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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A Love Letter to BAM

This January, playwright, collagist, and Richard B. Fisher Next Wave Award recipient Charles Mee returns to BAM for a fourth time with The Glory of the World. Here—in an excerpt from 2011's BAM: The Complete Works—Mee shares dynamic memories of America's oldest performing arts center:

Mee's The Glory of the World comes to BAM Jan 16—Feb 6. Photo: Bill Brymer

By Charles Mee

We live in a world these days where it’s taken for granted that BAM is one of the greatest cultural institutions on the planet. And yet, not long ago—certainly within my own lifetime—it was a big old dark neglected pile of stones right off Flatbush Avenue where no one I knew ever thought to go.

The first time I ever walked into the theater at BAM it was completely inadvertent. A friend had invited me to see a theater piece called The Photographer/Far from the Truth, inspired by the work of the 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge, whose obsession with animal and human locomotion led to developing a photographic means to project a series of images that had been captured by a set of still cameras: galloping horses, running bison, nude women descending staircases. I knew Muybridge’s work, and I thought it was great, but, of course, I knew no one could make a good theater piece out of it. Still, I went anyway, because I had nothing else to do, and I thought it might be kind of exciting to venture out into the unknown wilderness—and stop for some cheesecake at Junior’s.

And then the piece was absolutely, completely amazing. Directed by JoAnne Akalaitis of the experimental theater troupe Mabou Mines and designed by Santo Loquasto, it had music by Philip Glass, with lighting by the brilliant Jennifer Tipton, choreography by David Gordon, and a wonderful book by Robert Coe. A collage of music, movement, and text that was absolutely fantastic. It was, as it turned out—in the fall of 1983—the very first production of BAM’s brand new Next Wave Festival. And it was so wonderful that I condescended to go back to BAM for another Next Wave piece—and this time it was the Trisha Brown Company, with visual presentation by Robert Rauschenberg and music by Laurie Anderson, whom I had last seen in a loft in Soho on Broome Street—with the audience sitting on the floor.

And then came Lucinda Childs and her company in a program that included a set design by Frank Gehry and music by John Adams. And then Lee Breuer and Bob Telson with The Gospel at Colonus—with Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama playing the role of Oedipus, backed by a gospel chorus of what seemed like several hundred thousand singers. Amazing. So the next year I became a subscriber, and that was the year of Meredith Monk and Ping Chong, Remy Charlip, Steve Reich, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane, with sets by Keith Haring, music by Peter Gordon, and costumes by Willi Smith, the Mark Morris Dance Group—and the completely stunning production of Einstein on the Beach, created by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson.

Jan Leslie Harding in The Birth of the Poet.
Photo: Beatriz Schiller
And then the next year Pina Bausch brought her Tanztheater company from Wuppertal—the ultimate dance-theater; then came Mechthild Grossmann, Laura Dean, Reinhild Hoffman, Susanne Linke, and one of my favorite pieces of all time in the Next Wave: The Birth of the Poet, written by the fabulously scatological Kathy Acker, directed by Richard Foreman, with scenery and costumes designed by the wonderful Soho artist David Salle—and what I remember is that people (almost immediately) started walking out. Often someone would be so upset, they would stand up to leave, and sit down again, and stand up again, and sit down again, and stand up again, and go out into the aisle, and stand there, and then turn and leave in disgust, or sometimes call out some insult at the stage before they turned and left, or sometimes get out in the aisle and walk to the stage and yell at the actors. And one woman walked down to the edge of the stage, and, in a swivet, not knowing just how to express her scorn and contempt properly, finally opened her purse, and looked for something—anything she could find—to throw at the actors before she turned and left in a rage. By the time of the intermission in the Opera House—a theater big enough to seat, it seemed to me, half of Brooklyn—there were only 23 of us still there, and I couldn’t help thinking: this is like the good old days in Paris. This must be what it felt like at an opening night for Picasso and Diaghilev and Erik Satie.

And then the next year there was Merce Cunningham and John Cage with Roaratorio, Inlets 2, the Impossible Theater, Anne Teresa De Keersmaker from Belgium, Molissa Fenley and Dancers, John Zorn, the Kronos Quartet, Eiko & Koma, and the Flying Karamazov Brothers. And by the 1987 Next Wave, when Peter Brook did The Mahabharata in BAM’s Majestic Theater (renamed the Harvey as a tribute to Harvey Lichtenstein), I was sitting in the front row with my feet grounded on a stage covered with dirt—for the full nine hours.

