TLD Interview: Abrons Artistic Director Jay Wegman

The Residents - From "Sam's Enchanted Evening"

We spoke with Abrons Arts Center’s Artistic Director, Jay Wegman, as he was preparing to announce his 2012 Spring Season. We discussed some of the upcoming shows and what he would like to see for Abrons in the future. Wegman has been producing some very cutting edge performances over the last few years. In 2009, The New York Times noted that Abrons “is gaining a reputation as one of the last standing locations for avant garde performance downtown.”

TLD – Tell us what you’re excited about this season.

JW – Well the spring kicks off with John Cage – who used to be a music teacher here – and it’s the 100th anniversary of his birthday so Alarm Will Sound is coming. They are based in Chicago – and Carnegie Hall is bringing them here as part of their American Maverick Series, as well as the Jack Quartet – so those are two free events for the community.

And then we are doing The Residents, (a pioneering performance collective) who have been around since something like 1972. They are based in Berkley and they’re mysterious because no one knows their true identity.  They have a new show and that’s gong to be here for only four performances.

Karole Armitage is doing her season here. She’s premiering a show called ‘Rave,’ with 26 dancers, all brightly colored, and then the rest of the evening will be short works from artists like William Wegman, Richard Phillips and Will Cotton, so I’m really excited about that.

Big Art Group is coming back. They were here with “Broke House” for the American Realness Festival and it was a huge success so they’re coming back for three weeks. They’re doing their adaptation of Three Sisters which isn’t really  about Three Sisters…it’s like break art..it’s just whacked out.

And Bloom Collective – we’re bringing our first international company here (they are based in London and Budapest). I saw them last year at a festival in Budapest and I really liked them.

TLD – What did you like about them?

JW – I liked them because (the work is) political – not “bang you over the head political” but the situation in Hungary right now is very bad – it’s becoming very nationalist, almost fascist, all kinds of rights are being taken away from Hungarians, the press, voting rights, things like that and artists are having a particularly tough time. So they kind of grapple with that in a very interesting way. (They also often perform in the nude.)

TLD – When you schedule something like this – this is you inviting them to come in, correct?

J W– Actually yes, every single one of these groups, we brought in. It used to be the other way around, where people would rent the theater — we don’t do that anymore – it’s been a gradual transition but next year we’re going to start making that clearer – who is “officially” being presented.

TLD – How far ahead do you start planning?

JW – I’m already working on next spring. Fall is fairly well set.

TLD – What’s the goal, when you are thinking ahead and planning your programming, that far down the road?

JW – The goal is to continue doing a combination of people who are established, like Karole Armitage, along with emerging artists. Everything we do kind of has a boldness to it because…why else come all the way over here?  I mean people come here expecting something a little different – a little edgier, maybe.

TLD – Only recently, though, right?

JW – Only recently, yes. When I got here (five years ago) I threw a pretty broad net because I was charged with the goal of revitalizing the performances here. So we started with a very broad base of programming — but what kind of floated to the top, in terms of need and interest, were artists who were doing non-traditional work because — one, the playhouse is such a unique theater in New York City, there’s not another performance space like it. So a lot of artists like doing their non-traditional work within the framework of a traditional theater — and I love that juxtaposition.

Also you know what happened was, I realized, we have gone back to what was almost the original mission of the Neighborhood Playhouse, which was built as part of Henry Street Settlement in 1915. It was the Home of the Avant Garde. For a good 15 years they were doing dance dramas, they were doing all kinds of things that just didn’t fit the mold of what people expected.  They did some straight up dramas, but all of it had music woven into it, choreographed motion, they also were bringing in artists who were really well known such as Ellen Terry, who people don’t really know anymore at all. She was a very famous British actress who made her final solo performance here in 1923.

So they were doing a balance, too, between bringing in playwrights who America hadn’t heard of, or choreographers who were doing wacky stuff — and also you have to remember that the subways weren’t really around then so it was even harder to get here!

The arts we do here now aren’t “entertainment,” per se…We aren’t putting on lowest-common-denominator music shows, because we tried to do that and people just didn’t come to that, either – so that’s one reason why we carved out this niche – it was really the path of least resistance.

I like that we’re doing longer performances than we used to – ‘Arias With a Twist’ ran for five weeks (last fall) – ‘Broke House’ will be here for three weeks.

TLD – Arias With a Twist was a big hit, wasn’t it?

JW – I think Arias is one of my top three favorite things that has been done here – in terms of visual and artistic quality – and it brought in audiences from all over the place.  The press was fabulous – we were in the New York Times three times as recommendations – it was really just remarkable.

TLD – What are your hopes for Abrons in the future?

JW – When I was hired, Richard Abrons, the man whose name is on this building, said he would love to see the Abrons Arts Center be known as “the BAM of the Lower East Side.”  So that was a really great challenge, and something I can definitely embrace as a mission – I think we are kind of a mini BAM – and I love that a lot of people who have performed here are going to be performing at BAM next year…It’s a big, creative, holistic ecology system, if you will.