Supporting creative work by women
Orietta Crispino has had a storied career in the theater in Italy and the United States. She studied at the famed Piccolo Teatro in Milan, and worked with the legendary directors Giorgio Strehler and Massimo Castri. Her projects include Passport No. 23.922, a piece she wrote and directed on the life of Tina Modotti; and a three year project in Trieste directing the plays of Pirandello’s Italian contemporaries. In addition to her theatre work, Ms. Crispino has done art projects on the body in its performative aspect. Her body research culminated in a performance piece with the photographer Vibeke Jensen, Camera Obscura, shown at PS1 in New York, Bogota and Trieste. Her most recent production is Three Sisters Come and Go, which read Beckett and Chekhov through the lens of French philosopher Julia Kristeva. She is a member of the Lincoln Center Directors Lab and the League of Professional Theatre Women.
Crispino is the artistic director of Theaterlab. She spoke to Works by Women about Theaterlab’s recent move to Midtown New York, her latest piece Snow in the Living Room and two new programs she’s producing.
WORKS BY WOMEN: You re-opened Theaterlab in a new space one year ago. Tell me about your new space and your first year.
ORIETTA CRISPINO: I looked for months and when I found a 3,000 square foot factory loft at 357 West 36th Street, I knew I had found where to relocate Theaterlab. It was a full floor open space, and I had to come up with a floor plan that allowed for enough rehearsal studios and a performance space to keep the organization sustainable. I designed it having in mind the wide range of works and activities that I want to present and the quality of the audience’s experience; a place for people to make and see artistic work at any time in a comfortable and inspiring space. The signature white canvas envelops three studios: The Gallery (20′ x 20′), inundated by natural light (I just want to be there all the time!), The Studio (15′ x 15′), intimate and super quiet (I imagined it as a “white” dark room) and The Theatre (31′ x 30′) an open space with flexible seating for 75 people, brick walls, dressing room and wood floors. The flow of the entire space with the reception area, the lobby and our office I think reflects very well the idea of community and comfort. I also had the walls built with quiet-rock and fiberglass insulation. That cost a lot, but how wonderful it is to rehearse in a space without hearing whatever goes on elsewhere. That’s precious! I wanted to be able to have at the same time an event in the Gallery while there’s a show in the Theatre. Mixing audiences has always been one of Theaterlab’s goals. So this first year has been a test to this and I am happy to say that it is working beautifully! In October, for instance, Ian Morgan directed Rosemary Moore’s Side Street in the Gallery, which they had transformed in a living room sort of a site specific piece for 25 audience, while in the Theatre Boomerang Theatre Company performed their repertoire of three pieces. I was so stressed out during the run because I had no idea if it was going to be possible. But it worked out so well and everybody was very happy.
WBW: Theaterlab has presented amazing artists–particularly foreign artists– over the years. What kind of work do you want to present at the new Theaterlab?
OC: The very nature of Theaterlab is “experimental” . What I mean by that is not about a “style” but rather a way of thinking about the work. In a laboratory, unrestricted by market rules, the artists ask questions and take the time to put in place unconventional frameworks, test them at various stages of the process with the audience and then again. Revisiting classics or creating original works. I love works that deeply explore the nature of representations and challenges its language. I think raw and in development doesn’t mean sloppy so I strive to present work that is also esthetically compelling and visually striking at every stage. Across the disciplines. I do work we foreign artists quite a bit. Jacques Perdigues, Nicole Renaud, Carolina Fonseca, Linda Olthof to name a few. I think it’s important to get in touch with other ways of thinking and producing theater. It feels like Theaterlab is a good in between-two worlds-place so much to attract foreign artists who feel at home.
WBW: Your new series include NOT Made in Italy and Hotel New Work. Tell me about those.
