Volume 17 • Issue 16 | SEPTEMBER 10 - 16, 2004



East Side producer looks to archive work

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg

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.
Years ago, Lower East Side artist Aaron Beall helped rescue a homeless 40-year-old archive of New York’s Yiddish radio and theater from a near trash dumpster death, and found them a home in the Yiddish Archives at Harvard University.

Now Beall, founder of the former ShowWorld Theater in Times Sq. and a co-founder of New York City’s 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.

Beall’s 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 year’s 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. They’re very Dr. Seussian,” Beall said. “They’re meant to charm and seduce in a way, to evoke a remembrance of things past.”

In addition to documenting ShowWorld’s 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 Beall’s project an inventive, creative idea to save the archives at a time when interest in archiving is low. “There’s 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 — it’s 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. He’s culturally significant to the Lower East Side, a visionary and an independent.” Beall’s sculptural monuments and traveling show are yet another sign of his inventiveness, Patterson said.

Beall’s 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 group’s 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. “It’s a loss he’s 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, they’ll inspire people to consider the artistic life.”



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