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First Person: Reflections On The Form Of Prelude.12 (NYC) #prelude12

Though Prelude.12 addressed four themes, this organizing principle was the most privately critical aspect of the 3-day festival’s form as audience members leafed through the program for the color-coding blocks sorting the performances, lectures, video, and readings into the categories Manifestos, Imitation of Participation(the largest category), The Future of the Cinema is the Stage, and Return of the Singspiel. Beyond these four themes, formal aspects of the festival far better activated and echoed the most politically and theoretically driven concerns of the experimental performance it presented.

Artists across performance disciplines have worked for decades to unify form and content, to align logistic and social structures of performance events with the ideological positions of theatrical material, and to “embody” rather than “dictate” messages and visions. Artists working today with such concerns do not often have the opportunity to engage with presentation structures that respond to and are unified with their work in this way. The ways in which Prelude.12, as a presentation structure and as a festival, did just this, can perhaps be discussed though three formal areas; these clusters of considerations include economic subversion, collective envisioning, and self-reflexivity, directly unifying the forms of the festival with the work it involved.

First, a basic element of Prelude’s “economic subversion” can be found in the freeness of things, literally. It goes without saying that the “de-hierarchizing” effect of free admission informs Prelude to its core. The political and social importance of this fact is easy to argue and also to identify as part of values shared by artists working in experimental performance, as we heard throughout the Manifestos on the first day. But perhaps more interesting is the concrete relational shifts that even slight alternations of economic structures can catalyze. For Performa.12, free admission increased the quality of audience, which can only be described as a “wet, cozy” type of effect. The situation involved audience members waiting in long lines outside the Segal for up to an hour, talking and looking at books laid out on the Ugly Duckling Press table. Contrary to what many production managers believe, it seems that people don’t need to spend money to know that work is worth time and attention: the sheer demand for the work and its ideas makes that obvious. By the time audiences were inside the theater, openness to anything experienced is a result of sheer gratitude to be one of the lucky few getting a seat. Additionally, stomachs don’t rumble during silent moments because nobody spent their entire food budget for the week on a ticket…Relatedly, self-producing artists and ensembles were the majority at the festival, reflecting a shift in the theater community’s production models at large as artists respond to demand for the work and audience quality rather than to establishment morays and subscriber expectations.

Prelude’s focus on economic inclusivity found alignment with Mac Wellman’s Plosion of Imps, written in introduction to 13P’s conclusive publication (read by David Greenspan during Manifestos) as he focused on the grassroots organization of the 13P collective and its ability to directly address the playwrights’ “social betters” and produce their own work. Inside the work like The Popcorn Kid (Myles Kane), Corina Copp’s SUSANSWERPHONE, and River of Gruel, Pile of Pigs: The Requisite Gesture(s) of Narrow Approach (created by 4 theater companies from Austin, TX in collaboration with Sybil Kempson) appropriative aesthetics (in addition to themes and content) continued to deal with class, social de-hierarchization, and public access to performance work through use of pop culture on the most aesthetic end of the spectrum, collaborative production models, and “documentary” tactics.

Second, a matrix of situational aspects enhanced the atmosphere of “conference” and de-emphasized the ‘industry showcase’ feeling that many other festivals never escape: for Prelude, curators have not simply gathered the artists immediately around them, thus the presence of an experimental theater community wound solely around theorectical and creative concerns feels more tangible during Prelude than any other time; also because the festival is free and because of social interaction while waiting in line, artists stay to see one another’s work and end up discussing their own work and that of their peers; also industry professionals, arts administrators, academics, artists, critical writers, curators, and dedicated spectators (through participatory work) are all included in the festival, combining lenses and frameworks, making Prelude more about collective practice of the field and processes within artistic communities rather than presentation of products.

This “conference” atmosphere, understood perhaps as bent towards collective theorization, also mirrored the performance work itself: unifying disciplinary attempts were central to a solo performance by Juliana Francis-Kelly, in which the artist shared home-made cookies while accessing multiple double helixes of personal and mythological meaning, in the audience-performance situation constructed by Annie Dorsen via a live karaoke of political speeches, to the inflating black plastic mass of Big Art Group’s performative manifesto, and through the exploding constellation of potential interpretations in Yelena Gluzman’s Worman.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the event of Prelude acknowledges its own form relentlessly throughout the works-in-progress and other festival situations. Tech is done live and often in full view, the curators speak, artists introduce the members of their ensemble, audience members get up out of their seats to become artists. Artists are constantly seen “dealing with” their own performance situation, entering into a kind of collusion with their spectators via jokes, glances, body language, and accidentally mic-ed side conversation. Likewise, work-in-progress showings inherently deal with their own frames, as they are expected to change, evolve, and continue outside of their immediate performance. These acknowledgements of form and time beyond any immediate “suspended belief” enable artistic content to simply continue and expand a collectivized experience, contextualizing material asculture not as commodity. The self-reflexivity of the festival at large was perhaps most concisely unified with work like Niegel Smith’s tour-performance Eat Me, Drink Me, Homo and the erotic poetry delivered by Joe Ranono (Jess Barbagallo) that reflected the perspectives and identities of Prelude.12 participants and audiences, keeping the crowd in Rhymes-with-Albee theater-joke stitches.

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Esther Neff is from Indiana, USA. She organizes/cognizes, writes, performs, and makes.

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