Risky Business – The Alexander Kasser Theater, 2004-2014 – by Jedediah Wheeler

At risk.

Risky business.

Risk taker.

Risk averse.

No risk programming, please.

Risk is a loaded word in our culture.

Why take a risk?

Is there a safe way to take a risk?

Let’s be safe, please.

Yet, risk does have its rewards.

Ten years ago, The Alexander Kasser Theater opened.  Quite a lot of risk has flowed under the bridge – even if it is a stage light bridge.

To fathom where we have arrived today, we should consider where we were in 2004.  The Alexander Kasser Theater was nearing completion. An opening date had been set for October 7th.  In July of 2004, there was no Office of Arts & Cultural Programming. No Peak Performances. And no staff. Not even any office space to manage the opening of a new theater, let alone the proposed debut season!

Today, the Kasser is a celebrated addition to the cultural life of the Montclair State University campus as well as the region, with recognizable impact throughout the country and the world. The National Endowment for the Arts and the New Jersey Arts Council have offered major public commendations to MSU for its innovative programming.  Two major foundations have underwritten the Kasser’s breakout programs that support both the creation of new work and the education of MSU students.

What are the basic ingredients for an innovative presenting program?

Possibility.  Opportunity.  Permission.

Its hallmarks were apparent from the first season. Mikhail Baryshnikov “acted” in a theater work, not a dance work. Vim Vandekeybus showed how film could enhance dance as an active element of the performance, as his dancers magically jumped in and out of a cinematic swimming pool.  Robert Lepage reimagined The Beggars Opera and in doing so drew criticism for his politically incorrect ideas.  And a completely new production of Harry Partch’s Oedipus — a brilliantly-conceived work that had not been seen in decades — was built, rehearsed and performed.

The program did not merely inch into gear. It roared like a dragster at a speedway!

The performance work offered at the Kasser is designed to set a very high bar. Hence the name of the series: Peak Performances.  Arts & Cultural Programming is a research unit empowered to encourage discovery.  From day one, the hardest task was to encourage a doubting audience to put aside its cultural assumptions and experience something new, with open eyes and ears.

The artists of our day suffer enormously because new work is often assumed to be inscrutable. No one wants to say, “I do not understand.”  But shouldn’t questions dominate at an institution of higher education?

Each person who enters the Kasser for a Peak show has the capacity to experience the work being presented.  Culturally, however, we seek answers which filter the experience. Our culture teaches that to enjoy a performance, one must “get it.” If one does not get it, then there is something wrong —  with that person! Self-conscious doubt closes the door of opportunity!

New is a complex word, considering it has only three letters.

New suit.

New smartphone.

New car.

New toothpaste.

How about a new dance? Or new music?  Or new theater?  Nope. Much rather have that old dance. The one everyone knows about.  Or that play Arthur Miller wrote a long time ago. About a salesman.  “If you want to sell a gizmo, slap the word new on it,” Willy might say!  If you want to empty a theater, call the work “new.”

Experimental or avant-garde performance work has had a rocky history in the Garden State. MSU changed that. The agenda unleashed at MSU was unprecedented — a huge risk.  But how does culture move forward if not by challenging conventional wisdom? The seminal artists of our time who will remain benchmarks of our cultural heritage did not take audience surveys before making a performance. Not Merce Cunningham. Not Martha Graham. Not John Adams. Not John Cage or Robert Rauschenberg.

To compound the complicated issue of local cultural relevance, the program at the Kasser needed to settle into the national presenting arena and underscore MSU as a leading arts institution unlike any other.  Major universities such as Dartmouth, University of Michigan, and UCLA have enviable presenting programs.  But few, if any, make performance work from scratch.

The rollout of our current celebration of works “Made in the Kasser” actually started that first season with Harry Partch’s Oedipus.  In our second season, we invited Bill T. Jones to make a new work here. At varied intervals that totaled six weeks, Jones created Blind Date.  The magic of the Kasser began to reveal itself.  The potent relationship of audiences to stage and that stage’s luxurious production possibilities ignited a fierce energy that continues to this day.

In other instances we produced and presented works such as David Lang’s luminous chamber opera, The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, David Gordon’s magical romp Shlemiel the First by Robert Brustein, based upon a story by I. B. Singer.  More recently, ACP/Peak produced what is now considered a masterwork: Dog Days by David T. Little and Royce Vavrek, directed by Robert Woodruff. And Robert Wilson’s Zinnias: The Life of Clementine Hunter for the Kasser, was that great artist’s first work made in America in 20 years.

Many professionals made works with MSU students onstage at the Kasser. Michael Osuilleabhain and Page Allen’s choral work, Madison’s Descent, was designed by Michael Curry and staged by David Bolger. Works by Meredith Monk, Robert Whitman, Doug Elkins, and Douglas Dunn followed suit.

What is the perfect ecosystem for new ideas to flourish? A risk-embracing place, one that supports a performing arts presenting program specializing in the new.  An institution of higher education with an investment in marquee ideas.

Montclair State University is that place!

Jedediah Wheeler, Executive Director, Arts & Cultural Programming




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