Jeff Stark (MFA '10) interview in the New York Times
Jeff Stark (MFA '10) interview in the New York TimesDate posted: 2010-05-12 16:55:24
An interview with Jeff Stark appeared in the April 30, 2010 online issue of Arts Beat, The Culture at Large, by Melena Ryzik, and was focused on his latest theatrical production event, 'The Sweet Cheat'.
Jeff Stark takes site-specific performance seriously. Mr. Stark, a 38-year-old Brooklyn artist, has staged secret dinner parties in an abandoned grain silo in Brooklyn and at the World's Fair site in Queens; last year, he created a play, "IRT: A Tragedy in Three Stations," that ran in the subway, with audiences moving between train lines alongside costumed performers. His latest work, "The Sweet Cheat," is being staged at an abandoned warehouse in an undisclosed location upstate. With a cast and crew of 20, it literally transports 40 audience members from New York City to a space far removed from traditional black-box drama for an interactive, multimedia experience. As with his other shows, he hasn't bothered to get permits or permissions, an example of what he calls "getting-away-with-it theater." As the proprietor of NonsenseNYC, a 10-year-old weekly list of below-the-radar happenings, Mr. Stark is a leading figure in the city's underground scene. He spoke with Melena Ryzik. A few tickets for this weekend's final performances of "The Sweet Cheat" are available online.
Before we begin, I should disclose that we know each other socially and that I've been a fan of your work for a long time.
Jeff Stark: We've known each other probably for eight years.
Why are you so interested in doing illegal work? Do you think of it that way?
It's not really how I prefer to think about it. There is this sort of, I guess, boyish thing about getting away with it that can often be really exciting. And I like it, and I think other people like it. I went to see this great urban explorer, Steve Duncan, speak one time. He's an expert in the sewers of New York City, all the water tunnels, and someone said do you ask for permission to go to these places, and he said I would love to have permission to go to these places. I feel like I'm sort of looking for extraordinary places, whether they're the former World's Fair site or the New York City subway system. It's about finding those extraordinary places.
Tell me about "The Sweet Cheat."
We call it a theatrical trespass. It's sort of a play, it's based on a short story ["The Albertine Notes"] by Rick Moody, it's a dystopic, sci-fi piece about New York City after a nuclear blast has been set off in Union Square Park. And in the wake of this horrible explosion, 20 percent of the population is addicted to a drug called the Albertine, which allows them to experience their own memories with perfect recall. So the story is this kind of crazy Philip K. Dick story within a story, it's nonlinear, and you can't exactly tell what is the present and the past. I read it in McSweeneys when it came out [in 2002]. I loved the story so much, it's about memory and New York and addiction and loss. I just really felt this connection to it, and I wanted to do something with it, but I was trying to figure out what kind of resources I had. I'm kind of a no-budget guy. And a couple of years ago I was in this incredible industrial ruin and I had the feeling that I have to bring people here, I have to show this to people. It has this sense of fallen grandeur that you can sort of imagine if New York had been severely neglected and forgotten after some sort of disaster. At that point, the two pieces fused in my head.
It's a pretty unique experience for the audience members, who don't know where they're going and what's in store for them.
The thing that they probably haven't experienced before is the level of complicity that's required to go through something like this. As an audience member, you're putting yourself through personal and legal risk to do it, and I don't think many people ask that of an audience or expect it. But there is this lineage of work that asks people to travel from space to space. One of the people I admire is this old New York director, Reza Abdoh, who staged performances in Times Square and such, he would move the audience from place to place. We say that there are 40 seats per show, but there are no seats, there are no chairs, you're constantly on the move.
Our photographer, Ruth Fremson, compared being in the building to being in a war zone.
We send out a series of e-mails to everyone that gives them warnings about being prepared. They're constantly reminded that they need to be sharp all the time. We take it really seriously and remind people that it's dangerous. It's funny, the people who have come, they often say, we thought you were just saying that to make it seem more exiting, and then we come into the building and we realize, oh, you weren't joking.
Is this a no-budget work?
This is a $2,000 work. In the world of theater, where even an Off Off Broadway show can cost $20,000 to produce, it's no-budget. When I say resources, I mean the community of artists and collaborators who are able to work out of love, for nothing, and make something special out of nothing.
Is it frustrating to you that you do all this and so few people get to see it? Do you have ambitions on a bigger scale?
I would love to do bigger shows. This strain of work, this getting-away-with-it theater, it demands a much smaller audience, and it's one of the reasons why we do press and documentation and treat that stuff seriously, because it becomes another way to tell the story of the project as a whole. I tend to go back and forth in scale. After this, I'll probably want to do something with just one other person.
What have the reactions been from the audience?
The reactions have been kind of shocked bewilderment. Doing a production like this, if we get people into the building, to see that kind of space, we win. The audiences are really grateful and happy, and then I think on top of that, they're impressed that we're trying to use the space with the narrative and trying to move an audience in an interesting way.
A lot of your work deals with New York and the layered sense of urban history, and what I like about it is that it both strips away and adds to those layers. It transforms quotidian or forgotten spaces, and it gives you a sense of discovery that can be communal, like having people in 19th-century dress dance through the subway.
There's that old saw that good art shows you something you've never seen before or it shows you something that you've seen every day in a different way. And I'm trying to go for both of those. This one I think hopefully takes theater and says, here's a different way of looking at this. And it shows you something new, which is this extraordinary site. With the subway play, it was about making you forget that you're in this day-to-day place and also bring it back to you. Whenever I go through 59th Street now, I look at that space and say, this isn't a crossover, this is a ballroom. And as artists, I think what we're supposed to do is show people what we think is beautiful. I think Moody's story is extraordinarily beautiful, and I think this extremely neglected place really is beautiful. Yes, everything I do is about New York. It's either about New York history or about the current New York and the kind of push back, the resistance that New York gives you as a human being and as a creative person. New York's hard, and the work is often a response to that.