And then it turns out that the Next Wave was only part of the offerings at BAM. As the fall came to an end, it was time to buy tickets for the Spring Season, which each year contained some of what’s next, and much of what has been proven to be enduring in the world of theater, dance, music, and opera. As I overheard one audience member say to his partner, as they walked into the lobby of the Harvey, “All I need is food, clothing, shelter, a happy family, and tickets to BAM, and then I have a complete life.”

The Gospel at Colonus. Photo: Beatriz Schiller
And finally, as time went on, the Next Wave and the Spring Season were not all that was going on at BAM. The newly created four-screen theater, BAM Rose Cinemas, was showing first-run films and classics. BAMcafé was doing free live music and spoken word performances: jazz, Afro-pop, world rhythms, swing, mambo, gospel. BAMart put on exhibitions in fall and spring, many of them featuring emerging, Brooklyn-based artists—along with visits from the likes of Louise Bourgeois, Chuck Close, and William Wegman. Meanwhile, if you happened to have kids, there were weekend performances for young people in the BAMfamily series and the BAMkids Film Festival. For those who wanted to get inside the minds of some of the artists who were bringing their work to BAM, there were the Artist Talks—chats with Peter Brook and Bill T. Jones and Steve Reich, Trisha Brown and William Christie and Robert Lepage.

And yet, it turns out that the BAM I knew was not the first BAM, but the second BAM, and these people I loved so much—Pina Bausch and Robert Wilson and Jan Lauwers and the others—were not, after all, the first people ever to appear at BAM but part of an extraordinary legacy of art, culture, and community. In fact, the first ever opening night at BAM was more than 150 years ago—January 15, 1861—with a performance of music that included works by Mozart and Verdi. In its early years, BAM played host to distinguished productions of opera and theater and a remarkable array of famous speakers and celebrities—from Frederick Douglass to P. T. Barnum. At that time, BAM was on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights. And then, in 1903, the first BAM burned to the ground. But, by 1908, a new BAM had been built—this time in its present location on Lafayette Avenue—and Enrico Caruso sang Charles Gounod’s Faust, and the glory of the past returned. Still, after World War II, along with many other American cultural institutions—indeed, along with many American central cities, as American interstate highways and suburbs flourished—BAM struggled to survive and declined into that neglected “pile of stones.”

BAM's original location on Montague Street, 1890. Photo: BAM Hamm Archives

The renaissance at BAM was brought about by Harvey Lichtenstein, who arrived on the scene in 1967, and set about making what the New York Times declared “the foremost showcase for contemporary experimental performing arts in the United States.” Or, as Lichtenstein himself said at one point, he thought he would like to make Brooklyn into the Left Bank of New York. And not long after Lichtenstein launched the rebirth of BAM, he brought in Karen Brooks Hopkins and then Joe Melillo to help him manage the tempest he had set in motion. And so, when the time came in 1999 for Lichtenstein to turn the enterprise over to someone else, his chosen successors were already well versed in the “BAM culture,” knowing everything that had already happened and what ought to happen next. Together, they had it in mind to transform a wonderful, adventurous theater into a unique institution—at once local and global in its aspirations—a center for the arts that would endure forever.

As it happens, my first sojourn to the “Left Bank” and the beginning of the Next Wave Festival was also when I returned to playwriting after an absence of nearly 25 years. I had written plays for off- and very off-Broadway in the early sixties performed at the Café Cino in the West Village, La Mama in its earliest days, and upstairs at the Church of St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie. And, at the same time, I became immersed in anti–Vietnam War activities, and I wrote polemical rants for any offbeat downtown newspaper that would publish them, and that led to writing more generally about American foreign policy, about the origins of the Cold War, and, finally, about American international relations—not as an historian engaged in a disinterested pursuit of the truth, but as a citizen activist, speaking to fellow citizens, hoping to have some influence on the conduct of US foreign policy.

In short, I got caught up in things that I couldn’t get out of and had nothing to do with the theater for all those years. I was so consumed with art and archeology and history and politics. But, finally, in the early eighties, I made my way back to writing plays, my first and greatest passion—the thing I had always wanted to do in life. And yet, since I came back to it so late in life, I was too old to think of having a career as a playwright. I just wrote what I loved. Still, after all those years away from the theater, I couldn’t remember what was possible to do onstage. And then, when I stumbled into BAM for the first time, I knew I had come home.

