Counting the Rings of Harvard Wood

Not just puppets but puppets to network with. Photo courtesy: The Independent Eye.
Put your hands up — these are puppets to network with. Photo: The Independent Eye.

Community for artists creates better art, but more important, it creates better artists. Which is perhaps why the long-ago days of Paris salons, Berlin collectives and Gertrude Stein collaborations have become mythic to many within the performing arts community. When we speak of the heady times associated with those groups, times when it seemed art dominated every facet of social existence, the art is the focus: we talk of Tiffany’s glass, Mucha’s seasons, Hemingway’s prose or Brecht’s Epic Theatre. I suspect people revel in and romanticize this era not only because of the work but because of the communities they signified, the connections and collaborations they inspired. Some theatre artists may work alone for years because their art is solitary or because collaborative-minded artists cannot find collaborators. It’s sad, because as with many endeavors where creativity and innovation are king, the best work tends to come from the cross-pollination of disciplines and ideas.

Harvard Wood takes the idea of artistic community as its mission. Originally conceived as an entertainment industry networking tool for Harvard alumni working in Los Angeles, the organization has expanded and blossomed since its 1999 founding. Now open to non-members — and with a provision for nonalumni membership — Harvard Wood has chapters across the country as well as several cities abroad. While the original L.A. branch focused narrowly on the entertainment industry, the New York branch is more diverse. Led by Spence Porter, Harvard Wood in New York arranges performances, talks, book signings and other events with the express purpose of creating artistic connections and collaborations.

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But how do you create a community? Can you force it to congeal from a handful of cocktail parties? “The obvious and wrong thing to do is have a lot of mixers,” Porter says.The problem with that sort of event is people arrive with no other purpose than to meet people, which makes it impossible to meet people.”

I agree. To me, such forced meetings recall blind dates or obvious setups by your mother. They feel awkward and false. Exchanging business cards over martinis while boasting of your latest exploits works great if you work in finance. Or sell used cars. Artists crave something more. We need to like one another. At the very least we need to trust one another.

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So as with the great artistic communities of the last century, Porter says the work must be the focus: “There have to be experiences the people who join Harvard Wood share so that when they meet through those experiences they have something to talk about, they have something in common.” In other words, the performances, talks and book signings are a convention that influence the audience in order to help them form truer connections.

After watching, say, a performance, Harvard Wood guests engage each other (and the performers) in conversations that spring from the event — they could be discussions of art, metaphysics, life in general. Unlike generic meet-and-greet networking in which guests cling to awkward conversations about their careers and education, however, Harvard Wood guests organically discuss the experience they shared. These discussions give you insight into how people analyze art, how they tackle topics in open environments, how they interact with others. It offers an intimate little snapshot into someone’s process, opinions and personality. I would argue that these qualities are just as valuable as a resume.

Harvard Wood performances also recall the early-20th-century private salons and performances of Natalie Barney and the later 20th century “Sproutime” performance art of Leslie Labowitz. Both women, for similar and different reasons, famously attempted to create a personal community through staged, shared experiences and under less-than-ideal conditions: Barney the open lesbian scandalizing France, Labowitz the ambassador for activism-as-theatre. In both cases, “private performances” provided a safe, welcoming space for other female and queer artists to create work, receive feedback and develop connections. Labowitz’s efforts especially sought to restore an intimacy and connection to daily life that she felt was diminished after a decade of nonstop campaigning for feminism. It was writer Sue-Ellen Case who called their work “personal theatre” — “an alternative tradition to the standard history of men in theatre.” Not finding the communities they craved, the women simply willed them into being. Similarly, these Harvard arts alumni, having seen that the New York artistic community lacks true relationship-based connections, sought a way to will a community into being that does have that quality.

But does New York really need another platform for artists? Are Harvard alumni somehow unfairly excluded from the artistic community as Barney and Labowitz felt they were? With countless galas, gallery openings, parties and other events at the fingertips of arts-minded New Yorkers, the opportunity for organic, unplanned communities abound. At the same time, our highly individualized, hyperconnected age makes our connections tenuous; too often, they do not truly satisfy the definition of “community.” (This may surprise you, but the painter you flirted with absentmindedly at last Friday’s soiree does not qualify as “community.”)

This is why Porter wants a “really vibrant cultural community in the literal sense — and really meaning the word ‘community.’ Which people throw around without really meaning that word. I mean it in the sense of people really knowing and interacting with each other.” Like me, Porter feels community leads to better art and artists: “I want the poet seeing what the painters are doing… I want the ferment that comes when people are sharing their work.”

Not just cocktails and idle chit-chat anymore.
Not just cocktails and idle chit-chat anymore.

In practice, Porter’s vision can create quite the intriguing event — like a puppet show I witnessed in an Upper West Side apartment. A nearly 40-year-old, California-based company, The Independent Eye, performed its only New York City show in this improvised space — small footlights, no stage, no backdrop. And yet the piece was transcendent. The sun setting on the Hudson created a mystical atmosphere more effectively than any backdrop. Exploring the intimate relationships and moments of human life with carefully crafted puppets, the performance was perfect for the setting. Porter’s model worked: I spoke with the hosts, the performers and the audience after the show. And it turned out that the performers had worked with the great Kevin Augustine early in his career, and here I was working on his show The Godprojekt. Then we discovered another guest was working on Are They Edible?, running in rep with The Godprojekt at La Mama, which led to speaking with another guest about the finer points of freelance dramaturgy. The conversation turned toward life and death: suddenly we were all sharing intimate emotional moments, fears and hopes. We felt the start of a true connection. Bam! Instant community. Did I mention the free wine and cheese? Not forming connections, starting collaborations or finding inspiration in this setting would have required a concerted effort.

Porter hopes Harvard Wood will invent his own version of 1920s Paris — Barney’s Paris. Overall, I’d say he’s doing a rather good job of it, if you can excuse the lack of drama. Or sex. Or feuds. Good as they are, these events will not see Hemingway and Stein entering into a battle of letters or Picasso chasing after everyone’s girl. It is a very polite community. The events are interesting, the connections useful. But for all of its good points and the positive experience I had, Harvard Wood also lacks danger. For private performances are just that: private. It’s a look through the looking glass, a leap down the rabbit hole.

We want opportunities to actually get paid, yet that is clearly not what we want. Again, we want danger. And due to it’s lack of danger, Harvard Wood’s events remain sparsely attended. Not that it bothers Porter, who said, “I don’t really have any interest in drawing a big audience. I have an interest in drawing the right audience and getting that audience to get to know each other.” So join Harvard Wood for the unique and unusual in New York. But don’t necessarily expect to find the next Hemingway, Stein, or Brecht. But you might make a great new connection or find a new community.

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Dillon Slagle
Dillon Slagle works in New York as a dramaturg and biological anthropologist. His experiences range from dramaturgy for puppet performances exploring the nature and formation of mono-theism with Kevin Augustine, to excavating pre-Greek burial sites in Menorca, Spain. In both anthropology and dramaturgy, Dillon believes in rigorous research, cultural awareness, and creative approaches to the process. Dillon is constantly searching for new, engaging, and relevant work. He is a member of LMDA, Dramaturg for the Carroll Simmons Performance Collective, and the Literary Manager for the Creation & Completion Project. Check out his Web site, Dramaturgy Tea, and find him on Twitter and Facebook.