Category Archives: Behind the Scenes

Interview: Constance Hockaday on Artists-In-Presidents: Fireside Chats for 2020

 

We sat down with artist Constance Hockaday to discuss her project, Artists-In-Presidents: Fireside Chats for 2020, which was commissioned by CAP UCLA and will be available online starting in September at cap.ucla.edu and at artistsinpresidents.com. 

Q: Can you tell us about yourself and this project?

I’m Constance Hockaday, the director of Artists-In-Presidents: Fireside Chats for 2020. Artists-In-Presidents is an art project, but it’s also a civics project. We’ve invited over 50 artists to deliver fireside chat-inspired addresses to the nation alongside the 2020 presidential campaign.

Q: What is a fireside chat?

A fireside chat is what people called this type of national address that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was doing in the thirties. After the Great Depression began, FDR became president and he realized we had this huge crisis, people had lost their faith in democracy. The radio had been invented and he realized he could speak directly to people to overcome their cynicism and ask them to participate in democracy as an act of faith. He takes that moment and he shows up and he says I’m going to come in like this priestess, I’m going to manifest a collective, a new American mass public, I’m going to describe what you, American citizens, could look like if you came together.

This is where the project becomes potent to me. It becomes important because it’s about this overdue need to update the performance of public leadership. After all, even our most celebrated president, in his most famous policies, specifically excluded brown and black people and he interned Japanese-Americans. Our national legacies of liberation have always excluded and erased the voices of the majority of people who live within our arbitrary borders.

That’s what this project is about. It’s about taking these strategies, this conjuring of a potential American mass public, and bringing those strategies to the bodies and the voices of black people, brown people, women, trans people, indigenous people, queers, people that have been erased from the performance of public leadership. 

Q: Can you talk about the shape the project has taken?

So I reached out to hundreds of artists and we ended up with about 50 committed artists who are writing their national addresses. We’re recording their performances via audio and turning that into a podcast that we’ll roll out alongside the presidential campaign. So starting at around 50 days out from the campaign, we’ll start releasing one artist at a time on the website and a podcast app, to give our audience the experience of hearing these voices alongside the actual presidential campaign. We’re exploring performances of power, performances of leadership, the history, and the legacy, and the posturing of our public leaders. We have built relationships with retired presidential speechwriters to help artists find their presidential voice. 

Each artist is also asked to create a visual companion piece—their presidential portrait. We have left that open to being their aesthetic of power, however they want to do it. 

Q: How did you choose artists to participate?

I didn’t want to be the only one choosing artists, so I put together a board of curators and poets that I trust. I asked them to give me names of people, and I sort of whittled down that list and sent the invitations out in waves. Whoever said yes, I then asked to recommend who they thought would be a good person to add to the cast. So it became a chain letter invitation process. 

Q: What kind of voices were you looking for?

As I was inviting all these artists, the Black Lives Matter movement reached this place in the public view that it had never reached before, and I asked myself, “where are people that are living in the intersections?” I was particularly drawn to women of color, to complicated identities. As a queer feminist with an immigrant mother, I want to hear from immigrant queer women, I want to hear from trans folks. I want to hear from emotionally intelligent and beautiful Black voices. 

I wanted to create an affirmative experience for a listener, to create the experience of being spoken to with dignity, of being witnessed and spoken to from the voice of a leader that sees and hears you. I was looking for people who could speak to some of the most marginalized voices or the most marginalized communities in this country. Our politicians, our public leaders, they talk about black people, they talk about brown people and trans people, but they very rarely ever talk to them.

If we provide people with the experience of young queer black women speaking with vision and speaking intimately from this fantastical national platform, will that ignite in an audience or in other black, young queer women, the thought that maybe they could run for office? 

Q: Have recent events affected the project?

I’m an artist who historically works with boats and urban waterways. Around the time that Trump got elected, I was introduced to FDR’s retired presidential yacht, which is docked in Oakland, California. I am not a history buff, I’m not an academic, but I’ve come to understand a lot about the history of this country just through becoming obsessed with this ship. The project was originally about recreating the Fireside Chats, broadcasting these messages from FDR’s ship back to the nation. 

Suddenly a pandemic happens, and there’s a complete and total lack of leadership. I’m just thinking, “where’s dad?” You know, where’s the guy that’s going to come and give me something I can believe in? And I realized this project isn’t about broadcasting from FDR’s ship. This is about broadcasting back to FDR’s ship. This is about us becoming “Dad/Mom” (the voice of care) for ourselves and each other. If that makes sense? This is about sending these voices back to the ship to update that history, to update all of the voices that have been erased, have been left out.

Q: What were the biggest surprises in putting the project together?

