Thursday, June 25, 2009

Community TV Incarnate

If you haven't already done so, I recommend reading yesterday's post "Albany Bulb" in order to understand the context for what happens in this one. Also, this post is very video intensive; if you would like to follow the project through still photographs, click here.

I was walking through the Albany Bulb yesterday with my friends Nick and Jess, when we passed a couple of concrete chunks and the following conversation occurred:

Nick: You know, those two concrete slabs kind of look like an old television monitor. It would be cool to turn them into one.

Ben: You free tomorrow?

The blocks at one point were covered with murals painted by a homeless man named "Picasso" and "Sniff," the team of artists that first began turning trash in the Bulb into art. However, in the past decade, the murals have been covered by graffiti tags. We in turn covered what we considered graffiti.

We wanted to preserve what remained of the Picasso and Sniff mural. To incorporate the remaining sections into our sculpture, we tried to create the appearance that the TV had broken open in a couple spots and the mural was peaking out from inside.

We used a lot of tape to create layers of color for buttons, vents, and jacks.
Align Center

We then wrote in words by hand.

We had hoped that passersby would contribute to what was playing on the screen. However, few people passed by while we were working, and of those who did only one felt comfortable painting something (apparently next time I need to create a project which people feel requires less technical skill to participate in). The one person who did participate was a homeless woman named Sara. She added a silhouette of a "Hello Kitty." With a bunch of empty space on the screen, we decided to write the phrase "Community TV" in hopes that future visitors would be encouraged to add art to it.

no TV set is complete without a remote...

final product


with artists on top

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Albany Bulb

From 1963-1984 the mudflats of Albany, California were used as a landfill for various construction projects. Then the city closed the landfill and two years later declared it a public trust. In 1990's a homeless population moved in and artists led by a team called "Sniff" began to transform the trash into art. Since then, the "Albany Bulb" has been filled with art and people walking their dogs.

The bulb brings up questions of what to do with public space. I feel it's of great benefit to the community to have a public place where anyone can express themselves and share it with the world, especially when doing so reclaims a dump. However, whenever people are given free reign to do what they like, there will inevitably be conflict and ideas expressed that others find offensive. In the picture below, you can see a giant mural created by the original Sniff team that has been painted over by what I see as graffiti. The same freedom that creates such beauty in the bulb is also what destroys it.
There's a fascinating documentary about the homeless population of the bulb that was made about a decade ago called, "Bum's Paradise." The homeless population has decreased considerably in the past few years, but one institution that was created three years ago still thrives: the Bulb Library.
You're free to take whatever book you like--no fees, no due dates, no rules at all.
Jimbow, one of the builders of the library. At night he lays out a mattress and sleeps here. He's also featured in the documentary (he hasn't lived here all ten years; he left for about six of them). Jimbow is a poet whose work, along with other bulb related material can be found at

There are way too many things to document. I've taken a bunch of photos, but there are plenty of sites on the internet that catalog the Bulb. This one includes a blog about the community that uses it.

Models of Theatre: New and Old

A large topic of conversation at the Network of Ensemble Theaters Summit was how to create sustainable models of theatre. Current most theatre companies function in a charity mind-set. They are non-profit organizations which receive at least half their revenue from grants and donors, the largest of which is often the government. Donors tend to look upon theatre as a luxury--something to give money to in times of excess because theatre provides "culture" and people with money are supposed to like "culture."

Most of the (non-theatre) people I know rarely go to see plays. From conversations I get the sense this is because plays are often boring, irrelevant, and pretentious (sounds like church), not to mention people pay high-prices for what feels like gratifying the performers' egos. The popular blog, Stuff White People Like did a humorous post on this phenomenon. The fact that the blog is called "Stuff White People Like" is also a telling sign, as most major theatres tend to be inhabited by aging white wealthy people (another similarity to main-line Protestant churches).

I see theatre's insustainablility and its cultural isolation to be connected. In a recent discussion with Elana McKernan we discussed how making theatre explicitly serve a community might make it sustainable. In the previous post I discussed community-based theatres which go into a community for a short time, write a play, and then leave. What if instead a theatre company was dedicated to continually gathering individuals' experiences within an community and sharing them on a regular basis with the community at large? City councils or neighborhood associations could hire a group to be full-time listeners to the drama and comedy of daily life in an area. Actors would function as constant and informal census workers, poll takers, and neighborhood watch patrols, trying to understand the pulse of a region. Once a week they would craft what they observed into a subsidized performance for the community. This would allow people to understand what was happening with parts of the community that they weren't normally aware of. It would bring problems to the attention of city officials. It would provide an acceptable space to mention the unmentionable, much like a court jester. It would provide entertainment for the population as a whole and improve constituents satisfaction with their government because it would make them feel that they were being heard (which goes a long way towards improving moral). It would also give the community a great sense of pride and common spirit.

