Mass Live Arts: Made in the Berkshires
Back in early 2005, the New Yorks Times ventured out to Williamsburg, Brooklyn to report on the then-new trend of performance spaces opening. Along with covering the Brick and Galapagos, the author spoke to Amy Huggans, a co-founder of the Collapsable Giraffe and its shared performance space (with Radiohole) the Collapsable Hole. In a conclusion that spoke to the rapid gentrification of Brooklyn, the author mentioned the possibility that artists would sooner rather than later be forced out by rising prices. To which Huggans responded: “We love our space in Williamsburg, but the second we can no longer find a good dive bar to drink at after rehearsal, we’re out of here.”
The ironic twist to Huggans’s comment is that while the Collapsable Hole closed (in spectacular, if sudden, fashion) on September 14, 2013, you can still find a good (or at least decent) dive bar right nearby: The Levee, where, a couple weeks ago, Ilan Bachrach suggested we meet “near the old ’Hole,” to discuss the increasingly successful second act of his career. After emerging as a performer with the likes of NTUSA and Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Bachrach is currently opening the third year of his annual performance festival Mass Live Arts in the Berkshires, July 6-26. (You can read his brief, year 1 interview with Culturebot here.)
It’s a long way to have come, as he recounted sitting on the back-side of the Levee’s wrap-around bar, our conversation overshadowed by jukebox music that the cheap PBR’s more or less made up for. After graduating with a degree in English lit and theater from Skidmore College, he made his way to New York to try his hand at being a professional actor, which resulted in such career high-points as being an extra in a mid-2000s Verizon wireless TV commercial, or playing Santa Claus for a Japanese morning show’s “live from the South Street Seaport” Christmas in New York segment.
“I studied theater at Skidmore, and mostly what they taught you was how to make theater at Skidmore,” he recalled somewhat ruefully. “There was no education of what theater was now, or how to make a living or have a life making theater. My last term, they had a course on how to be an actor in New York, which consisted of, one, ‘Join the union.’ Join the union! Seriously, what kind of advice is that? And two, read listings in Backstage magazine. ‘It comes in on Thursday, but you can read it Wednesday online.’ And that was the advice. That was all I had.”
Needless to say, he—like virtually everyone who follows that course—flailed for some time. With overpriced headshots in hand, he did the audition and cattle-call rounds, landing odd jobs, and getting more depressed at the notion that what little he was getting was hopelessly unfulfilling. By the mid-2000s, he had begun to pursue a more remunerative career in real estate as a broker and, later, analyst, a job that had him shilling refinance options to well-paid “doctors in Long Island.” His primary performance outlet was his ongoing internship at Upright Citizens’ Brigade, which permitted him to continue taking free improv comedy classes (improv being a field he first explored in college) and which offered him some community, and a place “to go see shows every night.” But increasingly adrift personally and professionally, he considered relocating, and a missed flight back from a job interview in Florida cost him his internship.
His discovery of experimental contemporary performance, where he eventually found a home, happened by chance, in a quick series of fits and starts, beginning with a notorious performance at the Collapsable Hole in late 2005.
“Collapsable Giraffe was doing Letters from the Earth. I was sitting next to Ian Belton…do you know Ian Belton?” I could only answer that, in fact, I did.
“At one point, he threw a beer bottle and hit Tara Webb in the face,” he continued.
“Was he drunk?”
“Was Ian drunk? Oh yeah,” Bachrach continued. “There were a lot of parts of that show which were really about the audience. When you walk in there’s this teletype based on who walks in, gossiping about them. There’s a part of the show where they announce, ‘Someone has to leave right now, you know who you are!’ And it got really fucking awkward. I didn’t know anyone there, I didn’t know the people in the scene, so I was like, this is fucking real. This is terrifying. I hope this person leaves, whoever you are! And then Ian threw the bottle. There was a real fight around that, there was a fist fight, between Ian and Iver [Findlay]. Then there was a part of the show where they have this mattress with speakers on either side of it, like a DJ booth, but the speakers aren’t facing the audience, they’re facing the wall with a bar on the other side. So the owner from the bar knocks on the door and barges in and starts yelling, ‘What the fuck!’ So there were a lot of fights that night, some real, some fake. I had no idea what was going on, I thought someone was gonna die, there were definitely people getting beat up, and it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen.”
