In 2004, struck by the world’s continued indifference to the 1994 Rwandan genocide, actor Jay O. Sanders attended the ten-year commemoration of the start of the mass killings in Kigali, the African nation’s capital. Moved by what he saw, Sanders, the Austin-born son of activist parents, decided to do something about it. A Shakespeare in the Park regular who has appeared in such films as JFK, The Day After Tomorrow, and Revolutionary Road and has played recurring characters on such series as True Detective, Person of Interest, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Sanders began writing Unexplored Interior, a fictionalized play that takes place immediately following the 1994 genocide, as a Hutu man and Tutsi woman fall in love, a Rwandan student in New York City sets out to make a film about what happened, and a UN peacekeeper contemplates his own life in the wake of the tragic events. The play will have its latest staged reading on May 11 at 12 noon at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (admission is free with advance RSVP) as part of the official Kwibuka20 events commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, calling for people to “remember — unite — renew.” An all-star cast will be directed by James Glossman (Trouble Is My Business; Smiling, the Boy Fell Dead), and the production in New York will be broadcast live at the new outdoor amphitheater at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center courtesy of Google+ Hangout on Air, followed by an international panel discussion and Q&A session.
twi-ny: What was the genesis of Unexplored Interior and your interest in Rwanda?
Jay O. Sanders: Let me give you the short answer. In April of 1994, my wife and I, both working actors, were cloistered in our West Village apartment with our five-week-old, first-and-only child, reflecting on what it meant to be the guardians of a life, when President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down in Kigali and the start of genocide hit. We watched the news as reports of this horrific event unfolded and repeatedly told us it was beyond our understanding. Stories began to flow of brutal, neighbor-on-neighbor mass killings and a Canadian U.N. peacekeeping commander who was calling for help but no one was being sent, and all without pictures, as no press was inside the country. Until they began to show video of hundreds and hundreds of bloated bodies floating down the rivers along the borders, caught on the rocks, going over falls. It was a mind-numbing, grotesque, and totally infuriating circus of ignorance and failure of the world to respond.
I got it in my head that if I could just see out through the peacekeeper’s eyes, as a fellow Westerner, I might at least be able to understand. I thought, I need to play him (as actors do). I watched every report I could find, yielding reports of that same man refusing to order a full withdrawal and managing to save the lives of some tens of thousands of refugees while bearing witness to the 800,000 whom he couldn’t, and finally, on returning home, attempting suicide numerous times, unable to process what he’d been through. After ten years of germination and finding myself still as ignorant as before, I was overcome with the need to find an answer I could give my son. To arm him with an understanding of this genocide of his lifetime. I felt I owed him an answer.
twi-ny: You’re a well-respected actor, familiar for your work in numerous films and plays and on television. How did your acting experience inform your writing of the play?
JOS: I started out to write a one-man show for myself as [Roméo] Dallaire, the peacekeeper. It seemed like an obvious, straightforward way to enter the story and bring it to others. So I found him in Rwanda at the ten-year commemoration, flew myself over to see for myself where all this had happened and be among those who had experienced it. I had discovered that, fortunately, he was still alive and now the author of a book about his experiences, Shake Hands with the Devil.
Again, the short version: I met him there, then spent time with him later in Quebec, and proceeded to write that play. But I soon discovered, the more I knew about what had happened, that Dallaire was actually my White Rabbit who led me into the situation, and the larger story was among the people themselves. So, I continued to study and write and emerged with a twenty-six-character play for fourteen actors which weaves many stories together, including Dallaire’s, with crossing themes on a much larger canvas.
twi-ny: How did you hook up with Google+, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center?
JOS: My wife, Maryann Plunkett, and I had done a reading down at the museum several years ago and I had noted the beauty of both this center of record for not only the Holocaust but all related genocide, as well as the beauty of the theater [Edmond J. Safra Hall] itself. When I began to think about where my play began, this was perfect. When I flew over for the ten-year commemoration in 2004, I was recognized by members of the CNN team, who invited me to join them for the week, which I did, gladly, finding myself front and center at all the major official events, including the official opening of the Aegis trust Kigali Genocide Memorial. I was there as President Kagame, General Dallaire, and many, many others witnessed the lighting of the eternal flame, above a mass grave holding 250,000 victims of the genocide.
So, when I was thinking about where I wanted to connect with our event, that, again, was obvious. Then, one of my producers, my dear friend Daniel Neiden, introduced me to Paula Gil Rodriguez, who had, herself, produced several large Google+ Hangouts on Air and knew a number of people at Google. She loved the idea of the project and she and her husband, Nick Lopez, came on board. My friend James Glossman has been my director from the moment the idea hit me to write this. It all just grew and grew.
twi-ny: Who are some of the people who will be participating in the reading?
JOS: We have a brilliant family of actors — some well known to you, others who you should know. Michael McKean, presently in All the Way on Broadway, plays Dallaire; Sharon Washington, award nominated for Wild with Happy at the Public and on Broadway with The Scottsboro Boys; Arthur French, who has been in everything and most recently of The Trip to Bountiful on Broadway; Fritz Weaver, one of the most distinguished stage and film actors of his generation; Charles Parnell, whose TV series The Last Ship premieres soon; Owiso Odera, Marlyne Barrett, Clark Jackson, Craig Alan Edwards, Irungu Mutu, Matthew Murumba, Benjamin Thys, and our youngest at thirteen, Nile Bullock, lately also of The Scottsboro Boys — all fantastic, deeply dedicated to this project, and each one a reason to see the play.
twi-ny: Is a full production of the play in the works?
