Sometimes a night of theater means a seat in an audience, a stage, and a group of actors performing the words of a classic or a fresh play. But theater can also manifest in many other shapes. Sometimes it means entering an entirely virtual world, or being trapped in a never-ending game show. Sometimes it means dancing instead of speaking – and not just by the performers, but by the spectators as well. Sometimes it means literally being taken by the hand and invited to join in a story told not just by words, but by songs, dance, music, image, and technology. Those who venture to any of the Coil Festival’s performances in Manhattan, Brooklyn, or Queens will find themselves drawn in not just as an observer, but as part of the art itself.
The Coil Festival is put on by Performance Space 122 (or PS122), an organization based in the East Village. Said Artistic Director Vallejo Gantner in the Coil program, “I unreservedly believe Performance Space 122 and the works we champion succeed because – and not despite – a glorious cacophony of difference.” Coil 2017 can definitely boast variety. The festival – whose name is open to interpretation, like much of the performances – this year includes dance, theater, film, interactive installations, virtual reality experiences, and all kinds of interdisciplinary performances which defy traditional labels. The downside is that the level of talent tends to vary with these performances as well. However, whatever your assessment when you leave the theater – or dance hall, or gallery – you can be fairly confident that you’ll have an experience you wouldn’t have had elsewhere.
Like its impressively diverse array of productions, PS122’s origin has a unique flair. The not-for-profit organization was born in 1980 in an abandoned elementary school, rising from the turbulent political and social climate of the city to celebrate contemporary art in all its forms. According to their website, PS122 “provided artists working in performance, dance, and theater with a safe space to test their own creativity, express revolutionary ideas and share artistic practices and projects with audiences adventurous enough to join them.” Their mission from the 1980s has remained constant in the twenty-first century, with out-of-the-box thinking and creative approaches to the future of performance dominating the Coil Festival.
And PS122’s mission regarding audiences has hardly changed, either. “Adventurous” is certainly a requirement for anyone interested in the Coil Festival. Most of the performances can be better described as “experiences,” involving full or at least partial participation. Many of the offerings in Coil’s 2017 lineup subvert the traditional expectation of sitting quietly in your chair and being entertained from a distance.
In Britt Hatzius’s Blind Cinema, for instance, the audience is in fact seated quietly in their chairs. But you are not experiencing a performance in the traditional sense. You are blindfolded, sitting in a movie theater, while on the screen in front of you there plays a film which you cannot see. The film is described to you instead – by a child who sits behind you, whispering into your ear through a funnel. The child has never seen the movie, and your experience is dictated to you not only by another person but by a fresh and innocent mindset that is, for most adults, unattainable. The effect of seeing through a child’s eyes is both liberating and relaxing. Of the different children who whispered in my ear, I received a very solemn description, a dream-like imagining, and an incredulous approach involving lots of “Whoa!” and “This is weird!” comments that I couldn’t keep from laughing at.
Nicola Gunn’s Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster is another piece that pushes the traditional idea of a performance. Gunn is always on the move during her one-woman-show, quite literally, as her monologue is accompanied by constant, seemingly meaningless, and sometimes stupefying choreography. Her show revolves what appears to be a simple conundrum involving herself, a man, and a duck. But Gunn’s stream-of-consciousness attack of the problem unravels into philosophy and impossibly obscure trivia. At one point, the choreography mimics Gunn’s monologue, spilling off the stage and into the audience where Gunn continues her rambling and rhythmic dancing.
Some productions are even more interactive. In Yehuda Duenyas’s CVRTAIN, you are the center of attention on an imaginary stage, in front of a virtual reality audience who will react to your every move. CATCH, on the other hand, a performance showcase housed at the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn, can’t help but feel like a party rather than an individualized experience. But by far the most impressive and boundary-breaking performance is Yara Travieso’s La Medea.
La Medea is a reimagining of Euripides’s Medea, refashioned as a “dance-theater performance and feature film à la Latin-disco-pop variety show” (according to the description in the Coil program). The show is a masterpiece of modern interdisciplinary art. The actors speak in alternating English and Spanish; the action happens both on stage and off-stage, and sometimes simultaneously; the choreography takes place both on the stage and among the audience.
La Medea is also a beautiful marriage of the traditional and the technological. A live band – “Jason and the Argonauts” – takes on the narrating responsibilities of a Greek chorus through original modern rock songs, but they have to share their thunder with speakers set up around the room which blare pre-recorded messages. A huge projection screen dominates on wall of the performance space, enticing viewers with the beautiful shots and live footage that the camerawomen moving amongst the audience are streaming – but all the while the performers are moving too, either caught in captivating dances or interacting with the audience. Not only that, but the story of La Medea combines the classic with hopelessly tragic contemporary themes. La Medea boils an ancient Greek story from hyper masculinity and hero quests to the personal pain of one woman, Medea, whose anger and sorrow alone charge this performance piece with an ageless power. With an immensely talented cast, Travieso turns Medea from a sorceress slash crazy ex-girlfriend into an exploited woman seeking freedom and empowerment.
Coil is a cornucopia of new ideas and new experiences. While the festival might not be for those who prefer traditional theater, it’s worth a trip if you consider yourself adventurous enough to abandon your expectations of what theater is supposed to be. If you allow yourself to do this, you’ll be rewarded with a transporting experience that you won’t likely forget any time soon.