then completely clean the space. Thursday evening, Mary will enter the space alone. Richard will run A.I. Anne from his computer in Atlanta. Daniel will mix the sound and images remotely into a livestream Vimeo channel that the audience can access from their homes. And I’ll be watching from home, holding my breath that everything works!
One of the hallmarks of summer in New York City is the plethora of free outdoor theater, from the Public’s star-studded Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte to such troupes as Smith Street Stage, Hudson Warehouse, Moose Hall Theatre Company, Hip to Hip, the Classical Theatre of Harlem, Manhattan Shakespeare Project, Seven Stages Shakespeare Company, Gorilla Rep, the Boomerang Theatre Company, Molière in the Park, Piper Theatre Productions, the Drilling Company, and more putting on shows in such locales as Morningside Park, Carroll Park, Riverside Park, Inwood Hill Park, Gantry State Plaza Park, Marcus Garvey Park, Bryant Park, Socrates Sculpture Park, the Old Stone House, and even in a Lower East Side parking lot. Since 2000, NY Classical, under the leadership of founding artistic director Stephen Burdman, has presented more than seven hundred site-specific immersive performances of works by the Bard as well as Chekhov’s The Seagull, Molière’s The School for Husbands, Schiller’s Mary Stuart, and Shaw’s Misalliance, among others, in Central Park, Prospect Park, Rockefeller Park, Battery Park, Carl Schurz Park, Teardrop Park, and at the World Financial Center.
All productions have been shut down this summer because of the coronavirus crisis; parks are open, but crowds are limited to just ten in phase two and only twenty-five when we reach phase three. A California native who lives in New York City with his wife and son, Burdman had been preparing a dual look at King Lear this season, staging on alternate nights Shakespeare’s original, familiar version, which he might have written while in lockdown during a plague, and Nahum Tate’s 1681 “happy ending” adaptation, which was popular for about 150 years and is now seldom performed. On June 25 at 8:00, NY Classical will go virtual with a live, rehearsed Zoom reading incorporating both iterations, a streamlined two-hour show featuring Connie Castanzo, Vivia Font, Josh Jeffers, John Michalski, Jamila Sabares-Klemm, Nick Salamone, and Luke Zimmerman from wherever they are sheltering in place. Directed and adapted by Burdman, the reading is a benefit fundraiser for the company; admission is free, but if you can, you’re asked to make a suggested donation of thirty dollars per person. The money will help fund the full, alternating productions of King Lear planned for the fall. Burdman took a break from online rehearsals to discuss King Lear, Panoramic Theatre, and being a husband and father during a pandemic.
twi-ny: You’ve been sheltering in place with your wife and son. How has that been?
stephen burdman: It’s actually been easier than I expected. The three of us make a pretty good team — and we really travel well together. Fortunately, my wife’s work (which is mostly on conference calls around the world) didn’t change that much and our son adapted to Zoom learning really quickly. His school, the Abraham Joshua Heschel School, did an outstanding job of adapting to this extremely challenging environment while providing great support to the students.
One thing to note is that our managing director, Hillary Cohen, lost both of her parents to Covid-19 in early April. This has been extremely difficult and as a company we have been in mourning. We have decided to close our administrative office on August 10, which would have been her parents’ fifty-first wedding anniversary, as a day of mourning for them and the thousands of other lives lost to Covid-19.
twi-ny: That’s both sad and deeply affecting. When did you decide to do a Zoom benefit reading, and why did you choose King Lear?
sb: King Lear, with alternating endings (both Shakespeare’s and Tate’s), was always our plan for our 2020 summer season. This is the culmination of a three-year project of investigating how Shakespeare’s company toured their shows outside London. In the time of plague, theaters were closed in Elizabethan London, and while we never expected to have a pandemic of our own. . . . We also had great success with both our six-actor Romeo and Juliet as well as the alternating versions of The Importance of Being Earnest, so this project was a combination of these recent experiments.
