Culturebot Conversation with Brad Learmonth of Harlem Stage

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with Brad Learmonth, Director of Programming at Harlem Stage, to talk about their upcoming season and get a peek into the future.

Can you tell us a little bit about how you got to Harlem Stage and what you do?

Well, it’s a long story, but I’ll be here twenty-four years in February. It’s kind of a ground-up story for me. I started as an assistant to what was the executive producer at the time and within three years became Director of Education. For a decade I grew that initiative while working on other programming with the Director of Programming. I eventually became the Assistant Director of Programming and in 1998 became Director of Programming. There was a big transition – Patricia Cruz came on as Executive Director and Laura Greer, my predecessor, left that year.

Essentially what I do is oversee all of the programming of the institution. So I do the long-term planning, creation, development and implementation of programs, including education. Now, though, my program and arts education manager, Simone Eccleston, has really taken over the direction of the education program, much as I did in the 90’s. She’s really brought it back up to a good level and increased its growth.

Twenty-four years is a long time, you must have seen a lot of change. What is Harlem Stage doing now?

Well, it’s a very exciting time for us. We had a bit of an economic challenge when we moved over to the Gatehouse in 2006 after a two-year, $26 million renovation of our building, the Harlem Stage Gatehouse. As happens with a lot of organizations when they undertake something that big, we stepped out a little too far on our programming and had to pull back a bit. So we went through this turnaround and under Pat Cruz’s leadership it was a huge success. We are now in a really good place, especially given the situation in the economy. We’ve been doing extremely well for the past couple of years, not just surviving but even, I would say, in some ways thriving notwithstanding the challenges that everyone is facing, the tremendous challenges in fundraising We’ve launched a new series that has had huge success that targets young people and brought other programs back into their full realization – the film program, the Waterworks program, which is our signature commissioning initiative.

And we’re about to go into our 30th Anniversary season! We incorporated as an institution in 1982/1983, the paperwork was filed in 1982 and it was signed, sealed and delivered in 1983. So we’re going to have kind of a soft launch of our 30th anniversary season starting in January 2012 and go into a hard launch when we have our 30th anniversary gala on May 21st,. Starting in September 2012 we’ll go into a full campaign of 30th anniversary programming which will focus on the institution, highlighted by three world premieres from our Waterworks program, along with quite a number of other significant presentations and projects.

We’re also embarking on an ambitious five-year plan. For the last year we’ve really been looking at our programming, institution and mission and honing our vision so we can really distinguish ourselves in what has become, locally – and I mean immediately locally – a very healthily competitive field in Harlem.

Where we were sort of the reigning presenting institution in Harlem for decades, there is now a real scene being created now in Harlem, again; one that’s bringing people back in a way that hasn’t happened in a long time. Harlem’s always been a vibrant community, but it tends to be under-represented in the media. While it has never lost its vibrancy, it is definitely coming back in a big way. So as we look at the immediate landscape, and the national and international landscape as well, we’re looking at ourselves as an institution and really trying to hone in on what really distinguishes us.

We’ve been working to identify what we’re going to focus on more fully as we define the future of the Harlem Stage.

What are the implications of that in terms of programming?

Well one of the ideas that we’re working with, something that we’ve identified as central to what we do, is the notion of “Dig Deeper.”

Harlem Stage presents programming that is, by its nature, investigating the deepest part of the creative process, the most expansive and innovative thinking that artists do. We also investigate issues that resonate for people in the culture today – particularly artists and people of color, because that’s what our mission represents. All of the artists we work with are in some way or another activists both in their communities, through their art and in the world. Often they’re addressing very challenging and difficult issues in their work.

So we support the creation of work that takes a deeper look, that is both socially and artistically bold and adventurous. At the same time the artists are doing it in a way that not only transmits great information but also offers the possibility of digging deeper and, dare I say, entertains you or transforms you, the way art should.

So we’re using that idea of Dig Deeper to look at how we can broaden our offerings and our activities All of our humanities components are going to be looked at more closely and marketed more visibly. They’ve always existed but sometimes it seems like it’s the best kept secret. So we’re going to be working on really letting people know what we do and giving them a way in.

