January marked the mid-point in Kristy Edmunds’ inaugural 2012/13 season for the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA (CAP UCLA). It delivered half of her international theatrical offerings with Freud Playhouse presentations of Cheek by Jowl’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and Back to Back Theatre’s Ganesh Versus the Third Reich. Not to mention the world premiere of On Behalf of Nature by NYC’s multi-hyphenate legend Meredith Monk.
Next week Melbourne’s Circus Oz makes its first LA appearance since the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival with From the Ground Up at Royce Hall, capping a theater schedule that debuted with Theatre de la Ville-Paris’ production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros in late September.
Despite effusive press reviews to date for each show, Edmunds knows she still has a long way to go to earn the trust of Los Angeles audiences. A schedule laden with short runs by often unfamiliar troupes, Royce Hall’s notorious viewing and staging issues and the somewhat contentious legacy left by former UCLA Live! executive director David Sefton are just a few of the hurdles she must overcome to entice new takers.
“I’m still learning the audience,” says the petite powerhouse during a weekday morning visit to her campus office. “I have to re-earn people’s trust. I have to earn, and therefore this institution through me has to restore, its relationship to its local populations, especially with theater. That process will affect as well what I know, because I don’t want to economically miss the mark on a vulnerable scenario.”
That is not likely to happen on Edmunds’ watch. Her resume is heavily weighted with wildly successful stints creating, running and presenting contemporary art and/or performance art festivals across the globe. In Oregon, she worked at the Portland Art Museum in her 20s before founding the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA) and the TBA Festival (Time Based Art). Ten years later, she was tapped to be the artistic director for the Melbourne International Arts Festival, which she ran from 2005-2008. Next Edmunds became head of the new School of Performing Arts at the University of Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts, then deputy dean a year later.
On top of that, she recently ended a three year stint as the consulting artistic director for Park Avenue Armory in New York, where she programmed the Tune-In Music Festival and worked with artists like Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Hall Willner and Ann Hamilton among others. Not to mention being a visual artist herself as well as an independent filmmaker, playwright and choreographer. When asked what the internal impetus was to make these global career shifts from Portland to Melbourne to LA, Edmunds admits her path is not linear.
“I’ve never been a careerist at all,” she explains. “In fact, I make unusual swings and curves in a certain way. I’ll feel a pull towards something, you know? It’s more I can look at it and go, what was it that provoked me to feel awake to the thing I’ve encountered that is seeking me? Usually, and I’m going to sound like an ego-freaking maniac, it’s something where I feel the privilege of what I do have in my tool kit will be fully used in that circumstance and purposeful for other people. And usually a very massive sort of stretch for me.” She laughs.
The Arts Ecology of La La Land
Edmunds exudes an energetic life force that is instantly infectious at first greeting. Her large office behind Royce Hall is a cross between an elementary school creative arts playroom and an ad agency brainstorming den. Colorful furniture, low working tables pushed together, IKEA-style bookcases and assorted cool paraphernalia give it a “let’s craft a new campaign/idea that will change the world” feel.
Some of the furnishings come from the new LA home she shares with Australian dancer/choreographer Ros Warby and their two sons. With her closely cropped jet-black hair, Edmunds might easily be mistaken for singer k.d. lang. An engaging conversationalist, her answers are often peppered with hearty laughter and a mischievous twinkle. The breadth of her knowledge base quickly becomes apparent as she deftly articulates her initial discoveries about LA.
“I’m in what I would call a kind of free-falling fascination with this place, you know?” she offers. “I’m just absolutely fascinated constantly, so in that I’m still very much seeking. I am definitely reading the audiences, watching how different things are received when I go to different exhibitions or places. Because I’ve moved a lot and because I’ve traveled a lot, I’m a quick read of a place, but LA is a place with many places within itself. I love its kind of…I don’t know, irrationality? It seems liberating to people. People seem to feel a freedom. That’s a West Coast thing but it also applies to LA, which I did not know.”
Edmunds says she has learned how to read the arts ecology of a place — be it Portland or Melbourne or LA — to assess what is healthy and strong versus what is unattended to or very thin. She researches what people have been exposed to in the past, how deep the history goes and then tries to realistically assess what she can add to the cultural equation.
