The Culturebot Guide to January Festival Season in NYC

As January fast approaches, those of us in the performed arts brace for the excitement and exhaustion of what is now not-infrequently referred to as “The January Shit-Show Circus On Ice”, a phrase coined by the anonymous writer of a manifesto of the same name. Early January heralds the onset of Festival Season, where every venue throughout the five boroughs produces a veritable cavalcade of performed art in all disciplines, showcasing their best and brightest. And this year we celebrate 10 years of Culturebot with a series of events at both APAP and Under The Radar and some Brooklyn Commune – related events still TBA. The whole shebang kicks off in the evening on Wednesday, January 8 with the UTR opening reception and the APAP part runs through Tuesday, January 14. It is going to be a blast and we look forward to seeing you around town!!

Culturebot Conversation at Under The Radar 2012

A Culturebot Conversation at Under The Radar 2012

Oh, how time flies.

Only a decade ago January downtown was a dead zone where “in the know” presenters provided low-key presentation opportunities to the artists they thought might be tour-able. Of the thousands of arts presenters coming to town for the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) conference, only a small subset knew or was concerned about what happened “under the radar”.

And then, of course, Mark Russell launched The Under The Radar Festival and the rest, as they say, is history. Soon followed PS122’s COIL, and HERE’s Culturemart, then Ben Pryor’s American Realness at Abrons Arts Center and just a year or two ago the Incubator got into the game with Other Forces. This year NYLA has organized their programming into a showcase/festival format called Live Artery, HERE has moved Culturemart to February and re-entered the fray with Prototype and this year Caden Manson has thrown his hat in the festival ring with the debut of Special Effects at The Wild Project.

At once awesome and awful, The January Shit-Show Circus On Ice provides a much-welcome opportunity to socialize and see an abundance of great work (and not-so-great work) with a network of national and international peers. But it is increasingly difficult to separate the signal from the noise, and while professionals have a network of trusted colleagues to turn to for opinions, insight and background information, audiences are not so lucky.

Hence, we’re here for you, dear Audience Member, to try and help you on your path to January enjoyment. Given our limitations (I got an individual grant from The Warhol Foundation for a specific project, but Culturebot still receives no funding or support from anybody except our community. You can help us by making a donation via Fractured Atlas) here is a guide to some of the things we are excited or curious about.

Most tickets are affordable but good shows sell out quickly. Also, remember that many of the festivals extend into a second weekend, so if you live in NYC – or nearby – it is worth checking if a particular show is playing later and planning to see it then. Save yourself some aggravation.


niv Acosta and Tess Dworman

niv Acosta and Tess Dworman

I’m a big fan of seeing projects in development, and this year’s NYLA’s Live Artery program is comprised mostly of work-in-progress showings. You could do worse than to spend an afternoon or evening in the warm, intimate confines of NYLA’s 3rd floor studios with some of NYC’s most exciting and adventurous choreographers. Artists showing works-in-progress include Donna Uchizono, Beth Gill, Kyle Abraham, Molissa Fenley, niv Acosta and Tess Dworman, Kimberly Bartosik, John Jasperse and Elena Demyanenko with Dai Jian. For detailed information visit the NYLA website.

Heather Kravas "A Quartet"

Heather Kravas “A Quartet”

Heather Kravas, who gave us the wonderful The Green Surround back in 2011 and then high-tailed it to Seattle, returns to NYC with her new work A Quartet, presented at The Kitchen.  “Comprised of a kaleidoscopic ballet, a mutating folk dance, a human machine and a titillating cheer, Heather Kravas’ a quartet explores the possible outcomes of individuals dancing together.”

Speaking of The Kitchen, that venue’s intrepid house manager also happens to be one of downtown’s most favorite choreographers and performance artists, Adrienne Truscott. This year she reprises her piece at Abrons. …Too Freedom… explores the relationship of working to performing, inspired by her “day job” as house manager. We missed it first time around, but have heard great things and hope to see it.

On the topic of working, wages and feminism, Dublin’s Fitzgerald & Stapleton Dance Theatre reprise their work WAGE at The Wild Project (see Jeremy M. Barker’s interview with the artists here.)