You said this spring is a “soft launch” of the 30th Anniversary. What does that mean?

Well, what you’re going to see starting in the spring is programming that reflects the “Dig Deeper” idea that came out of the focused thinking that is part of our strategic planning process, and as we move forward that’s going to get even sharper and sharper.

We begin the season with – and we actually end the season – with two vocalists who are extraordinary innovators in their field. One is Jose James who opens the season for two nights and four sets on February 10th and 11th.

Its kind of a pre-Valentine’s thing if you wanna look at it that way because he’s very smooth and sexy and he sings a lot about that kind of thing. But he’s an extraordinary artist with an exceptional voice and incredible vocal and stylistic range. He spans the worlds of hip-hop and soul and is very much in the jazz world as well. He’s worked with great jazz people like McCoy Tyner – he’s got several albums under his belt and with us he’s going to be doing all new material from his upcoming album. Jose’s an exceptional artist that we’ve recently discovered and we’re very excited to be presenting him.

At the end of the season in June we’re going to be presenting an artist we’ve worked with for over a decade: Tamar-kali. She comes more from the Afro-Punk movement but is also an extraordinary composer and singer who tackles everything from Nina Simone to jazz standards. We’re going to be presenting a program called Voices, which over the course of three nights will feature the three ensembles that represent different strains of her creativity. One of evenings will feature an acoustic string ensemble, then she has another project called the Pseudo-Acoustic Sirens and finally she has a group called 5ive Piece, which is a pretty hard-hitting blow-the-roof off rock band. So we’re going to be doing all three of those, for the first time for her, in one program. We’ve worked with her many times over the years. Exceptional artist.

I’m just curious – how did Tamar-kali get her name? Does she have an Indian background?

No she is African-American, I think she might be from Brooklyn but her family is largely from the Gullah community off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. Tamar-kali is her created name. It has a lot of various meanings. Tamar was a very powerful female figure in the Old Testament and Kali, of course, is the creator-destroyer deity of Hindu mythology. There’s a lot of stuff going on in that name and there’s a lot going on in that artist, that person. She’s a phenomenon.

Harlem Stage has a penchant for identifying artists who, like Sekou [Sundiata], we really stick with over the years. Artists who we feel are exceptional voices with exceptional vision in their particular craft and in the field in general. We try to develop a relationship with them that nurtures them and gives them visibility while celebrating what we try to do as an institution. Tamar-kali is one of those people that we’ve really stuck with for over a decade now and we’re really trying to sit down with her to figure out what’s next. “What have you got up your sleeve that we can help you move into the world?” Same with Vijay Iyer. Jason Moran is someone we’ve worked with for over a decade, we gave him his first platform as a band leader and he’s been a great friend to Harlem Stage every since, creating great things. Of course Sekou was probably the exemplar of that relationship with us over a twenty year period, and there are others. We really try to nurture artists that gives them a platform to discover who they are or further that discovery and we just join in with them.

Great. Sorry for the digression! So back to the season – after you open with Jose James, what’s next?

Following Jose James we’re doing a four-part program, called “A Tribe Called Quest: Innovations and Legacies – A Movement in Four Parts”. That was created by Simone, our program manager, and it’s going to be really looking deeply at A Tribe Called Quest’s contribution to and influence on the whole hip-hop movement of the last decade, plus. Tribe not only created incredible. [positive, music in the genre of hip-hop, but they were really innovators in terms of blending it with jazz. They just took the genre and created a new language for the music that has been hugely influential.

That will kick off with a panel discussion called “Footprints: A Discussion on the Innovation and Impact of A Tribe Called Quest”. The next night will feature a Tribe Called Quest Tribute from the Revive The Live Big Band headed by the trumpeter Igmar Thomas with special guests. That will be followed, on the same night, by an after-party called “SPIT: Speaking In Tongues”. DJ Cosi will be playing the music of, and inspired, by the Native Tongues Collective which was comprised of the groups De La Soul, The Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, Leaders of the New School, Black Sheep, as well as individual artists Monie Love and Queen Latifah. The final night will be a concert called “Beats, Rhymes and Beyond” featuring The J. Dilla Ensemble. J-Dilla was a producer and DJ and musician that died very young of lupus but was instrumental in moving the Tribe legacy forward. The J. Dilla Ensemble is an ensemble out of Berklee College of Music in Boston that celebrates his music.

