Happy Birthday Langston Hughes

February 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

Paul Hecht‘s ongoing series celebrating the birthdays of poets with words and music continues this Monday with an evening devoted to the life and work of Langston Hughes. Hosted & directed by Hecht, featuring the mighty and sometimes mohawked Malesha Jessie, pianist Ellen Mandel, and actors Denise Burse, Michael Early and Phillip James Brannon.

Feb 13, 6pm. Visit our lovely website or call 212/989-9319 to make reservations.

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michael lydon

December 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

fragments from conversation with michael lydon in his studio.

in the 60’s michael left an anemic rock beat at newsweek to help co-found rolling stone. he started out tagging along as part of the national psychedelic entourage but his writing and candor brought him closer to the center, sat him next to mick jagger on rough flights and made janis joplin suggest maybe he wanted to pick up a harmonica and give it a try too. matched with encouragement from his the likewise excellent and dedicated pianist ellen mandel, he began new life as a loving crooner. file under: writer-musician/musician-writer/all-around-mensch.
michael lydon plays cornelia street cafe tuesday december 12th at 830.

music: “midnight in manhattan” & “love at first sight”

Hydrogen Jukebox To Debut First Record; Ne’erdowells Believed Partly Responsible

October 25, 2011 § 2 Comments

On Thursday Brant Lyon’s mainstay word & music series Hydrogen Jukebox will release Hydrogen Jukebox with The Ne’erdowells: brain ampin’, inscribing forever in polycarbonite plastic their Café-honed home brew of poetry and live improvisatory music. For over two years Lyon & his compats have come together in our Downstairs alongside ageless vetrans and upstart open-mic astronauts, turning loose planned spontaneity every month like fine-cut spinning tops.  The album is a full-stop studio-made production that, in these words from Mr. Lyon’s latest message to the press, “brims with all the unpredictability and verve of poets performing at Hydro Juke’s live shows, while brilliantly showcasing the talents of the band—Davey Patterson, guitar; Matt Riganese, keys; Mary Noecker, bass; and Ry Pilla, drums—and their uncanny ability to strike the right note in endlessly inventive ways.”

The spoken word, meanwhile, “covers a dizzying array of topics ranging from the dangers of a hyper-digitalized world and virtual reality dystopias, to a neo-Beat groove, gospel-inflected tribute to Langston Hughes and Allen Ginsberg, a punk rock romp through a phantasmagoria of mind-bending images, bittersweet Coney Island reminiscences, and more.” All this intoned by familiar names; the record features work by David Lawton, Jane LeCroy, Peter Carlaftes, Thomas Fucaloro, Karl Roulston, Puma Perl, Brant Lyon, Frank Simone, Robert Gibbons, Jane Ormerod, and Kat Georges, no strangers to our Café and its friends.

Hydro Juke will celebrate the birth of their CD baby at an All-Star Show & Release Party to be held Thursday, October 27th from 6-8pm. Artists featured on the record will present their work alongside ziggurat stacks of freshly shrink-wrapped compact discs, gleaming in anticipation of your embrace. For those who don’t know Brant & his crew, it’ll be top-knotch 101; for longtime fans, surely a happy reunion, and a great chance to directly support work from the artists you cherish.

Yehuda Hyman’s Mad 7

October 9, 2011 § 1 Comment

The Mad 7 – A Mystical Comedy with Ecstatic Dance is a modern-day riff on a 19th century Hasidic tale. Playwright, actor and choreographer Yehuda Hyman tells the epic tale of Elliott Green, San Francisco office drone turned reluctant hero who embarks on a strange and mystical quest. In a virtuosic performance, Hyman uses music and dance as he becomes the many characters of this playful, off-beat and moving story of spirituality and self-discovery. Inspired by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s “The Seven Beggars,” The Mad 7 is a wild tour of the mysteries of the universe and the ecstasy of the soul. The show ran at last year’s New York International Fringe Festival playing to sold-out houses and rave reviews. Here, he discusses how he found his way to, and inside, his material.

