Prelude past & present

Authored by: Visnja Rogosic, Fulbright Visiting Scholar

What follows is a sequence of short excerpts from an equally short conversation with the Segal Center’s Executive Director & Director of Programs, Frank Hentschker (creator of Prelude Festival) and Director of Academic Affairs & Director of Publication, Daniel Gerould.

Its sole purpose is to collect some of the reminiscences, wishes and decisions that eventually amalgamated into Prelude 10. Also, since every leap starts with a counter movement, sketching out the meanderings of previous Preludes comes just in time for this year’s festival.

We live in the postmodern world of accelerated history where, as Pierre Nora reminds us, history and memory are separated, resulting in the development of archival memory that relies completely on preserved traces of the past. The role of the feverish blogger archivist is therefore a common (and hopefully useful) one, in spite of the fact that, with the increasing number of archives, its institutional and conservative responsibility has been significantly reduced.

VR: Could you tell us more about the history of the Prelude – how the program developed throughout the years, was it curated from the very beginning, has it always been of experimental nature, etc?

FH: The first year when I started working for Martin E. Segal Theatre Center I thought about what is doable, in the sense that you have to build the house with the stones you have. Obviously we are a university and don’t produce shows, but our mission is to bridge academia and professional theatre – international and American. We do a good job presenting international programs and I felt strongly that we also had to promote and support local New York artists. I once visited a Kennedy Center event which was called “Page to Stage” – those were just readings but they opened it up to anybody who did anything. It was an interesting idea to me and I thought about how we could do something similar here.

At first we collaborated with A.R.T./New York (Alliance of  Resident Theatres NY). We put out a call and about 20 – 25 companies were interested, so we invited them. Next year it jumped up to a hundred submissions and I said we would have to curate it, but A.R.T./New York felt that, since they were a supporting organisation, it should be done by a lottery – they didn’t want to say no to anybody who was their member.

We used the lottery for one year but I felt it was not really appropriate for us. Daniel and I discussed inviting a curator to help us, so it was not just the academics doing a survey from the ivory tower, but also someone who was a part of the scene to help us find artists and put together the dramaturgy of the festival.

We first chose Sarah Benson who at the time worked for the Writer/Director Lab at Soho Rep Theatre. For two years she became my co-curator and Prelude became really well known. A lot of significant artists have shown their work here – Young Jean Lee, Pavol Liska, Branden Jacob-Jenkins. We had our finger on the pulse of New York theatre but also tried to have a mixture with a traditional avant-garde like The Living Theater, Marina Abramović, John Jesurun, Richard Foreman. The main idea was always to present excerpts of work that will be shown in the next season, offer a chance to talk to the artist and also cover bigger themes like ecology, new media, blogging…

I decided no curator should be longer with us than two years, because we don’t want to have a look of an insider job, so after two years Sarah left. It became a very big festival – three days of companies and panels, which is enormous amount of work and it’s just at the start of our season. Next we invited Andy Horwitz, who worked for PS122, and Geoffrey Jackson Scott, who worked for the New York Theatre Workshop. One was into performance and the other was more inclined to plays, so they could talk to each other and lift a little bit more weight from our shoulders. For two years they were curators. In 2008 we invited Morgan von Prelle Pecelli to be the dramaturge but they worked so well together that for 2009, all three served as curators. This year Morgan is alone and next year it will be someone else.

VR: If the intention of the Prelude, as its name suggests, was to present the upcoming shows of the New York scene, why did you decide to concentrate solely on its experimental/avant-garde practitioners?

FH: We felt that Broadway, and even some Off-Broadway theatres which almost function in the same way, are quite well known, know how to reach their audiences and don’t need our support. But we do think that the downtown scene – PS122, Chocolate Factory and others – is a unique scene that is not well known. Also, these artists are the ones who often come to our international events. Prelude is in a way cutting edge, experimental, asking formal questions and doing research in a laboratory. It’s about ideas and future, what university could and should be about. We also want to energize the campus, the building, the students, possibly also faculty. Another thing is we want to create long lasting connections with the international theatre community because the work of New York artists often doesn’t travel so much. So there is always something called the SPOTLIGHT – Argentina, Japan, Polland – this year is Catalonia.

VR: How does the university context, non-commercial and offering protection in a way, influence the nature of the manifestation?

DG: We don’t charge any admission which has great effect in the audience we attract: younger people, people who don’t go to the theatre as a question of prestige. If we started charging admission, then we would have to start changing the program in order to be sure that we got the people to pay. That’s a major aspect of this protected environment.

VR: Why did you choose to have such a compressed program scheme?

DG: We have chosen the format and the time for our programs that works. A more leisurely one isn’t a format for New York where everything goes fast and people have little time. Few times when our discussions have gone on I don’t think they’ve been as good, so I think that limitation of time really fits the city and the pace of things. The fact is that within this building any night there are fifteen competing events.

VR: Are you able to present the program which could not be done or would be more difficult to organize elsewhere?

FH: Prelude is a hybrid – it’s changing all the time. First we would have plays and then a discussion after wards, then we decided to have plays, discussions and an additional big theme. Last year we had different artists come together and talk about their work. We have done workshops before, but never had this kind of participatory working sessions that we are focusing in 2010. We want to do things that would not happen somewhere else.

Also, this is where we try a little bit to gain the trust to reflect about theory, to think about theatre. One has to admit that there is a slight anti-intellectualism – in the downtown scene there are people who take pride in the fact that they don’t want to explain their work – which is a great American tradition, but there is also a great European tradition to really intellectualize what you do and so this is our contribution. There are lots of talks, but artists often don’t have a place where they can say something or it might not be taken as seriously because it might not be refined, but we do feel their voices are of importance and influential so we want to create discussions.

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