Talking to Ilan Bachrach about Mass Live Arts
This July, Ilan Bachrach, who you may have seen in recent years performing in productions by Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Jim Findlay, and Phil Soltanoff, will be taking on the new role of Artistic Director of Mass Live Arts, a new experimental theater festival in the Berkshires.
The inaugural year will take place from July 18 – August 3, and feature Half Straddle’s Seagull (Thinking of You), Radiohole’s Inflatable Frankenstein, and a work-in-progress showing of Mona’s House of Dance, Mass Live Arts’ first commission. Mona’s House of Dance is a co-production of Half Straddle and New York City Players, and will be written and directed by Tina Satter and feature Obie-Award winning actor Jim Fletcher and Time Out New York-dubbed “future legend of New York Theater” Jess Barbagallo.
Mass Live Arts will take place at the Daniel Arts Center at Bard College of Simon’s Rock, a short drive from the center of Great Barrington. Ilan and his staff will be hosting barbecues for the artists and the audience on the college grounds after the shows.
A month before opening night, I sat down with Ilan to ask him how Mass Live Arts had come into being, and how it’s shaping up.
When did you get the idea to create your own festival?
There are so many answers to that question. I probably first thought about it six years ago when my parents moved up here from Boston, and I saw that there were a lot of musicals and summer stock, but there wasn’t much new and experimental work happening. Around that time, I was just starting to get work as a performer, and that was taking me to some of the top presenters for that kind of work, such as the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis and the Fusebox Festival in Austin. More recently, I started touring in Europe, and after going to all these huge amazing festivals – especially Internationales Sommerfestival at Kampnagel in Hamburg – I would come home to the Berkshires and nothing here would come close to touching that, whether in the kind of work that was being shown or just the kind of event that was happening. So it’s been an idea that has been evolving over the past six years.
When you started getting serious about doing a festival, how did you narrow down the identity of the festival to make it your own?
Well, the budget limitations pretty much did that for me. There are a million big budget environmental things I would love to do that I’ve seen in other places. But first things first. I have to make it happen. And for that, all I could do was to have artists come and do it. So it’s kind of an “if you build it, they will come” kind of situation, and I’m hoping people will come.
What I did was bring in the best artists I could doing the best work I could find. As far as frills, it’s pretty limited. There’ll be a barbecue afterwards where people can get to know the artists and I can get to know the audience. That’s as big as I can start. My hope is that it can grow.
Did your work as an actor feed into the way you brought the festival together?
Yes, it absolutely did. A trend that I noticed while I was touring through Europe with Nature Theater of Oklahoma as an actor was that a number of American companies have to go to there to make work and perform it in a way that will sustain their companies. You’re not going to get nine months of touring in America but you can certainly do that in Europe, if you’re New York City Players, or Nature Theater of Oklahoma, or Jay Scheib. That is a trend that I’m noticing. All of the making of our art is being outsourced to Vienna or Germany or Norway or France. Les Subsistences has been a big part of the last Dan Safer show, the last Big Dance Theater show, and the next National Theater of the USA show.
To me, it’s a shame that our country’s best theater makers have to go halfway around the world to make something and find an audience for it. It doesn’t make any sense to me. At the same time, we were lucky enough to do Chatauqua! in Boston and Life and Times at the Public. These are shows that when you describe them on paper look really boring – a show about lectures, or a twelve-hour show about someone’s life story. And yet people coming out of those experiences were beside themselves. Being an artist, I know that this work is transformative and it can change people, and I see it happening all over the world, and as an American it makes me sad that we can’t do it here. Which is why for this year and for the next two years of the festival my goal is to only program American artists.
How are people reacting to the festival so far? Have the reactions been different in the Berkshires than they have been in New York?
Right off the bat, Performance Space 122 in New York believed in it and saw that this was going to be a useful thing and something that was needed, and very generously rented us lights and sound equipment at a reduced rate and supported us marketing-wise, and that reaction made me very happy.
It’s been generally positive, excited. All my artists are happy to have an opportunity and a place to do their show they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Everyone I’ve talked to in the community up here, while not being familiar with the artists I’m presenting, is mostly curious and kind of excited which I think is good. I think that’s the best I can hope for at this point. It’s going to be awesome!
How do you see the festival growing in future years?
