Mount Tremper Arts (MTA) has announced a shift from its usual seven-week summer festival of weekly performances and artist residencies to an almost year-round schedule of monthly events and month-long residencies. The new format will allow for intensive collaboration with New York City performance spaces and a more consistent relationship with the upstate community, said the organization’s executive director, Matthew Pokoik.
Programming is proceeding under the name Watershed Laboratory as MTA explores “what it means to be located in the Catskills, the influence of the land and the locale on the artists who work with us,” said Pokoik. “The watershed is a complex ecosystem and interchange between two places.” Water from the Catskills proceeds downstate to become drinking water for New York City residents, who then come upstate to refresh themselves in nature and support the local economy. Performance art follows a similar cycle through MTA.
While Catskills residents sometime chafe under the restrictions imposed by the city to protect its drinking water, the same regulations help preserve the natural beauty that attracts visitors and brings income to the community, observed Pokoik. Artists are among the city dwellers drawn to the serenity of the mountains, a key element of facilitating the creative process during an MTA residency. “We’re the headwaters,” said Pokoik. “Like the waters of the Ashokan Reservoir, the performances created here will travel down to the city and hopefully on to international venues,” as many past projects have done after incubation at MTA.
And the place is critical to the incubation process, freeing the artists from the distractions of daily life in the city. “Cell phones don’t work here,” observed Pokoik. “Artists get a 24/7 group focus, making dinner together, living together.” At MTA, they work in an almost monastic setting, up on a plateau above the Old Plank Road that connects Phoenicia with Mount Tremper, furnishing a sublime view of the Mount Pleasant ridge. Artists stay in a big white farmhouse that, according to Pokoik’s research, may have belonged to a farm devoted to raising horses and mules for local bluestone quarries of the 1800s. Now a vast vegetable garden supplies fresh food for the visiting artists. The studio next to the farmhouse was designed with the simplicity of the Shakers in mind, patterned after early American barns and churches, with their values that Pokoik calls “deeply hopeful.” Under the rafters and peaked ceiling, the sprung floor offers a blank canvas for performers to move and experiment in the space that will be used for a public presentation at the end of their residency. After the show, performers and audience can sit around a bonfire beside the garden to chat.
“The experience strengthens the sense of community among the artists,” said Pokoik. “And despite the romantic idea of the lone artist genius, innovation happens in tightly knit communities.”
MTA offers opportunities that are not easy for avant-garde performance artists to come by. A typical performance project can cost $60,000 to mount, without the potential profit that a visual artist might anticipate from the sale of a painting. Ticket sales recoup only five to ten percent of the cost of developing a show. “We do our best to find as much money as possible for a production,” said Pokoik. Now nearing its tenth anniversary, MTA has built up funding streams through grants from such entities as New York Foundation for the Arts and New York State Council on the Arts; private donations; and rental of the grounds for weddings. In October, they plan to launch their second Kickstarter campaign.
Each month-long residency is organized in partnership with a New York City theater, pooling resources to identify promising artists, leverage financial support, and provide marketing exposure. The first artists to arrive for the Watershed Lab will be the duo DarkMatter, who use poetry, comedy, fashion, and storytelling to describe navigating the world as young trans South Asians. Their work is devoted to “delivering stinging critiques of the personal and political while also imagining new ways of being and resisting together,” says the MTA website. In Manhattan, DarkMatter have performed in festivals at the Public Theater and Lincoln Center, among other venues. Their residency is co-sponsored by Abrons Arts Center at the Henry Street Settlement, and their MTA production is scheduled for Saturday, July 16.
The August 13 performance will feature the Obie award-winning innovative theater group 600 Highwaymen, in partnership with the Public Theater. Their work, The Fever, investigates the very processes of decision-making, negotiating relationship, and telling stories about those events.
One of the challenges in sponsoring this kind of work is that avant-garde theater is not the most popular or accessible art form in the modern world — but Pokoik feels its innovations are vital to our culture. “Joseph Campbell said mythology is the foundation of a healthy society,” he mused. “In the contemporary world, artists create that foundation. They become part of the American mythos and how we view the world.” With the pace of change ever accelerating, the insights generated by cutting-edge art can help us recover when those changes knock us off-balance again and again.
Although MTA has become more established and stable, Pokoik is confident the organization’s devotion to radical, ground-breaking work will persist. He also expects the year-round performance schedule will establish a firmer relationship with the local community. He remarked, “We’re not going to disappear for ten months of the year any more.”
For more information on Mount Tremper Arts, see https://mounttremperarts.org. The first summer performance, #ItGetsBitter by DarkMatter, will be held on Saturday, July 16, at 8 p.m., preceded by a 7 p.m. Art-B-Q. Tickets are $20. MTA is located at 647 South Plank Road, Mount Tremper.