Friday, June 18, 2010

Spectacles' Interiors: the Comedy of Errors from the Soundbooth

Last weekend I was home in Inwood, Manhattan, for a few days before a conference trip.
Visiting during theater season inevitably includes watching the plays, being an extraordinarily energetic audience member, and helping to pack up the sound, lights, and set equipment (really only a little bit, since my mother, the technical director, has superb help from two fabulous interns, names and affiliations listed on the Moosehall website While most of the public art objects I analyze are those that are surprising, ephemeral alterations to the urban environment, the Moose plays are annual productions that I have worked on, watched, and publicized on and off for the last ten years. So I want to use this as an opportunity to think about performances that are based on repetition, habit, and constructing rather than disrupting urban space. The summer festival as an expected event builds a public cumulatively, through networks of actor affiliations (in the last ten years since my parents incorporated the company there have been core sets of actors I have essentially grown up with), media texts (Manhattan Times, the New York Times, among others), government contacts (changing and developing relations with the alderman's bureau, national cultural associations, and the New York City Parks Department), and finally audience members' attachments and publicization.

The Inwood Shakespeare Festival began in Inwood in in 2000, with Twelfth Night and was incorporated in 2001, by Ted Minos, as the Moose Hall Theater Company. Each season, stretching from early June to late July, there is one Shakespeare production, one adaptation of a popular text, a children's concert, and sometimes an opera. The Shakespeare and the adaptation each run about twelve shows each, weather permitting, in the same location in Inwood Hill Park: on the tip of the peninsula where the Sputyen Duyvil flows into a marsh, around a man-made stretch of fields, and an existent set of woodlands (the only natural park in Manhattan). The park has two large baseball fields, one medium sized diamond on the peninsula, and then a much larger one between Isham Road and 215th Street, which contains four diamonds, a soccer field, a dog run, a nature center, a basketball court and tennis court, two open picnic fields and a playground (currently under construction). The action of the plays takes place between a stand of trees that point towards the New Jersey bridge, and is interrupted by the horn of Amtrak trains, weather helicopters, motor boats, and raucous shouts from little league and minor league games, outdoor parties and illegal barbeques, neighborhood winos, and pickup games of all sorts.

The park is a cacophonous series of interactions, scenes, and encounters that are repeated, staged, and ritualized over the course of the summer, performances in their own right. The aural texture of Inwood Hill Park: Spanish pop blasting from cars, a seemingly endless series of birthdays with infinite balloon shreds, feasts that inspire spontaneous dancing, is one that I missed when I lived in Evanston, Illinois during my undergraduate years. The streets and many parks were places for fairly limited and singular uses: walking, taking toddlers, and quiet picnics. In Inwood, for better or worse, social activities that might be deemed private, elongated conversations from car windows, for example, occur in the space of the street and the park. Different uses of the park generate conflicts: the folks who live facing the front of the park, my childhood building, constantly hear the noises that can go on until late at night, and so they have an interest in curtailing the amount of time large gatherings can take place. Folks who live facing the back of the building do not have those same concerns. While visitors who come exclusively for the plays want the park to be a space of quiet, for soccer players, baseball players, and outdoor partyers this is not the case.

So I am thinking less about the precise content of the play, rather than the framework of social interactions, warm affiliations, and conflicts that the spatial demands for the play generates. Interning during undergrad concern about how to manage audience seating, keeping aisles clear for sword fights and running exits, was a constant concern. When I returned last weekend signs emerged that delineated where lawn chairs could and could not be (so as not to obstruct the view of picnicers), caution tape, marking off the space for the play had proliferated to encompass the entire rectangle of the middle section of the peninsula, and instead of driving out in a Kia minivan all of the sound tech, light equipment, costumes and props, the company now has a metal storage container adjacent to the performance site, giving what used to be a marginal company a permanent spatial presence, as part of the architecture (and recognized authority) of New York City Parks' Department aesthetic design. The ISF (Inwood Shakespeare Festival) becoming a repeated and expected event has produced new meanings for the park space that used to be used just for parties, pick-up games, dog walks, and jogging. It is now coded as a space of culture precisely for the public.

Habitual performances create a space for people to relax, be entertained, and spend time with neighbors they might not otherwise have time to interact with. It is not a sappy experience of total unity and sudden recognition but merely spending the same time (of the play) and place (of the park lawn) cooperatively that creates I think kinesthetic recognition. Eating outside, in common with actors often as a gimmick partaking in picnics that are ongoing throughout the play, brings "private" activities into a clearly public realm combining affective, intellectual and cultural sustenance with physical nourishment.

Art historian Miwon Kwon reminds us of the importance of site-specificity when thinking about public arts: that it is intimately responsive to and borne out of a location, its history, its people. The Moose Hall Theater company is nothing if not site specific. My father lived in Inwood for years before it became a reality but it was with the explicit purpose of produce a type of cultural event that would resonate with, entertain, and bring together a diverse set of multiracial, and middle class populations. He always talks about set design that does not work against but rather draws on and dramatizes the natural environment (the river, the bridge, the striking woodlands), and works on a form of writing that draws on a distinctively irreverent, boisterous, New York kind of humor, reminding us all that Shakespeare was written in a bar, for loud and drunk masses, not tight-lipped, empty-spirited theoreticians.

Finally, there is a political importance to site-specific community performance. It is an opportunity for people to share space in a context where sharing space is frequently done reluctantly (think packed subway car during rush hour), or is costly (sharing cafe space requires making a purchase). Free common dwelling is rare. And it is a kind of civic education-- it is a precious moment where being in a crowd is not an impediment to one's enjoyment, and where the price of admission is not too steep (it is in fact free).

Moose Hall Theater Company along with other artistic not-for-profits in New York are on the ropes, because their funding is being put on hold until the State senate finishes drafting their budget. That process likely will not be complete till mid fall. Many of these organizations are summer endeavors meaning that this new development is frequently a death knell, since they live and die on grants. The fact that cultural resources, crucial for identity formation, community consolidation, and giving many people who have suck-ass jobs in an economy that is in the shitter some kind of entertainment that is not going to cost them anything, are being put on hold for purportedly more important issues is ludicrous. It is essentially a political attempt to render art and culture non-political and trivial. The stakes of this dismissal are high. Whittling down public resources to bare survival: sewage, police, roads (sort of, potholes abound), also hollows out what it means to be a citizen, and literal and imaginative spaces for public culture. Public arts like free theater rigorously maintain the importance of public space, open access, and cultural communication. Leaving them out to dry is a form of complicity with privatized urban space, purely instrumental communication, and a bare bones model of civic life (voting, paying taxes). A bleak picture.

These are just a few thoughts about how non-interruptive public arts that are repeated, expected, and operate with the goal of communicating with a community's place-based identities produce temporary publics, and reshape urban space, and are political tools to contest rapidly eroding opportunities for politics to occur.

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