It struck a nerve. Not just in the artists, but also the speechwriters. A tidal wave of speechwriters showed up in my inbox. There were even conservative Republican speechwriters who worked for the Bush administration that wanted to do this! 

Maybe the biggest surprise in this is that I have more empathy for our public leaders than I ever have before. It’s like you’re walking straight into the dark towards a feeling. If there are leaders out there with a true commitment to the common good, they don’t know what an equitable world looks like. Nobody knows what an equitable world looks like. It’s similar to creating new work, it’s just walking towards a feeling… you don’t know what it’s going to be, and it starts to become real by saying it and saying it and saying it, and saying it better and saying it better and saying it better. 

Q: What do you think is the role of artists in times of crisis?

In my work, I’ve become very interested in this thing called the normalcy bias, where we get on autopilot and our bodies just continue to see the world as it always has been. To break free of the normalcy bias we have to usually have a fire alarm. The role of the artist is really to just be this sort of professional fire alarm. It’s about breaking us out of our normalcy bias, articulating these complex parts of our human experience that often just get glazed over or taken for granted. The artist is excited by a certain kind of chaos, both making it and finding it. Chaos is a beautiful, beautiful thing. Being in the unnameable, unknowable places is being close to lifeforce.

Announcing CAP UCLA’s 2020-21 Season

The 2020-21 CAP UCLA season ahead is the result of constantly evolving discussions with artists, managers and producers who are dexterously adapting to unprecedented change while exploring new possibilities.

While every season is the result of copious planning against challenging headwinds, what went into the 2020-21 program is truly unparalleled. During the initial months of the COVID-19 impacts to our health, work and economy the many unforeseeable challenges ensured that what seemed concrete and doable on a Monday could easily fall apart within an hour, a week or a month. As the pandemic settled in for the long haul, projects had to again be postponed as new urgencies quickly stepped forward. The number of times we have re-planned each event is past counting. My point is not about the exhaustive frequency of disruption in our lives and work, but to acknowledge the fortitude and faith that has been in constant evidence. To conceive of how we would offer a reliable programming framework for artists and audiences while every facet of our organization was upended has taken some doing. We are extremely proud of what we have in place. It is not based on what remains, rather, it is the exuberant response to navigating uncertainty with an abiding commitment to the incredible artistry at work in the world.

I want to express my gratitude to organizations and colleagues who have rallied together to share information and strategies, and to express my profound admiration for the artists who are facing the largest cataclysm of their professional lives yet who remain steadfast in extending all they can towards any and every solution that may be at hand on a moment’s notice.

I also want to acknowledge our audiences and supporters. When CAP UCLA shuttered our stages in the face of what public health requirements rightly asked of us, we also turned to you for input and support. In shifting our professional know-how from staged events as our principle way of gathering people together, we rapidly developed our humble newsletter into a weekly online publication. We wrote honestly about what we were experiencing, emphasized what artists were doing, linked readers to where urgent support was available, and put a high beam on the local, national and international perspectives we found useful in this new chapter of life at home.

The intuitive form of our newsletter was an effort at preserving the informal exchanges that take place in our diversely populated cultural commons — our lobbies, lounges and stages — the places where social encounters can illuminate what’s on people’s minds about any number of topics at hand in our communities here and afar. The value of these exchanges is as much a part of why we gather as the art itself. Your tremendous response to what we shared each week inspired us to press on and spare no effort in generating access to perspectives we may not have encountered anywhere else.  Rather than bemoan what is not possible in our theaters (however tempting), we have focused on what can be sustained.

CAP UCLA took a fierce and early stance that an immediate financial commitment to artists was the single most important priority for moving forward. The heart-rending reality of the economic freefall in our operating model spurred us to develop creative initiatives that would drive resources to artists wherever possible and required us to bypass long-ingrained conventions (see Artists Commissions).

Our remaining resources are modest to say the least, and we have invested in what we believe will be essential to our mutual recovery. Artists have always been at the forefront of what we do and they will remain so.

For the foreseeable future, every performance CAP UCLA presents in our 2020-21 Season will be shared online. Royce Hall will become a studio for high-level documentation of live performances. Many performers will be travelling to (or across) Los Angeles to stage their projects with us while our audiences remain safely at home. For our international artists, film crews have been organized to capture their projects in their cities of origin with CAP UCLA’s support. Visa applications and/or renewals for travel to the U.S. have all but stopped for the remainder of 2020. As we look ahead to 2021, we have ensured we are able to resume our presentations while recognizing that quarantine periods and distancing requirements may also make the presence of live audiences difficult if not impossible.

Assuredly, when we have the ability to invite you to join us in the theater, pending health and safety requirements, you will be the first to know.

