This past weekend I was fortunate to be included in the CATCH 50 lineup at the Chocolate Factory Theater in Long Island City. It was a huge undertaking by the entire CATCH team as well as The Chocolate Factory. Such a great space to work in, and such good people to work with. I premiered a short piece specifically for CATCH called YOU ARE NOT HERE, which I’m treating as a sketch for a longer performance piece that I’ll be developing throughout the year.
Thank you to Bobby McElver for his expert sound engineering; Jeff Larson, Andrew Dinwiddie, and Caleb Hammons who make CATCH happen; and to everyone at The Chocolate Factory for an amazing night.
Lizzie Simon of The Wall Street Journal also gave this great account of Jason Grote’s experience at CATCH 50.
Each week in Curtain Raisers, we invite a local theater artist to attend a show of his or her choosing and discuss the results. On Saturday, the experimental playwright Jason Grote opted to see “Catch 50,” an evening of performance at the Chocolate Factory in Long Island City. Mr. Grote wrote for the first season of NBC’s “Smash,” but is known in the theater community for his plays “1001” and “Civilization (all you can eat).” He’s currently working on a musical adaptation of “1001,” as well as a commission for Seattle’s ACT Theatre about the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich and a commissioned adaptation of “A Wrinkle in Time” for Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Within minutes of arriving at the Chocolate Factory, Mr. Grote was introduced to Kate Valk, a veteran member of the iconic devised-theater ensemble the Wooster Group. She’d just read his play “Civilization,” and told him she would love to someday play the part of the pig.
It was an unlikely interaction between members of two of the theater community’s more prominent camps. Mr. Grote pointed out that the landscape of new stage work is to a large degree divided between the playwrights, whose productions begin with a director and follow a well-worn hierarchy to the stage, and devised-theater artists, who build shows collaboratively, often with multiple texts, often with movement and music, and always through means of experimentation. But there are some playwrights—like Erin Courtney, Mac Wellman, Anne Washburn and Mr. Grote—who travel between the camps, borrowing from the tools and fruits of experimentation to reinvent the well-made play.
This is what brought Mr. Grote to Queens to see “Catch 50,” a curated smorgasbord featuring some of the city’s finest choreographers, performance artists, and devised-theater makers.
On view were mostly excerpts and works-in-progress. “This would be the equivalent of playwrights having staged readings,” he said. “It’s not text-based, so you need something like this.”
“Catch 50″ was actually the 50th iteration of a performance series that began in 2003. On Saturday night there were five lineups—one for every hour from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., with each act finishing in under 10 minutes.
It was not a ritzy environment: The performance space was small, narrow, with no wings and no proper dressing rooms; beer was offered from a keg on a pay-what-you-wish basis in a basement lit by a handful of exposed light bulbs.
But the performances were rich. Among the acts in the 9 p.m. show that Mr. Grote attended was Andrew Schneider’s unnerving physical and technical tour de force exploring the maplessness of life.
“Obviously this person is a skilled actor and mover,” Mr. Grote said. The evening continued with separate works by Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson, co-artistic directors of the venerated downtown company Big Dance Theater.
Ms. Valk choreographed a dance for Mr. Lazar set to Bach, in which he moved around like the most casual of clowns—gesturing, hitting a pretend bat, laying on the floor enjoying a pretend cigarette.
“I can watch Paul Lazar forever,” said Mr. Grote. “I think he’s so appealing.”
Is he making fun of contemporary dance? “He is, in a gentle way. He’s making fun of himself first and foremost.”
It called to mind for Mr. Grote a certain movement vocabulary that has become a hallmark in New York-based devised work, a kind of dancing performed by nondancers that repurposes ordinary, everyday movement.
“It’s actually extraordinarily difficult,” he said. He had written some of it into “Civilization,” and seen it performed masterfully by the company Clubbed Thumb in New York, though less so in other parts of the country, where getting it right was “the biggest headache in the world.” Done badly, he said, looking like there was a stink in the room, it’s like “some variation of jazz dance.”
Ms. Parson choreographed a new solo for Tymberly Canale. Set in a mythical Austria, the piece was equal parts whimsical and ferocious, and Ms. Canale brought the show to an intensity it hadn’t to that point reached.
“There’s this way that actual, genuine, true beauty surprises you,” said Mr. Grote.
Across the evening, one could hear a tone of envy in Mr. Grote’s affection for devised theater. “One thing I love,” he said, “is that it isn’t conceived in a vacuum and shoehorned in. It was intended for the performer who performed it and in the space it was in.”
He admitted he feels more generosity for the work than he does for straight playwriting. “I tend to be extremely critical, like, how did they get this big production with this s— script? I can get lost in devised work more. There’s not that narcissism of small difference.”
But if he was being completely honest, he’d been a bit distracted during “Catch 50.”
“I spent half the time thinking: What can I write for Kate Valk now?” he said. “I was thinking about letting her do anything she wanted to any of my plays.”