Where the Hell?

“Wow, it’s even easier to get to than BAM!” is the comment artistic director Michael Gardner hears most when people talk about his venue, Williamsburg’s Brick Theater. “We should make that our slogan: Wow it’s even easier to get to than BAM!”

Formerly an auto-body shop on Metropolitan Ave. and just seconds away from the Lorimer subway stop, The Brick Theater opened in September of 2002. Last Tuesday I stopped by this beautifully renovated space with brick walls and wooden floors to interview Michael and his collaborators about their upcoming Hell Festival. Running from July 23 – August 22, this Hell-themed summer arts festival includes visual art, music, poetry, dance, theater and “other-worldly” parties.

Williamsburg has been growing as an artist/hipster neighborhood for years now but in the past two years since the theater was founded Williamsburg has become statistically one of the largest residential concentrations of artists, musicians and actors in the world. Thus the Brick’s Hell Festival is composed almost entirely of Brooklyn artists with one of its main goals being to foster a community that supports each other’s work. The Brick wanted to simultaneously announce its existence to the many community residents who pass by the garage not realizing that this former garage that used to deconstruct old Buicks is now a full-time non-for profit theater deconstructing Brecht.

“The other thing that happens all the time is, people wander in, crash rehearsals and say, ‘I didn’t know this was a theater, I walk by here everyday!” says actress and company member Hope Cartelli.

Intrigued by the name and idea of a Hell Festival – and who wouldn’t be? – I arranged an interview with Michael and his collaborators Jeff Lewonczyk, Hope Cartelli, and art curators Arianne Gelardin and Jesi Khadivi.

Meryl: What is the Hell Festival?

Michael: It is a multidisciplinary arts festival revolving around the subject of eternal damnation. But it sprung from the idea of trying to do a festival here that would really show off the space and bring a lot of people together, without just being a festival to be a festival. We didn’t want it just to be a generic new works festival, but to really kick start people’s imaginations by giving them a very particular theme, something they could have fun with and possibly even had already been conceiving ideas for, and well, “Hell” just came naturally.

M: Why Hell? Who originally had the idea?

Micheal: It was Jeff’s idea.

Jeff: Was it my idea?

Michael: It was your idea. We were looking for a high concept festival so I put the charge to everyone to come up with a high concept.

Hope: Around a pitcher of beer basically

Jesi: And across the street at Pizza. [The Alligator Lounge across the street offers a free pizza with every drink]

Michael: Exactly that is where all good ideas begin, across the street at Pizza.

Hope: We went through a number of different things but that was the one that everyone just started riffing on. The subject of Hell came up and all of a sudden everybody that was sitting around the table had all these different ideas. Immediately. They just totally latched on to it.

Michael: Everyone has a specific idea, everyone brings their own “Hell” to it, and at the same time the concept is open enough that all sorts of things fall under the rubric.

Jeff: There are so many different interpretations, different cultures, points of history that come to mind when you think about Hell. So you can look at it in a sort of cheeky kind of way, or a very serious brooding kind of way, and there is always, specifically in our current culture, a sexy element to Hell…..like “oh that is where the sinners go.”

Meryl: When I hear the name Hell Festival, “dark” and “gothic” comes to mind. What kind of pieces should we expect to see? Is there much humor involved?

Michael: It is almost all original work.

Jeff: I don’t think there is anything that is not original.

Hope: To the point that we are doing a staged reading of Faust which we thought somebody was going to offer up.

Jeff: We got no actual Faust, no actual No Exit, and as I realize now no actual Satanists, no Bible Thumpers- nobody that actually has a vested interest in the concept of Hell. It is all people who are taking that idea and doing something new with it, and actually we have a surprising number of humorous pieces.

Hope: As far as the day by day line up is concerned though, we did try and mix it, when people’s schedules permitted, in terms of dance, theater and some campy things. We tried not to always put shows with “Hell” in the title on the same day.

Jeff: Yeah, Hell-O, Hells Bells, and Hell Inside are all on one bill the same night. Those are the three shows that begin with Hell. But wherever possible we tried to shake it up and put a serious dance piece with a wacky vaudevillian comedy to highlight the contrasts. We did let in a couple of shows though that are tangentially Hellish because they are interesting pieces and we wanted to represent them in the Festival.