For us this is not only a celebration of great music but it also helps us advance the idea of contextualizing these younger generations of musicians not just as songwriters or DJs but as composers. People are re-thinking what classical music is – understanding that it is not just Western European-based music but that there are classical musics around the world which are different for everybody. That’s something we’re looking at in various ways – we’re working with the Cuban composer Tania Leon and Symphony Space on their annual February series called Composers Now and Jose James fits into that as well.

But in that context the Tribe Called Quest program really represents a much deeper look at a particular movement, elevating the idea of looking at hip-hop and its innovations in a way that people like myself who aren’t really of the hip-hop generation but appreciate it – to have a greater understanding and appreciation of the work. Also we could offer a platform for Simone, whose a younger programmer, to do her thing and present it to audiences – which is important to what we do as organization.

Then in March we’ll start our monthly film series that we do with our primary partner, Black Documentary Collective, and a new partner, Media That Matters. They bring in great short films that get paired with these great documentaries.

At the end of March we’ll be presenting the Afro-Peruvian singer Eva Ayllon across the street at Aaron Davis Hall. She’s been in the business for over 40 years, celebrating Afro-Peruvian music. She’s an amazing vocalist and it’s a free concert – so that’s very exciting. We’ll be presenting that with our long-time partner, for twenty-five years, the Carnegie Hall Neighborhood Concert program

In April we have our annual dance series, E-Moves which is in its thirteenth season of showcasing emerging and evolving choreographers. We’ll have eight emerging choreographers who are, in many cases, presenting their very first works some of which have been supported by grants from our Fund For New Work grant program.

The E-Moves program has grown into kind of a university, that’s how we think of it. We audition artists and then we set them up with a mentor that they work with for a period of six to eight months while they create their works. They have open rehearsals where they come into Harlem Stage and present the works-in-progress with their mentors and we give them feedback and then they go on to present the full work in E-moves.

The evolving choreographers that we’re working with this year are an Indian-American choreographer from L.A. named Sheetal Ghandi and Souleymane Badolo who is from Burkina-Faso, and they’re both presenting new works. We’re very excited about that because it brings more of an international dialogue to the series.

Then in May we really concentrate on our jazz programming which includes the second annual Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival which we do in consortium with The Apollo and JazzMobile. There are between 30 and 40 events over a week’s period, they’re all $10 and the three organizations work together to celebrate the Jazz Shrines of the last 100 years. We identify the places in Harlem that were seminal in creating or providing a platform for creating the music we know as jazz.

Each of the organizations takes three or more of the shrines and celebrates them either literally, because they still exist, like the Lenox Lounge, or we recreate some idea of the shrine such as the Savoy Ballroom, and we bring in artists that pay tribute to it, though not necessarily literally, because the idea of the program is both to look back and move forward.

This year we’re celebrating Cecil Taylor with three pianists: Vijay Iyer, Amina Claudine Myers and Craig Taborn. We are also bringing Cecil in the week after the festival to perform himself, which will be an amazing experience.

We’re bringing in The Mosaic Project by Terri Lyne Carrington which is a project celebrating women in Jazz – women in music, really. She created this project a couple of years ago and I think they’re up for a Grammy this year. That will feature Terry Lyne, Nona Hendryx, Lizz Wright and a host of other artists performing with them. After that we’re going to be presenting a “Tribute to Club Havana San Juan” with The Havana San Juan Orchestra led by Louis Bauzo, then our gala is on the 21st and we end with Tamar-kali. So we’re bookending the season, as it happens, not really by design, with these two amazing vocalists.

The program is a great mix of disciplines and has a strong intergenerational component. How is that going to play out in the humanities programs?