Irish dance company Fitzgerald & Stapleton return to Abrons this fall. They are also not strippers. Photo by Alex Escalante

Irish dance company Fitzgerald & Stapleton. They are  not strippers. Photo by Alex Escalante

Originally presented by Abrons Arts Center in September 2012, it will be performed January 9, 2014 at 8pm and January 12, 2014 at 4pm.WAGE fucks with sexuality, gender roles, wage inequality, dreams, spirituality and ritual through the medium of dance. The performance features a personal account from Justine Reilly, a co-founder and member of SPACE International – Survivors of Prostitution-Abuse Calling for Enlightenment. Justine left prostitution in 2010 and shares her story in WAGE.

Also offering intense critiques on gender and violence is Rebecca Patek, who reprises ineter(a)nal f/ear that was originally presented this summer as part of Emergency Glitter. ineter(a)nal f/ear  explores “the way American culture deals with trauma, violence and shame” using “parody and satire to expose power dynamics, psychopathology and the psychic underpinnings of human relationships.”

Rebecca Patek

Rebecca Patek

Rebecca is usually interesting, if frequently discomfiting and often quite funny, and she blends humor and discomfort in a way that is both new and kind of old school, not unlike her foremothers Lucy Sexton and Anne Iobst, who pioneered the sexy/messy, confrontational/hilarious, dance/not-dance/dance, mash-up art performance.

Lucy & Anne bring old school downtown glamour and irreverence back with Prodigal Heroes: An Evening of Legendary New York, also at Abrons. The centerpiece of the evening is Scott Heron, back in town from New Orleans with his new piece Lights Up A Tragedy that features Lucy Sexton as The Factress, Anne Iobst as The Naked Lady and a special finale by DANCENOISE. This is sure to be a fun (& probably messy) late night dance party good time performance art festacular.

Two of Miguel Gutierrez’ collaborators on last year’s and lose the name of action return this year with original, new work. Michelle Boulé will share her new solo, WONDER, that was originally created through ISSUE Project Room’s Emerging Artists Commission program, and Ishmael Houston-Jones premieres a new piece – 13 Love Songs: dot dot dot  – created with Emily Wexler.

Ishmael Houston-Jones and Emily Wexler

Ishmael Houston-Jones and Emily Wexler

I love the teaser, “Separated by a generation — he’s in his 60s she in her 30s, and differing in gender and ethnicity – male, female; black, white, these two innovative dance artists have found common ground in their mutual belief that the pop love song is corrosive,” and the promise that, “it won’t be pretty; it won’t be polite, but there will be knives.” Sign me up!

And course one should never miss the chance to witness actor/dancer/choreographer/maker (and amanuensis to Ralph Lemon) Okwui Okpokwasili in action. She premieres a new work entitled Bronx Gothic that is “a dark and intensely physical solo performance” that takes as its starting point, “an exploration of the West African griot storytelling tradition and the epistolary trope of letter-writing in Victorian Gothic novels.  The show will be performed at Danspace Project.


I’m loath to say whether it is an effect of the economy or not, but this January is chock-a-block with solo performances of innumerable variety. Fortunately most of them seem to be doing something interesting with the now-overly-predictable form.

Stephen Mellor in Mac Wellman's "Muazzez"

Stephen Mellor in Mac Wellman’s “Muazzez”

In Muazzez, the inimitable Stephen Mellor performs a new work derived from a collection of offbeat stories by renowned author, playwright and poet Mac Wellman.  Inspired by Wellman’s A Chronicle Of The Madness Of Small Worlds, Muazzez is one of a string of small worlds “real places, but on no map” where things happen for their own mysterious reasons.

Earlier I floated the idea of the amanuensis and it seems apt here. As Okwui Okpokwasili is to Ralph Lemon, so Stephen Mellor is to Mac Wellman – the performer most suited to embodying the voice and vision of the artist, the person upon whom the work is imagined and eventually set. Mellor and Wellman have been collaborators for over a decade and it is evident in this intimate performance at an intimate venue – The Chocolate Factory.

