Not too cool for school

CUNY's unique Prelude series gives downtown's avant-garde a professorial air.

HIGHER EDUCATION Henstchker moderates a Prelude panel.

HIGHER EDUCATION Henstchker moderates a Prelude panel. Photograph: Julien Jourdes

Not all of Frank Hentschker’s ideas are winners. For instance, at a meeting, the German-born force behind the Prelude ’08 festival waxes enthusiastic about personalized M&Ms. “They do them for bar mitzvahs!” Hentschker marvels. There is a silence. His trusty staff (including curators Andy Horwitz and Geoffrey Scott) looks doubtful. But they dutifully make a note.

That’s because Hentschker, 49, director of programs at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, hits more than he misses. Hentschker’s Preludes are beloved yearly roundups dedicated to the upcoming season’s more experimental works-in-progress. At first, Prelude was simply a way to see lots of adventurous work over the weekend without leaving the cushy seats of the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center on 34th Street. Increasingly though, the events have also functioned as information-sharing opportunities (satellite discussions tackle real estate and tour financing) and as bull sessions for the future of the form. This year, the curators are breaching the borders between theater and live art—getting past being a smorgasbord of what Horwitz calls “the young, hot blah blah blah.”

For the past two years, Horwitz (creator of the blog Culturebot and now artistic director of the revived IRT Theater) and New York Theatre Workshop literary associate Scott, 32, have hunted down exciting new work for the lineup. For this fifth-anniversary year, they started inviting old performers back: “We want to see how they have evolved,” Horwitz, 38, explains. Participants will include established names like Richard Foreman, Big Art Group and Big Dance Theater, among newer lights like the Air Band and the Paper Industry.

Both Scott and Horwitz profess an interest in work that overleaps conventional boundaries, so while most of the productions will show an interdisciplinary quality, Scott says “a lot of performances will also happen literally in in-between spaces like stairwells and hallways. We’ve also invited Tal Yarden to show us his experiments with the computer simulation program Second Life so that we can discuss the liminal space of the Internet.” (Online avatars will even pose questions at the talk back.) Yarden’s piece will in turn be projected onto the Segal Center’s lobby walls, moving it out of the theater space.

Where something is performed seems as important to these curators as what. Horwitz sums up their philosophy by talking about a rapturously received Neal Medlyn performance he saw at the New Museum: “I have been following Neal’s work for years in dives where he was performing for ten people. He’s great. But why did it take a museum to make people get him? We want to capitalize on that. We’re investigating spaces as context, but we’re also borrowing a lot directly from the museum framework. We’re curating in tracks—a compositional track, a multimedia track—treating productions like related exhibits.”

This insouciant engagement with the live-art world is what excites one of the Prelude presenters, the six-headed Joyce Cho—a collective of avant-garde Brooklyn writers. One of them, Karinne Keithley, describes Joyce Cho as “a group that comes up with staging solutions for each other’s plays. We’re injecting a playwright’s perspective into the community, but without actually producing. We’re a think tank instead of a theater company, sort of like Prelude.” She continues, “We both generate a picture of what’s happening and then use that instance to funnel the conversation into an event. It seems like only Prelude thinks about performance in that open-minded way.”

At another meeting, the cocurators, Hentschker and two moonlighting administrators, Rebecca Sheahan and Allison Lyman, cluster for their first glimpse at the program. Hentschker has just nixed a guerilla performance in one of the bathrooms, but confirms that the lobby is fair game. “We’ve had Collapsible Giraffe there doing a seven-hour performance—naked, everything,” Hentschker boasts. “But we can’t have people getting attacked in the toilets. At least not that I officially know about.”

The group dismisses concerns that its new open-door policy—viewers can wander in and out of events—could fluster artists. “It’ll be interesting to see who feels permission to leave,” muses Scott, sounding every inch the performance-studies egghead. Horwitz laughs. “Well, it will be interesting to us,” he says. “The artists might freak out: ‘Fuck you! Theater is sacrosanct!’ ” In this crowd, busily planning the best way to subvert a panel discussion, sacrosanct gets the biggest laugh of all.

Prelude ’08 is at the Graduate Center through Sat 27.