The word adaptation will surely be a constant companion as we navigate the lengthy period ahead. With each shift, we will adapt accordingly. It is tempting to suggest that in doing so we will all be making history together, but the humbling truth is that the history of right now is re-making us. We envision that this transformative time will serve our collective betterment — one requiring more humility, more justness and more availability to the realities of the world we have neglected and must now actively address in order to correct course.

We hope that where you can support us, you will. Where you cannot, we totally understand and wish you every strength in the challenging new reality we find ourselves in. There is a cultural bottom-line behind CAP UCLA that ensures we can and will continue to be a resource for our communities for as long as we remain standing. This is what it is to sustain the cultural commons regardless of and despite unevenly applied market pressures. At the heart of CAP UCLA’s continuity efforts, we will put our values above our spreadsheets to leave an evidence of care in everything we do.

Here’s to everyone having a seat at the table in our exploration through wholly new terrain. May it bear meaningful fruit for the future that we are all part of creating.

—Kristy Edmunds,
Executive and Artistic Director
UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance

Apples, Fog and the Future

Dear Friends,

This is my last weekly letter for the time being. To those reading them, and to all who have written to me in return — thank you. I wanted to share a story I have told several times. Somehow it brings me to an understanding of something important and far bigger than what a surface view of something can illuminate without having stood in another person’s shoes.

My father’s family worked the fruit orchards of Washington state. When he was 14, my dad migrated to each crop harvest over the summers and sent his earnings home to support his family. I often picture him in the worker bunk houses and hitching a ride to the next town as a young teenager. Marrying my mother changed his life course. She put him through college by working as a legal secretary and he was the first in his family to earn a degree. He majored in economics.

One summer, when we had gone to the Wenatchee Valley to see everyone, my uncle Don took me to the highest overlook along the orchard road to explain to me how the big picture of orchard management worked. It was a lesson in labor, economics and the ethics required for “good, honest work.” Apple pickers were assigned specific zones in the orchard. Everyone was paid based upon how many bins were filled with fruit and hauled up to the side of the road by the end of the long day. The number of bins determined what you earned. The pickers had no influence on the market value of the apples, nor the worth of their labor at the time – that was determined by complicated systems associated with profits and hierarchies.

There are only a few weeks to clear the trees. After that, people would move on to cherries or pears or apricots.

How an apple on a tree converts into money for a family was vividly clear to me, but how their labor accrued wealth for others was far less so.

Looking across the orchard allotments from the high dirt road, my uncle asked me to point to the zones where I thought the best pickers had been. I logically pointed to where the trees were completely bare. He adjusted his hat and moved my extended arm to point at where the trees still had some fruit left on the branches. “Those are the trees that had the best pickers working there.” I was perplexed because, as I understood it, those red dots were money.

“The best there are don’t pick the trees clean,” he said. “They don’t yank the branches or strip off the leaves. They only take the fruit that is ready to yield, and are careful to leave the spur intact. If you go too fast, get greedy and pull down all of the fruit, you will hurt the tree, break the branch and damage the spur. That means the tree won’t fruit in the next season.” He told me that the best are the ones that pick the apples with a commitment to the future. They ensure there will be fruit for the next season for whomever comes along to work the harvest. Doing so is the ethic of a job well done, however tempting it might be to take more.

He showed me just how to use my hand to pick an apple so that I would leave the spur intact. It is harder than it seems, and is a wonderment when done well. Every time I hold an apple I think of that feeling and what it took to get there.

The next letter that you receive will be to announce our upcoming program. It is full of change and value and hopefulness and care. All of the artists involved have collaborated in some extraordinary ways to come together around the future possibilities we can make and share. All of the producers and managers and creative teams involved, and the entire staff and Our Executive Producer’s Council — we are all excited to offer it up to you.

We have worked on it with the intent that it will carry a great deal of wonderment, and equitably leave a spur.

—Kristy Edmunds,
Executive and Artistic Director
UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance

Why Art Matters

Hello,

I’ve been trying to put my finger on an apt way of describing what this global pandemic is like in the context of the arts. Not the grief, anxiety or strain part. Not the pressure in coping or hanging on part, nor the momentary landing upon relief whenever it arrives. These are universalities that have been unevenly racing through all of our lives, while also stretching off in directions we don’t have a compass for. Instead, and not through an exclusionary impulse by any means, I want to describe something about what those of us who make art and work in the arts are doing through this and what that doing is about. I think it is useful and believe it matters.

As of today, two-thirds of the nation’s artists are now unemployed. Not-for-profit arts organizations have an aggregated loss of $5.5 billion to date, and only a tiny fraction have any real reserves to help weather the storm. Looking ahead is therefore not for the faint of heart and rather like accepting a dare to not flinch or wobble at the knees as you fix your gaze on an incoming future. Our livelihoods and operating capacities are shaken. At the same time our willingness and instinctual resolve to outwardly give everything that we have available to us has accelerated.