And as opposed to much publicly funded art which causes controversy when some people don't like it (as will inevitably happen), this type of theatre has the advantage of being informed by the people who will be watching it. Whether or not they like it, they will always be interested to see what it looks like.

When I suggested this type of thing at the NET summit, a couple of people seemed concerned that it might restrict the artistic integrity of the theatre company. To this, I must respond that yes, it will. I'm more and more coming to feel that if artists expect to be supported by a larger community, they must also expect to be accountable to that community.

On a lighter note, I just wanted to mention that the NET summit ended with a parade and a cabaret featuring performances by a variety of the companies present. There's nothing new or innovative with parades or cabarets, but they are a very simple and effective way to create community events by letting people share their art. I guess some of the old-fashion theatre models can still be some of the best.Also, I promise my next post will have more pretty pictures and less rant.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Being Heard

An interesting characteristic about going to a conference about ensemble theatre is that none of the sessions really function as lectures. These are people who are used to having everyone in the room make a contribution. This mentality also crosses over into the Network of Ensemble Theaters' organization. Yesterday there was a conference-wide gathering in which the National Coordinator (and sole employee) of NET sat across from an empty chair. Everyone was encouraged to run up the the chair when it was empty and speak for 30 seconds anything they wanted to the National Coordinator about NET. Each person was timed, and each person's thoughts were written down. In any organization where access to the person in charge is necessary for change, such an event seems like a useful tool to ensure that every voice has an opportunity to be heard. When I went up, I encouraged NET to consider religious organizations as potential partners in theatre as source of finical and community support. Clearly NET is not opposed to working with religious organizations (the conference is being held at a Jesuit university and a major member is Traveling Jewish Theatre) but in all the discussions about possible partners and sources of collaboration and support, I had never heard anyone mention religious organizations.

Afterwards I encountered several different reactions. One person said she had done ministerial study and was now doing theatre, and was interested in the potential mixing of the two. A whole table of ten people with whom I ate dinner all said that they either currently or at some point housed their theatre offices in churches. And one man whom I sat next to during a show comment that he was surprised by my comment because religion and theatre "are worlds apart."

But I don't see religion and theatre, especially community-based theatre, as very far apart at all. Many companies at the summit are engaged in doing theatre that is based on interviewing members of marginalized communities and making their voices heard. Many go into divided communities, interview various sides, and bring them together in the theatre to watch and understand what they normally try to ignore. Many push forward social-justice in our nation. This kind of theatre, and I believe many religious communities, are trying to make the world a better place through human understanding, support of the oppressed, and being a voice for the voiceless. Religious organizations have a wide knowledge of the under-served, strong community connections, space, and resources; theatres have the skill and the passion to present human stories as art that can transform the heart. Much would be gained if they would work together.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Project X

I'm currently at the national Summit for the Network of Ensemble Theatres. I'm taking in so many interesting ideas about how to create theatre as a collaborative group and how to derive plays from specific communities that I can't really process it all. However, I wanted to mention Project X, which Hand2Mouth Theatre is presenting at the Summit.

Project X is essentially a collaborative museum. Visitors share and record their own stories, and then listen and read the stories of visitors who have come before them.
The types of sharing range from pushpin maps, to anonymous surveys, to live moderated conversations with other visitors via headset and microphone. All of it is sorted through and complied for future visitors to experience.

Neon themed equipment helps get people in the sharing mood (?)

Listen to what others have recorded.
Project X is highly mobile and can be adapted to a variety of settings (as this 6 minute video demonstrates, along with more info on the project).

Project X: You Are Here, 6-minute overview from Hand2Mouth Theatre on Vimeo.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Back in Berkeley

Here's an abundance of photos from my time in New York.

Check out pictures of art in the subway system.
Also art on the streets.

More from Figment.
(I haven't figured out how to turn the videos, so think of watching them as stretches for your neck!)

Art in "Official" Spaces (including places already talked about on this blog).

Posts will probably be about everyother day for the next couple of weeks.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

University of Trash

A quick mention of an interesting organization. The Sculpture Center has an exhibit called University of Trash. The goal is to create a forum for the exchange and fostering of ideas about radically rethinking how we live in our urban environment. To this end, they've had artists create interior architecture to reflect a new vision of public city space. Information about self-sufficient and self-organized urbanism is freely distributed (I picked up a copy of Indypendent Reader's "The City from Below" issue). Free classes on do-it-yourself art, and grass roots politics are offered throughout the summer, and anyone can sign-up to teach a class that fits the theme.

