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Painting the town Essay

In Sentimental Journeys, her essay on the 1989 Central Park “wilding,” Joan Didion argues that Newyork is defined in the public mind by narratives that “obscure not only the city’s actual tensions of race and class but also the civic and commercial arrangements that rendered those tensions irreconcilable.” As exhibit A, Didion offers the testimony of Central Park’s architect Frederick Olmstead, who feared that while Central Park could provide a haven for bourgeois New Yorkers during the day, at night criminals and have-nots might find a refuge there. Accordingly, Olmstead sank the transverse roads below grade level and insisted on bright lighting to “prevent marauders pursued by the police from escaping into the obscurity of the park.”

Painting the town

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Despite this evidence of class division inscribed in the very drafting of Central Park, the wilding spurred opportunistic politicians and angry joggers and op-ed writers to imagine another scenario. They claimed the park had once been safe and now was not. During and after the trial, there were those who insisted that going into the park at any hour was their right, as if they could, by sheer will, pave over social and economic grooves that had been worn into the city’s asphalt for at least a century.

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Since much theatre in New York also relies upon those sentimental narratives Didion detects – ignoring race and class issues while yearning nostalgically for an imaginary past – it is at once refreshing to talk with Anne Hamburger, artistic director of the site specific company En Garde Arts.

For seven years, Hamburger has produced theatre from a network of dilapidated offices, the most recent of which is on the second floor of a downtown Manhattan parking garage. On one side of the room, a row of windows overlooks an indoor sea of Mercedes and Volvos. Another wall is pocked with electrical outlets – proof, according to Hamburger, that the office used to be an illegal gambling outfit. The whole space is about the size of a one-bedroom floor-through. Grubby furniture fills the front room, where the two full-time En Garde Arts staffers stare into computer terminals.

A pressed-board table dominates Hamburger’s office. Black filing cabinets sulk in one corner. A Post-it on the wall nudges the staff to “raise $30,000” by August. Hamburger jokes that En Garde Arts manages to produce two shows a year because they have “a low administrative overhead.”

Her office could easily be the site of one of her own pieces. In this drama, Hamburger could star as herself: producer of a site-specific company tiptoeing through a minefield of sites, each of which stands empty, unused, a testimony to neglect and abandonment: a sentimental narrative waiting to explode.

Hamburger is the Joseph Papp of the 21st century,” says Ben Mordecai, chairman of the theatre administration department at the Yale School of Drama, where Hamburger received her degree in 1986. “Joe Papp did his first work in the park. Anne did too,” Mordecai points out, referring to En Garde Arts’s first work, The Ritual Project, which took place on a grassy knoll in Central Park in 1987.

Mordecai remembers that Hamburger, who studied sculpture and performance art before attending Yale, knew what her first project would be within two weeks of her arrival in New Haven. “She wanted to produce The Odyssey on the banks of the Charles River. I told her there were no rules against that, but that it was impossible,” he chuckles. Mordecai continued to play devil’s advocate by alternately encouraging Hamburger and impressing upon her the difficulty of her self-appointed mission. Hamburger never wavered. Instead of doing the traditional assignment for third-year administrative students – an internship at Yale Repertory Theatre – Hamburger asked to start a site-specific theatre company. En Garde Arts was born.

The fledgling producer’s focus on site-specific theatre stems partly from her frustration with the not-for-profit model. “Artists have to come up with new ways of doing business,” she announces, predicting that even if the National Endowment for the Arts survives its present crises, funds will be limited. She imagines En Garde Arts’s events binding together a diverse community: devout theatregoers and baby boomers who grew up with television and rock concerts, neighborhoods where residents wouldn’t ordinarily go to theatre, and doyens of drama. Hamburger’s vision differs, however, from that of Corner-stone Theater’s Bill Rauch, whose company works with host communities in areas where theatre is rarely seen to develop gritty interpretations of classic plays. While both Rauch and Hamburger agree that theatre has to reach a wider audience, Hamburger eschews the classics, prizing eclectic voices influenced by other disciplines.