The voluminous amount of sharing going on in the arts is evidence of an empathetic logic we seem to retain in ample supply. A principle that goes like this: when having almost no income (and scarcely any idea of whether it might return), lean straight in and give as much as you can. This is what we are doing in the arts with our archives, with time, with ideas and problem solving, with our works and creativity and labor. The very things from which we derived our economic means are flying freely out the front door. We are up into the wee hours with colleagues around the world comparing notes, budget models, responses, speaking with one another’s supporters and advocates while generating plausible frameworks. We are working throughout the daytime to tackle yet more new planning, preparing for scenarios beyond our control, researching and listening closely to signs of silver linings. We are generating testimonials for one another’s fundraising efforts, dipping the credit card into each other’s tip jars and learning digital terminology like a crash course in a foreign language that we know we will have to be fluent in by yesterday. We are collaborating together while reminding each other to eat something before our night shift starts again.

The day of the 2016 November election, I arrived in Paris from Los Angeles (I had voted by mail). There was just enough time to splash my face with water before sprinting off to see a French play at a venue on the outskirts of the city. I was jet-lagged and hungry. After the 3-hour experience in the theater with a neglected phone battery, I was immensely grateful to find a tiny creperie stand that was still serving. The menu listed traditional French and Middle Eastern ingredients, and the aromatic spices in combination with masterfully folded crepes were a reflection of the adaptive and creative acumen of the owner-operator-cook. He offered me a glass of his hot cinnamon tea at no cost if I could place my order in French. After his jovial adjustments to my pronunciation he handed me a cup of delicious perfection. As he cooked, he insisted on calling me a taxi driving friend he knew to ensure I would be safely returned to my hotel. The warming tea on a very cold night continued to flow.

We talked as if we had been long acquaintances, and in the course of our discussion he told me that giving away tea to people was part of his culture, his identity and his enjoyment of his work. That ensuring I had a trustworthy ride to my hotel was “a simple act of common care.” I thanked him of course, and we went on to discuss the nature of kindness — what strains are put upon it and the need to uphold it. “We must act from the heart,” he said. “This solidarity is what makes life have meaning.”  He then casually ensured that I understood in advance that if I tried to pay for the several glasses of tea I had consumed by then, it would injure his intention. “For the crepe, of course! It is my livelihood and a service. But for the taxi, the tea, and the pronunciation lessons… no. That is my independence, my liberty and my expression of solidarity with you.”

Before the taxi arrived I took a napkin from the small stack by the hot sauce bottle, made a drawing on it, and gave it to him as I left. I knew it would best carry my appreciation and express my solidarity with him.

This is what we are doing in the arts and it is what the doing is about.

Without question, we urgently have to configure how to repair the economics for restoring livelihoods. As an arts community we have a unique and important role in that national effort. But the outpouring of what we are extending through every available means is about something else which we play a role in sustaining. With the floor having dropped out of our economic bottom-line, we have a cultural bottom-line to uphold and exchange. It involves the liberty to express solidarity from the logic of our common care and to act upon it without hesitation.

Here’s to the late-night cooks, drivers and artists. To resuming our chance encounters with useful wisdom extended by people whose names we don’t know but with whom we share feeling.

—Kristy Edmunds,
Executive and Artistic Director
UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance

The Show Will Go On

Dear Friends,

During undergraduate film school, we were teamed up to work on narrative features. As each treatment was presented for review, I noticed the well-practiced diplomacy of our professors. I had the sense that my life experience at 18 years of age was not yet that of a feature-length film, and attempting one would be to repeat whatever conventions I had been exposed to. Derivation has its place when learning how to do something, but I couldn’t afford the amount of film stock it would take anyway. Like many creative young souls with no financial backstop — I had to find a different way.

I did know how to take decent photographs. Making them move was how I would create a sense of place and tell a story without the pressure of narrative structure at 24 frames per second. I made short documentaries, and most were shot by combining my limited film stock with the unexposed leftovers of my feature-oriented peers. I worked in the equipment checkout to offset my tuition and would collect what remained in the cameras when they were returned.

Professor Paul Monaco was the department head and thankfully saw something in my work. I was awarded a study abroad internship in Berlin at the end of my senior year which landed me briefly at Wim Wenders studio, where making a scenic element for a single shot he needed (for Wings of Desire), meant that anyone versed in paper mâché had vital importance for a few frantic days. The rest of the term was for learning the complete history of German cinema, and schlepping on various productions.

