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Finding an Audience : Noted performance artists join a CSUN festival that has been attracting substantial crowds.

March 19, 1993|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Steve Appleford writes regularly for The Times

Performance art has rarely enjoyed a high profile in the San Fernando Valley, infinitely overshadowed by activity in urban Los Angeles. Even performance art curator and stage manager Elizabeth Murtaugh, who lives in North Hollywood, travels across the hills of Hollywood for her cultural involvement.

But the monthlong Performance Arts Festival at Cal State Northridge should change a few perceptions with appearances by such noted artists as John Fleck, Dan Kwong and Nobuko Miyamoto. The first two weekends of the festival, which included performances by Joan Hotchkis and the Hittite Empire, gathered near-capacity crowds.

"I think there is an audience for it here, definitely," said Murtaugh, who gathered the festival's talent for the CSUN English honors society, Sigma Tau Delta, which is sponsoring the event. "It's obvious just from the response that we've gotten at Cal State Northridge. The artists have done interviews and talks on campus, and the response has been phenomenal."

Subtitled "A Multi-Cultural Event," the festival was designed to reflect the ethnic and cultural diversity of the city, says Mary Elliott, a CSUN English student and executive producer of the program. "We weren't able to include all the different cultures in this show, so next year we will go beyond what we've done this year."

The inspiration for creating the festival comes partly in response to recent race-based conflicts on CSUN, including the suspension and reinstatement of a fraternity that used language in a party flyer that was considered by some to be racist and sexist, Elliott said. "Our community is really on fire right now. And we need this healing process.

"It's a need to start addressing these problems in a theater atmosphere. It's not a money-making thing," she added. "It will basically just cover itself."

Saturday's program features performances by Kwong and Miyamoto. Kwong's work tends to focus on the Asian-American experience through use of storytelling, dance, martial arts, video and humor. He will perform an excerpt from his work-in-progress, "Monkhood in Three Easy Lessons." The full work will be performed in June at the Japan America Theater in Los Angeles.

"I do use a lot of humor," Kwong said. "I find it is very important when talking about emotionally loaded issues to use humor. It keeps your audience afloat and their attention refreshed, while listening to some very difficult material."

Much of that material is autobiographical or based on the experiences of his Chinese-born father, and the "extreme isolation" felt by his Chinese and Japanese grandparents. The 30-minute piece, he said, will also include a fantasy sequence in which he is interviewed at the moment of his birth, exploring "the history of how Asian-American men have been regarded in this country as men, and how any of that has manifested itself in my life and experience."

Sharing the stage with him that evening will be Miyamoto, a former Broadway singer and dancer who turned to performance art after a career that included roles in early productions of "The King and I" and "West Side Story." In the late 1960s, she joined Chris Iijima to perform folk music that reflected the Asian-American experience. More recently, Miyamoto created Great Leap Inc., a local musical theater ensemble that spread a similar message on stages and in schools.

"She was one of the real pioneers of the Asian-America movement in the '70s, Asian-American cultural awareness and the importance of cultural pride," Kwong said.

Next week's concluding festival event will feature Kary Lynn Vail and Fleck, who will perform an excerpt of "All for You," his work-in-progress that will be premiered this fall at the Mark Taper Forum. Fleck, 41, who earned some notoriety outside performance art circles when he was one of four artists denied grants from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990, will bring an hourlong multimedia work to CSUN.

"It was very exciting to get him on board" for the festival, Murtaugh said. "It's actually turning into quite a piece."

Where and When What: CSUN Performance Art Festival: An excerpt from Dan Kwong's "Monkhood in Three Easy Lessons" and Nobuko Miyamoto's "A Grain of Sand" at 8 p.m. Saturday. An excerpt from John Fleck's "All for You" and Kary Lynn Vail's "You Think Like a Man" and "Beating Up Jesus" at 8 p.m. March 27. Location: Little Theatre, Cal State Northridge, 18111 Nordhoff St. Price: $12 general admission, $8 students. Call: (818) 885-3093.

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