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New performance, New York

Chris Kohn

Chris Kohn is a theatre director based in Melbourne. He is a graduate of the University of NSW and VCA School of Drama, Artistic Director of Stuck Pigs Squealing and Artistic Associate at Arena Theatre Company.

Gantner at PS122

It’s 4 months since Melbourne’s Vallejo Gantner beat 300 other applicants to be announced as the new Artistic Director of PS122, New York’s famed centre for innovative performance. He took up official duties on January 31, appointed on a platform of bringing an international focus to the venue. Gantner proved his qualifications in his tenure as Artistic Director of the Dublin Fringe Festival over the last 3 years, using his broad knowledge of contemporary arts practice and entrepreneurial spirit to transform a relatively minor festival into an important gathering of some of the most challenging emerging artists from around the world. The board of PS122 would no doubt have been particularly impressed with Gantner’s success in bringing to Dublin 3 of New York’s most innovative young companies, the irreverently titled National Theatre of the United States of America (NTUSA), Radiohole and Elevator Repair Service, the latter to work in collaboration with emerging Dublin artists.

Gantner faces a daunting task at PS122. His predecessor, Mark Russell, had been in the position for 21 years, was well loved, and instrumental in the early development of some of New York’s most successful performing artists including the late Spalding Gray, Karen Finley and Eric Bogosian as well as more recently established companies. For many, PS122 has always been not so much a New York Institution as an East Village neighbourhood venue. The artistic community of the area has a sense of ownership over the space and Gantner’s directorship will be subject to extreme scrutiny.

Gantner intends to encourage "an environment that creates a 2 way bridge between emerging New York artists and emerging international artists" in order to challenge what he sees as an "isolationist tendency in American arts." The manifestations of this dialogue are yet to be seen, but there is certainly the potential for initiating fruitful conversations between New York and Australian-based artists.

But what is the shape of the New York experimental theatre and performance scene today? Where is the next generation of Richard Foremans, Wooster Groups and Mabou Mines? These are questions I had very much in mind when I visited New York last year for the first time. I was there for a month, presenting The Black Swan of Trespass with Melbourne-based Stuck Pigs Squealing Theatre as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. Four companies in particular caught my attention: Radiohole, Elevator Repair Service, Richard Maxwell’s NYC Players and NTUSA. None of these companies have been to Australia, although most have toured in Europe.

NYC Players

Richard Maxwell has been creating performance in New York since 1994. He moved to New York to seek out the Wooster Group with whom he interned before establishing the NYC Players. Over the last 10 years Maxwell has developed a particular brand of performance where "acting" is eschewed and "being" is the goal. "If my style is anything, it’s anti-style. It’s about coming as close to neutrality as you can." He works with a combination of trained actors and people who have received no specialist training at all. His interest in non-performers is based on the unique vocabulary they bring to the stage, each one with their own set of rules of engagement. Maxwell believes this disarms the audience and calls for a new way of seeing. His plays, with titles like Burger King and Drummer Wanted, chart the ebb and flow of the everyday in the lives of ordinary people, finding beauty and metaphysics in the miniscule rhythms of human interaction.

Showcase played to audiences of 15 in a hotel room at the Holiday Inn in Philadelphia as part of the excellent Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. It is a simple story of a man, played by Maxwell regular Jim Fletcher, who encounters his shadow in a hotel room while on a business trip. His shadow is an actor covered head to toe with a tight black body stocking–a striking and disturbing image. At times the shadow offers a facsimile of the actor’s movements with great precision, at other times he seems not to be bothered and at one point he even leaves the room, through the audience, to the bathroom. For half an hour the actor talks quietly, with little intonation, giving voice to his interior monologue as audience members lean against a wall or sit awkwardly on the bed. He often addresses the audience directly, yet with an odd solipsistic detachment. He suggests, without judgment, that we are not welcome: "I close the door of the hotel room behind me, and the only thing I want is to feel myself completely alone." As the monotony deepens, the audience members are called upon to assign emotional valencies to words and phrases in the absence of any clear distinctions. The lack of ‘characterisation’ also acts to remove the utterances from fixed moral and social codes, and the audience becomes complicit in the character’s amoral universe.

