Building A Legacy at Prelude
The CUNY Graduate Center was cool last week. Really really cool. Its sterile, bright hallways were full of the current and future luminaries of downtown NYC theatre scene—culture makers who rarely have the chance to sit together under the same roof. Performers and audience walked under fluorescents in Midtown, wearing animal costumes (and sometimes actual animals), carrying instruments, arm in arm with collaborators, friends and colleagues.
But Prelude is much more than an excuse to flash up the halls of dreary Midtown. Prelude is a much needed opportunity to commune with colleagues and fellow artists for three days. It’s the kickoff of the downtown season (recently called “our labor day”). The Festival has established itself as a unique event—a yearly tasting menu of artists and projects that highlight and celebrate the bravery of process. Prelude asks its artists to be daring and confident, to show 30 minutes of a new piece, with little to no tech or context. We’re allowed to see inside the artist’s brain and process and go on the journey through a work in progress. Artists and audience alike are asked to dive into the unknown, with the right amount of fearlessness that allows us all to cheer and not judge (too much) the not finished piece. This ability to dive into the unknown takes a certain amount of adventure and audacity that I sometimes forget about. In a world that’s obsessed with product, the beauty of Prelude is in continually asking its artists not to focus on an end result, but to grapple with big questions and show us their seams, sometimes literally.
I had the unique opportunity to watch Sarah Maxfield take her installation apart, seam by seam. The CUNY facilities department ordered Maxwell to take her piece, Non Linear Lineage, down shortly after it began. Only a handful of viewers were able to see the installation. The sad irony of it all is that the installation focused on preserving a physical and audio archive of the legacy of NYC downtown performances and spaces. As she put the programs, costumes, posters, ticket stubs, interviews and ephemera back into their boxes, Maxwell spoke of her attempt to create an intimate museum of memory of these performances. Non-Linear Lineage attempts to remember all artists who have contributed to the history of downtown theatre, adding multiple perspectives to a conversation previously dominated by performance theory and theatre history textbooks who memorialize a select few. Maxfield has mapped out the shoulders on which downtown theatre stands, the artists who preceded Prelude, when the rent was cheaper and space was plentiful. Many of the artists and spaces have left the business (or this world). In the face of her own installation reduced to a photo exhibit, Maxfield perseveres, endures, and continues to create.
The entire event’s goal of bringing together the downtown theatre community, a dispersed crowd that is rarely all together in the same place, speaks to us relying on the constants that we do have, our people, our ideas and our drive to create. Prelude has become a staple of this community, creating stability in the shifting producing environment that we all grapple with. It has created the building blocks for the future of American performance, asking us to all connect, commune and converse. As we leave these three days with new ideas, friends, collaborators and gossip, I reflect on the ideas and legacy that have been brought to the table. To be surrounded by the community that informs the American theatre scene makes Prelude necessary for the future of the art. The entire structure of the festival, artists programming artists, focus on process, and the creation of a home tells me that this community has nothing to worry about, even with the ever rising financial difficulty, loss of spaces and burn out rate. Prelude 2014 taught me that this community will endure, that the future of performance and downtown NYC theatre burns ever more brightly. The halls of CUNY may have been returned to their bustle of “normal” study, but the legacy of Prelude still lingers.
Hannah Wolf is a stage director, dramaturge, teacher and creative producer originally from Juneau Alaska. She’s developed work with playwrights and devising ensembles at companies such as Perseverance Theatre, the Vineyard Theatre, Theatre in the Rough, Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant, Elephant in the Room, Writopia Lab, The Secret City and The Kennedy Center. She has a BA from Western Washington University, trained with the SITI Company and is a member of the Lincoln Center Directors Lab, a core company member of Superhero Clubhouse and part of the 2014/15 Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab. She recently returned to the US after spending a year in Bucharest Romania on a Fulbright Research Grant and curates the blog Ask A Director. Find her on the internet at Hannahjwolf.com