The Chocolate Factory’s Executive Director Sheila Lewandowski and Artistic Director Brian Rogers
SINCE 2005 A small space in the Queens, New York neighborhood known as Long Island City-- not far from the visual arts institution MoMA PS1-- has been presenting some of the most interesting dance, theater, and interdisciplinary performances on the planet. Known as The Chocolate Factory, a name that recalls its former function, the space is home to a forward-looking, Obie-winning, artist-founded organization committed not only to presenting work but to nurturing its creation, too.
“The work of The Chocolate Factory's founding artists emphasizes multi-disciplinary collaboration combining movement, music, video and text,” says the organization, “to devise a means of storytelling that is immediate, collage-like, highly visual, and dependent on new technologies. When successful, the work is not easily categorized as theater, dance, new music, or video art and is rather a thorough intermingling of these disciplines….”
And it’s telling that this statement includes the phrase “when successful,” because though success is sought, it is not always found in artistic endeavors; and the finding process itself-- artistic investigation and creative development—are as important to Chocolate Factory Executive Director Sheila Lewandowski and Artistic Director Brian Rogers as the finished product.
“Artists shouldn’t be constrained by the fear of failing,” says Rogers.
The list of artists who have worked at The Chocolate Factory is a who’s who of today’s forward-looking performance artists: Ivy Baldwin, Walter Dundervill, Beth Gill, John Jesurun, Juliana May, Neal Medlyn, and RoseAnne Spradlin, to name only a few. We sat down with Lewandowski and Rogers recently, to gain a better perspective on their vision for The Chocolate Factory.
CLASSICAL TV: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Sheila and Brian. From your points of view—that of the Executive Director and Artistic Director, respectively-- what makes The Chocolate Factory so unique and special in New York and at this time?
BRIAN ROGERS: The fact that it was founded by artists and is run by artists is really, really crucial. For whatever reason, there isn’t a lot of that happening in New York, right now. I don’t know if this is a good or a bad thing, but people often, when they talk about us, make this reference to the ’70s and the ‘80s, and say remind them of the loft scene, or the performances in the clubs scene. We’re trying to maintain the spirit of that-- the freedom, the lack of restriction--while also operating, at some degree, as an institution.
Many of those spaces in the ‘80s weren’t concerned with longevity, and I think there’s actually something really beautiful about that. “We’re just going to do this thing and then flame out and be done.” Whereas we are actually fundraising and finding money to pay our artists and pay ourselves, and have some kind of sustainable longevity.
CTV: I’ve spoken with many of the artists you’ve presented who value this aspect of The Chocolate Factory—even established artists who may already have been on bigger stages, let’s say, but still choose to do a certain project with you guys.
SHEILA LEWANDOWSKI: We’re a safe place to incubate new work—we really like that word. We are an incubator, and I think about that administratively, as well as artistically.
CTV: How do you mean?
SL: Titles and job descriptions [at The Chocolate Factor] are not cookie-cutter ones. As we evolve, we are looking at the good people we have around us, and we figure out ways for people to fit into the needs and vice versa. So we have a production manager who also handles some maintenance issues in the building, who also goes—when I can’t go—to fundraising events and reports back, because she’s interested about how that connects to the building and the production stuff. We don’t separate functions. We understand these things all connect, so we incubate our staff, as well as the art.
“If they ask what experimental means, I say it’s completely different all the time...”
CTV: That’s an interesting point. You clearly have a different point of view not just about curation but about how to deal with operations and function-- which maps kind of neatly onto new kinds of art being made nowadays. It strikes me that a generation of artists, especially, wants to make and present their work in new ways, new contexts. What do you say when someone asks you what kind of work is presented at The Chocolate Factory?