While in Berlin, Prof. Monaco wanted us to attend a theater production that was appealingly entitled Death, Destruction and Detroit II. We bemoaned that 5+ hours at a theater (of all places) would be sacrificed from our cinematically all-important time. “You will not be able to see this man’s work in the United States unless you are in NYC on the right day, in the right year, and it will never be this production,” he said and went on to explain the significance placed on the arts in Germany. His invitation was for us to experience something outside of our known interests. Only two of us showed up.

The play was by Robert Wilson and for me it was life altering.

On that night in the scarred and impossibly divided city of Berlin (1987), I had zero inkling that my work and Robert Wilson’s would later converge into a now decades-long relationship. One that is due to Philip Glass, Linda Brumbach, Elisabetta di Mambro, the Watermill Center and countless artists that Bob has cast, collaborated with or championed.

In Bob’s own words, “You can’t explain theater. You have to experience it.” And I think that for theater-goers this is the very crux of what makes our now dormant “seeing places” (Greek meaning) so excruciating. Yes, we gratefully have access to drama and comedy and story through our books, cinema, television and episodic streaming and hallelujah for much of it (especially if we are talking about Sundance Institute and our film colleagues who knock it out of the park in the vision and perseverance department). But theater, as it is conceived and made to move from the page (or sketch) to the stage, is created to be experienced as theater. Which is precisely what we miss.

If that essence could be as effectively achieved through another form, it would have been taken up a long time ago. But the beautifully enduring fact is that it cannot, because it is a lived practice in a collaborative engagement between people in real time on a stage of some sort or another. The theater resists efficiencies in full-throated preference for finding what it uniquely is, and that is why its conveyance cannot just readily pivot to a screen in someone’s pocket or on someone’s desktop.

As we support the theater as an experience, we support its lived lineage – its artists, designers, technicians, actors, directors, playwrights, puppeteers and creative producers. And for the time being, we can access the archival documentation from theater-making histories that are being generously sent out into the digital world in the hope of finding us. This gives us another chance to retain it in our collective rapport and appreciation. What has already been made carries weight and value.

There will also be incredible creativity arriving on this virtual stage in the near term, made for that way of experiencing what theater makers are thinking about. Supporting them online and at home, is also to say that we are going to be there for their eventual return to the stage — and with gusto! Perhaps less concerned by the lobby line at the bar during intermission — having relearned something in what is now, truly, the longest intermission ever — we’ll acknowledge how deeply we value the astonishing artistry and humanity of the theater.

The show will go on.

—Kristy Edmunds,
Executive and Artistic Director
UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance

New Music by Generous Makers

Dear Friends,

The first live performance that I ever presented took place in November of 1990. I was an emerging artist fresh out of graduate school, and had miraculously landed two part-time jobs in Portland, Oregon. One job was as a filmmaker-in-residence for the Northwest Film Center, and the other was coordinating a newly established contemporary art program at the Portland Art Museum. My part-time status meant that I had a lot of bosses, but the person who hired me at the museum and with whom I worked far more than part-time was the equanimous and truly brilliant curator of contemporary art, John Weber. I am so grateful that it was John who ushered me into the curatorial work I continue to do to this day (as does he). The program was small so we packed in everything we could into our two exhibitions and four performance allotment. For the museum director and trustees at the time, it was plenty.

Our first performance was My Brother Called by the composer and avant-garde opera maverick, Robert Ashley. He had continued working on his major opus entitled, Perfect Lives but our museum auditorium had real limitations and he wisely suggested this “other piece” instead of declining my invitation. We spoke on the telephone many times prior to the performance, and each conversation was like a master class in sonic philosophy, music history, properties for unhinging theoretical convention and his elliptical structures for composing. Like his music, he would shift from one surprising and complex idea to an entirely different one almost imperceptibly – it took me a decent pause to recognize he had moved elsewhere. I didn’t say much on those calls, as it would have exposed my thin comprehension of nearly everything he was describing, and would respond to his questions with questions which, thankfully, served to prompt him into more thoughts while giving me time to try to get a better grasp on the windmills that were churning at the other end of the phone line.

This meant that nothing we discussed was going to help me write a coherent press release or a blurb for marketing his project in time for a museum deadline. Which I believe he relished. He was teaching me about what mattered to him artistically, and it included my potential as a part-time employee fresh out of grad school.

On the day of my deadline a stack of pages had arrived via the museum fax machine overnight. It was Bob’s libretto for My Brother Called.  It was created by stringing together “Personal Ads” found at the back of magazines and newspapers at the time. (For those who do not know what these were – the equivalent now would be something like a profile post on a dating app except each letter used added to the cost so grammar was thrown out the window: “DWM 37 seeks F companion to help with young daughter; SWM seeks female friend who likes jogging old movies & yellow dogs; GBM attentive good looking seeks GM for travel and fun not more,” along with other embellishments.) Bob had created a precise order for these personal ads. They began by establishing each “character” as an anonymous someone looking for someone and for some particular reason. From random introductions the libretto progressed (over an hour or so) into a kind of dialogue of want ads between so many strangers who were all looking for one another.

