GET MADE: New Posts at MESTC Blog

I’m a guest blogger for the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center’s blog this week. I wrote a preview post in advance of a special screening and panel discussion, and then covered the event itself. I’m republishing it here:

On Monday, November 1st, the Segal Center hosted a marathon screening of MADE HERE: Performing Artists on Work + Life in NYC. From 3pm – 6pm, audience members had the opportunity to watch the full episodes of this innovative web series; while they’re also available on the project’s website, seeing these engaging videos projected on the big screen added heft and even a little drama to the short film-lets. As their website describes:

MADE HERE is a documentary series and website focusing on the challenging and eclectic lives of New York City performing artists. Over two seasons, the series explores ten essential issues confronting the artists that make this city the creative capital of the world. A collage of intimate interviews, performances and behind-the-scenes footage, MADE HERE mirrors the rich diversity of the artists and communities they serves.

Season One rolled out from May through September 2010 with three episodes each month on topics related to: Creative Real Estate, Day & Night Jobs, Family Balance, Activism, and Technology. In the first season, MADE HERE featured more than 40 performing artists representing the disciplines of theater, dance, opera, music, puppetry, media arts and other performing arts genres. Season Two will premiere Spring 2011.

The discussion held at 6:30pm after the screening suggested that MADE HERE also has the potential to tap into some of the more controversial issues related to the performing artist’s life in 2010. As host Frank Hentschker noted in his greetings, the panel represented the full “food chain” of the performing arts in NYC–  administrators, performers, producers, critics: Moira Brennan, Program Director, MAP Fund; Gabri Christa, Filmmaker/Choreographer and MADE HERE Artist; Andy Horwitz, Curator, LMCC and Founder,; Mikeah Ernest Jennings, Performer and MADE HERE Artist; Ginny Louloudes, Executive Director, A.R.T./New York; Helen Shaw, Theater Critic, Time Out New York; Kim Whitener, Producing Director, HERE; and co-curator of the event, producer, performer, writer and activist Tanya Selvaratnam.

After a quick demo and walk-through of the MADE HERE website, the conversation began broadly, as the panelists were challenged to articulate what it is about New York City that continually attracts such massive numbers of aspiring artists. Andy Horwitz discussed the concept of New York as a mythology– a place that artists want to go to live their own version of a mythic past. Others acknowledged the basic infrastructure of the city: from buildings converted into 99-seat theatres in the 1970s to lumber yards to specialty dance stores, the city has what artists need. Others acknowledged that New York was a place that just worked for them– they hit lucky streaks when arriving, and soon found themselves supported by a community, one that they couldn’t leave.

Outside of sharing ideas of what makes this city so vibrant, much time was spent on its many obstacles. One panelist reflected on a moment in one of the episodes in which choreographer Elizabeth Streb reveals that she was thirty-six years old before she was able to even consider leaving her job as a line cook and live the life of a working artist that was not fractured between exhausting day jobs and night-time creative production. Does it need to be so difficult? Did all of those years of struggle make her a better artist?  And was it always so difficult, or are some of the myriad challenges inherent in the life of the performing artist new and specific to New York City today?

The question of too much performance presented a meaty topic for the panelists; while the videos are largely celebratory of any size or shape production, and some of the panelists were quick to praise the sheer quantity of performance opportunities in the city, Moira Brennan from the MAP Fund mentioned a recent initiative of the Collective Arts Think Tank, in which it was suggested that less work might sometimes be the right answer to the over-supply and lack of demand. If you haven’t raised the capital, why forge ahead with an under-funded production?

This tricky zone of labor, value, and the arts turned out to be a fascinating tinderbox for the spirited panel, leading to many large questions: who is to say that there is too much work in New York City? Is a production that can barely afford the shoelaces of its actors necessarily not ready to be presented? Do artists feel a pressure to continually remain active for the critics, and, therefore, continually present half-baked work? Do too many artists seek the celebrity of being on stage, when really the field needs more innovative people pursuing producing and other less “glamorous” roles?

The Q&A session was just as lively. A number of audience members questioned the very language of the panel and accompanying films: “making it,” and “success,” struck one audience member as an attempt to validate a star system through these films, one that was wholly unrelated to the quality of work. It was clear, however, by that point that every panelist had a genuine appreciation for all of these tangled realities; their collective passion for the lives and well-being of the city’s performing artists was the real heart of the wide-ranging conversation.