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Friday, June 7, 2019

Katy Clark & David Binder: A Conversation

Photo: Jesse Winter
In January 2019, David Binder assumed the role of BAM’s Artistic Director, succeeding Executive Producer Joseph V. Melillo. BAM President Katy Clark recently spoke to David on the brink of the announcement of his first Next Wave.

Katy Clark: You once told me that while you didn’t know it at the time, your career, as varied and winding as it has been, has been preparing you to come to BAM the whole time. What did you mean by that?

David Binder: When you’re moving through life, it’s impossible to see how the dots will connect, but looking back, you can see how perfectly they align. That’s the case for BAM and me.

See, I grew up in Los Angeles, where I was mostly exposed to musicals—you know, the barricade-busting, chandelier-dropping kind. Once in a while, a great play would come to town; I remember seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company’s epic Nicholas Nickleby in 1986, or the Broadway company version of Fences, but mostly it was about big touring shows. When I went to UC Berkeley, I spent a lot of time at Cal Performances. Everybody performed there. We had Bill T. Jones with Arnie! I feel so lucky to have seen that. I also remember seeing Mark Morris in a long wig, dancing with a remote-controlled Tonka truck! After college I moved to New York to work on Broadway, not knowing exactly what I wanted to do. I had so many jobs. I was in the costume shop running errands for the legendary designer William Ivey Long on Assassins—even though I couldn’t sew. I worked as a PA on a play called The Sum of Us at the Cherry Lane; it starred Tony Goldwyn, who is now starring in Ivo van Hove’s Network, which I’m producing. I was a PA on The Secret Garden. That’s where I met John Cameron Mitchell, who I ended up spending the next 20 years with, working on a show that became Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Katy: How did you wind up at BAM?

David: My dear friend Karen Fricker, who is now the theater critic for the Toronto Star, was taking her university students to BAM performances, and she always had an extra ticket. I saw everything. The Death of Klinghoffer, The Hard Nut, Still/Here, The Black Rider. It’s at BAM where I met and fell in love with Pina Bausch, the Maly Theatre, and Cheek By Jowl. I learned so much here. It’s where I grew up. It’s where I figured out who I am and what I wanted to make.

Death of Klinghoffer (1991), Black Rider (1993), and Still/Here (1994) were some of the first performances David Binder attended at BAM
Katy: So how did you start producing?

David: I had been in New York just a little over a year, and I was itching to do something of my own. I came up with the idea to do a reading series of Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory, which is this beautiful story about how Capote spends Christmas with his cousin. It would be Love Letters-style, with two different stars reading the short story each night, and all proceeds would benefit Equity Fights AIDS. We needed talent, so we dropped letters off to actors at their apartments, at stage doors— basically anywhere we could find them. Lo and behold, people said yes: Madeline Kahn, Irene Worth, Elaine Stritch, Judith Ivey, and Nathan Lane all agreed to come to the Book Friends Café in Chelsea and take part in our little series. They were so patient—my friends and I had never produced anything in our lives. The New York Times wrote a short preview piece and we were sold out.

Katy: Persistence paid off! How important is that quality for a producer?

David: It’s important, but what continues to drive me is the work—great work. There were a million other benefits those big stars could have participated in, but they chose that one. Why? Because that Truman Capote Christmas story is the best. I’m a Jewish boy from LA—what’s Christmas?—and even I don’t see how anyone could read it and not tear up.

Or take A Raisin in the Sun. When I came to realize, in 1999, that it never had a Broadway revival, I spent the next four and a half years trying to produce one. No one wanted to be in it, no one wanted to fund it, no one wanted to give me a theater. Everyone on Broadway said it was an African-American play, and that African- American audiences wouldn’t come to Broadway. Actors told me the play was dated. But I had it on my desk, this gorgeous American play— maybe the best American play ever written. And it got me through. The material got me through. Lorraine Hansberry got me through!

Katy: Ok, so here we are, it’s the 38th Next Wave. And yet it feels utterly new.

David: We’re honoring the original intent of the Next Wave, passed down from Harvey Lichtenstein and Joe Melillo, by presenting a season of artists who’ve never been to BAM. All of them, every single one of them, is making their BAM debut. These are performances that will be experiential, immersive, and—I hope—surprising. Some of them will be wildly challenging to audiences, and some will be very accessible. You have something like Barber Shop Chronicles, for example, which is for everyone. It’s brimming with life and joy and music and dancing. On the other side of the spectrum you have Bacchae, by the amazing Marlene Monteiro Freitas. While it’s certainly challenging, it’s also exhilarating, wild, singular, and extraordinary. We’ll have site-specific work—something BAM has not done in a while. With User Not Found, which explores how we all experience private moments in public spaces, we’re getting out of our buildings and going up the street to the Greene Grape Annex, a cafe on Fulton Street. I love bringing audiences to nontraditional spaces; it immediately awakens their senses and, I think, makes them more open to adventurous work.

We also want to put audiences front and center. In Many Hands does that—there’s no stage. The audience is the performance. I’m also interested in work that appeals to younger audiences. The End of Eddy, adapted from the book by Édouard Louis, is a brilliant coming-of-age story that will resonate with teenagers. It’s something we’re working on with Coco Killingsworth, BAM’s VP of Education and Community Engagement. It also gives us an opportunity to deepen our relationships with other arts organizations: St. Ann’s Warehouse will simultaneously be presenting a theatrical adaptation of Louis’ second book, History of Violence, as part of their fall season.

There are new forms. What if they went to Moscow? is kind of like two shows in one: One half of the audience starts at the BAM Fisher, where the performers will be a making a film, which will be streamed live for the rest of the audience at BAM Rose Cinemas. At intermission, they switch places. I’m so excited to be working with Gina Duncan, our Associate VP of Film, and the rest of the film team on this. Lastly, The Second Woman is a single 24-hour show. We’re encouraging people to come for 15 minutes or 24 hours, if they so wish. In this epic feat of acting endurance, one woman performs a scene from a Cassavetes film 100 times, opposite 100 men. It’s bold, adventurous, and, as with everything in Next Wave 2019, I hope the experience will stay with you long after the performance ends. I’m so excited and proud to be a part of it.

Katy: I can’t wait!

© 2019, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.


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