Tell us a little about your background. Where were your first forays into theatre, music and dance? Where’d you first encounter the Hasidic storytelling tradition, or, for that matter, Judaic mysticism? 

I was born in Los Angeles. My father was a Polish Jew who came to America just before the Holocaust. He lost his whole family. My mother was born in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia and her family had to leave because of the Russian Revolution. She grew up in Istanbul, then came to the U.S. and met my father here. Growing up, my mother danced my brother and sister and me around the house and my father once taught me a Hasidic dance – so dancing and music was there from the start – also language, as my parents spoke to each other in Yiddish. My first time on stage was when I played King Ahashuerus in the Purim play at my synagogue at age 12. I was hooked. From then on, it was always theatre. I’ve had several chapters in my theatrical career – starting as a classically trained dancer who went on to work on Broadway and in film – an actor, then, a choreographer, alternating between concert work and commercial work, then focusing on playwriting. Now I feel like I’m putting everything together.

I first heard of Hasidism when I learned that beautiful little dance from my father (he was not a Hasid but he had clear memories of them in his town of Ratno, Poland). I can’t pinpoint when I first heard a Hasidic tale – but I know that even as a child I loved them – these fantastical tales that fired me up. Things really came into focus when I took my first trip to Israel in 1992. I wound up in the town of Tsfat in the North – home to the Kabbalists who escaped from Spain in the 15th Century. It was there that I met Rabbi Noach Chefetz  – a Breslover Hasid.  He told me that I needed to dance and then he gave me an orange – and that’s how I entered the world of Rabbi Nachman’s “7 Beggars.”

For readers who may not be familiar, who was Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, and what are his thirteen fables about? What drew you to adapt “The Seven Beggars” in particular?  

Rabbi Nachman was the great-grandson of The Baal Shem Tov – the Rabbi who founded Hasidism.  He was born in the 18th Century and died in 1810 at the age of 38 from tuberculosis.  One of the unique things about him–and there are many–is that his followers never had another living Rebbe but the Breslover sect continues to bloom and grow.  Each year, over 20,000 of his followers make a pilgrimage to his gravesite in Uman, Ukraine to “pray with him” for Rosh Hashanah. I went in 2000. It was a difficult experience in some ways but tremendously inspiring. I definitely could feel his spirit -which is a very poetic and beautiful spirit. During the last years of his life, he felt that the Jews were in a spiritual depression – he likened this to being asleep.  He felt that by telling them stories, he could wake them up.

His stories are all disguised parables and Kabbalastic teachings.  But he felt that it was very important to present them as little stories – which is why they appeal to people of all ages, children are very taken by them.  He told 13 stories – he never wrote them down – they were written down later by his scribe, Nosson.  “The 7 Beggars” which forms the basis of my play, “The Mad 7” was the last story he told. It is an intricate tale that begins with a dying king who wants to pass his kingdom on to his son – but the son is too depressed to receive it.  So the king tells his son a story. Then we meet an orphan boy and girl who encounter 7 beggars in the woods – each with a disability (blind, deaf, stuttering. etc.).  Each beggar later returns and tells an amazing tale to the orphan boy and girl.  Rabbi Nachman told this story over the last 3 weeks of his life.  He did not complete it. A few days before his death, he said that the end of the story could not be revealed until the Messiah came.  Well, that in itself would have been enough to intrigue me! When I first encountered The 7 Beggars, I was moved, fascinated, mystified and energized to try and find a way to dramatize them.  It has been an 18-year “collaboration” – going deeper and deeper into The 7 Beggars and a very slow process. I’m still working on it!

What were some of the challenges you faced in translating–literally and metaphorically–these stories for a modern and often secular audience? Has there been any reaction to your work by scholars of the source material? What about modern Jewish scholars?