BR: That’s a tricky one to answer, because what I wish the answer were is different from what I think, pragmatically, the answer has to be. What I’m drawn to in the artistic community I’m part of is this desire not to be concerned anymore with what kind of work you’re making-- about the field you have expertise in or don’t have expertise in… Why do we have to talk about these things like they’re in boxes? And I think that also speaks to the tension around the conversation about performance and visual art institutions, and who’s allowed to present what, and where. So I think there’s really a desire for artists to say, “I’m doing what I’m doing, and the definition of how I’m pushing my own comfort zone or skills is up to me to decide. I want to own the narrative of what I’m doing.”
Of course, pragmatically speaking, we have to wedge the things that we’re doing into some kind of category, so that the world can do something with it. If you want it to be reviewed you have to decide if it’s a dance piece or a theatre piece, or some other thing. And when you’re applying for grants, you have the same problems…
CTV: I see. But I mean, what do you tell the folks who live in those fancy glass towers on the river, at the end of the street, who are not in the art world, when they walk past The Chocolate factory and ask what happens there?
BR: I always say that we do experimental dance and theatre. And then if they ask what experimental means, I say it’s completely different all the time. For me, it’s really about detecting something in an artist that’s really specific and personal, that can be pushed….
CTV: And you offer a space to do that, to protect that…?
BR: Right. I don’t feel like I’m drawn to any specific kind of kind of work. It’s more like, “Oh, you’re an artist, and I see that you’re pushing something, and you’re choosing to push this thing for your own reasons.” And I’m attracted to that.
SL: It’s a very good point that Brian’s making. I intersect more with the community, and when people ask me about shows I don’t talk about presenting work, I say we commission artists. And then they say, “Well, I don’t know what to see.” And I tell them honestly, “It will be something you’ve never seen, that will use a space in a way that you’ve never experienced, and you will be part of the experience.” Because we don’t just present a piece, so I can’t tell them what the piece is going to be. Sometimes we don’t know what the piece is going to be until the week of-- and I tell them that. “Email me,” I say. “I’ll let you know if there’s profanity or nudity or anything like that you need to know.”
BR: One of the reasons why the scale on which we’re operating is helpful in that we don’t have to be concerned as much about those kinds of questions.
SL: I think the presence of places like ours helps the larger presenters, because when more incubators exist, people get exposure to experimentation near where they live, and they lose the fears they may have….
CTV: Yes. Well, Sheila, let me ask you to expand on that. You mentioned community, and you’ve done such an amazing job drawing energy from and giving energy to the community, here in Long Island City. This has always been a great neighborhood in many ways, but you’ve definitely amped it. Can you talk about what makes Long Island City such a great place for The Chocolate Factory idea to take root here?
SL: First of all, Long Island City has a personality. It’s where carriages were built, and paint factories and sausage factories were, and sculptors worked. That’s all part of history here. And there’s a beautiful waterfront. And it’s because Brian and I live here. I mean, we wanted to work near where we lived, so the idea for founding an incubator space—you know, I’m going to get tired of saying it, but it’s the truth: that’s what it is—happened when we moved to the neighborhood. It’s close to Manhattan, and we were able to find an old industrial space that had a raw feeling of being beaten up and yet was still standing up and kind of coming back. The space seemed resilient in a way that works for the kind of work that we wanted to help create.
For more about The Chocolate Factory, go here.
COMING NEXT TO THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY
Brian Rogers in Hot Box
On February 15 and 15, The Chocolate Factory presents a “re-reprise” of Brian Roger’s acclaimed multi-media performance Hot Box, a collaboration with Madeline Best.
“It's startling how very little happens...and how many meanings unfold,” wrote Alastair Macaulay of the New York Times, of Rogers and Best’s previous collaboration, Selective Memory, also presented at The Chocolate Factory. But where Selective Memory was “extremely clean and minimalist in its approach,” says Rogers, “Hot Box is loud and messy.”
The work, drawing inspiration from films like Apocalypse Now and Fitzcarraldo, aims to “create a live performance situation that is violent and chaotic; and from that chaos… a sequence of video images that are quiet, sustained, focused, and organized--but somehow coated with an intense emotional residue.”
For a look at Hot Box, go here.