Well, the Tribe Called Quest program starts with a panel that will include at least one member of the original Tribe and other people that are important to the movement. The reason I’m not telling you them yet is that they’re still being confirmed and Simone is really working on that project, so I’m going to give her all the credit on that one. But that will be really looking at and understanding what Tribe’s impact was, which is why the panel is called “Footprints”. These are the tracks that these artists laid down that other people have since followed. And then the other three movements then not only celebrate their music but the people that followed them directly – Native Tongues, J.Dilla Ensemble.

With Jose James we’re trying to formulate a humanities program that is specific to him. What we try to do is work with the artists to see what’s going to resonate for them and what’s going to get their voice heard in the best possible way.

We’re going to have a much more interactive component on our website and for some of these artists the Dig Deeper aspect may only be there, but for everybody there’ll be something there. You’ll always have the opportunity to dig deeper by going to our website and seeing film clips or audio clips or reading or hearing interviews, and exploring a variety of ideas.

With our E-moves program we have discussions with the artists and the mentors that will follow two of the programs. And we’re going to be showing films this year that will highlight some of the programming that we’re doing. One of the films we’ll be showing is the 2007 film Movement (R)evolution Africa which talks about contemporary African choreographers and features Souleymane Badolo. And we’re showing a new film by David Rousseve, a short film called Two Seconds After Laughter which was filmed in Java. It doesn’t directly relate to Sheetal’s work but David Rousseve is Sheetal’s mentor and there’s some connection to the movement because of the Indian connection in Indonesia, so we’ll find a way in there. But it does give another look at a more international scope of dance and how its being interpreted from the traditional into the contemporary.

With the Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival there will be whole week of humanities components around that. We work very closely with the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University and they are a collaborating partner in the festival. They will be creating a series of humanities events on their own and we’re going to do symposia. We’re talking about possibly doing symposia at Columbia around Cecil Taylor and have scholars present papers that will then get published. We’re really trying to celebrate Cecil Taylor in a way that he really has not been celebrated and really deserves.

As part of celebrating Cecil we will we have the three pianists in a wonderful set-up, where we’re going to have two pianos. Each of the pianists is going to do a solo and then they’re going to do duets with each other in combinations. So some of the humanities may be artist talks where we discuss not only Cecil’s influence on them but also on the music itself. He’s one of the geniuses of the last century so he needs to be recognized.

And every film presentation is followed by a discussion with the filmmakers and a wine and cheese reception. We’re very big on receptions, because we believe that breaking bread with artists and audiences is a wonderful way to complete the experience. It also gives people an opportunity to have a little bit of one-on-one, not only with each other, but with the artists.

I was going to ask about that. It seems that you do have a lot of opportunities for people to engage in other ways beyond just being an audience member.

It’s really about building a family for Harlem Stage. We tend to look at it more in terms of family and friends – but it all amounts to community. For us it really is about creating this living organism that is more than just: “We’re the presenters and you’re the audience and you buy a ticket and come see the work and isn’t that lovely.: It’s a much more in-depth experience. And its not just about “here’s a great lecture” either – its really about rubbing elbows with people and breaking bread, and having a reception is certainly a way to always do that. We also have great dance parties – The Uptown Nights series – and we have a lot of events that begin and end with a DJ set: there’s a bar, there’s food and it’s cabaret style seating. We try to create an atmosphere, where appropriate, that’s not just a proscenium look at art.

With the Cecil tribute we’re going to put a platform in the middle of the space and we’re going to surround it with seats, probably cabaret style seating, and serve wine and some food (that doesn’t make noise!) and really celebrate this evening and celebrate this artist. We want to give people an opportunity before and after the show to mingle with themselves and mingle with the artists. That will also provide a way into the context and the content of the work whether its that night or later, online.

Another project we’re launching is the Harlem Stage Reading Circle which is more than a book club, because a lot of the works we present are inspired by literature or historical material. So we’ll be reading in groups of people and then we’ll have a potluck dinner or some kind of gathering – always with food – to explore the content and context of the work.

For instance we’re working on developing an opera called Makandal by Carl Hancock Rux that was originally inspired by Cuban author Alejo Carpentier’s The Kingdom of This World. So we’ll offer an opportunity for people to read the book and then gather – it could be a dozen people, just a half-dozen people – twith Carl and other artists connected with the work in question. We’ll discuss the book, discuss the work, discuss the content and the context of it as it relates to the work that’s been created or is being created along with how it resonates with the world today.