“Nobody is saying what in your rolodex is going to enhance a certain circumstance,” she emphasizes. “Do you know what I mean? But to me, the gift of the exchange is also the place itself. What does it enhance for the people you are asking to come? What does that kind of gift exchange spark mutually for the artist, for the project, for the audience, for the sense of place, for the connection to a place? LA is very impenetrable for people externally in a certain way.”
By her assessment, the stereotypical fantasy aspects of LA and its superficiality butt up against the city’s other offerings such as the natural beauty of the land, the depth of its creative community or environmental victories.
“There’s a longing for that narrative to come up to where the other narratives sit. So when I look at bringing in projects, like ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, sometimes I think of the way in which the work itself reflects the capacity of the place that’s holding it. And that shines a light on the intelligence and curiosity and ferociousness or generosity of the audience, of the place. So artists leave here going, “˜Oh my god, Los Angeles was freaking incredible.’”
Artistry Versus Economics
Edmunds says she does not have an agenda when searching for programming. It’s about the zeitgeist of time and place, what works with the artists already booked plus assuring the performance will be seen properly in UCLA’s venues.
“I think of the program as a tapestry,” she offers, when questioned about the methodology behind her yet-to-be-released 2013-14 schedule. “It’s what artists are doing. I reflect what artists care about and are manifesting. I’m not a producer that says, “˜Let’s do this. This will work.’ As a curator, that is what you would expect. I’m reflecting the craft in this time, in this way and so then the program itself is a kind of tapestry. I may love a particular work but given what’s shaping up in the landscape of this thing, let’s focus on that next year. Then there’s the economic realities or timing.”
She also tries to make sure the venue will work not only for the project itself but serve the vision of that particular artist.
“In visual art you would never cut a painting in half and say, “˜Well, then it will fit on my gallery wall,'” Edmunds emphasizes. “You laugh because you know that is absurd, right? Nor would you ever say, “˜Could you please expand your painting four meters to really fit my gallery wall?’ But in live performance, those edges are necessarily flexible. But we as presenters who are facilitating can actually strip it of its power by cutting along the margins. The more we do that for economic reasons — it’s always economics or hoarding, one or the other — we’re creating illiteracy for that form in an audience. They feel empty and they don’t know why. It’s because we didn’t give them the integrity of the vision of the artist in that moment with a context.”
Edmunds cites Royce Hall’s past issues with dance performances. As can often be the case in other large theaters, sitting in the front row means getting a sight line-restricted seat. When she first arrived, VIPS told her they didn’t like seeing dance in Royce. Dance companies, on the other hand, loved performing there. Where was the disconnect? Being seated in the front rows meant when the dancers moved upstage, audience members couldn’t see their bodies. Solution? Edmunds pulled out the first six rows.
“I left this cavernous divide but at least even a small person can see the feet and the floor surface from that row back. Now you’re seeing the choreography as the choreographer intended you to see it. Just that alone. But of course the opposite mentality is ‘stuff every damn seat you can get in,’ you know what I mean? Run it for one night.”
She did not reserve seat-pulling solely for dance. Edmunds also pulled rows for the show that opened her inaugural season — Theatre de la Ville-Paris’ production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. In that case, she says she was obsessing about the subtitles.
“Do not force your audience to watch theater by reading, when this is where everything is happening!” she exclaims. “You’ve got to get back far enough but not too far that you can’t feel the actors and they can’t feel you. So what will improve this, what’s better for that, how do you balance this doing that? All those things I’m thinking about to assure that what is in the program has an absolute chance of being what the artist sought to give us.
“But if I can’t resource it, I have to really be rigorous about saying, ‘I could if I took out this lighting and I took out that and if we just altered that and if we,’ you know? There’s a point where you go, “˜No. You’re making the wrong choice for the job that you’re here to do.’”
Edmunds admits there can be economic versus qualitative factors involved when considering the proper campus venue to present a particular work. Why pay for a four-night run of Cheek By Jowl or Back to Back Theatre at Freud Playhouse, with the ensuing artist per diem and hotel costs, when you could do one night at Royce?