I left a message on his answering machine to tell him that it felt like he had created a structure for how longing had a shape and that it was different for everyone. Which is what his music was doing from his compositional interests and references. The project was a continuation of his lifelong portrayal of regular people within his music making consciousness that he called opera but was not of opera. He was able to masterfully disguise insights so that we thought they were our own as we heard them.

Since then, I have been privileged to work with many composers who have generated singular and new terrain in music that carries towering cultural value. Composers lead one to musicians that inspire them, musicians back to composers in a virtuous circle of mutual commitment. You’ll be meeting two of them who are each phenomenal musicians, advocates, creative producers and collaborative forces that are both a glue throughout the contemporary music scene. Lisa Kaplan of Eighth Blackbird (piano), and Nadia Sirota of Living Music and yMusic (viola). They recently collaborated on Nadia’s “Pirate Radio” sessions, and are in conversation together via CAP UCLA. We love them and are in awe of what they, and all throughout their communities, do together. You’ll also be able to catch up with the indefatigable and beloved So Percussion.

In the spirit of the personal ads from the 1990s: “AD of CAP UCLA seeks listeners 4 new music by generous makers doing incred things. Answer questions w/questions, add open ears, glass of red. Visit often. Tips appreciated.”

—Kristy Edmunds,
Executive and Artistic Director
UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance

 

 

Jazz Day at Home in Honor of Those Who Are Keeping Us Safe

Dear Friends,

Some of you know CAP UCLA as a contemporary dance and theater presenting organization, others as a literary series. For some we are a “go-to” for global, roots, folk, indie and/or new music. Others look to us as the place to see genre-defying performance collaborations. But some of our most stalwart and active audience members experience CAP UCLA through our work in supporting and presenting the towering achievements of artists who live and breathe in the extraordinary world of jazz music.

In keeping with personal reflection: I had an uncle who listened to his coveted jazz records late at night after everyone had long since gone to bed. The far-off sounds from the porch would compel me to sneak out of my sleeping bag on the living room floor to get closer. This music was relished by my uncle, as was his time alone with it. He would land the needle on the vinyl record and listen with his head back and eyes closed. Any interruption would be unwelcome, so it was with delicate care (and a risk of detection) that my 5-year-old self would venture out for a better proximity.

Hiding there, just out of eye-shot, I would work at listening. These “songs” were long and unusual to me. There seemed to be no ending to anticipate, no relief in a refrain, and it was all complicated and amazing to my ears. A language unlike the country/pop/rock I heard on the car radio while riding with my parents. I tried not to breathe or move and would squeeze my eyebrows together to settle in a music that was unanswerable and fascinating. Putting my head back with my eyes closed helped, but the truth is what made me able to hear jazz was watching my uncle’s uncharacteristic revelry and intimacy in how he listened and how he loved what he heard in the music.

He drove a digger, welded, and worked the cranes when there was a construction job. He picked blackberries on the weekends to make jam and wine. He had served in the military and we understood it was not a thing to bring up at dinner. When I eventually asked him about his jazz records on the porch late at night, he told me that it was his friendships he was listening to. That the real way to understand the depth of jazz was to be with it in person and experience the musicians making it right then. That records were an artifact of something captured, like a sound equivalence of a photograph: “It can’t hold everything that goes into jazz, but it proves that a f’in miracle took place between people. When you listen to it, you are looking after that.”

As we celebrate International Jazz Day this week, we acknowledge the African American musicians that changed the sound of the 20th Century and the global impact of a form that continues to expand and express how the self-manifested and singular contribution of an individual can elevate the liberty of all of us. Jazz is democracy in full and generous flight.

In the past few days and weeks, jazz has lost many of its practitioners — elders, authors and musicians. Our celebration of the form is tempered by a grief for the loss of these music makers, and still requires us to bend over to put on that shoe, stand up, stay together and feel a grace in listening from the lens of love.

Let’s keep looking after each other.