We auditioned and hired the actors and staff prior to New York State on Pause, and we wanted to make sure to keep our commitments to these wonderful people. In addition to a union salary, they are receiving pension and healthcare. This is an opportunity for us to develop the production with these artists and serve our audience community in the safest way possible.
twi-ny: How have you been able to maintain that?
sb: The core of our mission is that all our programs are free and open to the public. We never want ticket price to be a barrier to accessing our performances, so we have always depended on financially secure audience members paying for their experience and their less fortunate neighbors’ families. In that sense, we are able to maintain because we have a community-oriented “business model.” We play for everybody across the city’s economic spectrum, and those who can support us do.
twi-ny: I’m used to walking through Central Park and suddenly coming upon NY Classical rehearsing out in the open. What was the rehearsal process like for this reading? Have you been watching other livestreamed shows during the pandemic lockdown, either for pure entertainment or research?
sb: Zoom rehearsal has been really interesting. The Zoom format has its strengths and challenges. While I did watch a few other readings and did some best-practice research, I wanted to make sure that we approach this work in line with our signature technique — which is called Panoramic Theatre. We feel it is important that when our audience sees a Zoom reading and then a full production of the same script, there is no disconnect between the two. One should be a natural extension of the other.
Some elements of Panoramic Theatre staging immediately transfer. Our blocking style ensures that, when a character is speaking, they are facing toward the audience. In the parks, this helps the actors’ voices comfortably and sustainably reach as large an area as possible. On Zoom, they are also facing toward the audience, in order to better connect on an emotional level.
twi-ny: What are your thoughts about what theater will be like in New York City on the other side of this? Has the pandemic changed any of your views about how theater is made and/or performed for audiences?
sb: Honestly, I don’t think professional theater will be able to return to prepandemic levels for two to three years. I have many family and friends who live outside New York and they are feeling very wary of visiting the city right now. As I recently said to a major supporter of the company, “When are you going to feel comfortable sitting in a small, dark space with lots of people again?” Theaters that work outdoors, like NY Classical, will most likely produce sooner than most and we are still hoping to produce King Lear as a full production later this year. However, outdoor theaters that rely on bleacher-style seating will have to substantially reduce their attendance expectations.
twi-ny: You’ve been vocal on social media about the Black Lives Matter movement. What are some of the things that NY Classical is doing to address systemic racism?
sb: One of the founding artists and board members of NY Classical — and my best friend — was Black. Don Mayo was a consummate and extremely versatile actor who appeared in everything from August Wilson to Shakespeare, Broadway to regional theater, and was very committed to NY Classical. When he died nearly twelve years ago, we created the Don Mayo Fund for Classical Actors of Color. Since NY Classical started, we have employed many BIPOC artists as significant collaborators on our productions, but we recognize we need to do more.
NY Classical’s staff completed an intensive Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training program. It really helped us more deeply understand how our non-Black company members have benefited from systemic racism. Now we are actively implementing changes and reimagining our company culture to fully reflect our anti-racist values. It means considering our unconscious biases, checking our areas of privilege, and consistently partnering as equals with more historically underrepresented teammates — casts, directors, designers and technicians, administrators, and board leadership — in producing classical theater.
twi-ny: When you’re not creating or watching theater, what are you doing with your time during these crises? What are some of your other obsessions?
sb: So, in addition to a deep reworking of King Lear, I have spent lots of time with my wife and son, doing projects around the house, reading (I am an avid reader and just finished War and Peace — my final book in a years-long project to read every major Russian classic), and watching a few television series. Right now, my son and I are (re)watching the entire Star Trek (TNG) series.
twi-ny: We recently finished the new Star Trek shows, Discovery and Picard. It looks like your family had a fun virtual Seder. It now seems like Jews will not be able to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in schul. Hopefully we’ll be back in temple by the time of your son’s Bar Mitzvah next spring. How has your family been dealing with that?
sb: Thanks! We had a blast! It was super nice to have family and friends from Los Angeles (my hometown) join us for Seder. As for the High Holidays, I’ve honestly been in a bit of denial. After this reading of King Lear is over, we will begin to consider some options. As for my son, who recently turned twelve and attends a Jewish school, a number of his classmates have postponed their b’nei mitzvahs into 2021. Right now, my wife is teaching him to chant his Torah portion and Haftorah. His grandmother (Bubbie, my wife’s mother) is a Jewish educator and spends time with him every week to study his portion and, ultimately, help craft his Bar Mitzvah speech. We’re very lucky this way, as his uncle (who co-officiated with my late father-in-law at our wedding) will also officiate at his service next spring.