We’re also developing a project with with Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd that looks at veterans of color in conflicts. We’ll be looking at what it means to be a veteran of color in this day and age in the United States military. What does it mean to go over to another country, be shooting at people of color and then come home to the challenges of being a person of color here.

These are all things that are resonating in the world as we speak, and that move through the art that we’re creating. Makandal deals with freedom, immigration, revolution – all these things that couldn’t be more appropriate or poignant to be creating a major work now that deals with those issues.

So we’re interested in finding ways to engage those people who want to be engaged in a deeper conversation and discover how that can be a further transformative experience beyond just coming to the show. The performance can be an extraordinary experience in and of itself – but how do we take it deeper and offer something to people that choose to take that journey, encourage those people that are on the fence and drag the rest…

These sound like big projects. Are these Waterworks commissions?

Yes, Makandal and Vijay Iyer’s project Holding It Down – The Veteran’s Dream Project are Waterworks commissions. The 30th Anniversary season will start in September 2012 with Holding It Down, which has been in development for several years now. It is being created by Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd with Maurice Decaul who is a veteran poet. Patricia McGregor is directing and it has a wonderful ensemble including Guillermo Brown, Pamela Z. and Kassa Overall.

Then we’ll close the year and the 30th anniversary season with the world premiere of Makandal which we’re also producing, which is somewhat new for us. We produced one other project over ten years ago that was kind of a “trial by fire” experience. We have ventured into that land again a little by default – and that’s a really long story I won’t go into – but Makandal has been in the works for over four years. It was written and conceived by Carl and conceived of by Carl. It is composed by Yosvany Terry, the Cuban composer and saxophonist with the visual design is by Edouard Duval Carrie who is a celebrated Haitian-American artist. And now its being directed by Lars Jan, who is this kind of wunderkind out of CalArts and we’re going fully into the next phase of development beginning in January.

So these works – Holding it Down and Makandal in particular – will be in full development stages through the spring and in Makandal‘s case through next year.

And once again we’ll be creating “Dig Deeper” kinds of events so people are aware of these projects as they’re in development. While there will be some of the traditional show-and-tell work-in-progress showings or open rehearsals, we really want to use the Reading Circle to build awareness and engagement with the work. Its especially appropriate to Holding it Down in which they’ve taken the dreams of veterans and woven the poetry of veterans into an evening of music, text and video design – it’s a really powerful piece. So we’ll be looking at veteran poetry and other relevant works.

Makandal deals with Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba in contemporary, historical and mythical settings. So for that the Reading Circle might engage with any number of works that inform the process – the writing of Alejo Carpentier, Isabel Allende’s recent book Island Beneath the Sea, the works of Maya Deren which also includes film. All these things are sort of ripe for the picking for a reading circle that looks at the history of Haiti, its revolution and the consequences of that revolution. It provided and still provides a lot of inspiration to the world. And of course there’s the complicated relationship between Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba – not to mention the rest of the world – and how those intertwined histories inform those islands and those cultures – and how they’ve informed our culture. You know when the Haitian revolution happened a lot of those slaves came to New Orleans and that’s one of the reasons you have vodun in New Orleans. And how the music came from Cuba to New York. I mean, there are so many connections and so much information that we just don’t know – we certainly don’t know the details. We know broad swipes of information if we’re into the music or the culture, but there’s so much detail there, so much complexity. And its really rich material.

So we want to find ways to investigate all that information because Carl certainly does, if you know his writing. He’s a brilliant writer with a wealth of knowledge and in that libretto is buried a treasure of historical and mythological information. Unpacking that a little bit is not only fun but allows you to enjoy the piece even more.

What’s the history of Waterworks?

Waterworks was created as the signature commissioning program for Harlem Stage when we re-branded the institution and moved over to The Gatehouse in 2006. We had previously been Aaron Davis Hall, Inc. – that still is our legal name – but now we’re Harlem Stage. Waterworks looks at master artists who are really exemplary in the field, giving them larger commissions and extended development periods to create new work that has artistic merit but also looks at issues of social justice, arts and activism. Four works were created to open the building, including one by Sekou – 51st Dream State, Roger Guenveur Smith, Tania Leon and Bill T. Jones were the other three artists that created work. And its gone on to be our most significant commissioning program.