Because Hamburger works so closely with areas of New York unaccustomed to theatre, she prides herself on neighborhood advocacy. Although En Garde Arts does not give away tickets to average theatregoers, it donates batches to neighborhood residents. Hamburger is also a hands-on producer, approaching her projects as part of an artistic team. One of her first collaborators, playwright Mac Wellman, gives Hamburger the ultimate compliment when he says that she didn’t treat him “like a widget in a machine.”

Part of her success springs from the types of projects Hamburger takes on. Many of them seem outlandish or undo-able; the odder the better. She brags about her ability to handle projects “nobody else will produce” with a heady combination of naivete and bravado. “Squat Theater said, |We need a goat in our show’; Reza Abdoh said, |I need a 120-foot table’ – and we figured it out,” she asserts as we speed uptown in the company of playwright Charles Mee Jr. to take a look at the gothic expanse of the abandoned Towers Nursing Home on 106th and Central Park West, the site of Mee’s Another Person Is a Foreign Country (1991). Mee’s script initially called for a cast of more than 20, two little people, Siamese twins, and a deaf actor. “Only the Metropolitan Opera or the Towers could have housed Another Person,” Mee jokes. But because the Towers loomed far uptown of the theatre district, the play, a whirling meditation on the plight of social outcasts, was able to speak to a broader audience than Metropolitan Opera subscribers.

Since beginning En Garde Arts, Hamburger has commissioned projects in sites as diverse as an auto showroom, the streets of lower Manhattan’s meat-packing district, the lake in Central Park, and a Harlem warehouse. Writing Bad Penny for Hamburger turned playwright Mac Wellman around. In 1988, Hamburger asked Wellman to write a play for Bow Bridge in Central Park. Initially, he shrugged off site-specific theatre as a “gimmick”; but after Hamburger convinced him to visit the bridge, Wellman began to see possibilities. For one thing, the idea of writing a play over running water appealed to him. Site-specific theatre, he thought, might allow him to be both “more universal and more impersonal” under the humbling expanse of the sky. Bad Penny also left room for a spontaneity spawned from collision with the street. Wellman’s odd dialogue confounded the boundary between the play and the natural landscape. The confusion, Wellman says, created a solemn atmosphere and heightened the suspension of disbelief.

Reza Abdoh’s 60-character Father Was a Peculiar Man (1990), which engulfed Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in a flame of pop icons, also used real life as part of his piece. For Abdoh, working site-specifically allowed him to juxtapose the “romance” of the 19th century with the “grittiness” of the 20th. Although Abdoh initially worried about “invading” the lives of the transvestites and drug dealers who lived in the four square-blocks of the meatpacking district where Father was set, he quickly discovered that their haphazard presence added to the play’s earthiness. For Abdoh, the real-life elements in Father merely expressed the symbiotic nature of the situation. Abdoh wanted to preserve that relationship in order to replicate the emotional and cultural duality Father evoked.

Wellman’s Crowbar, produced that same season, grappled with the symbiosis between performer and spectator on a more intimate scale. Staged in the house of the abandoned Victory Theatre at the corner of 42nd and Broadway, Crowbar began with research: Reading the city’s 16 daily newspapers from the last few days of 1900, Wellman was struck by how very little things had changed – these papers reported the kind of quotidian atrocities that would run in the New York Times Metro Section today.

Although Wellman filled his play with turn-of-the-century characters like Oscar Hammerstein (who built the theatre in 1899) and David Belasco (who ran it from 1902 to 1920), he perceived Crowbar as a way to explore “a machine that begins to fall apart,” and bridges “the contradictions of that time and our own.”

While Hamburger allows her collaborators to explore the complexities of New York’s various narratives, her geographical rootlessness demands flexibility. Unlike producers who own their spaces, Hamburger can easily fall prey to forces beyond her control: powerful property owners, the city of New York, and the Safety Commission. When Hamburger was preparing to stage Occasional Grace (1991), a quartet of skits about “cultural differences” and questions of faith at four Manhattan churches, she found herself in the middle of a typical En Garde Arts dilemma. The woman who ran the Mariner’s Temple (Hamburger refuses to release her name) asked to see the script before she gave permission to use the site. Hamburger “hemmed and hawed” and put the woman off by insisting that “even people in the theatre” had trouble reading unfinished scripts. But the woman persisted, and, after reading Occasional Grace, concluded that En Garde Arts’s understanding of faith was unacceptable to her parish. The company found itself in three churches instead of four.