Among the things that many of us are missing the most during the Covid-19 crisis are art and travel. They might not be essential businesses, but they’re key parts of a full and rewarding life. Both serve as respites from the everyday; they entertain and educate us, offering escape from our daily toil. “How Can We Think of Art at a Time Like This?” is the titular question of Barbara Pollack and Anne Verhallen’s ongoing online exhibition, which features new and recent work from major living artists addressing the pandemic and politics. The answer, of course, is how can we not?
Xavier F. Salomon has found his own unique method of thinking about art in the time of coronavirus, adding related travel as well. Salomon, who was born in Rome to an English mother and a Danish father, was raised in Italy and England, and received his BA, MA, and PhD from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, is the Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator at the Frick Collection. Every Wednesday and Friday, he takes over the Frick’s YouTube channel with deep dives into art history. On Wednesday’s “Travels with a Curator,” Salomon, who previously worked at the British Museum, the National Gallery and the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, and the Met here in New York — quite a resume for a man only just in his forties — gives an illustrated lecture about art and architecture in specific cities; so far he has guided us through Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome, and Ca’ d’Oro, Venice.
He is fast becoming an internet superstar for his Friday talks, “Cocktails with a Curator,” my preferred manner of ending the workweek. At 5:00, Salomon pairs a masterpiece from the Frick with a cocktail and spends between fifteen and twenty minutes discussing the Frick gem and the drink, placing them in context of the current pandemic. Seen in the lower-right-hand corner of the screen, the bald, bearded, handsome, and ever-charming Salomon has helped us look deeply into Rembrandt’s Polish Rider with a Szarlotka, Bellini's St. Francis in the Desert with a Manhattan, and Van Dyck’s Sir John Suckling with a Pink Gin. (On May 1, curator Aimee Ng explored Constable’s White Horse with a gin and Dubonnet.)
On May 8, Salomon will visit with Joseph Mallord William Turner’s Harbor of Dieppe: Changement de Domicile while enjoying a Widow’s Kiss. (The recipes, which include alcohol-free versions, are posted on the YouTube page in advance.) The Frick is my personal favorite museum, a place I go to often to see familiar works that both relax and energize me — including Harbor of Dieppe, which I’ve marveled at on many occasions — so I’m finding these talks, which are prerecorded but stream live (and can be also watched later), absolutely essential in every way. Salomon recently took a break from his art history forays to discuss art and travel in the age of coronavirus.
twi-ny: Last year, before the pandemic, you started examining specific works from current Frick special exhibitions in a Facebook series called “Live from the Frick!” How did that evolve into “Cocktails with a Curator”?
xavier f. salomon: The Frick Collection has had a long tradition of online offerings (exhibition virtual tours, online live streaming of scholarly lectures, and Facebook “Lives,” among many examples). As soon as the lockdown began, we started to think, as a team, as to what we could offer to as varied an audience as possible. The idea of weekly appointments – with “Cocktails” on Fridays and “Travels” on Wednesdays – is designed to take our minds away from our current problems and to “meet” virtually. The idea was to match art with something we may miss from our previous life: things such as going out with friends for a drink, or traveling.
twi-ny: Do you consider yourself a cocktail aficionado? Are you trying new drinks, or are you choosing some of your favorites?
xaf: I do like cocktails very much. I am starting with a number of favorites, but as the series will continue, I am definitely planning to explore new options.
twi-ny: As a Frick regular, I feel that many of the paintings and sculptures in the museum are like old friends and members of the family that I thought I knew so well. I’ve stared at “St. Francis in the Desert” dozens of times, but as I watched your description on “Cocktails,” I felt as if I’d never really seen it. Because you are presenting this with a slightly adjusted context, referencing the pandemic, do you find yourself learning surprising things about works that you thought you knew so well?
xaf: The Frick is a museum of masterpieces. And I always believed that great works of art, first of all, can improve our lives but can also mean a number of different things at different times. One of the most common questions I have been asked in the last few years is: “Are works of art by Old Masters relevant?” The answer is: “YES!!!” And I hope to demonstrate this with this series. One thing that this virus is making apparent to everyone is how fragile human beings are. Artworks are the best that human beings have produced in the last few thousand years, and they can help us understand why and how we live. People a thousand years ago, five hundred years ago, a hundred years ago, were dealing with life as we do, with love, with friendship, with knowledge, with financial issues . . . and with epidemics and death. So I have been working on matching works at the Frick with broad issues we are thinking about today. And – not surprisingly – it is actually quite easy. And I am enjoying thinking about our works in this way.