—Kristy Edmunds,
Executive and Artistic Director
UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance

Amazing Things in the Natural World

Dear Friends,

As I write, Los Angeles is once again restored to unfettered sunshine, with birds and crickets generating our urban soundscape. What a different experience than the sound of our formerly crowded lobbies and cafes (missed), or the LAX flight path overhead (less missed), or our cars crammed side by side while riding the brake pedal on the 405 at 5mph. The sky is uncluttered and brilliantly clear. The earthquake on Earth Day helped heighten our attentiveness — as if we needed a ratcheting-up on the life-intensity dial — and high temperatures are blowing in with the Santa Ana winds.  My neighbors spill out into the middle of the street in carefully timed intervals. There’s no traffic to worry about, so the kids get to rule the road on their bikes for the first time in their lives. The joggers easily give each other a wide berth. And I had no idea that there were this many people with dogs. Our face coverings are portraits in ingenuity, as are the chalk drawings on our sidewalks.

On Thursday nights Royce Hall and the Powell Library are bathed in blue light for the health care workers, first responders and essential workers keeping our communities fed, protected and functioning during the COVID-19 pandemic. #LightItBlue

CAP UCLA’s offices are located in the north-facing wedge within the basement of Royce Hall. It’s a well-lit rabbit warren of sorts, which is now empty while our team works remotely. I’m thinking about how our staff are the essential workers of a different side of holding up our communities. I want to acknowledge them all. They are always at work to expand creative nourishment, drive a response toward incredible ideas, and protect the sparks of inspiration between artists and audiences. We work alongside artists with a duty of care for our cultural and creative commons. We press our collective shoulders to the wheel in service to the values of artistry and its continuity, which is kept in motion by our allies and supporters. We work to secure resources for artists, keep connections between people vibrant, and ensure that our stage can be a sturdy hearth for artistic expression.

CAP UCLA is not a place, but is an essential function — like an estuary that holds the space between artists and audiences so that a shared meaning can emerge without being blown out to sea by the headwinds… a space for truth. And of course Royce Hall is a place, an iconic one that was built through the efforts of many to stand as a home for the experiences and ideas we make together.

We are not physically there right now, but the ghost light is shining brightly from the empty stage, and we are building the future with so many extraordinary artists that we can’t wait to share with you.

Art is essential, as is your support of those who make it, and those who hold the space for it.

—Kristy Edmunds,
Executive and Artistic Director
UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance

Keep on Dancing

Dear Friends,

This week it has felt as if we have become a bit restless, a bit weary. Our home-based projects are wrapping up, securing flour for our baking efforts requires an obscenely early start to get to the grocer in the morning, and that new and tedious app we mastered doesn’t do the laundry after all. We’ve lost people. The unemployment numbers are incomprehensible. There’s a wolf at the door who returns daily and yet there is a tangible itch to get things going again. Gratefully, our hearts are redirecting every urge to roar back to before, because reading the headlines still requires bracing oneself.

At CAP UCLA we are thinking a lot about dance and the artists who create it. What it requires of them and what staying at home in tiny non-affordable apartments is like for people who need space to move and train and extend.

My first exposure to dancing was through my mother. Approaching our house after preschool, right where the sidewalk met our driveway I could often hear “The Age of Aquarius” or “Great Balls of Fire” blasting from the stereo console inside. Framed by our front facing window was Judy McKellar dancing with complete abandon in the living room. She would elatedly wave for me to quickly come inside to join her before the song ended. We lived in Spokane, Washington (circa 1968). When disco arrived (via radio) she was in pure bliss. Her use of the word “boogie” was in high rotation (as were the eye-rolls of my sister and I).

My mother’s zeal for dancing did not rub off, but her capacity for finding the remarkable within the everyday while making something bright with what was available, taught me to look and notice. I discovered the sound in the space between the notes, the slump of different glazes on a piece of pottery, the poet as an athlete of words, and the articulate contours that choreographers and dancers construct to shape gravity itself. Their dedication to making meaning with their bodies in collaboration with each other and the air around them and the worlds they pull into this ephemeral and extraordinary art form is nothing less than astonishing.

Dance is carried by the dancers who migrate across practices, vocabularies, choreographers and projects — across cultural intelligences, geographies and eras — to make up a weave of transmission that not only expands their expressive terrain, but gives the audience a vital role. As quite possibly the most evanescent of the arts, it requires an audience to be the living archive of their life works. Our presence matters immensely and our responsibility is considerable.

I’ve been taught how to carry that thread by my mom, my extraordinary wife, my staff, and by watching cowboys in Bozeman, Montana (circa 1987) do the two-step as if their lives depended upon holding its line together, no matter how thick the layer of peanut shells on the floor of the bar is.

Here’s to the dancers and poets.

—Kristy Edmunds,
Executive and Artistic Director
UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance

An Outpouring of Art

My work with artists invariably starts with sharing ideas.

I’m not trying to state the obvious… that artists have ideas. What matters is the sharing part and how they go about it.