The intensity and realness inspired Bachrach to fire off an email to the director asking to join on with the company somehow, addressing his email directly to “Bob Wonder,” a pseudonym likely used by Collapsable Giraffe’s Jim Findlay. (Asked about it for fact-checking purposes, Findlay simply declared, characteristically gruff, in a text message that I shouldn’t “trust anything that guy says,” in reference to Bachrach, which I interpret as a joke.) As it happens, most of the insanity was indeed unplanned insanity, including the outraged “sous chef from that rat hole next door” (to use the nomenclature provided by commenter “Bob Wonder” on Culturebot’s comments at the time), as well the events with Belton, later recounted in the first of an intermittent series of Culturebot columns by one “Ivan Bellman.”
Bachrach’s career as a performer only really took off some months later, following his termination at UCB. Still adrift (the Collapsable Hole only got back to him months after his message), his old college friend Jamie Peterson, the founder of performance group the Paper Industry, offered him the chance to perform as part of NTUSA regular Yehuda Duenyas’s One Million Forgotten Moments, in September 2007. Performed site-specific in a jewelbox theater set inside a storefront at 38 Park Row near City Hall, the group show featured more than 100 artists performing in the street for an audience glimpsing them through the front windows.
With a line-up consisting of the likes of Radiohole, NTUSA, as well as some “people I’ve never heard of since,” Bachrach got caught up—as at the Collapsable Hole more than a year before—in the ecstatic, improvisatory chaos of it.
“We were early on in the line-up,” he explained of the odd-ball performance Peterson choreographed, involving eating hotdogs and a “sixteen-count shimmy.” “When we were done, you’d hang out off to either side of the window, so the audience can’t see you, but you can watch what’s going on. Anyway, there was something else going on, we were done, and I see this truck stopped at a red light. And I sort of said, ‘Oh, I’ve got this thing I gotta do,’ so I took off my clothes, hopped on the back of the truck, and the truck just slowly rolled by that window…and then I jumped off before it got to the Brooklyn Bridge. Afterward Yehuda was…” Bachrach paused, grinning. “He was into it. Thought it was the perfect thing. So I helped strike the next day, and afterward Yehuda asked me to come to this reading at their apartment. It was a reading of Chautauqua!.”
NTUSA’s Chautauqua! became Bachrach’s first substantial professional success, as he workshopped the show from its first presentation at BAX under Young Jean Lee’s artist-in-residence curation and followed along to the later tour. Bachrach began performing more and more widely, and several years ago landed a career-altering role with Nature Theater as part of the company performing Life and Times, which kept Bachrach on tour and abroad performing and developing for several years.
The chain of events that led to the creation of Mass Live Arts began with Nature Theater’s demanding schedule. For many years, Bachrach lived in a rent-stabilized apartment in Williamsburg around North 8th Street and Havemeyer. During an early summer two-week break from Nature Theater in 2012, while developing episodes 3 and 4 of Life and Times, Bachrach returned home to find a eviction notice disguised as a rent bump of over 100 percent. While clearly illegal (Bachrach recalls that other residents successfully sued the landlord), he had neither the time to fight the rent increase nor to find a new apartment, let alone the resources to immediately leave it vacant for months on end. With few other options, he sold off most of his furniture, piled the rest of his belongings into a van, and hauled them off to his parents’ retirement home in the Berkshires.
Six months later when he returned on another break from Nature Theater’s relentless schedule, he retreated to their place for a working vacation. Particularly, Bachrach was struggling with the demands of vocal projection without amplification in such large houses for extended periods. Intending to train himself up to the task, he quickly determined that the acoustics of the living room were insufficient to the task. “So I got in the car and drove down the street to the first big theater I could find,” as he put it, which happened to be at Bard College at Simon’s Rock’s campus in Great Barrington, MA.
Simon’s Rock was founded in 1966, and since 1979 has been part of Bard College, based in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. An experimental undergraduate program, it’s designed for students to enter a college-track program after their sophomore or junior year of high school.
“After a couple days” rehearsing there, he explained, “they were like, ‘Hey, who are you? What are you doing here?’ And the person who had asked me that was Sandy Cleary, who, as it turned out, had been Reza Abdoh’s production manager.”
Such was born an increasingly fruitful partnership. Sandy Cleary, the rentals and facilities coordinator for the theater department, was well acquainted with the work Bachrach was involved in, and discussions between them quickly led to the idea of Simon’s Rock potentially hosting contemporary performance makers in off-months, when the facilities weren’t in heavy use.