The biggest challenge was trying to tell all of the 7 Beggars tales within the context of one evening – each tale could be an evening in itself. The other challenge has been finding the balance between Nachman’s tale and my tale of Elliott Green, the main character of the play, a contemporary man who encounters the “Beggars.”  With the help of my wonderful director and collaborator, Mara Isaacs, we have searched for every way to make this story accessible to a modern audience, always going for the simplest, clearest way to tell the story.  From the reaction of the audiences on this last tour (I just came from a tour of the West Coast and the Midwest), I feel that they are truly with it and that makes me so happy. The cultural and religious make-up of the audience has been very mixed – from religious Jews to secular Jews to non-Jews. I did one performance for students at a Catholic High School in New Jersey and they really got it.  I haven’t heard from any “scholars of the source material.” I would love to.  There have certainly been many Rabbis and Jewish educators who have come to see the show and as far as I know their reactions have been positive (but than again, if they hated it they probably wouldn’t come backstage and tell me!).  I’ve just been asked by a Professor in Austin, Texas for permission to include THE MAD 7 in her syllabus on Jewish contemporary performance. That’s cool!

How will your performance differ, if at all, done on our tiny basement stage, versus say the more capacious theatre you’ve been home at in Princeton? What’s it like performing in close quarters with your audience? 

This week (before the show) – I am making adjustments to the show to fit into the tiny space (of which 1/4 is taken up by a grand piano!). Rather than fighting it, I’m making friends with it – you know, an obstacle is always a great inspirer to making something new out of what you have.  So I’ll be finding every little wedge of real estate on that postage stamp stage and using it.  I love performing in close quarters and I am really excited about being right there together with the audience at Cornelia. I’m really a closet cabaret entertainer at heart.

“The Mad 7” will be performed Monday, October 10th at 6pm. Reservations at 212/989-9319, or http://www.corneliastreetcafe.com

Strike Anywhere Brings Haiku Flights Downstairs

March 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

On Friday March 11th, The Cornelia Street Café will present Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble in a new theatre piece entitled Haiku Flights.  Strike Anywhere was formed in 1997, and has since come to be known as one of the most innovative and exciting theatre companies in New York. We recently had the chance to chat with artistic director, Leese Walker, and to hear a little more about the company’s origins, their current work, and whether a course on the history of jazz can help shape a theatrical vision.

Leese, tell us a little about Strike Anywhere’s mission statement, and its origins.

Strike Anywhere’s mission is to promote empathy, freethinking and greater social awareness through provocative theatre and educational outreach.  We are guided by the words of Bertolt Brecht, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”  I really respond to that idea.  Back at Dartmouth, I met a political theater artist from Nicaragua named Alan Bolt and even though he was only at school for 3 days, he really opened my eyes to how theater could be used to address current issues, to instigate dialogue and to make change.

Theater has been in my blood since I was a child.  My parents love to tell the story about how we would go over to my grandparents every Sunday when I was a kid and after dinner we would listen to an entire album of a Broadway musical.  I would sing and act it out.  They used to fall off the couch laughing watching this little 5 year-old dance and belt her guts out to the song from Chorus Line, Tits and Ass.  Ai Yai Yai!!! By the time I was 9, I was organizing the neighborhood kids and making plays in the backyard.  I was selling tickets, making the programs, casting, directing, performing….things haven’t really changed all that much I guess!

Strike Anywhere really grew out of an improv class I was taking in the mid-nineties.  Four of us decided to meet outside of class to experiment with the ideas and techniques we were learning in class.  After about two years of meeting every Sunday night, we took our sessions into Central Park and started sharing our experiments with an audience.  After a summer of learning from the audience, we decided to make it official.  In the fall of 1997, we held auditions and that is really when SA was born.