“This is the drama of theatre that doesn’t have a theatre,” begins a video that Hamburger uses to promote her national and international agenda. Between clips from five years of En Garde Arts projects, Hamburger tells a story – the story of how the New York Fire Department evicted At the Chelsea Hotel (1988), which took place in three rooms of the venerable Manhattan lodging.

In one room, the expatriate Hungarian company Squat Theater had created a post-modern version of Little House on the Prairie, complete with a hay-chomping goat who played the youngest Little House sister. In another, performers Steven Wastell and Penny Arcade aped Sid and Nancy on their infamous last night. A third room featured avant-garde composer David Van Tieghem and actor Tina Dudek in a lover’s quarrel.

Hamburger makes the point that the firemen didn’t understand what she was doing. Didn’t she think, they asked, that she would do better to create an ersatz Chelsea Hotel on a proscenium stage, like they were doing with their annual production of Guys and Dolls? Pluckily recounting her run-in with the authorities, Hamburger is a staunch Pollyanna, determined to grin and bear it, and to have her audience – though denied the thrill of seeing Penny Arcade and Stephen Wastell writhe, David Van Tieghem play the room as if it were his own private xylophone, and a goat nuzzle through a mound of dirt – grin and bear it, too. In her brand of theatre, with hazards not unlike those of John Ringling North, the last circus producer to shuttle the Big Top from one American city to the other, setbacks are inevitable. Yet Hamburger’s practiced delivery belies one of the paradoxes of her populist theatre. Hamburger must scurry from bureaucrat to councilman explaining and reexplaining En Garde Arts, because of the way theatre is viewed in the communities she is trying to reach: theatre takes place in a theatre; it has a beginning, a middle and an end; it is about people getting married and living happily ever after.

Hamburger’s forced charm hints at another unfortunate paradox of En Garde Arts: No show that Hamburger has ever produced has avoided fiasco, been a “success” – that is, if success is defined as a piece that set out to be something and became it. En Garde Arts produces not just plays, but reminders that fragmented urban life conceals theatrical promise as well as entropy. Like a bellwether, En Garde Arts points out how limited our concept is of what is theatrical.

Yet Hamburger’s projects often have a chaotic, elusive quality to them, lacking (like the streets on which they’re performed) the narrow dramatic focus, the incidental safety, of the Broadhurst or the Public. In these traditional houses, what happens onstage – the play – is by design more compelling than the periphera. For example, in the rehearsal room, Anne Bogart, director of Another Person Is a Foreign Country, choreographed a finely tuned scene in which actors swayed and turned one after the other in an elegant replication of a human conveyer belt. But during the performance, the beauty got lost in the wild gothic quality of the setting, and was marred by the tinny quality of actors’ voices at the mercy of insufficient amplification.

The story of Hamburger’s latest piece, Vanquished By Voodoo, is also something of a cautionary tale. En Garde Arts commissioned performance artist Laurie Carlos to write a piece to be performed at the historic Freedom National Bank in Harlem. As usual, Hamburger planned a series of community meetings with neighborhood officials. In the months before Vanquished by Voodoo went up, Hamburger contacted businesses within the community to get them to sponsor tickets for “disadvantaged people.” She got in touch with the Housing and Urban Development Commission and Congressman Charles Rangel’s office. She hooked up with local arts groups, sent waves of fliers and posted signs on buildings to announce the upcoming event.

But the bank site fell through. The cavernous, crumbling Dwyer Warehouse at the fork of St. Nicholas Avenue and 125th Street was Hamburger’s second choice. Then Carlos declined to accompany Hamburger to community meetings, claiming that she did not want to be anyone’s “black face in this project.” Left to cope with squabbling factions alone, Hamburger floundered. Hostility oozed from Harlem, which she described as “another city with its own rules.” Here Hamburger was the outsider, a condition she might have blunted, perhaps, if Carlos had supported her.