To hear Bachrach tell it, the idea of creating a forum to present the sort of work he was interested in goes back to the days he was working in real estate. “I knew how to make a budget,” he recalled, “and so I’d play with spreadsheets. And it was apparent that it wasn’t possible to do it in New York.”
New York also didn’t exactly need it. “I got back from touring with Nature Theater and was looking to work on something and was bluntly reminded that there’s five places to present that work in America,” Bachrach explained. “Or ten places in America, but five are in New York.”
The Berkshires, on the other hand, are different. Economically depressed in the post-industrial era, the region has redeveloped around various artisanal pursuits, becoming a destination for foodies interested in local agriculture and food, which in turn provides an important seasonal tourism boost. Relatedly, the region boasts an increasingly robust set of cultural offerings, most notably the Tanglewood Music Festival, held annually in Lenox, Massachusettes. Mass Live Arts was born as an attempt to bring contemporary performing arts into the mix.
For a month each summer, Mass Live Arts makes use of Simon’s Rock’s facilities, offering performances and residencies to artists. Only in its third year, MLA has already provided crucial support to an award-winning piece, Andrew Schneider’s YOUARENOWHERE (see here for the Culturebot profile), which benefited from a developmental residency in 2014 before premiering at the Invisible Dog in Brooklyn in January 2015, as part of PS 122’s COIL Festival, for which it won an Obie Award this spring. It returns in finished form to MLA this year from July 9-11.
Asked to describe his approach to curation, Bachrach explains, “I choose shows that are infectious, that make me want to jump out of my seat. I choose shows that I want to do. Shows that have me banging my head against the wall, saying, ‘Why didn’t I do that?’ Or, ‘Why didn’t I think of doing that?’”
Somewhat predictably, then, the line-up features artists he’s worked with in the past. Radiohole’s Inflatable Frankenstein visited in MLA’s first year, and this year, MLA plays host to the premiere of Radiohole’s Tarzana (July 23-25). Radiohole’s extended family member Joe Silovsky is bringing his mad-robotic-scientist theater piece Send for the Million Men up July 16-18, a piece that won raves when it played NYC at HERE Arts Center in December 2014.
Faye Driscoll, as part of a multi-year residency at MLA, will be working on the third-part of her dance/performance trilogy Thank You For Coming, tentatively entitled Play. As part of a 10-day residency, the Faye Driscoll Group will be doing a work-in-progress showing July 14. And finally, responding perhaps to his own struggle to find a space in the contemporary performance world, MLA offers an ambitious internship and training program for volunteers who agree to work on shows, conducted by Phil Soltanoff, which may well be the least b.s. internship program I know of. They present a work on Sunday, July 26. Also in the mix are a pair of installation pieces. The first is Daniel Fish’s Eternal, a video piece in which two actors were recorded performing the final moments of Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in different ways for more than two hours. The second is a gallery piece developed by NTUSA entitled A New Rhetorical Guide to Gesture and Action. Inspired by an 1822 acting guide, the show includes 36 illustrations by Jesse Hawley of downtown performing artists reinterpreting the original.
Bachrach has also internalized the need to provide context and community to the work. With regard to the former, MLA features an annual film series documenting the development of contemporary performance practices by showcasing an artist or company. “It’s to grow my audience’s understanding,” he explained. “This isn’t something that’s just happening right now, it’s something that’s been happening, and we’re somewhere on the trajectory of it.” Last year MLA showcased films of Reza Abdoh’s work; this year, it covers the catalog of the Wooster Group.
As for developing community around the work, Bachrach has engaged local businesses with the intention of making MLA an integrated part of the landscape that showcases not just great art but the innovative producers helping redefine the region. Referencing the local agriculture pride and its attendant hashtag #madeintheberkshires, MLA abandons the dry conventions of traditional audience engagement. Stating flatly that “talk-backs make me want to die,” MLA hosts post-show barbecues. The drink selection is curated by local distributors to highlight the best of what the Berkshires is brewing; the meat is provided in partnership with a local butcher who helps arrange donations from local ranchers.
“At the barbecue, I know the cow we’re serving,” Bachrach said. “I look at the same sky it does.”
As Bachrach summed it up, clearly proud of MLA’s local collaboration and fledgling success at making the Berkshires an outpost in the contemporary performance landscape, “It’s important to me to contribute to that economy. I’m growing art. I’m not feeding people’s mouths, I’m feeding their brains.”