Michael: Part of the idea of the festival is to promote people to see each other’s work and celebrate each other’s work.

Jeff: Yes that is one of the primary motivations behind the festival, to work on building an art community.

Arianne: I was shocked at how many plays you have participating.

Jeff: We are now at about 27. At one point we were at an even thirty, but a few had to drop out for various scheduling reasons.

Michael: That is 27 not including the staged readings.

Jeff: It was a feat getting them all programmed. We had to extend the festival by a week because we wanted to incorporate more shows than we had originally allotted time for and we wanted to give everybody enough performances to really make it worth their while. So everybody was given at least five, and then after the drop outs happened, we held a lottery for the extra spaces that opened up. So artists have anywhere between one and eight performances at this point.

Arianne: Part of the idea of so many people sharing the same space is that they are going to want to see one another’s work.

Michael: My idea in making it interdisciplinary is I’m hoping that there is going to be some cross-pollinization there too. I’m really hoping that the performance people come to the art weekend, and the art people come to the performance and the dance and the poetry.

Jeff: One thing that we are doing to cross germinate the theater artists and visual artists is the Saturday of the arts weekend we are having a day-long reading of the entirety of Faust Part One, which the theater artists are going to participate in while other people are mingling with the art work. It will be a chance for everybody to come in and meet each other and see this other aspect of the festival.

Jesi: One thing Arianne and I noticed after we chose all the visual artists, is that there is a really strong narrative to everything that we chose, and in some cases a very performative element that we hadn’t even intended, but that works so perfectly within the concept of the festival.

Arianne: There is a lot of interaction between the viewers and the visual artworks. Stuff they can touch, and all these things surrounding you.

Jesi: Brian is also going to do a storytelling hour while the illustrations are being shown.

Meryl: What is the tone of the visual art? How “hellish” is it?

Jesi: I would say more along the lines of cheekier.

Arriane: We really spent a lot of time brainstorming about how to approach the concept of Hell. We really didn’t want to go about it in any traditional way. We steered away from conventional interpretations.

Jesi: It came about very organically too. We didn’t go into the process like “this is our theme we want a mixture of this, that, and the other” really we looked as a starting point to artists that we had worked with that had ideas that used Hell as a departure point.

Arriane: Yes, for example Ami Cunningham I had worked with before. I called her up because the work I was familiar with of hers were all these really allegorical, other-world type paintings that had a lot to do with violence and incest, and she told me she was working on this video art which she had never done before, and she showed it to me and it fit perfectly. It was a step beyond her other work, but also very similar and had this theatrical element which was perfect for this exhibition.

Meryl: What genres will the visual artists be presenting during the exhibit?

Jesi: Painting, video, sculpture, drawing, music, we have some costumes. No photography. We looked for a photographer but nothing worked so well.

Meryl: Do you have a lot of art exhibits at this theater space?

Michael: This will be the first art.

Arianne: I have always fantasized about putting a show up in front of brick walls!

Michael: Brick is her fantasies come true!

Meryl: With all the other festivals that are going on in New York in August, like the Fringe and the Howl, why did you decide to do the festival in August? Was it because it has sort of become the festival season and you wanted to be part of it? Or was August somehow related to Hell in a way that caused you to choose that month?

Jeff: It is actually a bit serendipitous that it is going to be held in the middle of the summer.

Michael: We wanted a summer festival because everyone does a summer festival. We didn’t want to chip on the toes of the Fringe too much but we wanted to ride that wave. So it seemed like the right place, we started a little late and needed some running time, August just made sense.

Meryl: How do you feel the Hell festival is different from some of the other festivals going on?

Michael: Well it is all in one theater which is a little more unusual. There are places that do that, but by and large most have a few venues going.

