After a hard day’s work, the first thing many of us want to do is go home and collapse on the sofa in front of the TV. But if summer reruns are driving you crazy, consider instead setting yourself down on a comfy couch at HERE Arts Center, where the American Living Room Festival is on view through August. From now till then, there will be over 100 performances for the pleasure of theatrical couch potatoes everywhere.
It’s so much more diverse than your regular TV programming. Composed of five different parts, the festival has a performance series, a directing cabaret, a music lounge, a puppetry parlor, and a film and video salon. In deference to this diversity–and also, perhaps, to our TV-shattered attention spans–no work in the Festival exceeds 45 minutes. Best of all, the seating is built for living room-style comfort, so you can let your body relax while your mind engages.
Now in its 12th year, the American Living Room Festival was co-founded and is co-curated by Kristin Marting. TheaterMania chatted with her about why she and the folks at HERE want to bring theater to the living room.
THEATERMANIA: What sparked the creation of the American Living Room Festival?
KRISTIN MARTING: We thought it would be fun to make some theater happen in the summer, so we asked a lot of our friends who are directors if they’d be interested in directing short pieces. That first summer, the tickets were $5. It was hugely popular. We had no air-conditioning, but we had huge garbage cans full of beer and fans with giant ice cubes in front of them. We had lines around the block because it was first come, first served. It was really fun and the work was really great; so the next year we did more. We did nine weeks. Once we opened at HERE a couple years later, we decided to add other aspects, because HERE is a multi-arts center.
TM: You keep all the pieces under 45 minutes. Why is that?
KM: Because the interest is not in showcasing one artist’s work, but in showcasing multiple artists’ work on any one evening. What I try to do is to program things that are pretty opposed in terms of their aesthetics, so that you might have a kitchen sink drama right next to a deconstructionist piece right next to a dance piece. The audiences that are coming to all those different events are interfacing with work that they might not have seen otherwise, and it creates an exciting energy.
TM: What do you look for when choosing pieces to include in the festival?
KM: I look for the strongest vision from the primary artist. That’s really what intrigues me–when it’s a great idea, or an idea that they feel passionate about and communicate strongly. It doesn’t matter to me, ultimately, that it be “appropriately done” or anything like that. I have no such expectations. What I’m looking for is a bold vision or a strong personal statement that is being made.
TM: Do you work mostly with new artists?
KM: Yes. This is an emerging artists’ festival.
TM: But do you ever bring back people you’ve worked with in the past?
KM: Yes, we do. Two years ago, for the 10th anniversary of the Living Room, we had directors who had been in the festival over the years. That was really fun, to have a lot of great people who’ve done very interesting work downtown over the years. The Living Room gave many of them their first professional opportunity.
TM: What do you provide for the people who are chosen? Do you hook up directors with writers and actors?
KM: No, they propose a fully encompassed project. We do auditions if they ask for them. We provide a lighting designer, a board operators, the box office staff, all the publicity and marketing. There is a small artists’ fee and a small reimbursement for expenses.
TM: Do you feel this is a developmental step for these works, or is it more of a showcase?
KM: I would say it’s a mixture of both.
TM: Now, you bring couches into the theater for audiences to sit on, right?
KM: Yeah, couches and easy chairs; we also have end tables and lamps. Half of the audience sits on couches, the other half on your regular folding chairs. And people bring their drinks and eats in with them, so it’s a really informal and fun environment.
TM: Where do you get the sofas?
KM: We rent a truck, we drive around middle-class neighborhoods in Queens, and we pick them up off the street! We also get them donated. This year, IKEA has donated some sofas.
TM: What do you hope to accomplish with The American Living Room Festival?
KM: It really is about giving these artists the opportunity to say what they want to say. Especially for directors, but also for the other artists who are represented in the festival, I think it’s difficult to find a place where you can do the material you want to do, the way you want to do it. That’s what we’re trying to offer.