“What goes first? The intimacy they need for the craft to have its potency. Part of that is going to get lost. Half of the audience is going to be thrown by that piece of architecture. So the craft itself of what it’s trying to do needs certain ingredient elements that the venue creates, which the presenter has to be watchful and mindful of. I could see in some of the past, as things were starting to struggle economically, the choice to do that very thing happened. So pretty soon audiences go, ‘I don’t think I really like theater’. I have to try and figure out the best way to tend to it so we can change that possibility.”
Taking a Punt
LA audiences are familiar with the major names Edmunds has brought to the program or installed as CAP Fellows such as Laurie Anderson or Robert Wilson. It’s the other more adventurous, avant-garde or boundary-crashing fare that requires trusting in Edmunds’ taste and taking a risk. Especially when the dictates of 2-4 day touring schedules allow little time for local word-of-mouth.
“This trust thing is so hugely important,” she admits. “Because the leap of faith, or as they say in Australia, “˜taking a punt,’ must deliver purpose, meaning and reward. That doesn’t mean comfort, complacency, fluffing or any of that. It can be absolutely the work that grabs you by the throat and shakes you like a doll that’s still resonant and that still has meaning, right?”
She cites Melbourne’s Back to Back Theatre again. It recently received rave reviews from both the NY Times’ Ben Brantley and the LA Times’ Charles McNulty. The company defines itself as an ensemble of actors with intellectual disabilities. Edmunds presented its Small Metal Objects in a busy train station as part of the 2005 Melbourne International Arts Festival.
“An artist came to meet me who described the project as having to do with getting access to the main train terminal,” she says. “That’s where the audience was and that’s where the play would take place. Talk about something that would sit in the too-hard basket for most people, you know what I mean? And I was like, ‘well, let’s do that.’ And then I had to figure out how. So I’ve been with them over multiple premieres. The depth of their practice is extraordinary. Their perspective on the world in necessarily and rightly very unique and how they craft their form from it is astonishing, truly. So I look at them as a company and I say this is a total work of art. The scenography, everything, right? But, Back to Back Theatre. Who is that? No name recognition whatsoever.”
Edmunds knows that Los Angeles audiences will need time to trust her capacity for “discernment, diversity and depth” before following her choices willingly and blindly.
“I don’t run around with ‘this is the best piece of theater in the whole wide world’ and every single thing I print, touch, brand, do — I’m not like that,” she stresses. “I don’t curate based on what I like because I’m not here to imprint my aesthetic taste as the definition of an art form for those who encountered that period of time. It’s that I know the validity of that craft and practice is well in hand. That the content or the creative ethos of the company and the aesthetic experience, is well in hand. And that this degree of masterful artistic integrity will translate and hold for people across culture, across demographics and across the planet.”
Engaging UCLA Students
The Student Committee for the Arts at UCLA is the student branch of CAP UCLA. It’s mission is to “support and encourage student awareness and participation in the arts at UCLA, while providing hands-on experience in the various areas of arts administration for [our] members.” That involves providing student tickets to CAP UCLA events, working with the staff on everything from education to artist relations as well as producing its own series of shows. Edmunds has solicited its participation in everything from the 2013-14 season curation to development of a new Terrace Series.
“I’m very committed to them,” she concurs. “Because think about it. Unless you grew up in an urban center and you had parents who actively wanted to bring you to the main frame of contemporary art — whatever genre, form or discipline — you probably were not exposed to it. That moment where you’re like ‘I had no freaking idea that this was — my mind is blown,’ and in some people’s lives that is a life-changer. That happens at a university and is why this presenting ecology makes us different from REDCAT or the LA Phil.”
In years past, members of the Student Committee for the Arts were given tickets to resell to other students as part of their mandate, without any significant involvement in the programming itself or truly comprehending who some of the artists were. Edmunds has changed all that.
“I walked them through all the work that is currently at play, under consideration or really looking like it will be on the program for next year,” she says. “Pending of course on some details and Visa approval and homeland security and all the other junk I have to do. So they went through not only the discovery of these artists but the artists in a context, like why would they be interesting. I could also see what they were immediately responding to, so I could learn from them what was registering and what was not.”
