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Mabou Minds at Work

Tom Hawkinson on 30 years of Mabou Mines and Las Horas de Belen. logo

It all starts back in college, or maybe at a theater camp or conservatory. Maybe it is even in some off-off-off Broadway production straight out of college where everyone knew that they were better than the work they were doing. But wherever "it" begins, the genesis of all theater companies should hope to end up where Mabou Mines has. Now one of the most formidable experimental theater companies in the country, Mabou Mines, in the words of Jack Kroll of Newsweek, "has become a kind of totem in today's theater. To their peers, this New York based company represents a model of avant-garde theatricality." Few would disagree.

Mabou Mines was founded in 1970, and is now celebrating its 30th year and 20th season. Over the years they have had several homes from La MaMa (1970-1972) to the Public Theater (1975-1985) to their current home in the 122 Community Center (what most people refer to as P.S. 122) "We aren't P.S. 122--we have our own theater. We have had our own theater since 1996," exclaims Ruth Maleczech, one of the original founding members and present co-producer, "P.S. 122 and Mark Russell are our colleagues, but we have never performed in their space. P.S. 122 is a discreet producing organization and we are a presenting organization."

This might seem like a matter of semantics, but there is actually a distinct difference. Unlike P.S. 122, Mabou Mines has no artistic director; all five board members make up an artistic directorate who make all the decisions on every aspect of the group. They all sit on the board of directors, and they all wear different hats as actors, writers, designers and technicians. Basically, they are all artists instrumental to the success of the company.

Over the years the members of the company have included JoAnne Akalaitis, William Raymond, Greg Mehrten, Ellen McElduff, L. B. Dallas, Philip Glass, and David Warrilow, along with the present company members of Lee Breuer, Sharon Fogarty, Ruth Maleczech, Frederick Neumann and Terry O'Reilly. Lee Breuer and Ruth Maleczech are the only founding member still sitting on the board.

Mabou Mines have presented over 60 productions in all mediums including video, hologram, film, radio, puppets and sound experiments. They are also the recipients of countless awards, grants and fellowships. They are celebrating their 30th year with a limited-engagement encore presentation of last year's acclaimed production of Las Horas de Belen - A Book of Hours directed by Ruth Maleczech.

According to its press materials, "Las Horas de Belen

is a bilingual, bi-national, bi-cultural and 'bi-aesthetic' musical theater work." Like all of Mabou Mines's work, Las Horas de Belen is a collaboration between several different artists of complimentary disciplines. Maleczech emphasizes, "When we hire a composer we don't hire a composer of music for the stage, we hire a composer for the orchestra. That's how we collaborate on all projects. We want serious artists in their respective fields."


From Las Horas de Belen
This gives artists an opportunity to work on a project that has a specific goal in mind, while at the same time allowing them to create independently and contribute their own visions. Las Horas de Belen grew out of a series of independent residencies, and premiered at Mexico City's Festival del Centro Historico in March of 1999, and then in New York two months later.

While in Mexico on a U.S./Mexico Cultural Exchange grant, Maleczech, under the auspices of Mabou Mines, commissioned Catherine Sasanov to write a series of poems related to her experiences in Mexico. It was then that Sasanov told Ruth about the history of the Recogimiento de Belen, a Mexican Roman Catholic "sanctuary" created in 1693 that turned into one of the most notorious prisons in Mexico City. Maleczech was fascinated, and Sasanov began right away.

In the meantime, Maleczech was developing the project to create a complete experience, innovative both in content and theatricality. The project started to take shape. In less than a year and a half, Sasanov's poetry was completed. The poems were then translated and given to Mexican singer/songwriter/pianist Liliana Felipe, who created the music. Finally, this was juxtaposed with the silent performance of renowned Mexican actress Jesusa Rodriguez who "embodies modern woman, imprisoned by her own routine of ironing, shopping, dancing, sleeping and fighting" in scenarios created by Maleczech. "A production like this requires commitment from the artists and the actor to be an original," Maleczech says. "It also requires a great deal of thinking by the audience."

From Animal Magnetism
It is this kind of ambition that has defined Mabou Mines for the past 30 years. Their next production, Animal Magnetism, is being described as a "live cartoon", and opens March 29. This is a new play written by Terry O'Reilly and directed by Lee Breuer. Animal Magnetism mixes flying, animation, live musicians, composition and sampling. The story follows actors Joanna Adler and Sean Runnette, playing Tin Tin the Rhino and Cheri the monkey, respectively.
"It's like a comic where the images move and the characters fly and sing songs," says O'Reilly. But it is not all fun and games: it also explores themes of sexual stereotypes as well as consumerism and our cannibalistic relationships to the media. "When people watch something that seems harmless and entertaining, you're allowed to talk about more serious issues," articulates O'Reilly. "After all, that's what the Care Bears are all about." Sounds good to me.


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