Opera Povera artistic director Sean Griffin, right, gives direction to… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)
It's conventional wisdom that old boundaries between different art forms are fraying fast. Globalization and new technology have made dance, theater, film, music and visual design blur together to create interdisciplinary hybrids and collages.
So when George Lugg hears people using the "I" word loosely, he reacts with a certain cautiousness.
"I often find myself in conversations about interdisciplinarity, and I just want to back up and say, 'Well, what are we talking about?'" said Lugg, associate director of the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater. "Interdisciplinarity is not like this neutral zone in the center."
Understanding and exploring artistic convergence is a guiding objective of REDCAT's New Original Works Festival, which runs through Aug. 11. All performances will take place in REDCAT's 200-seat, flexible black box space, tucked in a suitably underground position at the southeast corner of Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Now in its ninth year, the festival of nine experimental works, grouped into three programs of three performances each, offers a mash-up of multifaceted, multimedia artists. On any given night audiences may encounter a 30- or 40-minute piece that blends puppetry with speculative fiction about the radical visionaries of post-war Silver Lake (Susan Simpson's "Exhibit A"), or traditional Buddhist mythic dance interwoven with Cambodian pop music (Prumsodun Ok's "Of Land and Sky"), or a classic feminist tract in operatic dialogue with a Hollywood star's tragic life story (Opera Povera's "To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe In Recognition of Their Desperation").
One thing that NOW festival director Lugg looks for when curating such pieces is how an artist uses her or his particular training and traditions to illuminate other disciplines and traditions. If you're primarily a visual artist who's also interested in dance, how does your visual training influence your sense of body movement and choreographic composition?
If you're a theater artist who uses movie genres like film noir and science fiction to explore themes of sexuality and identity, how do film or video clips add surprising new dimensions to your work and not function simply as decorative scenic elements?
"It's not just like, 'Oh, we're theater people and we put video in our piece,'" Lugg emphasized. "What is your relationship to that medium? Why are you interested in that?"
Several performers taking part in this year's festival have been wrestling with such questions for years.
Simpson, an experimental theater artist, filmmaker and puppeteer, combines puppetry, green-screen video effects and live music in "Exhibit A" to explore issues of identity and how local folklores are constructed out of actual and imagined historical events.
"Puppetry has a way, without being didactic and saying, 'Look we're constructing this history,'" said Simpson, who in June 2007 opened the Manual Archives, a Silver Lake micro-theater and exhibition space devoted to L.A.'s "newly discovered and invented folklore."
In Simpson's "Exhibit A," nearly life-size puppets interact with human figures in a miniature topographical model of L.A.'s Silver Lake neighborhood, depicting an era — the late 1940s — when the bohemian enclave was a locus of experimental Modernist architecture as well as proto-gay-liberation politics. But this semi-historical scenario is soon hijacked by a sci-fi narrative that transports the audience through music and cinematic effects.
Although her piece was workshopped before in scaled-down versions, Simpson said that moving it into the larger REDCAT venue had allowed her to explore how the puppets' laborious body movements could be related thematically to the idea of the struggles involved in raising human consciousness.
"In terms of the local experimental theater scene, it can be a pretty rough place to get work off the ground and on its feet," Simpson said. "The NOW Festival has really helped a lot of different pieces do that."
Besides affording a state-of-the-art theater and the services of its sound and light crews, the festival also supplies participants with honorariums of up to $2,000. That helps impresarios like Opera Povera artistic director Sean Griffin, whose avant-garde operas are totally self-produced.
Griffin's movement-based works often draw from found texts or other "evidence," a preference he attributes to the years he spent working in libraries "at nighttime, when nobody else would be there." Collaborating with Juliana Snapper, an L.A.-based soprano, Griffin conceived his new work as a tribute to electronic art-music composer Pauline Oliveros, whose 1970 score was inspired by Solanas' radical feminist S.C.U.M. (Society For Cutting Up Men) manifesto.
"I have my own ideas about what opera is, and I don't care whether people call it opera or not," said Griffin. Opera has been "a crazy, interdisciplinary" art form "with all these insane stagings" for centuries, he continued. "You feel like you have to keep fighting to get back to the original idea of opera."
Although this year's 126 application proposals are down from the 162 received in 2010, Lugg believes the festival's audience, like L.A.'s alt-performance community, is growing, both in sophistication and size.
"I think [there's] something about L.A. at this moment that still feels under-supported but kind of energized," he said. "I don't know what fuel it's running on, but hopefully there's enough of it to keep it going."