JOS: We are still looking for a production. I’m hoping this presentation grabs the imagination of some brave producer or producers!
twi-ny: As opposed to last year’s presentation, this one will use social media in a fascinating way. What’s your personal experience with social media? Are you a Facebook/Twitter/Google+ junkie?
JOS: My personal experience is everyday. I use Facebook regularly as an international bulletin board and have just recently ventured over to Google+ as well, because of this project. I have a Twitter account but am not very fluent with it yet. These online forums have afforded me connections beyond anything I might have come upon otherwise — people out of my past, which included a lot of traveling, so that reaches a very long way, and those I’m just now meeting with common friends and/or common interests. Also, I regularly give master classes out at my alma mater, SUNY Purchase, and social media is a place we can all stay in touch for mutual news, project updates, and personal encouragement. It has been a godsend.
twi-ny: At any given moment, there is some kind of brutal civil war or genocide going on somewhere in the world, and more often than not, the U.S. government opts not to get involved. What can we as individual, peace-loving Americans do to try to change things?
JOS: Learn. Understand as much as you can. It’s always evolving — it requires regular effort — but there are ways to make a difference through awareness, voting, challenging the machine, humanizing world issues, applying compassion in your own life. Kindness begins with each one of us, at home, at work, in our communities, with the homeless, in our voices lifted against apathy — it ripples out and grows from those seeds into and across the world.
Writer, director, teacher, artist, journalist, and filmmaker Liza Johnson has followed up her debut feature, 2011’s Return, with Hateship Loveship, a subtly beguiling and intimate drama based on a short story by Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro. In the film, Kristen Wiig gives a career-redefining performance as Johanna Parry, an odd, lonely caregiver hired by a widower (Nick Nolte) as a housekeeper for him and his granddaughter, Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld), whose father, Ken (Guy Pearce), is trying to put his life back together after having served time for the accident that killed his wife. Johanna is misled by Sabitha and her best friend, Edith (Sami Gayle), into thinking she is having a romantic correspondence with Ken, as the two girls take advantage of Johanna’s innocence and simplicity.
An associate professor of art at Williams College, Johnson has been making short films for more than fifteen years, including several works (Good Sister / Bad Sister, South of Ten, In the Air that have been shown at prestigious international film festivals and in art museums. Hateship Loveship, which, like Return, is powerfully realistic, opens April 11 in theaters and on VOD.
twi-ny:. You’ve gone from making experimental short films that have included nonprofessional actors to now two feature films with impressive casts, including Linda Cardellini, Michael Shannon, and John Slattery in Return and Kristen Wiig, Guy Pearce, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Nick Nolte, and Christine Lahti in Hateship Loveship. What has that transition been like?
Liza Johnson: The biggest change really just has to do with the way the production runs. I made those short films in worlds where people lived extremely precarious, contingent lives — Mississippi after Katrina, the deindustrialized town I grew up in, indigenous Northern Australia. (Thematically this is also true of the characters in the features.) But within those real-world contexts, and working with almost zero money on the productions, it’s very hard to have a story that has cause and effect, because people can’t be absolutely certain that they can come back to perform for a second or third or sixth day. Even though Hateship/Loveship is a very small independent film, it still has a full crew and unionized actors who are all in a position to return to finish out the whole story!
I love working with nonprofessional actors, and it’s also a great thrill to work with people who have an incredibly trained sense of the craft of acting. It’s just a very different way of working.
twi-ny: In the 2008 Hugo Boss Prize catalog, you wrote about Patty Chang’s Flotsam Jetsam (which is currently on view at MoMA, where your work has also been shown), “The visual style of Flotsam Jetsam suggests a documentary relation to the real at the same time as revealing the conventions we use to produce ‘realness.’” In many ways, a similar thing might be said of Hateship Loveship, which has a very realistic feel to it, especially in regard to camera movement and the lead performances. Would you agree?
Liza Johnson: You are an amazing researcher! Patty Chang has been a close friend and a sustaining confidante for a long time, and I’m sure we influence each other even if we’re working in pretty different styles.
And yes, when I first met with Kristen on the project we talked about how important it was for the world of the film to feel real, and to be shot in the style of realism — which is definitely a style and not just how the world inherently looks! I had a great time working with Kasper Tuxen, the cinematographer, and we watched a lot of movies that use available light when we were preparing. He’s pretty amazing, and we really went to great lengths to use available light whenever possible, or to just supplement it if necessary. The production designer, Hannah Beachler, was also really supportive of my idea to try to build a world that is not overdesigned, and tries to maintain the feeling of accident and surprise that come with locations, even though she redesigned and reordered every surface that you see in the film.
twi-ny: Hateship/Loveship is based on a short story by Alice Munro, who just won the Nobel Prize. Her work has also been adapted by such directors as Sarah Polley, Anne Wheeler, and, next, Jane Campion. How familiar were you with Munro’s writing prior to making the film? Are you concerned at all about being branded as a woman director who makes “women’s films”? You’ve previously explored a more radical side of feminism in Good Sister / Bad Sister.