Of course it was a very different company then.  Back then, we had 5 actors and one musician.  Now the balance is very different, we have 3 kick-ass jazz musicians, a modern dancer and 2 actors.  But back then, we were really working with long-form improv, using forms like the “Harold” which is a structure to guide an evening-length improvisation.  Music took more of a back-seat role then, it served as accompaniment, mood, and though it sometimes dictated endings or instigated a tempo change in the scene, our violinist, Todd Reynolds, used to stand for the most part, on the periphery of the playing space.  Today, we strive to have equal balance between the disciplines, to have an actor back-up the musician or comp when a dancer takes the lead.   Musicians are front and center – they have left the edge of off-stage.

How do you begin the creation of a new piece? Will the initial thought process be purely ensemble oriented, or will one person bring an idea to the group with the hopes of fleshing it out further?

Usually one person will bring an idea to the group.  If there is enough passion around the idea, we go forward.  Once we are working on a piece, I will bring in ideas to lead our experiments in rehearsal.  However, it is critical that everyone has a voice.  I have an amazing group of performers who work well with this process.  No egos.  That is key.  Everyone has to be willing to put forth an idea that may or may not be accepted by the group.  Including me…although I could overrule something, I rarely do… I strive for consensus and I set up situations to instigate performer-generated material.  If it comes from the performer, it will be far richer than if I impose it on the performer.

Sometimes we create work that directly addresses a current socio-political issue, such as this new show we are working on called SAME RIVER.  It’s an interview-based show about how fracking, a controversial natural gas drilling technique, is affecting people’s every day lives.  Other times though, shows might not be so obviously political.  However, the ethos of the company is really reflected in the way we operate…we are an ensemble and so power is shared laterally.  I think of myself more as a facilitator than a director.

Tell us about Haiku Flights. What can we expect to see on the 11th?

Haiku Flights will be totally improvised.  We will bring in a series of haikus.  Someone will read a haiku and that will serve as the launch pad for an improvisation.  It is material from which we will improvise.   Donna might create a movement phrase that comes directly from an image in the haiku while Rolf might mirror that movement physically while playing a minimalist phrase on the guitar.  Perhaps Damen will be inspired to launch into a monologue of a character that grows out of the repetitive musical phrase.  Its totally open.  Anything could happen!

Finally, I must admit I’m curious….You and I took a famously wonderful jazz history class in college together. I see how much of a role jazz plays in your work now, and the thrilling way you’re able to merge jazz into a theatrical idiom. Is it safe to say that discovering a passion for jazz helped shape your vision as theatre artist, or do you find that jazz and other idioms simply help layer an already fervent theatrical vision?

I adore jazz.  I lap it up.  That is so funny that you bring up that class….god that feels like a million years ago but you hit it.  That jazz history class really sparked my love for the music.  That was at the same time that I discovered John Coltrane and it was a real awakening for me musically.  That was the beginning of diving into jazz, of listening to this incredible art form.  Over the last 6 years or so, we have been examining jazz structures and concepts and applying these to theater and movement.  It’s been really exciting to come at the work from this angle.  I am incredibly lucky to have such bad-ass musicians.  Rolf Sturm is probably one of the most sensitive and giving musicians you will ever work with.  Bob Bowen, our bass player who died this past fall, he taught us all so much about trust… trusting the moment, the players, ourselves…his famous mantra was, “Let it suck” which is essentially a way of saying, trust that what comes out is the right thing, that the other players will support, build and develop that idea so that it will be the right thing. Rob Henke is just hands-down one of the best improvisers around.  He is our trumpeter.

So borrowing my notes from that class helped?

You bet!  Of all the people’s notes I borrowed, yours were the most legible!

Joshua Rebell is a playwright and Spoken Word Curator at the Cornelia Street Cafe. He is also fluent in Jazz and speaks several dialects of LA. Eager readers, speakers and performers can show love and petition him for stagetime at jazzrebell@earthlink.net

The Off-Off-Broadway Ballad of Downtown John Fischer

January 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

John Fischer at the piano. His storied career continues to transcend genre, form, and epoch.

