Collaboration and a dedication to creating a live, in-the-moment theater experience have been at the core of ArtSpot Productions' approach to performing for much of its 11-year existence. Kathy Randels created the company name for her one-woman shows, but as it developed and became the most prolific and large-scale producer of alternative theater in New Orleans, it took on new members and worked with other artists both locally and internationally. In assembling a slate of past shows to celebrate its Katrina-deferred anniversary, the company would almost be bound by its mission to not perform the shows as they were originally staged. The debates have ranged from the use of Russian accents in their original work Chekhov's Wild Ride to the idea of fusing parts of different shows.
"We didn't know if the sets from Joan of Arc had been flooded," says ArtSpot artist J Hammons. "My parents house was flooded. When we went through it we found strange things fused together. My sister found a pelican from the World's Fair stuck to the fridge. I wondered what would happen if we fused some of our shows together. Using one set or costumes from one show and evolving it into Joan. But we didn't have time to explore the idea."
Time has certainly been short for ArtSpot founder Kathy Randels. ArtSpot is remounting three of its own plays as well as hosting visiting international companies like Dah Teatar and Odin Teatret. On top of that Randels and husband and ArtSpot collaborator Sean LaRocca have a six-month-old baby. But ArtSpot has always had a full schedule and intense approach, from a decade of everything from one-woman shows to massive productions like Rumors of War, involving a huge cast, three different sets, acting, modern dance and acrobatics brought together in a collaborative process brought to the verge of collapse and back.
The 10th anniversary event, called Artistic Ancestry, runs for 10 days (Nov. 30-Dec. 9; www.artspotproductions.org) at the Contemporary Arts Center and includes ArtSpot shows like Chekhov's Wild Ride and Maid of Orleans, originally staged when Randels and ArtSpot were artists in residence at the CAC, plus workshops, discussions, music and performances by Dah Teatar and other visitors.
Building an audience for their style of performances and vision of theater has its risks and rewards. At its core, their goals have plenty in common with more conventional approaches to theater. Randels draws a line out of Chekhov's Wild Ride that would suggest success in any production.
"I believe theater can be a place where an idea is so ardently enacted that it becomes the belief of actors and audiences alike," she quotes. "I think theater artists through time have had that belief."
For the ArtSpot producers, there is extra emphasis on that moment as opposed to the text or origin of a play. It's that live moment that makes theater different from film for the audience and actor alike. It also is the difference to Hammons between forms of folk theater, which is about reproducing key significant elements of the story or its meaning, and perfomance-based theater, which locates the experience as an interaction between the actors and audience. "You have to leave room for the audience to interpret the work," Randels adds.
Creative input is important to their entire process. Randels draws a metaphor to painting. "Painters are expected to do new work. They don't spend their careers repainting pieces by master artists." ArtSpot begins its productions not so much by learning a script but creating one, as well as a means to perform it. "We begin with content and that dictates form. What we are talking about tells us how to talk about it," says Hammons, a professional dancer who joined ArtSpot in 2002. "We use a lot of physical, vocal and imaginative training. It's not solely an intellectual process. And being in the moment is not just reflection on ideas."
Producing challenging material comes with differences from traditional theater in the lack of linear narrative in some pieces, use of more abstract expression through dance and movement. Sometimes pieces get extremely topical and current. Randels has performed individual events in the streets that she sees as continuous with ArtSpot's approach and under its umbrella of activities. Following 9/11 she performed a public mourning piece in a public garage space during Art for Art's Sake in the Warehouse District. During the piece she sang continuously and cut off her hair. More abstract art often challenges definitions of what art is or the nature of the performance is. ArtSpot has not been afraid to present that kind of material.
While substantial support from local and national arts organizations have enabled ArtSpot to do ever more ambitious and challenging work, and to stage such a large slate of events for the anniversary, some of the satisfaction comes the old-fashioned way for Randels, but not just through applause.
"Clapping is one thing," she says. "But when people say 'Thank you for doing that,' --Êwhether it made them laugh or cry, that's great." Artistic Ancestry
Nov. 30-Dec. 9
Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St.; www.ArtSpotproductions.org
- Kathy Randels and J Hammons are two of the longtime collaborators behind ArtSpot Productions.