Liza Johnson: I have loved Alice Munro’s writing for as long as I can remember. I was pretty thrilled when Mark Poirer brought his script to me. The story that the film is based on is an almost perfect story, and a very literary one filled with internal monologue and close, shifting points of view. The movie is inherently different from the story, because Munro is so brilliant at writing the inner life of characters in ways that sometimes can’t be photographed. (If you filmed the end of her story literally, you would see a picture of a teenage girl just standing there, whereas in the story it unfolds amazing revelations within her mind.) The film is truly a translation into another medium, and hopefully one that honors the tone of the original, which is unsentimental, non melodramatic, and really committed to the beautiful and complicated choices of its characters.
If you’re going to compare me to Sarah Polley and Jane Campion, that is a ghetto I’m more than happy to be a part of! But no, I’m not afraid of being branded as someone who makes “women’s films.” A lot of male directors that I like have also made beautiful movies with female protagonists. Personally I would want to invite John Cassavettes, William Wyler, Robert Altman, and Todd Haynes into the neighborhood.
I also think that Hateship is not just a movie for women. There’s no question that Kristen’s character is the spine of the story, but it also showcases performances by Guy Pearce and Nick Nolte, who are both powerhouse actors delivering complicated male characters.
twi-ny: In certain ways, Johanna, the character Kristen Wiig plays in Hateship Loveship, reminds me of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, maybe without quite so much doom and gloom. Is that way off base, or is there a direct or indirect influence there?
Liza Johnson: Direct! Kristen and I watched Jeanne Dielman when we were working on her character and thinking about domestic work. In both the story and the screenplay, her work as a caregiver and as a cleaner is really important to the way she sees the world and the way she reacts to everything. So of course we tried to look at whatever precedents we could find for the cinematic treatment of this kind of occupation. Obviously Akerman is making a different kind of sustained conceptual gesture there, one that I would be proud to have made, but my movie is more classical in its forms than the ones that she uses in the amazing, extreme experiment of her film.
twi-ny: You also teach art at Williams College. Has your relationship with your students changed at all now that you have two well-received feature films under your belt?
Liza Johnson: I don’t think so. They’re pretty engaged and attentive, but that was also true before. It’s really good to be the film professor — you get a lot more enthusiasm than when people are just taking your class to fulfill their premed requirements.
twi-ny: With Hateship Loveship only just opening theatrically, is it too early to ask what your next film project might be?
Liza Johnson: I’m writing something that I really like that is a drama about some unexpected things that happen to a group of teenage girls. And I also have a new project coming up with Michael Shannon, who is an incredible talent. (That is a movie about men, by the way, in case you are worried for me about the women thing!)
Last August, Prince protégées LiV Warfield and Shelby J. tore up City Winery with a week of hot shows with the New Power Generation and the NPG Hornz, including one extremely late night in which they joined their mentor for a rip-roaring set. More recently, Warfield has been making a name for herself on the talk-show circuit in support of her brand-new solo record, The Unexpected (Kobalt, February 2014), knockin’ ’em dead performing “Why Do You Lie?” on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, “Soul Lifted” on The Arsenio Hall Show, and “BlackBird” on Sway’s Universe. (She’s also scheduled to appear on Late Show with David Letterman on April 4.) The Peoria-born singer takes a giant step forward with the explosive new album, the follow-up to her soulful, intimate 2006 debut, Embrace Me, the horn section lifting her to new levels on ten songs bookended by brief instrumentals. On the title track, which was written for her by His Most Royal Purpleness — Prince also cowrote the seven-minute “Your Show” with his former backup singer and serves as the album’s executive producer — Warfield and the NPG Hornz channel Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company; the record is also highlighted by the bold hooks of “Why Do You Lie?,” the foot-stomping blues of “BlackBird,” the pure funk of “Lena Blue,” and the jazzy grandeur of “Freedom.” Warfield will be headlining B. B. King’s on April 6 with the NPG Hornz in what promises to be an electrifying evening. She’ll also be sticking around after the show to meet fans and sign copies of her CD.
twi-ny: You were born and raised in Peoria, went to college and recorded Embrace Me in Portland, Oregon, and are now based in New York City. How has place made a difference in your life and career?
LiV Warfield: Every place that I have been has been so instrumental in who I am as an artist. Peoria provoked interest in music but Portland allowed me to free my talent and discover who I was musically. Now that I live in New York it has opened up so many doors for me and people have welcomed my music and artistry.
twi-ny: It’s been eight years between your first solo record, Embrace Me, and The Unexpected. Why so long?
LW: What took so long is that I had to learn a lot. I was given the opportunity to work with Prince not long after Embrace Me and he has taught me so much. I learned how to write, arrange, and really become a better artist. The wait was worth it to me and I honestly wouldn’t change a thing.
twi-ny: How has it been going from backup singer to being the central attraction again?
LW: Going from a background singer to the central attraction is definitely a different experience but I am now better prepared for what’s to come.
twi-ny: You have a justly celebrated powerhouse voice; why do you open the new record with an instrumental? Is that just a tease?
LW: I wanted to do something unexpected with the open and close. I also wanted it to be very musical and allow you to go on a journey with me.
twi-ny: In “Fly,” you sing, “People don’t define me / I need to be who I need to be.” As your career takes off, has it been difficult to break out of conventional categorizations, especially since your music embraces so many different genres?
LW: Yes, it has been difficult because people do want to box you in. I want to make good music for all to enjoy. I understand that people need categories but my hope is that people will be open and just enjoy it. There is something for everyone on The Unexpected.
twi-ny: What’s the coolest thing about working with and getting to know Prince?