As for the Under The Radar Festival, we’re quite curious to see Valentijn Dhaenens’ BigMouth, which ostensibly “pays tribute to 2,500 years of oration” by “weaving together fragments of seminal speeches from the Grand Inquisitor and Socrates, to Muhammad Ali and Osama Bin Laden.” I have high hopes because I love this kind of stuff. Fingers crossed.

Also at UTR is Edgar Oliver’s Helen & Edgar, “The mesmerizing, hilarious and heartbreaking tale of Oliver and his sister Helen’s strange childhood in Savannah and their mother’s struggle with madness.”

Edgar Oliver

Edgar Oliver

No-one is quite sure how much of Edgar’s stories are true or if he is an expert fabulist, his droll accent and wild-eyed bemusement are both from another era and timeless. Everyone who sees Edgar perform is enchanted and anyone who spends an evening with him will have a story to tell for the rest of his or her life.

And in case you’re missing Mike Daisey, this year’s humorous observational monologue slot is filled by author, comedian, and “Daily Show” contributor John Hodgman who offers I Stole Your Dad, where he will present “observations on subjects including how to dress like a young and relevant person, fax machines and other obsolete technology, marijuana and Downton Abbey, the state songs of Tennessee and the film criticism of Ayn Rand.”

Another traditional form of storytelling that has been getting re-imagined of late is Object Theater and the form is featured quite prominently over at The Wild Project.

In Chimpanzee, Nick Lehane uses artful puppetry to show an aging, isolated chimpanzee piecing together the fragments of her human childhood. Originally developed through the Puppet Lab at St. Anne’s Warehouse, Chimpanzee creates a stark and eerily moving world where reality and memory blur and fuse. The show is on a double bill with a new work by Lehane, Geneva 16251, where overhead projections, shadow puppetry and live theremin meld together childhood memories of growing up in southern California and a fictional expedition to the north pole.

And after years of being a mainstay of Big Art Group, David Commander has begun to make himself known for his funny, disturbing, punk rock DIY works of Toy Theater. (I was psyched to present his work, along with that of the Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble, as part of The Future At The End Of The World, a performance installation I curated last December at The Farley Post Office for the producing and performing collective Immediate Medium.)

David Commander, "New Toy Theater"

David Commander, “New Toy Theater”

Commander will premiere two new shows at The Wild Project. One, Oakwood Apartments, is an installation set up like a ramshackle security booth for an aging and dilapidated apartment complex and will be performed January 10, 2014 at 10pm at the Wild Project Bar. On January 11, 2014 at 2pm and January 12 at 7pm he will present a mixed bill called simply New Toy Theater, featuring three darkly humorous vignettes. In Flight tells the story of a plane crash, Sacrament Burger is a disturbing comedy about massive food waste and Essex relates the tragic tale of the sinking of the whale ship Essex in 1819.

Old forms, new forms, same old story – theater, video, television and film have a complicated and ever-evolving relationship. As usual, this year there are several shows doing formal explorations at that intersection.

Jay Scheib's "Platonov"

Jay Scheib’s “Platonov”

Most ambitious – or at least biggest in scale – is Jay Scheib’s staging of an early, unpublished Chekhov play entitled Platonov, or The Disinherited. For this production Scheib combines live film and theatrical performance; each show that is staged live at The Kitchen will be live-edited and simultaneously broadcast each night to cinemas including BAM, AMC Times Square, and others across the country. You can see it as a play at The Kitchen or as a film at a theater. Or both!

Director Phil Soltanoff, who has been hugely influential as a mentor to an entire generation of theater makers, returns this year with An Evening With William Shatner Asterisk that originally premiered at Austin’s Fusebox Festival in 2012. Working with Joe Diebes and Rob Ramirez, Soltanoff has meticulously catalogued everything William Shatner ever said on the original Star Trek series and remixed the words – one at a time – into a profound and discursive monologue on contemporary art and science. It’s pretty far out and you can see it at the New Ohio Theater.

And, returning to NYC from her newly adopted hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, Laryssa Husiak brings a new show, She Is King, to the Incubator.

Laryssa Husiak as Billie Jean King (photo credit: James Day 2013)

Laryssa Husiak as Billie Jean King (photo credit: James Day 2013)

Laryssa has been a long-time stalwart of downtown, regularly appearing in work by Obie award-winning theater company Two-Headed Calf among many, many others. (She was featured in Two-Headed Calf’s opera You, My Mother that reprised last summer as part of The River To River Festival curated by, um, oh, right, me!)

