What's Cooking in The Kitchen?
A visit to one of the city's boldest experimental theater spaces.
A kitchen can be a place of great experimentation: Mix this and that, stir, add a dash of spice, bake, and see what results. In 1971, video makers Woody and Steina Visulka presented their first collaborative project in the kitchen of the Mercer Arts Center. This resulted in the establishment of The Kitchen, a place where artists of diverse specialties could come together and create. Since that time, The Kitchen has incorporated itself, moved to a new space, and evolved into a home for multi-disciplinary work, fostering talent from the worlds of dance, art, music, performance art, poetry, and media.
"The interesting thing about The Kitchen," says its executive director, Elise Bernhardt, "is that it's open to all forms." Originally focusing on visual arts, the venue gradually started to bring music into the equation. Over the years, it has nurtured some of the most influential leaders of the counterculture: Philip Glass, Bill T. Jones, Robert Mapplethorpe, Eric Bogosian, Laurie Andersen, and David Byrne--to name a few--have developed work there.
The Kitchen's 2000-2001 season kicked off with participation in both the Downtown Arts Festival and the Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater: The Mettawee River Theatre Company's Psyche came first, and now Dan Hurlin's Everyday Uses for Sight: Nos. 3 and 7 is playing. (Both are part of the Henson festival.)
Also on view at The Kitchen is Ibrahim Quraishi & Compagnie Faim de Siecle's Shattered Boxes, co-produced by the Downtown Arts Fest. A multi-media piece based on the Medea legend, Shattered Boxes is the type of performance that Bernhardt refers to as "3-D" theater: Instead of sitting, the audience enters a large room which initially appears to be empty save for flickering screens, lights, projections, and foreign sounds. As the audience members walk around (which they are encouraged to do throughout the performance), they take in the installation artwork and listen to the words and music coming from places unknown. Soon, the performers become apparent--unfolding themselves from crevices in the set pieces themselves, singing, shouting, and dancing among the audience.
Though Shattered Boxes is more a feast for the senses than a linear sort of show, a quick read of the synopsis helps you make sense of what's going on. The piece is still in its early stages of development, and would benefit from more work; but that's precisely why The Kitchen is so helpful to artists. "It's exemplary of the kind of work we want to present," says Bernhardt, who had heard good reports about Ibrahim Quraishi and brought him into the fold after seeing some of his other pieces. Shattered Boxes plays through September 23, and it's certainly worth attending by anyone open to the most experimental of experimental theater.
Attempting to describe the rest of The Kitchen's eclectic season could be exhausting. There's the popular Digital Happy Hour, a moderated viewing of the latest and coolest digital art and internet happenings (drinks and refreshments are served). Other series showcase specific artistic talents: TV Dinner @ The Kitchen features visual art, the new Kitchen House Blend mixes musical styles, and the series Poets and Preachers has a literary bent. Perhaps most exciting of all is Open Kitchen, which gives the public a chance to participate directly in the artists' creative process through workshops and interactive presentations.
And what of the medium that started it all? "Video and projections are a really important part of what people expect here," says Bernhardt. In fact, The Kitchen boasts an archive of videotaped performances dating back to the early '70s. One important new initiative is TV Dance, a program in which old tapes of experimental dance performances will be presented along with live commentary from dancers who originally participated in the pieces.
All of the above just scratches the surface. The second floor of The Kitchen boasts a gallery in which new art will be displayed every month or so, and there are special events for kids and families. "We've started to get more local people in our audience," Bernhardt points out, citing the popularity of The Kitchen's recent street fair.
One of Bernhardt's major contributions during her time there has been to make The Kitchen "a resource for its neighbors." Indeed, there seems to be quite a loyal following, as indicated by the large, buzzing group of people crowded outside the unassuming Chelsea building at 10pm on the night I attended Shattered Boxes. All of them, young and old, were anxious not just to see something new, but to be a part of it. And they had come to the right place.