LW: The coolest thing about working with Prince is that I can call him my mentor and I can talk to him whenever I want. I am so thankful for him and sometimes it’s hard to believe.
twi-ny: Is there a specific meaning behind why you capitalize the “V” in your first name (LiV)?
LW: There is significance to it. I work with an amazing group of musicians and I am part of a collective unit. It’s not just about me . . . it’s about the unit. The small “i” reminds me to keep things in perspective.
RAYYA ELIAS IN CONVERSATION WITH ELIZABETH GILBERT
37 Main St. at Water St., Brooklyn
Wednesday, April 2, free (advance RSVP appreciated), 7:00
“This book is the story of my life,” Rayya Elias writes in the first chapter of the painfully poignant yet ultimately inspiring Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk, from the Middle East to the Lower East Side (Penguin, March 2014, $16). “This is my truth, and it may not be pretty, but I own it.” Pretty it isn’t, as the Syrian-born Elias details her battles with drug addiction, her time in prison, her struggles with sexual identity, and her eventual recovery from a shocking rock bottom. Clean since August 1997, Elias is a gregarious woman with an infectious personality that lights up a room. She “always wanted to be the center of attention,” she notes in the book, and she’s spent much of the last year doing just that, promoting Harley Loco — the title refers to her Rikers Island nickname — around the world. A musician, filmmaker, hair stylist, and major football fan, Elias will be at Brooklyn’s powerHouse Arena on April 2 for the launch of the paperback edition of her memoir. She will once again be joined by her close friend Elizabeth Gilbert, the bestselling author of such books as The Signature of All Things and Eat, Pray, Love who wrote the introduction to Harley Loco. Last fall, we appeared on Elias’s sports-and-fantasy podcast, “Football Riffs and Chicks,” and now she is returning the favor, answering intimate questions for a very personal twi-ny talk.
twi-ny: You just lost your pitbull, Ricky. How are you doing?
Rayya Elias: Well, the grief comes and goes. It’s only been a few days since he passed, so I’m still in shock, I think. Ricky was my kid and companion for thirteen years, so there is a huge gaping hole in my heart. We were meant for each other; he was beaten up quite dramatically (used as a bait dog), and he had the scars to prove it, yet he was so good inside. We did quite a bit of healing together.
twi-ny: For the last year, you’ve spent a lot of time on the road promoting your memoir. What’s that experience been like, especially as you have to keep going back over some very difficult times in your life?
Rayya Elias: Writing the book was the ultimate cathartic experience for exercising those demons. Sometimes, when I was in the midst of working on the book, I doubted my own memory because it was almost too much to grasp. It got pretty deep.
twi-ny: What’s been the best part of the tour?
Rayya Elias: When I was on the road promoting it, it became like a testimonial. My favorite part was that people came out of the woodwork to tell me their stories, whether it was an eighteen-year-old child who had gone missing due to drugs or a gray-haired lady who related to being fat as a kid or being bullied as a teenager. So many people wanted to be heard because they related to many parts of my story. That’s what really kept me in the zone.
twi-ny: How about the worst?
Rayya Elias: There is no worst. Honestly, I love all of it. It’s something I’ve longed for, so I’m taking it all in, the hotels, the road food, even the airports, and especially when friends I haven’t seen in years show up at a reading/performance, I love it.
twi-ny: Is there a question that you’ve been surprised you haven’t been asked yet?
Rayya Elias: Not really; people have pretty much dissected it. I was really happy that a college radio station in Brisbane, Australia, asked about methadone detox. No one in the States really bothered giving that one any thought. I was pretty grateful, as I have a strong opinion about it!
twi-ny: You’re very good friends with Elizabeth Gilbert. How did the two of you meet?
Rayya Elias: Liz and I have been friends since the year 2000. She came into my studio and needed an intervention. Not a drug intervention like I was used to, but a hair intervention. I cut her hair and we told each other stories. She was writing for GQ at the time and asked me to style a story that Mary Ellen Mark was shooting. We clicked on a level that neither of us really understood. It was deep, and very real, and she became a part of my life. Then, many years later, she bullied me into writing my memoir. Ha!
twi-ny: Do you want to offer a sneak peek at the powerHouse event? For example, will you have your guitar with you?
Rayya Elias: I will absolutely have my guitar, and I will play a few songs. A new one is called “Touch the Ground,” inspired by Liz’s book The Signature of All Things. I recorded it, and with Barb Morrison producing, it sounds amazing.
twi-ny: Last November, we appeared on “Football Riffs and Chicks.” That was a lot of fun. Will there be another season?
Rayya Elias: I loved having you and Ellen on “FR&C”; it was so much fun. Yes, I will definitely do it again; this year I will concentrate a little more on fantasy, I think.
twi-ny: Your fantasy football team, which is named the Pittbulls, after Ricky, finished in a three-way tie for the best record in our fantasy football league. Were you happy with your team’s performance?
Rayya Elias: I’m never happy with my team’s performance unless I win. My guys were getting hurt every week, so I really had to study and pick up the next best available athlete for the position. It was hard going. I can’t imagine what the real live sport is like for the coaches. That’s why I’m in awe of the game.
twi-ny: You were born in Syria and still have family there; how has the political situation there affected them and you?