Here she creates a live performance using archival footage to reenact three interviews at pivotal moments in the career of tennis trailblazer Billie Jean King, timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the historic “Battle of the Sexes”. The use of interactive media via nine old TV screens magnifies the life of King as a public and private figure, and examines the impact of media on gender, sexuality and celebrity.

While Jay Scheib is using video, film and dislocation to dismantle and reconstruct Chekhov, Belgium’s STAN takes a completely opposite approach with little to no tech and an absolute investment in the actor. In JDX a public enemy, the company takes another look at Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. They employ a multi-textual, multi-authorial approach to constructing the performance. One imagines that this approach is a reaction to the dominant aesthetics and hierarchies of regietheater in Europe and the actor’s desire to more fully enter the text – and story – through character and embodied practice.

Funny, then, that the story of An Enemy of the People is about one man standing against the majority. Hopefully this complication will be addressed in the performance, one that aspires to expose “the dark pitfalls of democracy, first depicted more than a century ago and still all too relevant today.”

As a complement, perhaps, to JDX a public enemy, Under The Radar will also be presenting Feast – the debut piece from rising star Andrew Ondrejcak. Ondrejcak, a Mississippi-born writer, director, and designer, has begun to make a name for himself through his audaciously expressive work and his willingness to question even the most basic assumptions about theater. Feast originally premiered in July 2012 at The Incubator Arts Project. Simply put: in Feast, Babylon is falling, the people are revolting (“They certainly are!”), and the King just wants to eat, drink and debauch. Chaos ensues.

As much as we like media, politics and debauchery, we are quite keen on poetry and the well-spoken word, so we are glad to see it making a return to the stage in two very different forms, both part of Under The Radar.

blessing the boats: the remix is an exciting re-imagining of the signature solo work of the late, great poet Sekou Sundiata. The story of a man wrestling with illness and mortality, told with humor, honesty, and wonder through a mix of theatre, poetry and music, the original show premiered in 2002 and toured extensively until Sekou passed away in 2007.

Blessing The Boats

Blessing The Boats

This version, created by director Rhodessa Jones (Bill T.’s sister!) with Mike Ladd, Carl Hancock Rux and Will Power, brings three next-generation poets together in an ensemble to engage with and riff on Sekou’s powerful words and story. The show premiered this past summer as part of The River To River Festival (who curated that? Oh, right, me!) to great response, so here’s a chance to see at UTR if you missed it the first time!

Kate Tempest

Kate Tempest

A different take on spoken-word poetry is on display in Kate Tempest’s Brand New Ancients playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse. Here Kate Tempest, a working class Briton (at least she seems that way from her accent and attitude) uses hip-hop-infused rhythms and rhymes to weave an ultra-poetic story in a soulful style all her own. Kind of like a contemporary, rapping, female John Osborne, Tempest appropriates the rhythms and tropes of rap to add her voice to the chorus of poets speaking out and representing the universal struggle of the poor and disenfranchised.

If you want to move from Poetry to The People, check out 600 Highwaymen’s The Record and Lola AriasEl Año en Que Nací (The Year I Was Born), both at Under The Radar.

The Record premiered last year at The Invisible Dog Art Center, shortly before 600 Highwaymen staked out their claim to “best company using non-actors to make performances” with Everyone Was Chanting Your Name at Abrons and This Great Country at River To River. (Who, me?)

600 Highwaymen's "The Record" (photo by Maria Baranova)

600 Highwaymen’s “The Record” (photo by Maria Baranova)

The Record is a delightful, insightful, fascinating and richly rewarding show described as “Part theater, part dance, part group hallucination – vivid human assembly on an epic scale.” Over the course of a precisely timed 61 minutes, the show brings together 45 strangers in overlapping patterns of choreographed random – and not so random – juxtapositions and encounters: a self-revealing, constantly unfolding, kaleidoscopic glimpse of humanity in microcosm.

