At 52, Mabou Mines is still testing the limits
The word “crazy” comes up fairly regularly when talking to people from the Mabou Mines theater troupe.
Take one of Sharon Ann Fogarty’s earliest experiences with this legendary group – nine years before she became one of its co-artistic directors. It was on “Mabou Mines Lear”, a reverse production of “King Lear” – not obvious in 1990 – which was directed by Lee Breuer and starred Ruth Maleczech as the monarch.
“The opening scene had dogs and all these kids, so my job was to pick up the kids around five, drive them out, do the scene and bring them back,” Fogarty, now 20, said. 65 years. “Then I would come back and do various other parts. One of them held Isabell Monk while Honora Fergusson gouged out his eyes. It was kind of a crazy, crazy time,” she continued, “but it was really fun.”
Starting Thursday, Mabou Mines celebrates 50 years of theatrical experimentation with a three-day megamix, a retrospective of some of its most notorious, daring, beloved, memorable or, yes, wildest projects. (The society is actually 52 years old but the celebration has been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic.) The work will include live readings, concerts and films, in conjunction with a complementary exhibition of archival material, at the Mabou Mines’ home at 122 Community Center in the East Village, where the group settled in 2017 after decades of an itinerant existence.
The performing arts, by definition, exist in the moment, so putting together a greatest hits package — especially from an Off Off Broadway company — is a daunting task. Mabou Mines got the idea for her extended birthday party after founding member JoAnne Akalaitis led a 12-hour tribute to playwright María Irene Fornés at the Public Theater in 2018. She said: ‘Why not just run a full marathon?’ “recalls Fogarty.
It would have been over 60 works, so they settled on 31. “Some will be excerpts, some will be complete, some will be just the music,” Fogarty said. “Some of them are an hour, or you get 15 minutes, like a juicy scene or something.”
The programs will bring former company members home, as well as friendly guests such as Bill Camp and Elizabeth Marvel, who will perform Franz Xaver Kroetz’s “Through the Leaves” on Thursday, produced by Mabou Mines in 1984. The following day, Akalaitis will direct David Greenspan, Ellen McLaughlin and Ellen McElduff, a former member of the company, in “Play” by Samuel Beckett, which Mabou Mines directed in 1971.
The time machine will go back to Mabou Mines’ first project, ‘The Red Horse Animation’ (1970), conceived during a retreat in the isolated Nova Scotia town that gave the movie its name. company. On Saturday, Akalaitis — who was in the original production — will reprise it alongside a pair of first-generation Mabou heirs: writer, director and actress Clove Galilee, who is the daughter of Breuer and Maleczech, and choreographer David Neumann, the son of members Mabou Fergusson and Frederick Neumann, who died in 2012. (Akalaitis’ husband at the time, Philip Glass, another founding member, wrote the music.)
Close family ties have always been part of the matrix of Mabou Mines — the group, born out of 1960s experimentation, has blurred the personal, the artistic and the political. Akalaitis, 84, recalls company members’ children touring in the 1970s and babysitters figuring into rehearsal budgets – an afterthought for many theaters today.
“In hindsight, it was based on a very solid socialist principle that we are all equal and we all get the same amount of money whether we work or not,” she said of the precepts of the company. “And when there was no money, there was no money – there was no money for some people.”
Breuer, who died last year, had quickly established himself as a dominant personality, and he directed some of the troupe’s most famous shows, such as “Peter and Wendy” (the story of Peter Pan told by a solo actress and puppets, in 1997) and “Mabou Mines Dollhouse” (“A dollhouse” by Ibsen with the men played by actors under five feet tall and the women by actresses almost four feet tall -twenty, in 2003).
At the same time, the company embraced consensus decision-making, which didn’t necessarily help speed things up. “Finding consensus is very, very difficult, but I also think it’s the only way to do it,” Akalaitis said. “If you have a group of people who have big egos and don’t want anyone else to be the boss, the only way to do that is for everyone to be the boss.”
Even now, the company shares management responsibilities between four co-artistic directors: Fogarty, Karen Kandel, Mallory Catlett and Carl Hancock Rux.
The main reason Mabou Mines has endured for half a century is that it has always attracted like-minded people who have thrived on experimentation. Kandel recalls his first experience with the company, working on “Mabou Mines Lear” with Breuer and Maleczech. “There was a kind of confidence that whatever role you played you would find your way there,” Kandel, 69, said in a video chat.
“There was the shy me and then there was the thing inside of me, and that’s what Lee wanted to see out,” she continued. “Once I said, ‘Why am I going to climb that telephone pole?’ Lee’s response was something like, ‘Don’t ask me those questions, that Stanislavski [expletive]. Just step on the pole! ‘” (Kandel would go on to star in Mabou’s hit “Peter and Wendy”.)
Past and present are inextricably linked in “Moi-Même”, a film directed by Breuer that the artists who would form Mabou Mines (with the exception of Akalaitis and Glass) shot in Paris in 1968 and 1969 but did not never been completed.
Breuer’s son, Mojo Lorwin, picked up the footage and during the pandemic, he went through the 16 hours with his father on Zoom – there was no script and the dialogue was never dubbed, so Lorwin, 38 years old, was trying to find some sort of crooked line. “I did the vast majority of the work on it after he died, but it really feels like a collaboration because he gave me this material to work on, but he also gave me all this space,” he said. -he declares. “So I wrote a script, I decided what these things mean.”
On Saturday, “Myself” will be presented as a work in progress backed by a live band and Foley artist Jay Peck, with Kandel voicing all the adults and Declan Kenneally all the kids.
It will be a sort of bridge between the prehistory of Mabou Mines and what may await us. “The future will hopefully be something that will always look like us,” Kandel said, “but will not look like us.”