Rayya Elias: It’s been extremely difficult. The country is torn, my family is torn, my heart is broken for the Syria I visited just four years ago. I spent Christmas and New Year’s with family in Aleppo and Damascus. Now they are struggling and I haven’t heard from some of them in quite some time. No one saw it coming because the country seemed to be on the verge of a tourism breakout and everything seemed to be going well.
twi-ny: Okay, so you’re a writer, musician, hair stylist, podcast host, filmmaker, and big-time football fan; what’s next for you?
Rayya Elias: I’m wrapping my head around a new book, a novel of sorts. I’ve never tried to write fiction, but I’m gonna give it a whirl. Music is something that is constant in my life, so that’s a given. The rest is up to what inspires me. I’m the type of person who loves to be involved in creative endeavors and make stuff. Once an idea enters my head and my heart, it starts to take over my being, and once it’s too much to hold in, then I gotta let it out. If I can’t keep it in, I gotta let it out!
In her bold, innovative works, California-born, New York–based choreographer Faye Driscoll explores ritual and relationships between the performers themselves as well as the audience. Anything can happen in Driscoll’s pieces, which have included such successes as You’re Me, 837 Venice Boulevard, and There is so much mad in me. Her latest work, Thank You for Coming, which makes its debut March 6–15 at Danspace, is the first of a trilogy — the working titles are “Dance,” “Play,” and “Space” — that continues her examination of the mind and body as well as society’s interconnectivity. An early version of “Dance” was presented last year as part of the 92nd St. Y’s “Stripped/Dressed” series, and it featured five performers locked together for much of the time; they also interacted with the audience directly.
Driscoll is also a master collaborator, working with a wide range of musicians, visual artists, designers, and theater directors. Last year she choreographed Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin’s “A Marriage: 1 (Suburbia),” and this year they return the favor by contributing their unique visual design to Thank You for Coming. “Nick and I have absolutely loved Faye’s work for a long time, and getting to collaborate with her on this process from such an early stage in development has been a pretty amazing experience,” Margolin explained. “It’s a process unlike any we’ve been a part of before and has led to some really unexpected and exciting stuff. It has been really eye opening in terms of what a process can be and what it can look like. It’s been inspiring watching as Faye unflaggingly chases rigor and perfection in material that still manages to feel spontaneous and organic.” (Nick and Jake’s new exhibition, “A Marriage: 2 (West-er),” runs March 8 – April 12 at the Invisible Dog in Brooklyn.) Driscoll discussed her process, collaboration, fundraising, and more a few days before Thank You for Coming was set to open.
twi-ny: You presented an early version of this work last year at the 92nd St. Y. How has it changed since then? I see that the dancers now include Alicia Ohs, who worked with you on You’re Me, and Sean Donovan, who made a guest appearance in Nick and Jake’s “A Marriage: 1 (Suburbia).”
Faye Driscoll: Yes, it’s funny because for me in some sense I think the Y version was complete in and of itself. But the cast shifted, designers got involved, and new ideas emerge and old ideas either went deeper or got thrown out. So you will still see the Y material, but hopefully it is also a totally new work. What’s exciting to me about this project is that it reflects my process of generating a lot of ideas and then evolving them into each other and making new iterations and offshoots that will continue forward into my next work — because it’s an interconnected series. With Thank You for Coming (the series) I have set up a process of producing work that reflects my process of creating work — which is often making things in excess, and with many possible versions — and in the meantime I am building a company of performers and designers around a long-term project.
twi-ny: Thank You for Coming continues your very direct relationship with the audience and your exploration of social experience and interconnectedness, both in title and execution. Why do you think you are so drawn to this aspect of performance?
FD: I think I have always been interested in performance as a ritual of expression, protest, transformation, and basically one gigantic act of mirroring with the performers and audience. I don’t buy this idea that in order to be socially engaged you have to adapt to a certain way of being; I think we are all socially engaged whether we like it or not — or maybe whether we choose to deal with it or not. I am not saying I am totally dealing with it in this work, but I am trying. I am trying through my own formal and aesthetic experiments to expand my perception of this interconnection, and maybe others will feel that or maybe they won’t.
twi-ny: In 2009, you were one of fifty artists chosen by the New Museum for its “Younger Than Jesus” triennial, and just recently you were named a Guggenheim Fellow. What was it like when you found out about the latter? What kind of impact has it had on you?
FD: I have been blushing all year from having gotten the Guggenheim. I feel so honored. It just makes me want to make my work stronger. There can be some internal pressure involved. But I have always felt pressure when I am making things; it’s just that I feel a little bit more visible now.
twi-ny: Like so many choreographers, you have turned to Kickstarter to help finance projects. What has that experience been like? Are you a good fundraiser?
FD: Please donate! That is what Kickstarter has done to me! Which maybe is an essential trait of a good fundraiser? The willingness to ask and keep asking without shame. Being a choreographer, you have to be it all — grant writer, fundraiser, administrator, stage manager, public speaker, floor sweeper. It’s truly exhausting. I think I am a better choreographer than I am any of the other hats I wear, but I try hard because it’s what the work needs. And I have more help now than I ever have and I am super grateful for that. Even though Kickstarter is extremely stressful, it’s also really amazing. We have more than two hundred people backing us — that feels pretty good. It takes the power out of some monolithic “funding entity” and into our own hands. But doing a Kickstarter campaign can seriously consume your life. I really want us to reach our goal — please back us! See, I’m obsessed.
twi-ny: You have collaborated with a wide range of artists, from Young Jean Lee and Nick and Jake to Taylor Mac and Cynthia Hopkins. What are the secrets of being a strong collaborator?