“Good writers borrow,” T. S. Eliot once said. “Great writers steal.” At BAM, I knew I had come to the right place: a thieves’ paradise—for writers, well, yes, but also for dancers, for musicians, for visual artists, for anyone walking in off the street looking for astonishment, for pleasure, for inspiration, for life. If you want to write a play, think of the music of Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson, the dance of Trisha Brown and Lucinda Childs, the spectacle conceived by Frank Gehry and Robert Rauschenberg. And, if you want a text to put in the midst of all this, fine, steal one. I realized—watching things at BAM—that I didn’t know what other people liked, but I knew what I loved. And when I walk out the door after a performance at BAM, I don’t need to ask the people I’m with: “Did I like that?” or “What was my favorite part?” No, I know what I love. So, in my own work, I do what I love.

The Soldier's Tale. Photo: Tom Brazil
Mechthild Grossmann, a member of Bausch’s company, did a solo show in 1985 in the Lepercq Space, the big black box theater that is now home to the BAMcafé: she stepped up to a microphone and told the story of Antigone: “Act One, Scene One…Act One, Scene Two…and so on.” The whole story in outline. And then she turned around and sat atop a grand piano and sang a song. And then she got down from the piano and sat in a bathtub. And we all sat in the audience, watching, and, in our minds, placing these events, one after another, into the frame of the Antigone story she had just told us. Only last year, almost 25 years after I saw her Antigone, I stole Mechthild Grossmann’s whole dramaturgical strategy for a piece I “wrote” inspired by the story of Thyestes.

Robert Woodruff, who in 1986 directed the Flying Karamazov Brothers in The Soldier’s Tale at BAM, once said of the designer George Tsypin, who in the following year designed Zangezi, directed by Peter Sellars, with music by Jon Hassell, “I love to direct a play designed by George Tsypin because Tsypin designs a set you cannot stage a play on. And so, if I work on a set of Tsypin’s, I’m forced to be more resourceful than I would be otherwise.” And ever since Woodruff told me that, I’ve always tried to write Tsypin plays—plays that cannot be done onstage, scripts that purposely contain an array of obstacles so that the director and designers and actors are forced to be more “resourceful” than they otherwise would be—to come up with things no one would ever have thought of if the play had been easy to stage.

In 1999, when Jan Lauwers brought his Needcompany from Brussels to BAM to do Morning Song, I was struck by how his company of actors was, itself, implicitly a cosmopolitan global society, composed of seven different nationalities: Dutch and Flemish performers, German, Italian, Lauwers’s Indonesian wife. They are, even before they begin to get along together onstage, the European Union in a nutshell—indeed, a distillation of today’s global society. “There’s a quotation from Einstein,” Lauwers has said, “in which he says that nationalism is the childhood disease of civilization. But at the same time, when an artist brings things from his own nationality into his art—his art is enriched. So I combine the Turkish dancer with the Argentine actor in Morning Song—to see what happens.”

And what happens often in a Lauwers production is a whole new idea about the nature of theater. “It was John Cage who said once,” Lauwers recalls, “that you need at least five different sources of energy at the same time to have good theater. And so…by changing the idea that theater has only one center into the idea that there isn’t a center, but a series of off-centers, I discovered freedom in theater. So whether one sings a song, tells a story, or dances, without a center everything is important and it is the public, and every individual, who makes up his own story.” In short, Lauwers lives in a multinational democracy, where no one story is privileged above all others, no one destiny, no one family narrative dominates the known world, but, rather, many points of view, many sets of values, many histories and ideals for the future learn to coexist.

Big Love. Photo: Richard Trigg
This is called globalism, but it might also be called Brooklyn, a cluster of neighborhoods whose population is largely foreign-born—not second or third generation, but foreign-born—the embodiment of a vibrant, resourceful, cultural identity. Exactly the right place for BAM—and for me. I moved to Brooklyn 15 years ago when it had become clear to me that BAM had become my home. And over the past 10 years, BAM has put on several of my plays, to my great delight. The first was Big Love—inspired by one of the oldest plays in the Western world, The Suppliant Women by Aeschylus—a piece that has a great deal of music and dance and physical theater as well as text. Some producers wanted to move Big Love to Broadway, but I said no finally, not just because they wanted to replace our actors who had worked so hard and so beautifully on the piece but because I felt the play belonged at BAM, where a playwright can keep company with Pina Bausch and Robert Wilson and Jan Lauwers and Jennifer Tipton and Ivo van Hove and, well, Shakespeare—and with Brooklyn.

