RuthM2.jpgIt’s been over three decades since experimental theater company Mabou Mines arose out of a collaboration – which took place in the small Nova Scotia town of Mabou – involving JoAnne Akailitis, Lee Breuer, Philip Glass, Ruth Maleczech, and David Warrilow. In the years since, the company has become renowned for restlessly shoving the boundaries of theater in myriad different directions. Tomorrow a new production directed by Maleczech begins a five night run outdoors in Long Island City, Queens. Called Song for New York: What Women Do While Men Sit Knitting, the ambitious multi-disciplinary work will be performed on a barge anchored in the East River at Gantry Plaza State Park. The production celebrates each borough through live music, oral history and poetry commissioned from five New York writers. Gothamist recently spoke with Maleczech about the project, the company, Frank Rich and New York City.

What are some of the ideas that inspired you in the creation of this production? Well, the poets themselves are inspiring. Also I live near the twin towers so September 11th was important to me, especially the women in those towers. And I’m very excited about the collaborators on this: Lisa Gutkin, Christine Sciulli, Irina Kruzhilina, Jeremy Lee and Robert Kaplowitz. And Julie archer, who I’ve worked with over a long period of time.

The subtitle is What Women Do While Men Sit Knitting. That’s a very interesting subtitle. The men in the piece sometimes sing but for the most part they do choruses which were written by Nancy Groce, who is presently part of the Smithsonian Institute but in the past has been a borough historian in New York. So the speeches that they do knit together the songs that are sung. So there’s a song to celebrate each borough and there are these yarns that connect the songs. So they literally knit the piece together. It also looks at how women drive New York but also how men nurture that drive. So it’s the reverse of what you would normally think if you were going to assign gender roles.

How does the choice to stage the show on a barge in the East River dovetail with your concept? Well we investigated a lot of different situations for the piece. We always wanted it to be site-specific. We investigated certain houses like Weeksville and the Hall of Heroes in the Bronx. And we investigated the idea of community gardens but it became clear early on – and you can see it right away if you look at a map – that what connects the boroughs are these waters. So it was kind of a natural follow through. And the barge as opposed to a boat has to do with stability. There is a large set that Julie designed that has to sit on the deck of the barge and it has to hold a lot of sound equipment and so on. And the audience of course is on the shore.

S4NY1JulieArcher2.jpgDid you face any logistical obstacles in your process? Absolutely. On a daily basis. And we still do. It’s very difficult to get the permits to be on the water, especially since September the 11th, 2001. So you have to pass all kinds of Coast Guard regulations, and since September 11th they share that oversight with the New York Police Department Harbor Patrol and the Fire Department. So there are those people who have to be satisfied in terms of what it is that you’re doing and why you’re doing it. And then there are marine surveyors and people like that. And there’s Con Edison who runs cable under the water in various places. And then of course the state and city parks departments, and their police, who are park rangers.

So, yes, there’s a lot you have to go through to be able to do a piece like this! And it is somewhat unending; we are still dealing with difficulties. But I think it will be resolved. Then of course there’s the unpredictable element in all of this which is the weather. You can’t perform if it’s too windy or if it’s raining because there are a lot of electrics. And even if it’s not raining but there’s lightning we have to leave the barge immediately.

At any point did it seem like this just wasn’t going to happen? Oh yeah lots of times. [Laughs.]

Can you tell us when? Well, one of those situations had to do with money. That is, the cost of moving the barge into place and spudding it. That means you drop these very heavy steel rods into the silt and they replace anchors. In certain places you can’t do that because there are electrical lines under there. That happened in one of the locations we proposed; another was only free in the daytime unless we could come up with $25,000 a night to keep it open later. Another place didn’t have access for the general public. We could get there but it would be very difficult for the audience. Most of these places we considered have never had a performance. And that was intentional: we didn’t want to do it in a place where performance was already a kind of tradition. We wanted to find places that were less well known to the public. So that comes with a certain amount of difficulty. So yes, originally I wanted to do it in each of the four boroughs and on Governor’s Island. But that would have cost way too much. It’s very expensive to move the barge and spud it.

And on top of that you’re not charging admission. That’s right it’s free. Plus it’s a free zone around it. In other words, no one will try to sell the audience anything.

So that was something you were adamant about? Yes. I was looking early on for co-producers because Mabou Mines is a small experimental theater company. And this is a big project to take on. It would have been easier with co-production, with an organization that had some money that they could throw into the pot. All the people I spoke with would have done it but they needed to have a way to support it and that way generally would have been some sort of market aspect to it. Some sort of “selling thing” that was connected to it. I didn’t want that.

So you’re talking about selling concessions and perhaps turning it into “The Snapple Song for New York”? Food, drinks, the vendors nearby, signage, all that sort of thing.

Why did you feel opposed to that? Because New York is inundated with that kind of thing. It’s just inundated with it. I didn’t want money to be a part of it. So it won’t be. Except, of course, Mabou Mines has to come up with all the money! [Laughs.]

How will the audience participate in the production? There’s an audience photo booth to which people can go; it opens at 6:45pm on each of the performance nights. All the performances will be at one location at Gantry State Park Plaza in Queens. And the reason that was selected is because from it you can see just a tiny little piece of Staten Island and you can see Brooklyn, The Bronx, Manhattan and, of course, behind you, Queens. So all the five boroughs can be seen from the site.

The performances are at 8pm but the photo booth opens early. What we would like is for people to come and have their photograph taken – of course, all with their permission – and then we’ll give them the positive of the photograph. We’ll keep the negative to reprint it later. And they’ll have time in the booth to leave their impressions of what borough they live in. And then at the end of the evening we’ll collect the impressions and put them together with the photograph and then in the Spring of ’08 we want to make an installation of their work, hopefully in lower Manhattan. Around the old Staten Island Ferry Terminal would be perfect. It in some way echoes the way people put up photos of their missing loved ones after September 11th, to ask for help in finding them. And this parallels that a little bit except that these people are living. So that is how the audience will participate. They will also be given small binoculars so they can bring the barge closer to them if they need to.

