10 Minutes With Sarah Maxfield

Sarah Maxfield’s “We deserve each other.” runs this Thu-Saturday at The Chocolate Factory Theater. Among many other things, Maxfield curates The Chocolate Factory’s work-in-progress series Throw and a video relay for the Internet called One-Shot.  She describes her newest work this way: This is not a performance, but it includes performance.  This is not an exhibition, but things will be on display.  This is a thank-you card.  This is a love letter.  This is a structure for exchange. I recently spoke with her about integrating her multiple roles in the community into an installation and performance.

You say this work was conceived as a love letter to the NY Performance Community that has been your home for the past 10 years. There’s a kind of retrospective hint inside the description of this work. What kicked this particular project off for you? I was thinking about ways to erase the barriers between the various things I’m doing as a moderator, curator, maker of work, dramaturg, performer, interviewer, etc. I was looking at approaching this project as something that addressed all of these things I’m doing in relation to the community. I was interested in finding some way to capture and share at least a piece of the massive accumulation of work that we make as a community, which is briefly present and then gone. This is some evidence of things that have been. I was trying to emphasize some things that represent those moments in time, so one might remember or recognize them.  For people who may not recognize these things, I chose many items for the installation which have enough information that, even if you don’t understand the context, you can still find out something. For example, the programs often list artists, venues, and dates, though interestingly they usually don’t have years on them. Some have the season on them – listing the year, but the postcards generally don’t, which speaks to the ephemeral nature of our field. The text gives you information that provides some context, but even the things that you may not recognize provide a sort of emotional context.  You might recognize each item or have a particular memory or connection to it, but I tried to choose things that, even if you didn’t recognize it specifically, you feel the time they are from. I’m interested in how people will relate to various items in the collection.

Do you need to see the installation before the performance? Is there something about installation that was interesting to you or did it grow with the work. The installation and performance are elements of the same project, but they aren’t each a key to the other. I think of them as the same thing, but one doesn’t decode the other. Both are collections of ephemera and content – they’re both pieces of the same collection. I didn’t set out to build an installation.  I set out to collect and present memories, in various forms, and the installation became one element of that presentation. This project started for me over the summer. I was really questioning for myself, “Why am I still making performance, and for whom am I making work?” I decided to answer that question by making a series of solos, each for a person who was important to me as an artist and a friend. I would perform the piece for them, and they got to select where they would watch it and who would be with them when they did. I did these little mini-performance gifts for people. I thought, “Maybe this is all I’m interested in doing anymore.” But then, through that process, I started thinking I might be interested in creating a similar sort of “gift-performance” on a broader scale, for the larger community. Part of making those little solos (and this goes back to the installation) had me pulling things out of my individual past histories with the people that I was making those solos for.  So, I was digging up items from our past 10 years of relationships, and these little props became potent. I wondered what types of things could induce a similar resonance for a broader group of people, and that led me towards many of the items in the installation.

I feel like this “thank you card” and “love letter” stems from all of the different things you do. I’m interested in that, sometimes struggling with having too many interests. But, I realized when I got back to academia that I was just set up for the liberal arts life. That’s funny because I just wrote something on my blog about choosing once again to live as a liberal arts person. I’ve been joking to people lately that I’m an academic without an affiliation.

That’s funny. But, it makes sense. You are more than a curator. You don’t just have a venue and bring work into it. I see you as a creator of creative platforms for other artists. I’m glad it seems to you that I am that.  It is what I’m trying to do. As an artist, I’m interested in creating structures for conversation. I’m interested in our relationship to the broader culture, to our history, as a writer, as a responder, an audience member, as a person in the world. I think that the work that I do doesn’t fit well inside of terms like choreographer or curator. “Curator” implies that I’m an arbiter of taste. There is a bit of that, of course (I did select the things on display, for example) but, it’s not about putting forward my point of view as the goal.  It’s about putting forth a space for rigorous exploration. For me, the discussions around work are of equal importance to the work, and they require equal care and focus.  Whether I’m visibly present in the structure or behind it, it is the creating of structures for investigation and exchange that I’m really into.

I’m thinking about your Context Notes for DTW this season and thinking how you are part dramaturg, part historian… you are a contextualizer.  And, I see how you are weaving all of the things you do into this one work. There’s an integration and commitment to context that is very sincere. I like that, because I think the onstage portion of this work is not the most important aspect. It is part of a larger continuing dialogue that happens. One of the things that happened in this project is that I was running all over the city picking things up from people.  I was in people’s living rooms looking at scrapbooks. And people felt like there was finally a purpose for the various things they keep. I kept thinking “This is the show.” This sitting with people and seeing what they’ve gathered. It was amazing, and that’s the kind of interaction I’ve tried to bring into the theater.

This reminds me of the oral history methodology. Columbia has an Oral History Research program and that seems like such a rich and relevant methodology versus the projections inherent in ethnography. Even in the scientific community, there is acknowledgment that it is difficult to be objective. Oral histories are honest and open about that difficulty.   All we have are our experiences, and we can compare them to each other’s, but there is no definitive record. Something I haven’t mentioned is that the sound for this work is collected from interviews with various people.  These interviews create another layer of personal histories intersecting to create a picture of a larger history. I am really interested in this kind of research, and there seems to be some critical mass building around research into the histories of contemporary performance. I want to see if we can increase what is recorded, without codifying the information in a way where someone defines which things are important and which can be ignored. I don’t want us to build another history of highlights. This is our chance to create another model.

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