The piece ends with a song. It is not beautifully sung, and the melody meanders in the way that a conversation might. The backing music, a sequence of slowly shifting chords, is played on a dictaphone held in the actor’s hands. This is a device used by Maxwell in earlier pieces, and it creates a sense of extreme fragility and vulnerability.


Radiohole is a New York company which has been investigating innovative approaches to the notion of acting since 1998. There are 3 permanent members and a host of occasional collaborators. Radiohole’s early work was presented at the Performing Garage on Wooster Street and at Richard Foreman’s Ontological Theatre, and the influences are evident. For the past 4 years their base has been at the Collapsable (sic) Hole, a (barely) converted garage in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Here they are able to develop their work over long periods, usually 18 months to 2 years. I saw their most recent creation, Radiohole is Still My Name, on my last night in the US, and it was a fittingly excessive and vertiginous experience.

Radiohole Is Still My Name is aptly described on the company website as "a spaghetti docu-drama guest-starring Guy Debord." Guy Debord, Situationist philosopher and author of The Society of the Spectacle, was an influence on the punk movement, cited by artists such Malcolm McLaren and Jamie Reid. And there is more than a little of the punk aesthetic in Radiohole’s work, in its intoxicated interweaving of dense political commentary and pure libidinal excess. In this show, the cast of 4 indulge in bitter personal arguments, gun fights (using party poppers for sound effects), beer guzzling, binge eating as they reflect on the current financial and moral woes of the company. The actors play versions of themselves, answering to their own names.

By the end of the show, which ran for an hour, the space had been completely transformed by the actors. As they cleaned up the mess of food, beer, props and discarded costumes, most audience members hung around for more beer and music. I left high on the buzz that only a rich blend of deconstruction and drink can induce.


NTUSA has been presenting work in New York since 2001, predominantly in non-theatre spaces including a basement beneath a 42nd Street shopfront, a Brooklyn bar and a tiny room above the Henry Miller Theater. I saw their most recent production, Placebo Sunrise, at Dublin Fringe where it was included as part of the focus on theatre of the Americas.

Set on a nightmarish cruise ship, all the action of Placebo Sunrise takes place in a long corridor that extends back from a tiny semi-circular thrust. The form is surreal vaudeville, a 2 act pastiche of cheesy Broadway dance numbers, Beckettian expressions of existential isolation, slapstick and music hall. Yehuda Duenyas and Ryan Bronz as Garvey and Superpant$ perform a kind of Vladimir/Estragon double act with the one constantly battling to understand the nature of his predicament while the other is quite happy to be taken on a wild journey, no questions asked. There is an ontological slipperiness to the form that bears a family resemblance to Radiohole and Foreman. It was an impressive production, very assured, conceptually tight and very funny.


My experiences seeing the work of New York based emerging independent companies was really invigorating. These companies share a spirit of adventure and critical inquiry combined with a range of skills developed over years of continual engagement. The companies have no doubt benefited from support, in the form of mentorship and resources, from the previous generation of experimental companies. This kind of industry mentorship is something that is only possible in theatre cultures where conceptual, process-orientated companies have a shot at longevity and stability.

I hope that we are able to see some of this work in Australia in the near future and look forward to the possibility of a productive dialogue between independent New York companies and their counterparts in Australia. Hopefully such trans-Pacific exchange will be facilitated through Gantner’s appointment in New York.

Chris Kohn is a theatre director based in Melbourne. He is a graduate of the University of NSW and VCA School of Drama, Artistic Director of Stuck Pigs Squealing and Artistic Associate at Arena Theatre Company.

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 36

© Chris Kohn; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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