FD: I love collaborating with these people. I learn so much and it keeps me on my toes. I think being a good collaborator is having the willingness to serve the project, not just your ideas and tastes.
twi-ny: Do you have a dream collaborator?
FD: I am dying to work with Ann Hamilton.
twi-ny: In 2007, you told Feministing that in fifty years, you’d like to be remembered as a rebellious, honest, dangerous choreographer who had a lot of fun. How do you think you’re doing so far?
FD: Oh wow. I’m not sure. OK, I think Fun is my F word. I think it can be a big no-no in the avant-garde world. And honestly sometimes in my personal life I have a hard time relaxing. But in my work I have a lot of fun. Maybe because then I am taking fun seriously? Not sure. I think there is something in fun and play that is a kind of key to all transformation. And isn’t really good fun also a little bit dangerous?
(Ed. note: Advance tickets for Thank You for Coming are sold out, but there will be a wait list before every show beginning at 7:15. You can contribute to the production via Kickstarter here.)
JODY OBERFELDER PROJECTS — 4CHAMBERS: A SENSORIAL JOURNEY INTO THE HUMAN HEART
Arts@Renaissance, Garden Level
2 Kingsland Ave. at Maspeth Ave., Greenpoint
January 21 - March 22, $60 before February 1, $75 after, Thursdays at 6:30 & 8:00, Fridays & Saturdays at 7:00 & 8:30
Last summer, New York-based choreographer, director, and filmmaker Jody Oberfelder presented 4CHAMBERS on Governors Island, an immersive journey inside the human heart in which six dancers led twelve audience members through an abandoned, specially renovated former officer’s house, each room representing another chamber, incorporating film, interactive video, factual information, and plenty of physical contact. “You will be touched by the performers, both literally and figuratively,” we wrote back in July. Although it was her first site-specific installation piece, 4CHAMBERS is not the first time Oberfelder has delved into the nature of the human heart; she previously examined the blood-pumping, life-giving organ in 2012’s Throb. For more than two decades, Jody Oberfelder Projects has been addressing such emotions as love and the search for social identity in such works as LineAge, The Title Comes Last, Approaching Climax, and Sung Heroes. Oberfelder is now bringing back 4CHAMBERS, restaging the sixty-minute piece at Arts@Renaissance in Greenpoint, in a building that previously was home to, appropriately enough, a hospital. A few days before opening night — the show runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from January 23 to March 22, with bonus performances January 21-22 — Oberfelder discussed transformation, collaborating with her husband, people’s hunger for real experience, and more.
twi-ny: 4CHAMBERS was initially performed on a hot and sweaty summer weekend on Governors Island, and now it will be performed in what so far has been a pretty cold winter. Even though the performance takes place inside, do you think the weather will have any impact on the audience and dancers? Cold and heat do have very different effects on the heart.
Jody Oberfelder: On Governors Island, people came in from an outside temperature of about 98.6, matching their actual body temperature. There was something beautiful about this, since our piece has so much to do with getting under the skin, an internal experience. Thankfully, at Arts@Renaissance, we have our thermostat set to a comfy 72 degrees. It’s perfect. This time people will venture out from cold, nasty weather and to an inside space that is warm and breathing and atmospheric.
twi-ny: How did you find this new space in Brooklyn?
Jody Oberfelder: I’d seen Then She Fell at Arts@Renaissance in fall of 2012. The creators, Third Rail, did a tremendous job of transforming the space as a trip down the Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole. A@R has a competitive open call for their three-month residencies. Lo and behold, my project was selected.
It was clearly a raw space with potential. After several site visits with my video collaborator, Jason Bahling, lighting designer, Kryssy Wright, set designer, Juergen Riehm, and a couple of dancers (Mary Madsen and Mercedes Searer), we found where each of our four chambers could live, figured out how to create passageways that would need to be created for arteries and veins, etc., and drew up a plan of how to site this particular work. At the time of our application, we’d not yet been given the Governors Island opportunity. Our first rendering was in an old officer’s house, with built-in metaphors of house as heart — with plumbing, walls, and corridors — whereas A@R is a former hospital.
Sited work is particular. It’s not like transplanting a proscenium work to a stage where you adjust the lights and wings and find out how many steps to the green room. We have transformed the entire floor level to a labyrinthian sensorial journey.
twi-ny: Did you have to make significant changes to the space to incorporate the main themes of the show, or did you make any changes in the performance to mold it to the space?
Jody Oberfelder: One of the challenges was to carve out the flow of traffic. We conceptualized this piece as a moving in one direction like the flow of blood, through four chambers. And each room has different needs in terms of architecture, lighting, technology, and space. The floor was too hard for the performers to really go for it, so we built a custom sprung floor and created specialized wall space. (I don’t want to give too much away.)
twi-ny: You mentioned your set designer, architect Juergen Riehm, who is also your husband. What is the collaboration process like between the two of you? Is it possible to separate the professional from the personal?
Jody Oberfelder: Fun question. Let’s just say we have a rule. We set up appointments to talk with each other about the piece. Otherwise I’d be bugging him first thing in the morning, at every meal, etc. There is crossover, of course. It’s great to have a production stage manager (Katie Houff) as intermediary. On the upside, Juergen Riehm knows me, and is very sensitive to my needs, won’t let me go the way of kitsch, or schlocky, catches my abundant imagination and helps me hone.
