Prelude Advances

In the October 2005 issue of American Theatre, Jeffrey Jones published an article entitled "Thinking About Writing About Thinking About New Plays." In his article, Jones makes the point that museums, through audioguides, catalogues and other contextualizing efforts, have generally been successful in turning the public on to modern art. Theaters, in contrast, have made less progress in developing and disseminating a common vocabulary for emerging forms of playwriting and performance, a fact that Jones feels has contributed to difficulties in expanding the market and audience for this type of work.

This year, the curators of Prelude '08 decided to tackle this challenge. By restructuring the five-year-old festival and organizing it around a central theme, Andy Horwitz, Geoffrey Scott and Frank Hentschker produced a festival that not only showcased a cross-section of New York's downtown talent but also generated lively critical discussion about contemporary performance.

The central theme they chose is "Between the Black Box and the White Cube: Performance, Place & Context." The various performances were organized into one of six "exhibits:" Performance Art, Interactive Art, Compositional Performance, Media Performance, New Theatre, and New Plays. At the end of each track, participating artists joined a moderator for a panel discussion in which they conversed and responded to questions about the entire afternoon of work. The conference also featured panels of experts discussing relevant topics such as New York real estate's impact on theater art, touring, and the role of dramaturgy, and a Saturday spotlight session focusing on the work of boundary-pushing Polish playwrights.

For much of the conference, two theaters were in use: the Elebash auditorium and the more intimate Segal Theatre. The spaces in between, including the lobbies and hallways, were put to good use showcasing surprising performances by WaxFactory and Raul Vincent Enriquez. Informative and plentiful signage assisted attendees in following the two-track program and planning their festival experience.

The annual Prelude event originated as a complement to the international programming at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, housed in the CUNY Graduate Center complex. Frank Hentschker, Director of Programs, decided to develop an annual showcase for the work of New York City artists. The initial incarnation featured programming selected by lottery. The second and third editions were co-curated by Hentschker and Sarah Benson, who is now Artistic Director of Soho Rep. Prelude has always served as a valuable opportunity to sample the work of a wide variety of up-and-coming artists working in downtown theater in a single weekend. Previous festivals featured highlights of the upcoming theater season, with each individual reading or workshop performance followed by an artist talkback session.

In 2007, the Prelude co-curatorship passed to Scott and Horwitz. "The plan was always to rotate the curatorship every two years, to allow for fresh perspectives," says Hentschker. For the first time, the conference included an international spotlight, on Japanese performance and playwriting.

Strategic meetings for Prelude 2008 began soon after the 2007 event. The curators decided, based on feedback from previous conferences, to group similar performances and to hold an artistic conversation with all the artists in the group at the end of the set. They decided to overturn a previous Prelude rule that artists and companies that had presented at previous years' events could not be invited to present again. The goal was to show how these groups' work has changed over the years that Prelude has been operating, and to allow the audience to compare newer ensembles with those who have been working for longer periods of time.

Once these decisions was made, Scott and Horwitz reached out to their advisory board for suggestions of potential participants, and began to plan the program. "We also kept talking about what we had been seeing in the past year," explains Scott. "As an artist, I work primarily in the visual art world, and Andy has a lot of connections there too. We kept seeing plays in museums, and discussing the characteristics of museums, theaters, and other performance spaces, how they impacted the art and the audience's experience." Horwitz and Scott share an interest in the work of Tino Segal, a visual artist who creates interactive performance pieces designed to be staged in museums. "We kept asking each other, why do people understand art concepts at museums, but theaters feel they can't present work that is difficult, that people won"t tolerate it?," Horwitz explains. "And why is the museum setting so much more profitable than the theater?"

As the theme emerged, the curators decided to involve a dramaturg, Morgan von Prelle Pecelli, in helping them to further shape the program. "We share an interest in enhancing the role of the dramaturg in this country," Scott said, of himself and Horwitz. "Instead of merely discussing what dramaturgs do, we wanted to show what they can add to a conversation, as more active collaborators."

All of the organizers are pleased with the event. "The brilliant audience played a major role in the success of the event - we had people fly in from Canada, Mexico, Vienna," Hentschker said. "A lot of participating artists and outside artists attended the sessions and contributed strong creative energy. It was a truly special atmosphere."

In upcoming months, discussions and preparations for Prelude 2009 will begin. The curators plan to keep the exhibit format they employed this year, with themes for each day of the conference, and multi-artist panels following several series of related performances. They hope to include a third international spotlight, and repeat the popular opening and closing night parties. Prelude 2008 was the first theater festival in the world that was entirely online in Second Life. The curators hope to continue to work with emerging communications technology and to explore its potential for enhancing dialogue about the theater arts.

Part museum gallery, part academic conference, part festival showcase, Prelude '08�s hybrid model has proven to be a successful medium for intelligently discussing the hybrid theatrical forms that it seeks to highlight. Hopefully, as New York theater artists continue to experiment with their creative work, the Prelude curators and other innovative presenters will continue to build a vocabulary of terms and formats to use in contextualizing and expanding the audience for this cutting-edge work.

For more information, check out the official Prelude website

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