twi-ny: I’m also appreciative of how fresh your analysis is. In the most recent Frick Collection magazine, you wrote about van Dyck’s “Sir John Suckling,” but your “Cocktails” talk about it explored the painting differently. I gather you would agree that “perspective is everything”?
xaf: Yes, I fully agree. And that is the importance of great works of art. They can be understood in a number of ways and can touch different chords in us. The same work of art meant different things to me when I was a teenager, or ten years ago. . . . We change as we go through life, and a truly great masterpiece can be for us a travel companion or a great friend. We change and they alongside us.
twi-ny: The camerawork is extraordinary, taking us deep inside the paintings. Is that footage already available, or might someone be taking new shots inside the museum?
xaf: The Frick has always had an in-house photographer, and our works have been very well photographed over the years by very talented people. All of the photographs of our works are from our archives. No new photography has been commissioned for these online programs. And many of the photos of locations I have taken myself over the years on my travels.
twi-ny: For the third “Cocktails” presentation, you cleverly changed where you were sitting when giving the talks. What part of the city are you sequestered in, and are you sheltering in place with any humans or animals?
xaf: I have been playing with different corners of my apartment to find an ideal location for the filming. It is a first for me, to film myself in my own apartment. I live in Washington Heights, in Manhattan, an area I like very much. I am, unfortunately, sheltering in place alone, as my partner (in the same situation) is across the Atlantic, in Europe. I would love to have a pet, especially during these times. But I cannot complain, because in my “hermitage” at least I have books.
twi-ny: Most curators exist in the background; the public might read essays by them in catalogs and wall text, or maybe see them if they go to an illustrated lecture at a museum. But you’re becoming a virtual sensation, with fans tuning in not just to hear about a masterpiece but to specifically see you and have a drink together. How does that feel?
xaf: I am not sure I would describe myself as a “virtual sensation.” But I also don’t believe that curators or art historians should live in the “background.” Art is for everyone, and if people want to know more about museums or works of art, curators need to be accessible. It is not about spending our lives in ivory towers and being buried in our libraries or our museums. As much as many of us (myself included) don’t necessarily dislike that idea, there is the fundamental fact that we need to put our knowledge and studies somewhere out there and have it available for the general public. I am not looking for fans, but I have to confess that it feels very rewarding to know that, with a very small contribution, I have somewhat enhanced people’s lives at a particularly difficult time.
twi-ny: You appear to love what you do, and you can be very funny, but on camera you never break character as a serious art historian. What does it take to make you burst out laughing?
xaf: I love, adore, what I do. I live for it. I could not imagine doing anything else with my life. I don’t know why, but I always feel awkward when laughing in public. But many things make me laugh out loud, and, it is usually female comedians. Women have such a wonderful sense of humor! But, maybe, you are right, I should be less serious on my online programs. . . .
twi-ny: What artworks might be coming up, or would you prefer to keep them a secret until closer to showtime? If you take requests, I have a few.
xaf: The answer is that I know a few works (Turner, Velázquez, Holbein, Bronzino) and places (the Monastery of the Temptation in Jericho, Santa Maria delle Carceri in Prato, the towns of Osuna in Spain and Valenciennes in France) that will come up, but I am still not sure about the exact timing and I do not have a full list. I keep thinking and choosing as I go along. And, yes, suggestions are well received!!! I was surprised to see that people have written to me with suggestions for specific cocktails (and I apologize for all those people who really expected me to offer a Bellini with a Bellini painting — come on, guys!!! — I need to be a bit more original than that . . .), but no one so far has suggested a work of art or a place. Please send me your ideas! [ed. note: How about Goya’s The Forge, Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl, El Greco’s Purification of the Temple, or Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Grounds?]