Thankfully, there are other key collaborators. Video artist Jason Bahling has been part of this piece almost from conception. And visual elements figure in prominently. Sound is now a major factor — since Governors Island, Sean Hagerty has come in and worked some magic.
twi-ny: On Governors Island, the performers did multiple shows in one day. Will some of the dancers again be doing back-to-back shows? The performance is extremely physical. Is there any special training involved?
Jody Oberfelder: The dancers do two shows a night. Physically, dancers are athletic and endurance poses no problem. I look for dancers who are unique, not cookie cutter, whose “technique” is present and ever felt. What takes energy in 4CHAMBERS is a discreet attention to audience members. It’s like being in a relationship for a night. The ratio is 1:2. We call the performers “docents” — we guide the audience, as a museum docent might, and encourage audience members to be in their bodies — to connect. That’s an evening of intensity.
twi-ny: There is a lot of interaction between those “docents” and the audience members, whom you refer to as “guests,” including a lot of touching. Were there any surprises for you regarding how that relationship between guest and performer played out on Governors Island?
Jody Oberfelder: We’ve found that people are hungry for real experiences. That putting away multitasking for an hour and slipping into a present dilated moment is something we all are craving. The performers are instructed to try to meet guests where they are and guide. We don’t have a “toolbox” of techniques for this but have practiced and learned each guest is different. It’s individual. The most intellectual people living in their heads also have a body under their necks, and once you crack that code, the rest is porous and smooth sailing. Yes, some guests are self-conscious at first, but that goes away. That’s why we’ve chosen to do it this intimately. There are no outside voyeurs. It’s intimate.
twi-ny: What’s the most significant thing you’ve learned about the human heart during the whole 4CHAMBERS project?
Jody Oberfelder: Everybody has a human heart. The body is a container for this vital organ. We often do a drive-by of living, plow through life, with our heart doing its job of keeping us alive. I’ve learned that the heart and the mind work together. 4CHAMBERS gives people a sense of being alive.
4CHAMBERS runs January 21 - March 22 at Arts@Renaissance and is performed by Megan Bascom, Zachary Denison, Rayvawn Johnson, Joey Kipp, Mary Madsen, Shane Rutkowski, Mercedes Searer, Lonnie Poupard Jr, and Lily Bo Shapiro, with set design by Juergen Riehm, lighting by Kryssy Wright, sound by Sean Hagerty, and music by Matt McBane, Richard Einhorn, and Jonathan Melville Pratt. Film and video feature appearances by Ishmael Houston-Jones, Edward Einhorn, Dr. Wendy A. Suzuki, Dr. André A. Fenton, Sarah Trignano, Lonnie Poupard Jr, Christina Noel Reaves, Jake Szczypek, and Jessica Weiss.
BERNARDÍ ROIG: THE MIRROR (exercises to be another)
513 West 36th St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Through January 11, free, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm
The centerpiece of Spanish artist Bernardí Roig’s latest exhibition at the Claire Oliver Gallery in Chelsea, “The Mirror (exercises to be another),” is the all-white title work, a sculpture of two men on a platform facing each other as if looking in a mirror, a bright fluorescent light both blinding and dividing them. Cast in polyester resin and marble dust, the men stand barefooted, their bellies hanging over their unbuttoned pants, one of the figures with his fingers in his ears, the other having apparently just ripped off part of his face, including his mouth and an eye. It’s a wry comment on one of Roig’s primary themes, people’s inability to communicate in contemporary society, slyly referencing the iconic “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” trope, while also engaging in a search for truth and reality, as one man is a distorted version of the other. In the far corner, “The Invisibility of Memory (La invisibilidad de la memoria)” features a similar white figure (though with a third arm), his head downtrodden, his body defeated, hanging from a metal frame that holds a video screen showing unclear images that eventually fade away. Roig also includes fourteen charcoal drawings, inspired by Ingres’ “Portrait of Monsieur Bertin” and Federico de Madrazo’s “Portrait of Gertrudis G. de Avellaneda,” which, like the sculptures, examine identity through the subject, the viewer, and the artist.
Roig, who was born in Palma de Mallorca and had the first show in this space back in 2002 — he’s been with Claire Oliver for fourteen years — recently said, “Images are like the foam of the subconscious mind.” Although his sculptures are instantly engaging, extremely pleasing to the eye, they are loaded with deeper meaning, inviting those who gaze upon them to go well beyond the surface. “It is gratifying to see the response to his work from curators, critics, and collectors alike; we have watched him grow as an artist and are proud to represent his works,” Oliver told twi-ny. “Working with the artist is a pleasure; Roig is highly intellectual but remains grounded and humorous as well. His thought process is deliberate and the works produced, without exception, are of the highest quality.” A provocative thinker with a strong art-historical bent, Roig discussed language, dialogue, running out of ideas, and the human body while staying in New York City with his family during the run of the show, which closes January 11.
twi-ny: What was your initial impetus behind creating all-white sculptures cast from real people? Do you have favorite models?