OC: NOT Made in Italy, which we started last fall, presents works of mid-career Italian artist who have left their country and started all over abroad. I wanted to take a look at what remains of the cultural identity that is branded as Made in Italy when the self is elsewhere. Paradoxically, it seems to me that displacement actually helps define cultural and personal identity somehow. Having gone through it myself, I was curious to discover how other artists dealt with it creatively. I wanted to show a broad range of work, mostly visual arts, installations, sculpture and performance art. The Gallery seemed to be an ideal space for it. I wanted the series to happen during a theatre night so that there could be a possibility for the audience of a chance encounter with different works in the same space. It was very successful and I am looking to produce another round next summer.
Hotel New Work – Revealing Process is a series that takes a close look at making, seeing and discussing dance and theatre works in an open studio setting. Three times a year, Theaterlab, together with different curators, offers space to groups that are interested in meeting the audience at various stages of their work. The audience will be engaged in a sort of a structured visit, made of open rehearsals, showings and creative lectures. Kinesis Project and Convergences will open the series February 23rd. Melissa Riker and Jeremy Williams are curating this first segment with their unique style of dance theatre and engaging physical work. I like to have artists present artists. And it’s a great way to discover new works.
WBW: Your piece — Three Sisters Come and Go — was Chekhov and Beckett read through the lens of French philosopher Julia Kristeva. Every night, audience members audibly gasped at how beautiful the production was. What was your first impulse to do this piece? What did you learn from it?
OC: Thanks for reminding me of that! Beauty was so much part of the content of that piece at a subliminal level I would say, that to be able to convey it and have the audience respond to it was quiet an experience.
I am not sure how I came to it. It’s always a splinter of an idea, a vision that I try to make sense of. And in this case it was something like “there’s so much Beckett in Chekov”! I wanted to take a look at the still present longing for the “character”, that idea that makes us believe that we as human beings in our lives could be resolved within the frame of a character. I saw Chekov’s characters unable to conceive of the future despite the whole framework of the “play” and despite their pronouncements. That made me think of what happens in a depressive state where the psyche keeps turning back to mourn the loss of the loved object, keeping us from seeing the striking beauty that surrounds us. The difference with Beckett is that his characters already know that there’s no future, no story that would help us define who we are. Dark, isn’t it? And yet, the pairing of Chekov and Beckett was not only fun and playful to make, but I think it really showed between darkness and humor the human condition to its bone.
WBW: You have another piece about Snow White that you’ve been working on. Tell me more about it.
OC: What makes us come fully alive? I would summarize it. I wrote Snow in the Living Room originally in Italian quite some years ago. It’s based on the Grimm’s fairy tale and takes quite literally the idea that fairy tales are “coded process” to instruct the soul in its journey into humanity.
It’s a truly obsessive (like most of my work), abstract and poetic work. I turned it into a profound and intimate meditation on love, death and fear. I imagined the whole journey of the soul like the one in the Tibetan Bardo, (the 49 days after death where the soul wanders struggling to come back). It’s used in the piece to accompany Snow White through her becoming real from death through life, many times and then again. It’s also a way for me to explore the world of female connections, that intimate play of reflections and mutuality that I have experienced so often in my life and that I observe in the piece through the interaction of different actresses playing the same role. But I am still working on it, exploring ideas and collaborations. I would love to have the piece take place within the space of an art installation. One can the see art piece by itself and also seeing it in dialogue, transformed by the action of the play.
WBW: What are the challenges facing women in American theater today?
OC: Things I have to say are much more advanced here in the United States than in my country, Italy, for example. We need not to censor ourselves in the first place as creative thinkers, makers and responsible producers. Because we are up to the tasks! And yet equal pay and representation are very much still far from happening.
WBW: What gives you hope for women in American theater?
OC: The high quality level of productions by organizations like Women’s Project Theater, for example gives me hope. I am thinking of last year’s production of Jackie: daring, controversial, beautifully directed and performed, yet accessible.
The amount of talent, creativity and resilience that I have found among women of all ages in my 12 years in New York, makes me very hopeful that a cultural shift is on the rise and that we should just resist a little longer, keep directing, acting, writing and supporting each other.
For more information on Theaterlab and Orietta Crispino, visit www.theaterlabnyc.com.