Edmunds says the process helped inspire the students to learn more about companies like Back to Back Theatre and become passionate about programming in disciplines other than their own. They also experienced the elation of seeing which artists ended up in the program, as well as the heartbreak of what didn’t make it across the line in her budget.
“So that ability to have trust, to have involvement, to have emotion about a thing you don’t yet know helps with your advocacy. It helps with your awareness and it helps with your sense of your own curiosity and working closely with a professional. So instead of having like 0.001% student attendance in the program, it’s hitting in that 15% zone.”
She’s also helped the committee to curate its own artistic programming from student ensembles to vocal artists, monologists to poets, via the Terrace Series on the Royce Hall terrace. Edmunds opens the bar and the concessions early, then students invite and build an audience for what they’re presenting. It all happens a few hours before curtain.
“The audience that’s coming to see the Royce show encounters them and that energy at the tail end of its trail out,” explains Edmunds. “So older people see these young people doing amazing things. It gives people relief to see another generation they find impenetrable, mysterious and unusual. They find their link to them and vice versa.”
Why Culture Matters
After curating performers in so many venues all over the globe, what has changed for her and what has remained the same?
“My degrees of naiveté have certainly changed, do you know what I mean?” laughs Edmunds. “Rather than having a kind of blunt instrument with the craft, it’s more refined. That comes with the age and time and experience, but what hasn’t changed is the need to continuously advocate why art matters. Why contemporary work matters. Why the path of least resistance taken in an artistic and creative ecology matters. Why feeling awake to the world and yourself through different lenses matters.
“It’s a narrative that no matter how much work I put on the ground, no matter where I put that work on the ground, no matter how much I facilitate, that still is the number one thing I have to tend to — explaining, asking, advocating, building, rejuvenating, refreshing — why culture matters. So that has not changed and that I kind of lament.”
From the Ground Up, Royce Hall, 340 Royce Drive, UCLA, Westwood 90095. Opens Thursday, Feb. 7. Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Feb. 10. Tickets: $10-$60. www. cap.ucla.edu. 310-825-2101.
An Assessment of LA’s Arts Ecology
Kristy Edmunds says she’s earned how to read a city’s arts ecology to assess what’s healthy and strong versus what is weak or unattended. So while LA does not provide a particularly sustainable environment for choreographers or dancers, it is a dominant world player when it comes to visual art and classical music. She believes her duty as an artistic director is to attune to those needs across various disciplines.
Check out her assessments on:
Dance: “You’ve got boat loads of dancers out here but they don’t seem to have migrated here or come up from the idea of wanting to practice that art form as an art form, as an entertainment form or as a way to be able to continue dancing because you’re good at your talent. The artistic revolution is going to New York in that art form or increasingly Europe. So looking at a city of this size with its absolute fascination with creativity to have minimal numbers of contemporary dance companies that are even sustained at all, that’s a gap in an ecology.”
Visual art: “Total opposite. This is one of the most important cities in the world now. So you must have a gallery here, you must have a practice, you must have relationship to the city. The collecting bases are intelligent, the museums, the curatorial caliber is right up there. So there are a lot of visual artists here that are here to perpetuate the revolution of their forms.”
Music/Jazz: “The music scene in certain ways is ebbing and flowing in different genres. Legendary. The Strip, the clubs, the this, the that, the resurgence of the singer/songwriter and that kind of thing is huge here. Jazz, as with throughout the rest of the country, too, is in a state we should be attending to, you know what I mean?”
Classical: “This is a classical music city, my god. What the LA Phil has built over successive generations. I suppose in part being able to have the film industry, scores and composers. But the talent lives deeply in the instrumentalist, the individual practitioners that are here and it now has an institutional frame that is really significant. There’s a literacy in the audience for that form and a passion for that form that is very robust. You read in the papers of orchestras closing all over the planet in different ways, shapes and form. It’s at risk elsewhere, but here it feels healthy.”
99 Seat Theater: “I’ve never been in a city that had that plan before. This is interesting to me. I’m just starting to actually comprehend what that means on the urban landscape — the building of 99 seat theaters and that infrastructure. The varying levels of production. It’s all necessary for an ecology to find its excellence in a way.”