I remember coming up to meet you when Bill T. was loading in. I remember a lot of red drapes.

That was the piece he created for Waterworks and it was created specifically for the Gatehouse. He was very inspired by the space. He saw the space when it was completely gutted and empty four stories down. It was magnificent. We’re going to be celebrating that renovation more as we move forward. He created Chapel/Chapter for the space and he completely wrapped the inside in red drapery and it was all done in the round. It was a great piece.

The Gatehouse is a historic landmark building that was part of the aqueduct system of New York State in the 1800’s. It literally fed the first clean drinking water to New York City in the 1890’s. It was the gatehouse where the water was gated as it flowed down from Croton Aqueduct. So we work with that water imagery/metaphor a lot and it definitely feeds the institution in many ways. Not the least of which is…. Well, you know, if you believe in such things, there’s a real kind of spiritual connection when you come into the Gatehouse building. A lot of artists feel that. They feel very – they feel a real energy in there that’s powerful to them and allows them to embrace their creativity. So a number of works have been created for it.

What are the other commissioning programs beyond Waterworks?

Commissioning is something that is really significant to what we do, and from what I’ve gathered in the field we seem to be one of the few organizations who are trying to hang on to the idea of being major commissioners.

We also have a commissioning program called the Fund For New Work, that gives emerging artists their very first commissions and opportunities to develop new work. And we’re looking more deeply at giving mid-career or evolving artists more support. That’s an area where we haven’t had funding. We’ve had funding for emerging from the Jerome Foundation and for the Waterworks program primarily from Time-Warner but also other organizations like Nathan Cummings, but the evolving part has been elusive. We’re going to be more aggressively looking at that because that’s a huge bunch of artists that need support.

One examples of that is we’re commissioning Kyle Abraham for his new work Boys In The Hood which will have its premiere at Harlem Stage next November. He’s an artist we gave his first emerging artist grants to, and we’ve been working with him ever since and he’s come up to be a really celebrated choreographer. We’re going to be giving him his own week of presentation in November. He’s an amazing young artist who’s really grown a lot and I really love working with him, he’s a great spirit.

So Waterworks is our major, signature commissioning program but commissioning overall is a big thing for us. We’ve actually created a Commissioning Circle which is another way of allowing individuals to support work – you can become a commissioner of a work or a co-commissioner of a work at different levels. So we’re giving people an opportunity to invest in work in multiple ways, including financially.

That’s an interesting idea – letting donors target their donations to a specific project.

Well, it’s a way of offering people a form of targeted giving that may resonate more for them. And they have a personal investment in the creation of a work that gives them access to to the creative process in a way that not everyone will have – special meetings with artists, and things like that.

But moving commissioning front-and-center seems pretty innovative, or at least it sends a message about the organization.

A lot of organizations have very creative ways of parsing out ways of donating. You know. you can buy a year’s worth of toe shoes for this much money. A lot of dance companies have been innovative in that way – but this is specifically toward commissioning, and really letting people know what that means and what’s involved in bringing a work from concept to presentation.

We want to get supporters involved in the process in a way that works not only for them, but for the artist. It works very differently for each artist: their process is different, their comfort level at being exposed while they’re in the creative process is different. And there’s a dialogue that goes on there. Some artists become more comfortable and find ways that really inform the work for them. You know, they discover that being a little more vulnerable or open in the creative process can be a win-win. So it’s a wonderful opportunity for audiences and it opens up the dialogue for artists to find new ways to connect through their art.

One of the things we’re really looking at as we move forward is the fact that not enough people – especially people that are, in theory, really close to us either geographically or in the arts field – really know the breadth and scope of what we do. So we’re looking to find ways to make ourselves more visible and to let people really know what’s going on at Harlem Stage. And we’re really going to be looking at that as we move into the 30th anniversary and the future. We’re doing a lot of great work and we want people to know about it and be a part of it.

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