I would like to have a longer season. This year it’s three weeks, and I’d like it to grow to be something that runs the entire summer, just like the big festivals, and I’d also like to use the space to incubate new shows. The cost of space up here is so much less than in so many other cities in America, and I think that can be a great advantage. If there’s another theater that wants to present something, it’s very easy to send it up here. For example, if a presenter wants to commission a work, and put $5,000 towards the commission, that $5,000 is going to go towards at most a couple of weeks of rehearsal in New York City. At the rate funding trickles in, that show is going to take two years to make. But if they take that $5,000 and Mass Live Arts matches it, they can come up here and they can work for six weeks, which will allow them to bring their work to audiences in a much shorter time, and which will ultimately enable them to make more work in that time.
Is your main focus going to be on commissioning new work, or in presenting existing work? What kind of balance do you foresee?
I think in the beginning it will be focused on presenting. There is a great audience up here – there are huge institutions with huge houses with seasons that last the entire summer and they get people to show up. So people up here are used to going to see stuff. And I want to get people here used to seeing this kind of stuff.
At first, during the summer, we’ll be focusing on presenting completed work. That said, one of our three weeks this summer is dedicated to a residency for New York City Players and Half Straddle, and at the end of it they’ll be giving a work-in-progress showing. So if you asked me for a number, I’d say 1/3 commissions and 2/3 presenting, but that’s just what it is this year. In the future I hope to have people up in the fall, winter and spring to really spend some time here, and in the summer focus on presenting full shows, and presenting them for two to three weeks at a time instead of just one.
What’s going to happen at the barbecues?
I have PTSD with regard to talkbacks. I can’t handle sitting there being in a talkback as a performer, and can’t begin to imagine what it would be like to lead one. At the same time, I realize it’s valuable for the audience to get to talk to the artists and it helps them understand the work on a deeper level, so I want to provide access to the artists still, and the way I’m going to do that is around food.
There’s a huge roll-top door behind the audience, and we’re going to roll it up after the show, and we’re going to be out there with burgers and beer, and be socializing with everyone, and we’ll have the artists come out and people will be able to talk with the artists, I will be able to get to know the audience, and everyone will be able to get to know each other, it will be a nice little social thing.
Why did you choose the work that you did?
I chose the work because it’s exceptional. I chose it because the artists are American. I feel it deserves to be seen by more people. Right now, these are the only performances of Inflatable Frankenstein scheduled in America. That’s unfortunate. I think more people need to see work like that.
I choose work that I think will change people, and I think these works will change people. And while these companies are “out there” in their own respective ways, since the shows are based on Frankenstein and The Seagull there is something for an audience that is not familiar with this kind of work to latch on to in this inaugural year. These are deconstructions of somewhat familiar material. That’s not something I was thinking about consciously when I was choosing them, but as it turns out that’s kind of what it is now, and that’s fortunate.
Yesterday a woman called me up to buy tickets. I have no idea how she got my cellphone number, but I was happy to sell her the tickets! Before she decided to make the purchase – it was for Seagull (Thinking of You) – she said, “I’ve seen The Seagull seven times, and I don’t need to see The Seagull again! Should I see this?” And I said, you HAVE to see this. This is completely different than any Seagull you’ve ever seen. Then she asked, well, how is it? And I said well, they took every translation of The Seagull, and Chekhov’s journals, and their own personal lives, and put it into blender and made an omelette. And they want to serve you this omelette. She was like, that sounds great!
I’m hoping that the combination of familiar entry points with the fact that these artists know how to transform the audience and transform the work will lead me to be able to take even bigger risks next year. But my main focus this year is to get people to show up, and to blow their minds. I know their minds will be blown, I just need to get them to show up!
Mass Live Arts performances will take place at 8pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from July 18 – August 3 at the Daniel Arts Center, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, 84 Alford Road, Great Barrington, MA 01230. Tickets to single performances are $25-$35, and a Festival Pass to all three shows is $75. Driving directions are available on the Mass Live Arts website.
Kit Baker has worked on theater and opera productions in Berlin, Warsaw, London, New York, Chicago, and Tanglewood, and on tour in Europe and Siberia. He worked on several productions as writer, translator, dramaturg, actor, assistant director, and tour manager for Polish theater and opera director Henryk Baranowski and his company TransformTheater Berlin, one of which won a Jeff Award for Best Ensemble in Chicago. He spends his days putting resources together for artists, companies and presenters.