Born in Belgium in 1930, John Fischer emigrated to America in the 1940’s, settling in New York. In the early sixties he broke into the arts scene with his delicious Bread Sculptures. As his online gallery explains: “The years following abstract expressionist dominance see Fischer making these objects, sculptures and happenings with real bread, often fashioned by the artist at his favorite bakery.“ He was thus already an established Downtown artist when, in late 1974, he transformed a 5000 square foot loft on Broadway at Broome into ENVIRON, a multidisciplinary gallery and performance space. Fischer did this with the help of clarinetist and bandmate Perry Robinson, who in turn got him touch with Dave Brubeck, whose sons Chris and Danny cofounded the space.

At the time Fischer was also leader and pianist with INTERface, whose members and collaborators included Mark Whitcage, Arthur Blythe, and Rick Kilburn, as well as Robinson and the Brubecks.  Ivan Black came to review INTERface for the New York Times, and the article he produced, focused as it was on the space as much as the music, instantly exploded the venue’s popularity and exposure. Environ came to be seen as a model pioneer, and boundaryless ad-hoc loft venues began to emerge in lofts through New York and the World. These spaces were fecund ground for the rejuvenation of New York’s dormant avant gardeism, and the proliferation of lofts-cum-concert halls gave birth to its own attendant genre, “Loft Jazz”. After three years of frenetic activity, and over loud exhortations from his colleagues,  Fischer decided he wanted to refocus on music and composition, and the space was closed.

“What we did was of historic significance,” he told me via phone, “and a great success in nurturing what became the avant garde movement in New York City, and you can take that to the bank. But cultural life in New York inevitably moves on, and it when it does, you’ve got to move on with it.”

Fischer’s forward-looking directive explains the momentum he’s sustained ever since. Fischer recently performed at the Berlin Philharmonie, where he shared a bill with George Russell. Fischer has also pioneered works in the field of computer art since in 1976, including the use of the first black-and-white Mac and its hallmark MacPaint program. Westdeutsches Rundfunk (WDR), featured the INTERface Ensemble, commissioned original compositions and sponsored joint art and music concerts (The Loft, Wuppertal). In all, John Fischer has performed in Russia, Lithuania, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Holland, Belgium and France. But when in New York, he plays downstairs with us.

Tomorrow night, January 24th, at 6pm,  John Fischer reads from his collection of poems, Love Condition. His readings will be followed by his group Music for Imaginary Movies, with John at the keyboard joined by other fine musicians.

The New York Quarterly, Live

January 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

NYQ's founder William Packard looks on in bemusement as his life's work is blurbed on the Internet.

Tomorrow night, associate editor at The New York Quarterly and longtime Cornelia stalwart Ted Jonathan will introduce F.D. Reeve, Eileen B. Hennessy and KP Liles to our Downstairs spoken word audience. NYQ’s been publishing outstanding modern poetry since bicoastal superlaureate William Packard founded the magazine in 1969. “I’d enjoyed the cafe on many occasions,” says Jonathan, whom we accosted via email last week. “So when our editor, Raymond Hammond, asked me to kick-off a reading series, it was a no-brainer.” So it has remained. “Especially,” he adds “since the curator of poetry & performance at the cafe at the time, Angelo Verga,  is a fellow native Bronxite and poet whose work I admire.”

Jonathan also points out that, in addition to poetry, the New York Quarterly features extensive interviews and essays on the craft of writing, “…from W.H. Auden in Issue 1 to Ann Sexton, and more recently, W.D. Snodgrass and Franz Wright. So these readings give poets who’ve been published in the magazine a chance take part in the oral tradition before an audience, that I’m happy to say, seems to be growing.” Goals, dreams, aspirations and resolutions for the New Year? “Our goals are to keep on keeping on.” Keep on keeping on, NYQ.

NYQ readers appear downstairs tomorrow, Jan 17th at 6pm. Seven dollars for all the spoken print you can imbibe, and then some.  Call 212/989-9319 or click here for reservations.



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