Bernardí Roig: I started by casting my father’s body, which was what was closest at hand, to address the symbolic figure of the great castrator. It was a big, heavily built body . . . and then afterwards there came other similar ones, always bulky and always people connected to me. Once positivized, they are white for two reasons: firstly, to gain in visual lightness and refute their affirmative and statuary quality so that they are simply images and, secondly, to help me detain the moment. Sculpture is an instant trapped in a form. All Goethe’s Faust can be reduced to one single sentence: “Time stands still! You are so beautiful. . . .” Only then does one understand that the moment is white. This brooks no doubt. And in all certainty it is white, because light, once stilled, coagulates. We might then say that the gaze has been submerged in a glass of milk, and in this glass of milk we recognize the annunciation of a form of knowledge where the signifieds have still not copulated.
twi-ny: These white figures, especially when bright light is projected onto them, are a kind of blank slate, setting up a potentially wide-open, complex dialogue between object and viewer. While some of your regular themes involve blindness, death, and the individual’s uneasy search for identity, there is something inherently aesthetically pleasing about your sculptures; people immediately react with happiness upon seeing them. Is there an intended contradiction there?
BR: I’d say that the intentions are contradictory because they are made of opposites, just like our thoughts. The themes my work engages with are by no means strange; they are embedded in the medulla of all thinking people. I’m not very sure of people’s relationship with my work. It’s hard to really tell, and I imagine that the spectrum of readings is as wide as the number of individual spectators. The images we make come from deep down, from far back, and they rise like foam to the surface of the unconscious.
Language was invented to try to bridge the gap of noncommunication, but it obviously falls short. I also accept that a convulsive image can produce a feeling of happiness, something that also happens with Surrealism.
twi-ny:The exhibition at Claire Oliver also features charcoal drawings, including several based on Ingres’ “Portrait of Monsieur Bertin” and Madrazo’s “Portrait of Gertrudis G. de Avellaneda.” What struck you about those two portraits?
BR: I started out from two historic paintings to make this new series of fourteen large drawings which I’ve called “Je est un autre.” Seven male portraits reinterpreting the “Portrait of Monsieur Bertin” by Ingres (1832), housed in the Louvre, facing seven female portraits reinterpreting the “Portrait of Gertrudis G. de Avellaneda” (1857) by Madrazo, on view at the Lázaro Galdiano Museum in Madrid. The title of the series, “Je est un autre,” is a celebrated sentence from Rimbaud’s Lettre du voyant (“Letter of the Seer”) to his friend Paul Demeny, where the poet accepted the loss of identity and splitting of the self through negation.
These fourteen drawings play with the superimposition of reflected identities, revealing how any representation of identity contains the latent experience of its opposite. “Monsieur Bertin” is a frontal depiction of a bourgeois man, opulent, arrogant and powerful, even more powerful than the emperor himself, while Gertrudis de Avellaneda is an enlightened, cosmopolitan Spanish poet, born in Cuba, who represents female resistance to the hermetic, masculine, and oppressive academic world in Spain in the mid-nineteenth century.
twi-ny: For “Instante Blanco,” which is currently at el Museo Nacional de Escultura, you placed your white sculptures among the institution’s polychrome works, creating a kind of intervention. Are you pleased with the way it turned out? Do you plan on doing more of these types of installations?
BR: The use of polychrome is in search of realism, to bring the carved wood closer to the truth, to try to produce belief through a whole itinerary marked out by the palpability of the flesh. Most of the works in the Museo Nacional de Escultura were originally devotional religious images whose contemplation held out some kind of guarantee. What I proposed was an itinerary of whispered dialogues with the space itself and not so much with the works.
When you work with historic museum spaces you expand the boundaries of experience. Each exhibition I do has to produce the unforeseen. Though my works hit you immediately as sculptures, I work above all with places and for each place I pose different questions. But I don’t try to answer them. I don’t believe that the purpose of art is to come up with answers but perhaps to hone the incisiveness of the questions.
I’ve already done these kinds of interventions in the Cathedral of Burgos, in Cà Pesaro Galleria Internazionale d’Arte Moderna at the fifty-fourth Venice Biennale, and at the Lázaro Galdiano Museum in Madrid, and at the current moment I am working on a project for the “Intersections” program at the Phillips Collection in Washington.
twi-ny: You’re often quite critical of your own work. You recently said, “I have the feeling that I am always repeating the same ideas and that I am incapable of saying new things. . . . Every time you want to delay more the moment of showing anything, but you have to do it.” Is it difficult for you to let go and open a new exhibition? Is it hard for you to accept praise? The general public, and critics, seem to take pure delight in your work.
BR: It’s true that I find it increasingly more difficult to add something to what has already been said. . . . The edges of words are more and more frayed all the time. That said, it is equally true that you are part of a chain of images from which you can’t escape, and that’s why it is better to get them out of your head before they explode inside it. These images are often only leftover scraps that the head spits out; other times they have the necessary density to guarantee the meaning of the work, just at the moment when the unforeseen appears. That would be the most fertile ground. As Guido, the character played by Marcello Mastroianni in Fellini’s 8½, says: “I really have nothing to say, but I want to say it all the same.”
twi-ny:You just spent the holidays in New York, and now you’ve gotten to see the city blanketed with snow, in a way emulating your sculptures. How are the holidays different in New York than in Mallorca?
BR: There’s one big difference: right now in New York there is a major exhibition of an artist who, in a place infested by banal low-intensity images, makes you believe again in grand Art: Richard Serra. It is worthwhile living in a world where an artist can still produce a shiver in the gaze.