Silk-screening was been taught when I stopped by.

Giant calendar and chalkboard to inform about upcoming events.

Freestyle Connections

It's only fitting that the last organization I visit in New York was also the first. This time, Free Style Arts Association was part of the Live at the Gantries free performance series in Queens. Their project this week consisted of inviting people to tie brightly colored rope across a frame held up by two people.

People could choose from a variety of colors and pick the length of their rope.

Then they would weave their individual strand into the collective whole in whatever manner they would like.

The organizers have done this same basic project without having people holding up the entire contraption, but by adding the human element they are able to move the structure around to different locations. I noticed that it also allowed passersby to come up and ask them about what was going on without having the awkwardness of approaching someone behind a desk. When explaining what was happening, Freestyle constantly used the word "art," emphasizing that passersby could themselves "make art." As a result, I've heard a constant chorus of kids shouting "I've made art!"

Another perk about the human element is that the organizers are inherently present and aware of what's happening, which means they are able to give encouragement to participants without the sense of looking over their shoulder (though, of course, they were). It also meant that, when kids would get overly violent with the project, the organizers
could give them a positive action of adding string as an alternative.
By the end of the evening, the people at each end of the project had literally been brought closer together through the tension in the weaving. You can also see here the project being paraded away. This mobility is something that the borough of Queens is putting to use. Freestyle arts is being sent to various neighborhoods that normally would not see official arts programs in order to interact with the people on the streets. In an area that's undergoing a lot of gentrification, this seems incredibly useful. Freestyle's projects have the ability to make random people interact on a physical and cooperative level with others to whom they normally wouldn't even speak.

The Freestyle guys let yours truly carry the cross of the web. Just holding one end is an inspiring experience as you can feel every movement against each strand of the weaving.

Saturday, June 13, 2009


So I'll admit it, New York is growing on me. This is in no small part thanks to Figment, a weekend-long festival that transforms all of Governor's Island into a giant outdoor free museum of installation and collaborative art. For my readers familiar with Reed College, think of a G-rated version of Renn Fayre set on an island and backed by the creative force of all of New York City.

In my continuing quest to not only get concepts for collaborative art, but also understand what makes people excited and willing to participate in it, I was struck by the casual attitude with which people would go up to exhibits and join in. Many exhibits simply set out materials with little explanation and often no facilitator, yet people happily picked up brushes, or markers, or ribbons, and started making art.

Several were strikingly similar to the Advent Fig Tree (parts 1 and 2) which I organized in my congregation last fall, in that they were based upon people attaching hopes to trees.
A mobile on which people hang what they want to be.

Here someone participates in the Vedic tradition of tying flowers to trees.
Ribbons containing people's hopes

Religion theorists talk about the distinction between sacred and profane space, how they are kept separate, and how we bridge them. I think Figment benefited from being able to create a space that is separate from the rest of NYC reality--a sacred precinct for art, if you will. First of all Figment is located on an island. The only way to reach the island is by ferry. The only people going on to the ferry are people who want to participate in the festival.

The ferry, the ferry station, and the ferry workers are all decorated for the event. Inspirational quotations about art are plastered everywhere.

When people get off the ferry they are immediately greeted by the rhythmic pounding of giant drums made out garbage can upon which they are encouraged to beat their own rhythm. In addition to all the crazy sculptures and art that they are about to encounter, the pre-existing architecture on the island is all early twentieth-century brick fortresses, furthering the surreal experience.
By the time people are passed the off-loading area of the ferry, they have truly entered another world--a world where social norms and expectations are totally different. In the world of Figment, people are not supposed to mind their own business and not look too closely at what the people on the side of the street are doing; here, they are supposed to notice everything and be a part of it.
I'll put up more pictures when I get back to Berkeley (Monday), but no one camera can truly document this festival. I encourage you to visit the site setup by the organizers where everyone who attended the event is invited to post their pictures for others to see. The art and community of Figment lives on online!
As a side note, Figment hosted lectures by (among others) The Wooster Collective (which documents street art from around the world) and LoVid (which combines electronic and human interaction to create some amazing art). Check out their websites, they're really cool.