The second piece of mine at BAM was bobrauschenbergamerica, a collage of scenes inspired by the work of Robert Rauschenberg. I love collage and the way that it doesn’t privilege one image above all others—one image or vision or way of seeing things—but rather marshals a myriad of visions, and says we must pay attention to all of them, expand our understanding and imagination to see what sort of world can contain them all. And this seems to be the most appropriate art form for the global society in which we live. And when the play was presented in the Harvey as part of the Next Wave Festival, Rauschenberg himself was in the audience.

Back in the late nineties, I had learned enough from BAM that a number of theaters and collaborators were content to work with me, and I had come to be overloaded with possible projects—with more than I could possibly do, especially more than I could do and still hold down a job to support myself. And so, in a lighthearted moment, I emailed my old friend Dick Fisher. Dick and I met when we had first come to New York in our early twenties. And, while I went into every money-losing venture I could find, Dick thought it would be fun to be an investment banker, and so he became, in time, the president and chairman of Morgan Stanley—and, as it happens, the first chair of the BAM endowment campaign. But he was not the sort who was consumed by his job—he and his wife, Jeannie, loved the arts: theater, painting, music, literature. The most open, receptive, nonjudgmental, patient, interested mind, that was his genius—and the spirit he shared with Jeannie.

In any case, late one evening, I wrote to him what I thought was a moderately amusing email, saying I had projects to do with lots of people, but every play I wrote lost me money, and I couldn’t afford to pay the rent and feed my children—and so I wondered: How would he like to start a playwriting company with me? He would put in all the money, and I would write all the plays.

And the next morning Dick called to say he had discussed the idea with Jeannie and said with earnest, “We’d love to do it!” And with that—that easily, that quickly, that simply—I was finally, at the age of 60, able to spend my life doing what I love. All the time, day and night—at my desk, in the garden, wandering the streets, in a café. And what is certainly even more astonishing—there were no strings attached. Jeannie and Dick never made a suggestion, or a criticism, about my plays, either directly or indirectly. And so, one day, when Dick mentioned that he had seen a show at a gallery on the Upper East Side that he thought I’d like, I had no hesitation to drop in on a show of the work of Joseph Cornell. I walked into the gallery, stopped just inside the door, looked around, and thought: “This is a theater piece.”

bobrauschenbergamerica. Photo: Richard Termine
And so I wrote Hotel Cassiopeia, which became the third work of mine to be done at BAM. It was performed, like bobrauschenbergamerica, by the SITI Company, directed by my very close friend Anne Bogart. Anne and I have worked together for more than 20 years now, and I love her. In fact, when my wife Michi and I got married, Anne conducted the wedding ceremony. And when we did Hotel Cassiopeia, Michi was in the cast. So my life and my friends and my wife and my imagination and my plays all live together in the same universe. And when we go out at night, we’d rather go to BAM than anywhere else—to the Next Wave and the Spring Season and the BAM Rose Cinemas and DanceAfrica and the BAMcafé—to hear the Brooklyn Sax Quartet, Rha Goddess, Ismail Lumanovski & the New York Gypsy All Stars, the international dance band Charanga Soleil, the Arab ensemble Tarab, with a mix of North African folk songs and Flamenco, the psychedelic art rock of Gary Lucas & Gods and Monsters, live jazz, R&B, worldbeat, rock, pop, experimental, classical, and more—because BAM is home.

With all this activity, it’s hard to imagine that anything else could ever happen at BAM—but, of course, no one should ever think we have come to the end of new ideas at BAM. Obviously, BAM hadn’t yet published a history of itself. And so, here it is—the BAM book—a narrative chronology, from the beginning to the present, with more than 500 images of artists and performances—the barest suggestion of all the stunning art that we are now privileged to take for granted at BAM.

Aristotle said that human beings are social animals. He thought that a person alone on a desert island is not quite human—that we become who we are in our relationships with others. And the art form par excellence of relationships, of their simplicity and purity and complexity and mystery is the theater, opera, dance, and, now, cinema—that extraordinarily complex constellation of music and movement, dance and text, media and visual art. It is in artistic expression that we see what it is to be human, and what is possible for human beings to be. That this has been the mission at BAM for the past 150 years—and that will now continue as far as it is possible to see—is what we might call a magnificent and inspiring spectacle.

Mee's The Glory of the World, directed by Les Waters, comes to BAM January 16—February 6, and great tickets are still available. Learn more about his work via the (re)making project.

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