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Prelude 2014 offers an avant-garde smorgasbord at CUNY this week—for free

By David Cote
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It’s finally feeling like autumn, the start of cooler temps and a new academic year. Even if your graduation was ages ago, I recommend heading back to school—just for this week. At CUNY’s Graduate Center (34th Street and Fifth Avenue), the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center is hosting its annual Prelude festival, curated by Chloë Bass, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Allison Lyman, Sarah Rose Leonard and Segal director Frank Hentschker. They’ve cooked up a terrific three-day avant-palooza of panels, performances and provocations by the city’s leading or emerging multidisciplinary theater artists. Among the talented throng are Erin Markey, Richard Maxwell & New York City Players, Aisha Cousins, Christina Masciotti & Paul Lazar, Eliza Bent, David Neumann and oh so many more. It’s all free. Details here.

What more can I say but check out the lineup and see as much as you can. Actually, there is more to say: this short essay Prelude asked me to write for its tenth anniversary. Enjoy!

Ten years on: looking back at Prelude

As theater editor and chief drama critic for a weekly magazine (and its online version) I write brief reviews and occasional news items for a general audience. My readers are a mix of theater artists, fans, tourists, academics and savvy culture vultures. It’s a restless, motley audience with diverse needs. One thing’s for sure: My writing is not aimed at avant-garde specialists. I can’t issue windy manifestoes or theoretical proclamations without alienating my base—or simply irritating it. Moreover, I’m deeply invested in the evaluative and interpretative dimension of criticism. My reviews are not above saying whether I like or dislike, whether it’s worthy or a waste of time. And yes, we use a star-rating system.

Pretentious bloggers and snobby dramaturgs (as disgusted by the media as they are ignorant of its workings) will point out that I’m no Herbert Blau or Richard Gilman. Very true. What I can be, though, is a conduit between a larger audience and rarefied contemporary practices. I can try to translate the jargon of academia into vibrant, persuasive language to help a spectator appreciate an event. In New York alone, the experimental-theater world has undergone profound changes in the decade since Prelude began convening panels and presenting works-in-progress. Among the various phenomena I’ve tracked through Prelude (some of which actually date back to 1960s and ’70s): relational aesthetics as play; postdramatic staging; opera-theater hybrids; digital and mixed-media dramaturgy; historical meta-(mis)representation; and the fascinating range of textual strategies in new plays that range from found text to Internet-age poetics.

That’s where the great value of Prelude comes in. Each fall, it offers a panoramic view of the creative processes of young (and not-so-young) artists and theorists. It demonstrates the variety and ferment of the theatrical avant-garde, constantly evolving and reacting. As a critic and commentator, Prelude goads me to ask myself: How do I write about this work?

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