Experiments Inside REDCAT’s Lab — NOW

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The ninth annual New Original Works Festival of REDCAT — that experimental nook downhill from Walt Disney Concert Hall — is presenting a panoply of performances from July 26 through August 11 that promises to expand most theatergoers’ typical notions of staged work. For three consecutive weekends, REDCAT’s cutting-edge fete showcases an array of productions by L.A. artists in a variety of onstage expressions and meditations, ranging from puppetry to parrots to opera to Khmer choreography to acted pieces to Guatemalan dancing and much more.

CalArts REDCAT associate director George Lugg

“These artists are approaching and making work for the stage in really different ways and from different backgrounds, moving into an inter-disciplinary realm that’s really exciting for an audience,” asserts George Lugg, associate director of the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater. “NOW is part of our real interest in supporting the development of new performance-based works here in Los Angeles. So the focus is on LA artists who are developing new projects, launching new experimentations across disciplines.” Each piece presented at the downtown mid-sized venue during the festival is between 25 and 45 minutes long.

The Long Island-born Lugg calls NOW “an artist-driven creative laboratory” because “REDCAT is not a producing company or making the artistic choices for the artists; we’re inviting them to propose their next project, what they’re most interested in exploring.” After a review process, selected projects are presented as NOW “provides an incubation time”¦and space” plus a modest honorarium “to help artists realize the vision they’re articulating. What we’ll see during the festival is the fruition of those initial ideas proposed to us at the start of the year”¦We’re trying to take the pressure off of self-producing.” Lugg adds that NOW is intended to be “a launching pad” for these new projects as they enter the world.

The festival’s accent is on the avant-garde; proscenium arches and other conventional contrivances and concepts need not apply. However, a number of NOW’s performances are more theater-based per se, if still in the non-traditional realm. Solo theater artist Heather Woodbury, who won an Obie for her Off-Broadway Tale of 2 Cities, “is probably the most known as a theater artist [of this year’s NOW participants],” Lugg states. “She comes the closest to working with a text she has written and developed.”

Heather Woodbury

Woodbury’s NOW offering is a sort of climate change soap opera, As the Globe Warms. According to Lugg, “She develops very epic works; this is a small beginning of what Woodbury imagines will be a 12-hour piece”¦Woodbury’s approach to performance and to writing is very different. She comes from a very different set of concerns, really exploring these elaborate, building narratives through many, many, many characters. This one centers around issues of the moment, around climate crisis, creating a mythological town in which all of these inhabitants gather in an effort to protect an endangered species. So you hear all of these different perspectives on climate crisis, with a great sense of humor. Woodbury actually developed [As the Globe Warms] first as a serial video drama, like a soap opera,” explains Lugg.

Although REDCAT’s associate director considers Emily Mast to also be non-traditional, “she develops theatrical investigations based on her interest in language and communications. Kind of embedded in B!RDBRA!N is the story of Alex, a parrot who was trained and exhibited what some people thought were language skills. There’s a bit of narrative in there, but a lot of what’s happening are more performance investigations in which people are making attempts to communicate. Mast is someone from the visual arts who’s using theater and traditions of theater in a way that brings something new, at least a new angle of looking at some of those things,” notes Lugg.

Susan Simpson

He goes on to say, “Puppeteer Susan Simpson deals with history. She does a beautiful ethereal drama set in the 1950s in LA, set around Silver Lake”¦when it was considered to be a communist hotbed, but also a place where the early gay rights movement was taking hold”¦Simpson’s dealing with archival writings, journal entries, etc. Her sense of narrative is not what I’d call traditional theater; it’s more about generating mood and allowing these objects to take on a beautiful poetic life as she creates a kind of abstract science fiction environment in which this real actual history is being presented.” One of Exhibit A’s historical personages is Harry Hay, a Communist Party member who in 1950 co-founded the Mattachine Society, arguably the first U.S. gay liberation group.

Lugg describes Poor Dog Group’s The Murder Ballad as “a movement-based theater piece or theater-driven dance piece. It is in essence a solo for Jessica Emmanuel, although there are some interceptions. She does not speak; the state of the character is all communicated through movement. But it’s from a theater company that is exploring based on the text from Jelly Roll Morton’s Murder Ballad, recorded in 1938″ and originally performed in New Orleans’ bordellos. Lugg adds that Murder Ballad “has the drama of that story overlaid on it, and through the actor-dancer, the emotional states,” which a REDCAT press release calls “the violent impulses of a woman betrayed.”

A scene from "Opera Povera: To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation"

Also on tap is Opera Povera: To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation, by Pauline Oliveros. Her 1970 score has been adapted by artistic director Sean Griffin and vocalist Juliana Snapper, expressing the feminist principles of Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto. This screed’s acronym is believed to stand for “Society for Cutting Up Men”; Solanas’ other claim to “fame” is the attempted murder of Andy Warhol in 1968.

The NOW schedule includes several dance-related productions, such as Prumsodun Ok’s multimedia performance Of Land and Sky, using Cambodian pop music and traditional Khmer choreography. Melanie Rios Glaser’s dances in La Tribu are influenced by Guatemala’s civil war. In the duet Lake, Nick+James call on movement they have memorized from many choreographers throughout their careers.

Sound and video artist Jinku Kim is expected to fill REDCAT “with a looming, cantilevered surface developed in collaboration with scenic artist Drew Foster that serves as a luminous skin, immersing the audience in gravity-subverting configurations of pulsing color and light that amplify [Kim’s] time-altering spatialized sound,” according to a REDCAT release.

D.J. Mendel and Jillian Lauren in Robert Cucuzza's 2011 production of "Cattywampus"; Photo by Joseph Rockland

In his capacity as REDCAT’s associate director, Lugg has been overseeing NOW since 2006. His short list of previous festival theatrical highlights includes Robert Cucuzza’s 2011 debut of Cattywampus, which went on to be produced at South Coast Rep’s Nicholas Studio last month and New York’s Incubator Arts Project (which grew out of the Ontological-Hysteric Theater). The New York Times called Cattywampus “a raw and raucous updating of August Strindberg’s classic,” Miss Julie. In 2008 Kristina Wong launched her solo act Cat Lady at NOW. In 2008 Poor Dog Group premiered Hey, Hey, Man. Hey. — which has been called “a surrealist comedy that explores modern labor” — at the festival.

REDCAT is the presenting arm of the California Institute of the Arts, a private school for the performing and visual arts. But Lugg says that curatorially, there’s no direct connection between NOW and CalArts.

With the New Original Works Festival, REDCAT strives to live up to a central part of its mission, “providing artists in the region with the infrastructure they need to attain national and international renown,” maintains Lugg. He adds that “in three nights you can see all nine [NOW] works. There’s three works presented on a single program for three nights.”

New Original Works Festival. Opens July 26. Thu-Sat 8:30 pm. Through August 11. REDCAT, 631 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012. Individual Tickets: $18 general admission ($14 students). Festival Pass: $36. http://www.redcat.org/event/new-original-works-festival-2012. 213-237-2800.

***All photos courtesy of the artist, except where noted

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored the third edition of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” available at: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/.