Artists share the things they’ve learned or encountered, are vexed by or are wrestling with, and the perspective they’ve gleaned. The inspiring, enraging, unshakable things and the things that they happened to glance at and returned back to for another look. Like a blob of paint sitting on the street, or how people step off the curb with their right foot more often than their left at crosswalks. The woman always smiling, the old guy always sweeping on Tuesdays, the infuriating process of being put on hold, or how some electric lines carry different tones. In conversation, artists share what they have read, listened to, watched or went to, or have recently pulled up from some long-ago post online somewhere that required active dedication to find. What they cooked, or tried, or were left silenced by.

I’ve had the exact coordinates of a desert location shared with me so that I would know precisely where to stand during an equinox to see a momentary green flash of light on the horizon… unless I blinked.

How a puppet can be made from discarded everyday things that can come in handy when delayed in an airport with frustrated passengers. I’ve been asked if I’ve read an obscure play written in the 1400s that was never staged, but is mind-blowing, as if it were something one might readily stumble across in a café. I’ve been informed of scientific studies about redwood trees having a unique genetic makeup that affects their longevity. Weeds being able to communicate warnings to other weeds if injured. Ancient monks who found two Ginkgo seeds in an even more ancient box and —  in deciding to plant one — rejuvenated the species. I’ve been shown the handwriting of a shop clerk on a scrap of paper that would become a play, the contents of a lifesaving manual from WWI that would become a song cycle, photographs of a fragment from a sacred Indonesian text that rivals all wisdom, and how bark paintings in Indigenous Australia are as vital as life itself. There have been many sketches on napkins in many cafes to better share the shape of things.

Have I been following the court case involving a Canadian farmer who fought a seven-year legal battle to protect his community against pesticides and the genetic modification of seeds, or what some physicists were researching “this very second as we speak,” or all kinds of other extraordinarily useful things that a choreographer had been poring over in journals that I had never heard of? That there are new lighting instruments that could supply every color imaginable while using a scintilla of the electricity that the currently popular stage lights did (along with a detailed explanation of how it all works)? Did I know about an egregious injustice that was happening somewhere, and what one single person did to change things, and how we can help and we must? And we do.

From conversations with artists, I’ve learned about other artists. Like the one who created a honey bee preserve on the empty land of a demolished housing project that generated income for his community with a tiny grant. Of the composer who clustered notes together in such a way as to change music for all time, while still driving a taxi. Of the brilliant horn player practicing in the subway, the filmmaker, designer, stagehand, producer or manager or music teacher, or publisher, or shop owner, or chef who fed everybody after their performances ended in her café after closing, or the usher who has worked every show at the theatre for over 40 years… the record producer who ensured legacies were recorded to share for all time, and who rarely made a dime but that wasn’t the point — the music and makers were. Of artists working on projects that won’t be completed in their lifetimes but who carry on, because others pick up where they left off, like a huge love letter continuously sent to the future and addressed to people that none of us will ever know, because that is how cultural heritage extends.

We talk about finding whoever owns that long-abandoned theater and see if we might, together, find a way to get it reopened for our community, if mounting a fundraiser down the street at a friend’s pub for an immigrant shop owner who won’t raise prices because she has a community who can’t afford it but won’t make the rent next month either, or how special Yoko Ono has always been. If there are instruments and gear we could donate for those kids who are starting a music lending library so they can play music together, with their friends who dance in the parking lot at night for the glorious feeling of trying moves that no one else has tried before, alongside their poet peers who are right up there with Ginsberg and Whitman and Rumi and Sundiata and Neruda and Angelou!? We talk about the work we have to do and how we are going to do it.

Long before the conversation turns to what an artist is working on in their process of finding form to best hold the effort, and how that can be resourced, and who they hope it will reach — are the ways of seeing and knowing and being, and always how some essentialness can be shared.

The song, the poem, the dance, the play, the film, the book or the painting in the left corner of the museum that was on the wall in 2003 in Denver that just changed everything imaginable… and yes too, that standing ovation that lasted for five whole minutes at the end of the show that can still be heard to this day.

All so astonishing. These things to be perceived, made known, fully felt, illuminated, and better cared for.

Which is to say  —  we should all have an artist in our lives.

Someone I have in my life and have had these exact kinds of conversations with, made projects with, and have been loyally enlisted by over many years…died of the coronavirus on April 7th (as did many others). Hal Willner was a firmament in the lives of many artists. An entirely passionate maker, producer, generator of amazing thoughts, father, husband, friend and a singular force who connected literally thousands of us across generations and worlds as if we had all been at the same room whenever something important happened (in Hal’s expansive world something always was), be that 1957, 1965, 2012, or last week.

He collected up all of our dust and light and spillage and sounds and words and ability and longing and asymmetrical shapes to build a constellation.

I am looking at it right now.

—Kristy Edmunds,
Executive and Artistic Director
UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance