Art and theater intersect to create pivotal interaction
By Alison Rooney
Right off a busy Peekskill thoroughfare, as eyes scan what’s passing, seeking a “museum-like” edifice, big bold lettering atop a large, non-descript complex of brick buildings announces with a kind of emphatic pull: “It’s What’s Outside That Counts.”
Of course this beckons one to go inside, where upon entering the enormous (12,500 square feet of exhibition space) interior, once a lumberyard, one finds the permanent and rotating collection of the Hudson Valley Center For Contemporary Art (HVCCA). There amidst galleries filled with art devised from different media, a performance series, Acting Out: Words That Connect, is taking place in the form of four performances, over the course of March through July. The second of these, works by Donna Barkman and Tony Howarth, both directed by Mara Mills, takes place at 7 p.m. on Saturday, April 26, and at 5 p.m. on Sunday, April 27.
The founder and director of HVCCA, Dr. Livia Straus, sees this interaction as pivotal. In program notes she states: “Works of art may speak to us through our visual senses, but, when enriched by the spoken word, the works have the capacity to expand what is accessible to our imaginations, to overlay the imagery of one artist upon that of others and to permit us to take the world in so as to offer myriad possibilities.”
HVCCA’s Jo-Ann Brody explains that the collection is the “brainchild of Dr. Marc and Livia Straus, who have been collecting contemporary art since their college years. They were looking for a place to store their collection and were actually on the brink of signing papers for another space in Ossining when an issue arose related to altering a site listed on the National Register of Historic Places.”
In a re-think, explained Brody, “They decided to share it, to make it into a family foundation museum.” Finding this space, which is all-cement, and renovating it with new flooring, electricity, and plumbing, the museum was opened in 2004, and since then has displayed, on a rotating basis, artworks from the permanent collection as well as special exhibits. It prides itself, according to Brody, on “showing some work that has never been in a museum; this includes younger artists who have caught the eyes of the curators.”
In addition, the HVCCA has played a leading role in many community initiatives including five editions of Project Peekskill, a public art project, with art produced in response to the Hudson Valley displayed at multiple locations throughout the city and the Trail of Tiles, a three-year-long program in which approximately 2,200 schoolchildren worked on creating Delftware-inspired tiles, which are now permanently embedded and mounted on walls, benches and tree wells in downtown Peekskill.
The HVCCA also offers numerous adult and children’s educational programs, in the form of Family Art Days, Saturday workshops and frequent gallery talks. Their current exhibit, Art at the Core: The Intersection of Visual Art, Performance and Technology, runs through Oct. 27, and features works that lend themselves to narrative interpretations.
Mara Mills, who is project director, became involved with HVCCA in 2006, and Acting Out is her sixth performance series collaboration with the center. At the time, Mills had just closed a full production theater she had run in Pleasantville for years.
“I came here, saw these enormous paintings, but no proscenium, no lights and took it as a challenge,” she says. That first year Mills invited playwrights in and told them to look upon the artworks as both their set and inspiration. “From that point on, every year except 2012 we have done a production. We started with both poets and playwrights, and the poets were urged to write in more than one voice. The writers were asked to respond to a piece of art of their choice — at times two writers would choose the same art work, and seeing the very different responses to it was extremely interesting,” Mills said. “Each piece was limited to eight minutes and the audience would move around the space, come to where the lights were on and that performance would start. There were no chairs. The audience becomes part of the experience instead of being distanced from it.”
This year, Mills decided to change the format. “The evenings were wonderful, but becoming longer and longer and they were compressed into a short duration of just a few performance days. We wanted to spread it out.” So this year they are holding the performances once every two months, for two days each, most with two pieces of work, each essentially a one-act play of about 30 to 35 minutes long by two writers per edition. And — there will be chairs this time around. The May 31/June 1 edition will feature one full-length play.
This performance series has been popular over the years, with attendees coming from as far away as New Jersey, Long Island and Connecticut, and from Yonkers to Beacon.
“We have devoted followers who come every year,” says Mills, who wrote: “Our goal is to intertwine word and image: to break artificial boundaries between audience and art, theatrical and visual. What better place to bring voice to contemporary art than in the dramatic setting of HVCC?”
Some of the writers prefer to learn the background of the pieces they are considering or the one they have chosen, while others don’t care and/or actively prefer not to know the visual artist’s intent with the work. Asked how the visual artists responded to this collaboration, Mills said it varies. “Some come in and don’t comment and you can tell that they’re not sure about it all,” she said, “but other times they are thrilled — it’s a chance for the visual artist to release the work to another art form in a totally different process.” Sometimes the artist and writer meet up, and, on occasion, the response by the writer in turn inspires the visual artist.
Donna Barkman, is returning to this series for the fourth time. An actor, playwright and poet, Barkman will present a play, Hand-Me-Downs: Scenes From A Life, with a Little Help from Antigone and Mother Goose, which will take place within a setting created by five of the exhibition works: Yigal Ozeri’s Priscilla in Vines; Jon Pylypchuk’s I Thought They Were My Children, Ben Schumacher’s The Intern as Phantom Limb, Robert Fekete’s We Have the Same Feelings and Phil Wagner’s Untitled (with Suitcase).
Standing within the setting, she spoke of its genesis: “I was in here with Livia Straus, responding to the whole exhibit. She said ‘These things connect, but I don’t know what connects them.’ I said ‘Phantoms: memory, yearning, searching, looking for answers, which is what phantoms do.’ My piece incorporates Antigone: we’re both trying to find happiness in a world which doesn’t allow you to lead a life of integrity.” Barkman calls the process “enriching. It’s all process and then it becomes product. We’re all so subjective about our own work; this is such a collaboration and you can see your work with other eyes. I appreciate it because you grow and you get better.”
On the bill with Barkman is Tony Howarth’s A Pile Of Rags, a play which imagines a world in the midst of total chaos, inspired by Jonas Burgert’s painting Hell Schlaqt (Hell Speaks). As with all of the programs in the series, each performance will be followed by a Q-and-A session.
The other writers involved in this year’s series are Vicki Addesso, Susan Hodara, Lisa Karrer, Coni Ciongoli Koepfinger, Joan Potter, Matty Selman, Lori Toppel and Bob Zaslow.
Tickets for non-members cost $25 for one evening, $45 for two. The remaining performance dates beyond this weekend’s are Saturday, May 31, at 7 p.m., Sunday June 1, at 5 p.m., Saturday, July 12, at 7 p.m., and Sunday July 13, at 5 p.m. HVCCA is located at 1701 Main St., Peekskill. Visit hvcca.org or phone 914-788-0100.
Photos by A. Rooney