Ellen Stewart Theatre, La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club
66 East Fourth St.
February 29 - March 8, $35
“This story is very connected with the world at the moment,” Hideki Noda says in a promotional video for his wild and wacky farce, One Green Bottle, making its US premiere February 29 to March 8 at La MaMa. A presentation of Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre and Noda・Map, the show takes place over one crazy night during which a dysfunctional family faces massive strangeness as writer-director Noda tackles our selfie society, egotistical instincts, and rampant, potentially apocalyptic consumerism. Noda plays Bo, the father, with Lilo Baur (The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol, The Street of Crocodiles) as Boo, the boy-band-loving mother, and Noda regular Glyn Pritchard (The Twits, The Dark Philosophers) as Pickle, the young daughter; the chaotic set is by Yukio Horio, with lighting by Christoph Wagner, zany costumes by Kodue Hibino, music by Denzaemon Tanaka XIII performed by Genichiro Tanaka, video by Shutaro Oku, and hysterical hair and makeup by Eri Akamatsu.
Noda incorporates noh and kabuki into this tale that also features a pregnant dog, a deranged Mickey Mouse, and other unpredictable elements. The title comes from the repetitive children’s song “Ten Green Bottles,” which goes in part, “Ten green bottles hanging on the wall / Ten green bottles hanging on the wall / And if one green bottle should accidentally fall / There’ll be nine green bottles hanging on the wall.” Noda, who has also staged such shows as Pandora’s Bell, Red Demon, and The Diver, discussed his work in this succinct interview, which has been edited for clarity.
twi-ny: One Green Bottle was initially written for Japanese audiences in 2010, then adapted by Will Sharpe into English for British crowds in 2018. What kinds of changes, if any, have been made for the US premiere?
hideki noda: We perform according to the London version’s script. However, the direction will be more slapstick than the performances in London.
twi-ny: You don’t always appear in your plays. What made you want to be in this one, and continue in it through the iterations?
hn: An actor on the stage can see what a director in the director’s seat can’t see. Of course, and vice versa.
twi-ny: Selfie culture is a key theme in One Green Bottle. What is your relationship with selfies?
hn: I suppose that selfie culture will make the world self-destructive.
twi-ny: If someone wants to take a selfie with you, are you game?
hn: After the performance, if anybody asks me to take one with me, of course I am willing to.
twi-ny: Glyn Pritchard is reprising his role from the London version, but Lilo Baur is replacing the great Kathryn Hunter, who has been in several of your works, including The Bee. What kind of different dynamic does Lilo give the show?
hn: Kathryn has been working with Peter Brook at the moment. Although Kathryn is a great performer, Lilo is also an especially physically talented actress.
twi-ny: You’ve mentioned that La MaMa is important to you specifically. Why is that?
hn: Shūji Terayama, a Japanese legendary director who I respect, used to work at La MaMa. [Ed. note: The late Terayama brought several of his avant-garde pieces to La MaMa, and a memorial for him was held there in 1983 after his death at the age of forty-seven.]
twi-ny: A pregnant dog figures prominently in the show. Are you more of a dog or a cat person?
hn: I’ve been asked the same question, whether I’m a dog or a cat person, since I was a junior high school student. I have been bored with answering; I am a dog person.
twi-ny: Which of your works would you like to bring to New York next?
hn: I would like to bring a big production, such as Q: A Night at the Kabuki, which I just finished last December, to New York next.
twi-ny: While in New York, will you get a chance to see any theater? If so, what is on your radar?
hn: I have just one day off. Please recommend me any physical theater in New York besides musicals and ballet.
THE WOOSTER GROUP: A PINK CHAIR (IN PLACE OF A FAKE ANTIQUE)
NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
566 La Guardia Pl.
January 23 - February 2, $35-$50
There are certain actors who just pull you in instantly; from the moment you first see them onstage, you’re hooked. For many, it might be Al Pacino or Nathan Lane, Audra MacDonald or Mary Louise Parker. Jim Fletcher is like that for a lot of intrepid, adventurous theatergoers. Tall, balding, and ruggedly handsome, the Ann Arbor native didn’t start acting until he was thirty-five, in 1998; previously he had been a teacher, a caseworker, a dogwalker, an art handler, and a pedicab driver, among other day jobs. For the past two decades he has performed extensively with some of the premier experimental theater groups in the city, most prominently Richard Maxwell’s NYC Players and Elizabeth LeCompte’s Wooster Group, in addition to collaborating with the art collective Bernadette Corporation. Among the shows Fletcher has appeared in are Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz, Maxwell’s Isolde, and Compagnie l’heliotrope’s Pollock.