Lola Arias‘ El Año en Que Nací (The Year I Was Born), presented at LaMama, is a play that uses eleven Chileans born under Pinochet’s dictatorship – all non-actors – to reconstruct their family histories using photographs, letters, old clothing and personal stories.

"El Año en Que Nací (The Year I Was Born)" by Lola Arias. Photo: David Alarcón.

“El Año en Que Nací (The Year I Was Born)” by Lola Arias. Photo: David Alarcón.

Arias, who debuted in NYC with her play A Kingdom, a Country or a Wasteland, in the Snow, presented as part of Buenos Aires In Translation, a festival produced at P.S.122 by Shoshana Polanco, has gone on to become a world-renowned playwright and theater-maker. In El Año en Que Nací Arias reveals a nation’s complex history through the eyes of a generation, in a work of documentary theater that dives purposefully into lives lived within a brutal military regime.

We’re also looking forward to checking out The Room Nobody Knows at Japan Society. We don’t know anything about it, but it sounds kind of amazing. The playwright/theater artist Kuro Tanino is a former psychiatrist who is now the It Boy Badass of Tokyo Theater. This production is performed by his company Niwa Gekidan Penino. In previous years when I’ve had the chance to see the work of Japanese playwrights or directors like Toshiko Okada, I’ve always found it more satisfying to see the show in Japanese with English subtitles. Even though I don’t’ know what they’re saying, I feel like there’s some kind of meta-communication happening that helps me understand what’s going on better than if it were translated and performed by Americans in English.

"The Room Nobody Knows" (photo © Shinsuke Suginou)

“The Room Nobody Knows” (photo © Shinsuke Suginou)

The Room Nobody Knows sounds like classic, creepy Japanese domestic oddity: two brothers inhabit a mysterious, dreamlike apartment. A birthday party, a doppelganger and a pair of human/animal hybrids lure you into a weird, yet funny world hidden deep within the Tokyo metropolis. Good times!


So my top pick for just plain good time fun during The Shit Show On Ice will be the next installment of the SUN RA Visitation Series on Thursday, January 9th at 9:30pm at Joe’s Pub. Buy. Your Ticket. Now.

Playwright Sylvan Oswald and director Charlotte Brathwaite are creating a concert performance play event thing riffing on legendary jazz master Sun Ra. They will be taking over Joe’s Pub for SUN RA Visitation Series #2: SUN-OLOGY, a study of Sun Ra’s intergalactic vision through imagined scenes and real songs. All the original Sun Ra compositions are performed by the unstoppable, unbelievable, funkadelic, jazztastic Greg Tate and the Burnt Sugar Arkestra and the scenes are played by a kick-ass cast including Mikel Banks, Bruce Mack, April Matthis, Austin Purnell, and Julian Rozzell Jr..

We saw this a few months ago and it was amazeballs!

The Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble reprises Everything One in the Disc of the Sun, their “self-help karaoke opera” that just caused such a stir at JACK a few weeks ago. Two special performances on January 11, 2014 at 8pm and January 12, 2014 at 2pm at Participant Gallery should prove to be a hoot and a half.

And for a  good time you don’t want to miss CATCH 60 on January 11 @ 8PM at The Invisible Dog Art Center!

This now-venerable showcase series celebrates 10 years (!!!) with two floors of performance featuring works by Ivy Baldwin, Daniel Fish & Andrew Dinwiddie, Faye Driscoll, Jim Findlay, Cynthia Hopkins, Neil Greenberg, Sibyl Kempson & Elevator Repair Service, Molly Lieber & Eleanor Smith, Jennie Marytai Liu, David Neumann, Rebecca Patek, Katy Pyle, Jen Rosenblit, Chris Schlichting, Joseph Silovsky, Geoff Sobelle, Anna Sperber and Katie Workum. Phew!

Of course there’s so much going on it is hard to cover it all and there are sure to be many changes and dark horses and unknowns. Since Culturebot is still unfunded (please consider making a donation through Fractured Atlas) we’ll not be able to provide consistent ongoing reporting throughout festival season, but we’ll do what we can.  Hopefully this will at least bring a modicum of order to the chaos and help contextualize the work and control the madness!

Happy New Year and we’ll see you in NYC in January!

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