When considering Mabou Mines alongside the other leaders of the avant-garde theater movement, one journalist described the company as “the odd man out, the black sheep of radical theatre” Do you agree? Yes, I do. The reason for that is that there is no single artistic director and there never has been. So right now there are six and the people designated as the artistic directors are free to pursue their work in whatever way they like. So people don’t make work like each other very much and that’s very unusual. Usually there’s a stamp of the artistic director on a group of people who collect together to essentially realize a singular vision. That would be true of very good companies like Richard Foreman or The Wooster Group or Robert Wilson. So this is very, very different from that because there are six artists who are each pursuing different aims, different ideas. So it makes it very difficult for the press to understand what “the guiding intelligence” is here, as they used to say. [Laughs.]

But it’s very good for artists because it offers absolute freedom. So that would be the major difference between this company and any other company. Also this company is very involved in language, especially original language, as well as movement and music and sometimes puppetry and sometimes media. Although in this piece only Christine Sciulli the light artist is involved in media. But it’s interesting media because it’s outdoors.

But will it be dark by show time? It starts at 8pm so it goes from dusk to dark.

In the same article, Lee Breuer said something about the socioeconomic classes of theater makers that sparked discussion on theater blogs about class in theater. Oh, I didn’t know that.

He said – Oh, I know what he said. He said that financially speaking, Mabou Mines is always in trouble.

Right. He said, “We're not upper middle class like everybody else in the avant-garde. Maybe Mabou Mines is the only truly lower-class theatre." [Laughs.] Yeah, working class, I guess I would say. If we had classes in this country which we don’t. [Awkward silence, finally broken by Ruth’s laughter.] That’s a joke!

Good, because I was suddenly very confused. Right. But do you agree with what Lee said? I do. I do agree with that. Mabou Mines is part of the working class. We work just like a carpenter or an electrician or anyone else.

Has it been more or less difficult to obtain funding during the past 6 years? Well, it’s gone up and down. At first there was a big influx of money I think largely due to Mayor Blooomberg, who’s a big advocate of arts and culture in New York. I think he feels it to be an antidote to a lot of other things. But in any case, at first there was a large surge of support and then of course it went away. And we went through a very difficult time. Now with the new distinction from the Department of Cultural Affairs – which is something I believe the mayor and Commsioner Kate Levin worked out – smaller companies like Mabou Mines and many other small companies are able to benefit from the appropriation to the Department of Cultural Affairs which is made by the council and the Assembly. Now it’s possible for smaller companies to get a great deal more of this money which formerly went to very large organizations like the Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center. Places like that. So it’s improved as of that decision, which was just announced this year.

The article also says that Lee Breuer blames Frank Rich “for the drying up of economic support for experimental work.” Well, at the time that Frank Rich was the senior theater critic for the New York Times he really didn’t like Mabou Mines very much and wrote a lot of reviews, the first of which was designed to put the company right out of business. He wasn’t successful, so that says something for the rest of New York. [Laughs]. But he did try; he’s a big fan of musical theater and Broadway. That’s not to say that musical theater and Broadway aren’t great but there are other things to do. So yes, he had an effect. Of course the New York Times always has an effect; it’s a very powerful political and cultural organ.

Please share your strangest "only in New York" story. I came to New York a few days before Christmas in December 1969 after living for six years in Paris. I didn’t know anything about New York – it’s not like I thought I had to go to New York to make theater, but at that juncture it did seem the right thing to do. So the first morning I was taken out to be shown the neighborhood. It was about 10am. Across the street a man crashed out of a storefront window onto the sidewalk and ran down the block. The sidewalk was crowded with Christmas shoppers. The man whose store it was ran out and yelled, “Everybody get down!”

The person I was with slammed me down onto the sidewalk, which was icy and very cold. The owner took careful aim and shot the person who had robbed his store. I think he might have shot him dead. That was the first morning in New York. That night I was staying in a little room with my then baby daughter and I stepped outside the room to put her diaper into the diaper pail and thought, “It’s very bright out here, that’s so strange.” I looked up and saw that the door that opened onto the roof was open and standing on the stairs was a very large man with a big knife. And I was speechless. For a moment we just looked at each other. And there was a tiny little sound that came out of me: “Eek!” And my friend who was down the hall heard me and called out, “Don’t worry, there are mice but it’s all right!” And the man, when he heard another voice, turned around and ran away. That was my first day and first night in New York! Very typical, actually, I know, in retrospect, but not for me.

Which New Yorker do you most admire? Maybe Joe Torre.

Why is that? The Yankees. I like the Yankees.

Given the opportunity, how would you change New York? Well, I would try to make it more welcoming to people with little or no money or education, like immigrants.

Under what circumstances have you considered moving out of New York? Well, I would only live in one other city and that would be Paris. I always thought I was visiting New York, I always thought I’d be moving on, until one day I was returning from a tour and I had a cloth bag and it was pouring rain. I came into Port Authority. I think I landed at Newark and took a bus to Port Authority. And then I had to walk over to Ninth Avenue to get a bus. And by the time I got over there I was soaking and everything in the bag was soaking and I was really dripping wet. And I remember looking up and saying, “Go ahead rain, I live here!”

All performances will take place at Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City, Queens, at the Pier. Seating and access to an interactive Photo Booth begins at 6:45pm. Performances start at 8pm. See Mabou Mines for more details. Photo of Ruth Maleczech by Stephanie Diamond, production photo of Song for New York by Julie Archer.