East Side producer looks to archive work
By Deborah Lynn Blumberg
Years ago, Lower East Side artist Aaron Beall helped rescue a homeless 40-year-old archive of New Yorks Yiddish radio and theater from a near trash dumpster death, and found them a home in the Yiddish Archives at Harvard University.
Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert
Aaron Beall and his partner Rafaele Shirley surrounded by some of the archives from thousands of theater productions Beall worked on. Beall hopes to turn the archives into a series of museum-ready, interactive, mandala sculptures.
Now Beall, founder of the former ShowWorld Theater in Times Sq. and a co-founder of New York Citys International Fringe Festival, is trying to save his own archives playbills, scripts, costumes and props from the several thousand shows produced in the Midtown theater and the Lower East Side theaters he once ran.
Bealls Piano Store on Ludlow St., House of Candles on Stanton St. and ShowWorld served as incubator spaces for performers across the city, and his Todo Con Nada (Everything With Nothing) theatrical company on Ludlow St. was responsible for more than 2,500 productions. The remnants of these shows now sit in a warehouse in Midtown but not for long. To preserve the archives, Beall and his art partner, Rafaele Shirley, have created an innovative solution: crafting materials into performance sculptures that will debut at next years HOWL! Festival and then tour museums around the world.
Archives tend to hide in libraries; I wanted a way to make [them] more exciting, Beall said. A big challenge is finding places to store massive amounts of memory, and this idea is born out of that challenge.
So Beall and Shirley will gather materials from each former theater into a sculpture, or as Beall calls them, a performance mandala. Mandala means infinite universe in Tibetan, an apt name for the pieces, he said, because each theater once represented its own unique world. December 16, 2000, the first of the sculptures, meshes costumes and props from ShowWorld drag queen dresses, plastic knives, pool tables, huge pairs of old shoes and boots with Christmas trees, tinsel, lights and lockers left behind by dancers.
[The mandalas] are very charming and funny and abstract. Theyre very Dr. Seussian, Beall said. Theyre meant to charm and seduce in a way, to evoke a remembrance of things past.
In addition to documenting ShowWorlds October 1999 to June 2002 existence, December 16, 2000 also explores the idea of the millennium, Beall said, and is an archive of the millennium experience in Times Sq. Podiums from the theater and Christmas lights strewn in the lockers create an image of buildings and give the sculpture a skyscraper effect. Beall briefly displayed the sculpture at ShowWorld from December 16, 2000, until May 2001 and said the response was remarkable. People were fascinated with it and spent a lot of time looking at it and interacting with it, he said.
Clayton Patterson, an artist and documentarian who owns the Clayton Gallery and Outlaw Art Museum on 161 Essex St., calls Bealls project an inventive, creative idea to save the archives at a time when interest in archiving is low. Theres really no interest in archives in New York, so this stuff is constantly being swept under the rug, Patterson said. We allow making garbage out of the historic archives that are here its a very tragic trend.
Patterson has lived on the Lower East Side since 1979 and along with other local artists laments the recent closing of small theaters such as Bealls as gentrification transforms the neighborhood, and supports the preservation of the theaters memories. Aaron is one of the really important theater entrepreneurs, Patterson said. A lot of people had the opportunity to get involved in theater because of him. Hes culturally significant to the Lower East Side, a visionary and an independent. Bealls sculptural monuments and traveling show are yet another sign of his inventiveness, Patterson said.
Bealls second completed mandala, The Wreck of Todo Con Nada, gives a history of the theater group using video footage of shows the company produced, such as scenes from the groups Hamlet Festival and Faust Festival. Each festival included more than 30 different productions of its respective play. Other sculpture materials include coins, tiny cameras and monitors.
Eventually, Beall wants the different mandalas to communicate with each other so that through a special video network, a museum patron in New York could watch a museum guest in Asia explore the sculptures, and vice versa. This would create some sort of synergy and global interconnectivity, which was one of the great ideas during the millennium, Beall said. He also plans to put images of the sculptures on the Web.
During the Third Annual HOWL! Festival, tentatively scheduled for next summer from Aug. 21-28, 05, Beall hopes to display his sculptures at The Angel Orensanz Foundation on Norfolk St., a neo-gothic structure originally built as a synagogue in 1849. Aaron has been a huge part of the community, said Phil Hartman, HOWL!s executive director. Its a loss hes been displaced from the neighborhood and any way that HOWL! can help him we will.
Beall hopes that after HOWL! the mandalas will travel to museums such as MoMA and spaces in Stuttgart, Germany, Australia and Seoul, Korea. I see [the sculptures] as ambassadors for the whole New York artistic experience, as windows into what it means to be an artist in the global city, he said. Hopefully, theyll inspire people to consider the artistic life.