A poet as well, he’s also ridiculously busy; in the past few weeks, as we conducted this interview over email, he and Sean Lewis reprised Bro-Tox at La MaMa, he stopped by the Kitchen to check out Maxwell’s latest play, Queens Row, and he’s heavy into rehearsals for the Wooster Group’s A Pink Chair (In Place of a Fake Antique), which runs at the NYU Skirball Center January 23 through February 2. The production, which was previously seen at the company’s much smaller home, the Performing Garage in SoHo, is a tribute to Polish avant-garde theater director and artist Tadeusz Kantor, with Kantor’s daughter, Dorota Krakowska, serving as dramaturg. Fletcher plays a priest; there are some funny behind-the-scenes videos on the Wooster Group’s website in which he makes a cross and plays silly word games with the cast and crew. (The cast also features Zbigniew Bzymek, Enver Chakartash, Ari Fliakos, Gareth Hobbs, Andrew Maillet, Erin Mullin, Suzzy Roche, Danusia Trevino, and Kate Valk; to find out more about the Wooster Group, the Carriage Trade Gallery on Grand St. is hosting a multimedia retrospective of the company through January 26.) Below, Fletcher discusses, in his inimitable poetic style, his dream role, working with some of the most original creators in theater, and his carpentry skills.
twi-ny: I was at a lunch party a few months ago and got into a conversation with a woman about experimental theater. She burst out about how much she loves an actor named Jim Fletcher, and we proceeded to rave about various shows we’ve seen you in. It seems you have a cult fan club out there. How does that feel?
jim fletcher: It feels great. Please elaborate! Mind you, I’m going by what you’re saying. It sounds like there’s energy bouncing around. I love that. More. Surplus. Slurplus. You know, house rules. . . . There’s energy out there in the room, I love it too, I’m devoted too. Devotion is juicy.
twi-ny: Devotion is indeed juicy. You are part of several experimental collectives that have devoted fan bases of their own, primarily the New York City Players, the Wooster Group, and Bernadette Corporation. How did you get connected with them?
jf: I’m working with people I love. It seems I never asked myself what kind of work I wanted to do, and also never the follow-up question, who best to do it with. In that sense I’m not a productive person. I think when you get close to people, you spontaneously start working in some way . . . out of sheer energy or whatever it is. Surplus.
twi-ny: What are the main differences between working with Richard Maxwell and with Elizabeth LeCompte?
jf: It’s easier for me to say what they have in common. In both cases it’s deep water, bright, alive. Like swimming in the ocean. Limitless, often extremely simple. Always big. And buoyant. Potentially dangerous because there’s power and a lot of desire. I’ve been lucky to work with them both. Ever-fresh. Always something other than what I would have imagined.
With Rich, among so many other things (ongoing), I learned the practice of active listening in the room, with your body and with your subtle body for that matter . . . whatever body you can muster. Listening to time, listening to others, to minds, listening to story and to space, without withdrawing your energy or agency, your own reasons — what can that yield, where will it go? Honestly that’s something you can pursue for as many years and hours as you have available, with audience.
With Liz I saw the whole situation get put into motion. You get a little as if your feet are off the ground. Could go in any direction at any time. Dreaming of flight. Something’s gained in translation. Movement. And she employs very complex orchestration — of lighting, sound, voice. Language. Set design. Onstage behavior. Machinery. And yes, video. All indisputably unified by the principle of a single viewpoint, that of a person watching — specifically, of her watching. It’s quite thrilling. You know sometimes as a performer in these great stage architectures of hers I simply don’t get it until I see the videotape of us trying to do it. There’s no way to really perceive it or even imagine it from onstage.
twi-ny: For a nonproductive person, you seem to work nonstop in a wide variety of genres. Among the characters you’ve portrayed over the last few years are Jackson Pollock, Jay Gatsby, and Lemmy Caution. Do you have a dream character you’d love to play?
