The muggy summer heat is gone and the crisp, early fall air is just begging for weekends spent exploring the parks of New York City. But what about the gardens? Directors Salon Alum Lillian Meredith is bringing original work to the city’s community gardens and using spaces all over Harlem and the Lower East Side to stage short plays inspired by the gardens themselves. Not only can you spend a day garden-hopping, but Communal Spaces: A Garden Play Festival will provide you with a map of the neighborhood to let you know where you can get that mug of hot cider on your way from play to play. Check out a Q&A with Lillian (who co-curated Communal Spaces and is also directing and acting in the festival) and find out more about Communal Spaces, her experience as a directing intern at Actors Theatre of Louisville, and what’s next for her.
Dina: What inspired you to create Communal Spaces: A Garden Play Festival? How does the festival work and what should an audience member expect from a day of garden-hopping?
Lillian: Communal Spaces began as an experiment in theater as public art, theater that you don’t “go to” but rather just happens. I have, for a long time, wanted to make theater that is less rarified, that isn’t locked away in a dark room but is, instead, in municipal arenas, venues that don’t belong to the artists, but to the audience.
I chose community gardens for a variety of reasons. First of all, they’re beautiful. They are also frequently hidden or unnoticed, except by the members and immediate neighborhood. They are places where people gather to work and to contemplate. They are labors of intense love and passion, and many were started during a time when the city desperately needed safe, open places for communities to congregate. I grew up in New York during that time, and my own local community garden served as that kind of haven. The gardens hold not only their own history, but the history of the neighborhood, and therefore of the city. These are powerful spaces. And they’re fun to be in.
This is the second year of Communal Spaces. The basic premise is still the same: we assigned ten playwrights to ten different community gardens, and each playwright used their garden as inspiration for a short play. Each of these plays will then be presented over the course of a weekend in the garden of their origin.
The difference this year is that, instead of going to see a play in a garden and then going home, an audience member will have the opportunity to take the whole day (or part of the day) and travel from garden play to garden play. We’ve designated one weekend for the six gardens in the northern part of Manhattan (ranging from West 149th and Broadway to East 110th and 3rdAvenue), and the second weekend for the four gardens in the south (all on the Lower East Side). We’ll hand out maps with walking and transit directions, as well as recommendations on places to eat, and the audiences can see as many plays as they like, while also seeing new parts of the city.
DV: How did you first become interested in directing site-specific work? What do you find most rewarding about it?
LM: I love original, site-specific work because it forces both the playwright and the director to treat the spaces as another character in the story. The architecture and the ambiance serve as inspiration rather than as hindrance. Moreover, site-specific theater is accessible to a wider range of people – we are no longer asking audiences to come to us, but instead making the effort to go to them. There’s a lot of hidden potential in untouched space, and I like that as a director.
DV: This is the second annual Communal Spaces – what did you learn the first time around and how will this year’s festival be different?
LM: Last year was a lot of fun, but the main thing I learned is that I can’t do this alone. Last year, I directed all the plays (there were only four), and produced, curated, and marketed without any assistance. This year, my friend Lisa Dring is my co-producer, co-curator, and has helped to develop this event into a cohesive whole. Her friend Caitlin Craggs has designed all the posters and postcards (which is far better than what I was able to do last year), and Lisa added her favorite collaborators to the mix, so there are far more perspectives and ideas floating around this year. I’m only directing two plays this year (and am in a third), so it’s far more manageable, and also I get to see what other directors do with these gardens. It’s a much more collaborative endeavor, which is incredible. It’s this thing that I built last year, and now it feels like it has a life of it’s own, which is incredibly fulfilling.
Each of the plays is very specific to its garden (which is the point). Some of the gardens are more haphazard, less manicured, and the stories and events mimic that feeling. There are others that have been practically landscaped, and their plays reflect that as well. Some feel like jungles, some feel like magical hidden places, some feel like hang-out barbeque spots. All the plays reflect the identity of their specific garden in very different ways, and each playwright brought their own unique perspective to their narratives.
DV: You spent this past year as a directing intern at the Actors Theater of Louisville. For many emerging directors, the thought of leaving New York is terrifying – how did you decide to take this step? Did you return to New York with a different mindset?
LM: I love leaving New York. I keep leaving all the time. I grew up here, so I guess I always feel tied to the city, and I don’t worry about not being able to come back. It’s my home. And just like most people, as an adult I’ve needed to get as far away from home at possible at times. After college, I lived in San Francisco for seven months and worked for a theater company out there, and I’ve also lived in LA, and then in a truck for four months driving around the country and writing. Actors Theatre of Louisville was another chance to get away and learn more about myself as an artist and as a person, things that can be hard to do when you’re at home among people who already know and love you. And the program there is just wonderful, particularly for directors I think – it’s almost like an intensive year of graduate school. I got to work with all these great regional directors, and then in the Humana Festival, with New York directors I’d always admired but never had the in to work with. I actually feel like I came back to New York better off than I would have been if I’d just stayed. And, you know, Humana is a blast.
DV: Tell us about the last production you saw that really inspired you.
LM: I don’t know if it was the last production I saw, but I’m totally obsessed with the TEAM. I’ve only seen their show Architecting, and that was a few years ago, but I’m still thinking about it. I’ve never seen a show that was so all over the map and yet so cohesive, and that used the space so beautifully. It was a narrative and it was an event. I loved it.
DV: Do you have any “dream projects?”
LM: The dream project I always bring up is this thing I’ve been into for awhile: I want to do The Bacchae in a field, and surround the audience with the crazed women, so that they feel besieged. I don’t know if I really want to do it, or if it’s just this fantasy I have that I like to bring out and ponder.
DV: What’s next for you?
LM: Related to the question above, however, I actually am really excited because I have a bunch of shows coming up that are all dream projects, and all collaborations. I’m working with my friend Dominic Finocchiaro on a piece about internet pornography that we started at ATL. I’m working with my friend Anton Handel on a play/event to be done on the subway. Lisa and I have a bunch of things we’re thinking about. And my friend Emily Peters just pitched me an idea that I’m pretty psyched about as well. After the craziness of producing the garden plays, I’m really glad that I get to spend some time working on projects over a long period of time, and really taking the time and space to develop them properly. I can’t wait.
communal spaces: a garden play festival
ten original short works inspired by and set in community gardens in New York City.
West 142nd St btw Hamilton and Amsterdam
by Alexandra Bassett, directed by Lillian Meredith1:30pm Carver Community Garden
East 124th St btw 2nd and 3rd Ave
by Alexis Roblan, directed by Michael Padden
2:30pm Clayton Williams
Fredrick Douglas Bl and 126th St
written and directed by Sarah Grodsky
3:45pm Herb Garden
East 111th St. btw Lexington and 3rd Ave
written, directed and performed by LuLu LoLo
4:30pm El Catano
East 110th St. btw Lexington and 3rd Ave
written by Sam Kahler
6:30pm Maggie’s Garden
West 149th St btw Broadway and Amsterdam
by Normandy Sherwood, directed by Eryk Aughenbaugh
East 6th St btw Avenues B and C
by Patrick Shaw, directed by Lillian Meredith
1:30pm Albert’s Garden
East 2nd St btw Bowery and 2nd Ave
by Tommy Smith, directed by Paul Markert
2:30pm 11th Street Community Garden
East 11th St btw 1st and Ave A
by Dominic Finocchiaro, directed by Brian Hashimoto
3:30pm La Plaza Cultural
East 9th St and Ave C
by Angela Santillo, directed by Lisa Dring