The Vanquished by Voodoo debacle, though, cannot be entirely explained by neighborhood hostility, since En Garde Arts had encountered resistance before. During rehearsal of Another Person Is a Foreign Country, some of the residents of the welfare hotel next door to the Towers complained about the noise. Hooligans threw bottles at the gates; Hamburger actually chased after some of the boys. In the end, the boys and the welfare hotel residents, leaning out their windows, watched the show again and again.

When, days before the opening of Voodoo, the Safety Commission pronounced the Dwyer Warehouse unsafe, Hamburger and her production team hustled to compensate. They built scaffolding and moved the piece outside, to the front of the building. They barricaded a piece of the street near Hopkins Square and put up bleachers.

But despite such efforts, the surrounding chaos absolutely overpowered the action onstage. The performers could not compete with the constant distractions of the area; at times the audience focused, not on the actors, but down St. Nicholas Avenue, where, it was clear from the wailing of sirens, unspeakable crimes were being committed. Still, neighborhood people slunk around the blue police barriers and sat in the bleachers. A pair of cops got out of their car to watch for awhile. Kids walked and rode their bikes through the area blocked off by barricades. Little girls jumped rope beneath the scaffolding.

In the “narrative” about producing Voodoo that appeared in the pages of the Village Voice, a poorly chosen phrase – “En Garde Arts dared to dream to bring Laurie Carlos to Harlem” – was seized upon to accuse Hamburger of racism. As Beth Coleman put it in her feature-cum-expose in the Voice, Hamburger dared to dream “to hire a chartered bus to carry an audience up to 125th and St. Nicholas Ave.”

Laurie Carlos’s main objection to this version lurked in the implied causal relationship between En Garde Arts’s “dreams” and Carlos’s appearance in Harlem. And Carlos ducing.” People should not have to produce Afro-American work to get grants,” she said in a telephone interview.

In her own “narrative,” Hamburger ignores lesser charges and cuts directly to issues of racism and betrayal. If she had known that Carlos was not going to take part in community meetings, she would never have signed a contract with her, Hamburger insists. What’s remarkable is not the Rashomon effect, but the way these competing narratives, overlook the big picture: All three stories ignore history, the difficulty of En Garde Arts’s undertaking, and the larger uncontrollable forces in New York. Hamburger and Carlos, as Chuck Mee points out, fail to see that they were essentially on the same side.

In the near future, Hamburger hopes to develop what seems to be an oxymoron: more general site-specific work. The two full productions she plans for the 1992-93 season, for example, are mobile, not New York-based. Mac Wellman’s Strange Feet, a conversation between two dinosaurs, will be sent to natural history museums all over the country. Len Jenkin and John Arnone’s actorless Funhouse is a traveling circus with detachable segments that can be set up in any football field. Of the other three pieces in the works, Anne Bogart’s Marathon Dancing, part two of her American Trilogy, can also tour, since, Hamburger says, “there’s an historic ballroom in every city.” Anna Cassio’s Swapmeet, which takes place in a flea market, also seems to “have legs.”

The new emphasis on traveling work fits handily with Hamburger’s populist vision. But her politics are not only geographical. The sites she chooses also serve to expose the theatre community’s failure to address New York’s diversity as well as the physical limitations of traditional theatre spaces.

“Tickertape parades drowning the city in white … bright lights of Broadway; the revenge of broken hearts … the safety of Central Park” – like the sentimental narratives Didion finds in New York’s history, Hamburger’s work suggests that anything can happen in the streets, that class and racial lines can be overcome and that theatre, brought to theatreless neighborhoods, can heal a city crushed by politics and indifference. Annie Hamburger’s work suggests that one woman can change New York.

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Painting the town Essay
In Sentimental Journeys, her essay on the 1989 Central Park "wilding," Joan Didion argues that Newyork is defined in the public mind by narratives that "obscure not only the city's actual tensions of race and class but also the civic and commercial arrangements that rendered those tensions irreconcilable." As exhibit A, Didion offers the testimony of Central Park's architect Frederick Olmstead, who feared that while Central Park could provide a haven for bourgeois
2021-07-12 23:44:35
Painting the town Essay
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