jf: When I was first getting to know the artist Tony Oursler, he asked me that same question over coffee, “What’s your dream role?” I said “Frankenstein,” meaning, of course, Frankenstein’s monster. Seems like a year later as I was going into his studio for a few hours’ work, his assistant Jack [Colton] said to me, “I think we’ll get you into the Frankenstein makeup first.” Total surprise. Zero preparation. No time to think about it. It was so much like a dream. And my text was a song that Tony had dreamed that night, “Spark of Life.” He’d woken up and recorded it as it had come to him and I listened to it several times while Enver Chakartash and Naomi Raddatz did a genius monster makeover on me, which took all of a half hour. Frankenstein the created being. I sang it into Tony’s camera and it was strange. When I finished he pulled his face from behind the monitor; there was a tear rolling down his cheek. The tear of Frankenstein.
twi-ny: Ah, that was Imponderable, which was the centerpiece of his big MoMA show. I saw him and Constance DeJong bring back Relatives at the Kitchen two years ago. You’ve been in numerous productions at the Kitchen, as well as La MaMa, Abrons Arts Center, and the Performing Garage. For the next two weekends, you’ll be at the Skirball Center with A Pink Chair, which was previously staged at La MaMa and REDCAT in LA. Skirball is doing amazing things under Jay Wegman. What has the process been like bringing A Pink Chair there?
jf: [Skirball director] Jay Wegman makes things flow. He makes a deal spontaneously, no head-scratching, and sticks to it. Sometimes you have to sort of check yourself and say, yes, he’s really doing this. You can feel the Wegman effect when you’re working inside the institution — it was like that at Abrons too when he was there. A lot of heart. A lotta lot. He doesn’t flinch. And he seems radically relaxed somehow.
Once I was meeting with him in his office at Abrons and I casually admired this or that thing on his wall or on the desk, to which he repeatedly replied, “Do you want it?” It was very disarming and somehow a challenge. A kind of destabilizing personal bounty. I think he was serious. That’s the wild effect he has. . . . He leaves you pondering that to yourself: “I think he was serious? . . .”
twi-ny: Have there been any major adjustments to A Pink Chair given the larger stage and much bigger house?
jf: The show is feeling great in Skirball. It was conceived on a large scale, so it looks at home here. Skirball is a great space. The crowds here somehow have a kind of living room feeling . . . rather than some kind of modeled civic space. It’s a civic space that’s not trying too hard to look like one. It just is one. Very comfortable. Not obsessed with being the last word in design.
But so many of the shows I’ve seen here look great! I have noticed as an audience member here that I feel I’m able to be in contact with people sitting all the way across the room from me. Not every theater has that. Is it the curved rows? The warm array of nipple-shaped glass lamps as ceiling lighting?
As far as adjustments, we are spending a lot of time getting the sound right. That’s a major adjustment for any new venue we go to. Liz plays the room like a hi-fi set.
twi-ny: Speaking of being in the audience, when I am not in the audience watching you onstage, I often see you in the audience of other shows. What do you like to do on those rare occasions when you’re not in a theater?
jf: Burpees. Other stuff too. 🙂 Let’s spend some time together.
twi-ny: We’ll do so at Skirball, so getting back to A Pink Chair, can you talk a little about your character, the priest?
jf: About my character, I want to say up top, again: costumes by Enver Chakartash, in collaboration with Liz. When you swirl, it twirls. I have enough sense to know when a costume is doing the work for me, so I stay out of its way and let it do it.
The set is kind of like a territory, with different zones and thresholds, and a void, and a highly populated sector. In the most basic way I’d say A Pink Chair is a visit to the Underworld. A daughter (true story) engages a theater company (us) to help her go there to try to make contact with her father who was the great theater artist Tadeusz Kantor. How did we think to look there for him? That’s where he seemed to be headed in the final play he actually saw through to production, I Shall Never Return. The performers in A Pink Chair sometimes feel like pieces, subject to the zone they are in, and able to move in ways specific to each person. Mind you these are not explicit rules . . . it’s just how it has developed. Like laws of nature. What you’re seeing is a history of intelligent development . . . aimed at you, me, the unknown soldier, coming to see the show. My character the priest is one of those that is able to cross the void, for instance.
twi-ny: According to a behind-the-scenes video, it looks like you had a bit of a problem nailing your own cross; what are your carpentry skills like?
jf: I guess a crucifix is probably about the simplest thing you can make from wood. The rugged cross: Nail one piece of wood to another bisecting the smaller one, but not the larger one, at right angles. They say Christ was a carpenter. . . .