Hope: I think it is the theme that does it for me. The very idea of Hell. I remember when I first started telling my friends and scoping out what people would feel about it, (and they had nothing to do with the original circle of people who were babbling on about it,) but everybody was very intrigued by the idea of sticking around to see what different companies, what different people would do with that theme. So it feels a bit “family” oriented just in the sense that you want to stay in the family and keep with it and see how it is growing and what it is going to turn into and stick with it. Instead of running around to different spaces and seeing a whole bunch of different things, which can get you going thinking about all those different things, I like the idea of letting something simmer, and about focusing on this one very particular word and what it is meaning to all these different people.

Meryl: It really is a very attractive word. It grabs your curiosity right away.

Hope: Everybody remembers about the Festival too. People I work with I will tell about my shows and they are like “Oh it’s that girl who acts,” and they are always forgetting the name of the show, and they are always like, “Oh what are you doing right now, is that done?” – and its been done for like six months! This, it’s sticking. Completely. They all found the article by themselves in the Times, they all realized when they read it that I had something to do with that. The associations are extremely complete and very real for them. It is really cool that it is sticking with people in a way I haven’t seen before. I am very happy to be attached to it.

Meryl: Will the festival still be going on during the Republican National Convention?

Michael: No. It is over about a week before then.

Jesi: And we all go to Canada.

Meryl: A lot of the festivals this summer have strong political overtones, waht about the Hell Festival – is it political?

Michael: No not particularly. There is one show that is political, but it is not partisan.

Jeff: This is more of an indirect rebuke to angelic Christianity in general.

Meryl: Have any of you ever produced a festival before?

Michael: No we have been in them.

Meryl: So how is it different being on this side of it?

Jeff: It is just about as much of a pain in the ass as I expected.

Michael: Its a lot of work on both ends whether you are in a festival or producing a festival, you get very little sleep.

Jeff: You really want to make it the best possible experience for the participants and so you have to do a lot of leg work ahead of time to make sure that you’re prepared for any contingencies. So that was the most interesting aspect, what needs to get done in order to anticipate everybody’s problems.

Meryl: What kind of things did you guys go through that maybe you hated or were difficult about the process of participating in a festival?

Michael: Well one thing we did was do away with any entrance fees. We really are sponsoring the festival as a free platform for people to create their show who don’t have a lot of funds, it gives them something to start with.

Jeff: It’s literally open to all comers, you don’t have to have any particular background or any particular reputation in order to be able to get in. Also we have done away with reservations just because we simply are not prepared to deal with that. At the Fringe it’s a nightmare every year just talking to the people, and that’s a much bigger affair, but at the same time it gives our festival that fast and loose feeling “Oh I’ve got to get there early to get a good seat.”

Michael: People are going to be lining up outside the theater beforehand. Which will be cool.

Chris: Yeah, well we will have someone playing guitar out there or something.

Arianne: I’ve already had a friend volunteer to do that by the way.

Michael: I think one of the main things for me, having been on the other side now running the festival, that has made such a difference, is knowing what sort of attitude to take with the people, the nice thing is that this is a small enough festival that you can get to know everybody involved in it individually and figure out what their needs are going to be and work with them and be flexible with them in order to figure out what is best for everybody. In a large festival it grows impersonal, you as the participant are just a cog on the assembly line, you are just coming in for your few nights of performing and then you’re getting tossed out the other side, its not hands on and you can get lost in that kind of thing. With this, we have been able to deal with emails and phone calls from people and answer their questions individually and really, I feel like maybe I’m being presumptuous, but based on what I’ve heard from a lot of the people I have talked to so far, they are really enjoying being a part of it, as it is something they can be a part of, an actual living part of, not just a disposable bolt.

Meryl: Do you hope to continue this every summer, like an annual event?

Jeff: We have talked about it, my most recent idea is that every summer should be some sort of gimmicky themed festival, I feel like we might not get much more mileage out of Hell necessarily.

Michael: Many people have suggested a Heaven Festival.

Jeff and Hope: That’s boring!

Hope: We were talking about the Antarctic…

Jeff: Yeah, I want to have an Arctic festival. Cover the whole place in fake snow and totally go the opposite direction of Hell. We could include experimental sled riding!

For more information on the Brick Theater and the Hell Festival visit http://www.bricktheater.com/index.html

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