Ontological-Hysteric Theater

Yesterday I had the pleasure of sitting down with Brendan Regimbal, the stage manager for Ontological-Hysteric Theater and curator for Ontological-Hysteric Incubator (he was also my first director in college). The Ontological-Hysteric Incubator seeks to help guide emerging theatre companies from workshops to full productions. As Brendan explained it to me, the main qualification for being selected by the Incubator is not what the final performance looks like, but the method of getting there. The Incubator is looking companies that are not based on the model of writer, director, actors, and designers. Instead, it seeks to foster productions where a basic theme or collection of texts are developed by all the members in the group through a collaborative process.

There is someone who takes on the role of "director" in order to give coherence to the work. There are also people who have the role of being on stage during the performance, as well as people who are assigned to be in control of lights, set, etc. But instead of being confined to one specific role, are all present and active during the entire creative process and each has the opportunity to provide input on what the production as a whole should look like.

As you can imagine, combining so many creative minds to produce a production from such a loose foundation can take a lot of time (Brendan mentioned on show that took three years). It also requires a lot trust between the company members--trust that everyone will bring ideas to the table, trust that ideas will be listened to and lifted up, trust that rejection of an idea will not equal rejection of a person, trust that trying something utterly ridiculous will not be ridiculed, and trust that someone will speak up if something doesn't work. It sounds a lot like church.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to a rehearsal of "Behind the Bullseye," a show based on interviews about why people shop at Target. True to form, the rehearsal started of with the director distributing books about installation art (which is a major aesthetic in the production) and then asking the cast to throw out themes and imagines about what was going on in the world the show created. When the actors did a run-through of the show, they were given free reign to move about the space and interact with the props (consisting of lots and lots of Target bags and products) based on the themes with only very minor instructions. As the actors experimented, so did the director, overlaying various pieces of music at different points and seeing how the actors interacted with it. When notes were given, they were always encouraging actors to think of new and and unexpected things. I'm told that soon decisions will be made about what to keep (the show opens in two and a half weeks), but for now, the cast is having a lot of fun playing with extremes, and as an audience member, it was great to watch. If you're in New York at the beginning of July, I highly recommend getting tickets--the interviews are fascinating and the thematic options being toyed with are insightful.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Churches and Broadway

I suppose it's only appropriate that churches in Manhattan have sprung up throughout the years to serve the unique culture of those working in the entertainment industry. Many seemed to have developed their connection with theatre around the turn of the last century when acting was a disreputable profession and actors were shunned in many other churches.

The Church of the Transfiguration, an Episcopal congregation, became connected with theatre when a neighboring church refused to perform a funeral for an actor. The snubbing priest mention that "there's a little church around the corner where they do that sort of thing," and The Church of the Transfiguration has been called "the little church around the corner" and served actors ever since. Today, the church's main support has been institutionalized and separated from the official working of the congregation. It now takes the form of the Episcopal Actors' Guild, which provides "[c]haritable help for performers of all faiths, and none." The Actor's Guild provides direct relief to performers in the form of money for rent and medical bills as well as scholarships, network connections, and a variety of other services. At this point it's only loosely affiliated with the Episcopal Church, it's main connections being a few priests on its board, being housed in the Little Church, and an awareness of the religious communities of all sorts that support the arts. The office in Manhattan is its only branch, but Executive Director Karen A. Lehman told me they'd be happy to open another site if anyone wants to set it up.

The Roman Catholic Church of Saint Malachy's, known as the "Actor's Chapel," has historically more actively sought to serve the Broadway community on a spiritual level. Simple acts such as having services at midnight and 4am in order to accommodate the schedules of theatre workers, and encouraging performers to come in, say a prayer and light a candle before opening nights, have gone a long way in making this church the haunt of string of stars. It also didn't hurt that a long line of priests have made it a point to get to know the artists in the neighborhood, visiting them in green rooms and dressing room, and providing comfort to actors' unique fears of failure and age, and the public venue in which they must live their lives.

Both the Little Church and the Actors' Chapel seem to have more of a historical connection to Broadway at this point. However, Middle Collegiate Church, located in the East Village of Manhattan is actively cultivating its community of artists. Middle supplements its worship with two sets of artists in residence, an organist, and the Omega Dance Company, as well as with a gospel choir. They also actively encourage the artists in their congregation to organize events in which to share their talents. Literature professors from New York University put on poetry readings by their students and colleagues, and a member's improv troupe performs in the church. Members' talents are identified through a form which they fill out when they join in which they describe their passion and talents; a minister then meets with them one on one to figure out how where the member might best express his or her own sense of vocation, or if the member might want to create something new.
So as not to let my Christian bias completely overlook the ministry of other faiths to Broadway, I should mention The Actors' Temple. It seems to fall largely in the historical theatre connection category, though they've recently started their own theatre company.