I’m sitting on the floor of the Lambs Club with two wonderful part time interns, leaning on a pool table that looks like it hasn’t been used in 50 years. Paintings of early 20th century thespians and nude women hang on the walls. This opulent room is my temporary office, and I can’t resist a quick mental ramble through prior office spaces I’ve found myself in over the years. From the corner of my city-subsidized living room in brand new Battery Park City, to an OTB joint in a 12 car garage on Greenwich Street, to the corporate order of Michael Graves’ designed Disney campus and now…on the floor in midtown, back in New York after 10 years on the West Coast to relaunch En Garde Arts.
It all began in 1985 with TERMINAL BAR, staged by Michael Engler in a derelict site on Crosby and Spring Streets. These were the days when you needed a tetanus shot and an asthma inhaler to go south of Houston. TERMINAL BAR launched of En Garde Arts and the kids from Yale Drama School managed to attract every significant press person in the city…until…we postponed because we weren’t ready. And then…when it was time to get them to come back, no critics answered our calls. Oh my God, I thought, “we blew it!” Despite repeated entreaties to my press agent, there was nothing to be done. Until there was. I wrote an impassioned letter about what I hoped to achieve with En Garde Arts, found Mel Gussow’s address in the phone book, marched over to his apartment, snuck in the front door and pushed my letter underneath it. Later that day my press agent called me in complete shock that Mel called and said he was coming. Indeed, he gave the show a great review. From then on, you could count on Mel to get his shoes dirty, following En Garde to the farthest reaches of the city.
One of my favorite preoccupations was driving around in my beat up old car, imaging the theatrical transformation of sites across the city. Mac Wellman joined me in these intrepid wanderings, and dreamed up BAD PENNY for the Bow Bridge in Central Park, and CROWBAR for the first legitimate performance in 60 years at Times Square’s Victory Theatre. “All theatres are haunted,” sang the 20-strong chorus as they danced through the aisles and balconies of this majestic theatre, serenading the audience watching from the stage.
Reza Abdoh’s AIDS-era crie de coeur FATHER WAS A PECULIAR MAN paraded audiences paraded through 16 different locations around the Meatpacking District with a 120 foot table stretching down Little West 12th Street, framed by huge chandeliers swinging between the buildings. And Jackie O. riding around in a Cadillac convertible. And a lynching from the Highline before it was called the Highline. And sex in a meat-locker. As the Jessie Helms vs Robert Mapplethorpe controversy imperiled our funding. I started En Garde Arts because I’m attracted to work that embraces the constant unfolding drama that exists in the streets and neighborhoods of New York City. I want to collaborate with artists who ground their work in the landscape but extend their imaginations to the sky, like Tina Landau who swore that the twisted metal pier that jutted out over the Hudson looked just like the house of Atreus. Made sense to me. Every night Jefferson Mays (who played Orestes) climbed to the top of this pier and thank God he never fell in the river. I remember one night when it poured in the middle of a performance and I was exchanging tickets for other nights and like a worried older brother Todd Haines whispered to me, “I could never do what you do.”
Of course he’s got a point. Convincing the fire, and police and buildings departments and community boards that the work was important and no one would die was a formidable task. Sometimes it all seemed impossible. But when an artist conveys an epic idea, the only thing to do is to make it happen. Perhaps the most epic of all was Chuck Mee’s Another Person is a Foreign Country. Anne Bogart directed a blind choir with seeing eye dogs and a group of emotionally disturbed rock musicians, and a man and woman, both 3’ tall, all staged against the Gothic, empty Towers Nursing Home. The play was a celebration of difference, played like a beautiful human symphony under a blanket of stars. The evening ended with a stunning waterfall cascading down the building’s facade. Kype Chepulis’ ingenious stagecraft, which cost us only $80, was a pipe with holes punched in it on the roof connected to a fire hose that we attached to a nearby fire hydrant turned on at exactly the right time. And the music played. The Towers is now a high priced condo, naturally.
I was lucky enough to work with Jonathan Larson before he died on his musical JP Morgan Saves The Nation at the intersection of Wall and Broad Streets. The security division of the Stock Exchange would only give us permission to close the street if we promised to set everything up and break it down every day. So each evening we wheeled 200 seats into place and set up lights and sound and then took it all down after the show. I remember Jonathan wondering what it would be like to “hit the big time of Broadway” as he handed me cassettes of his unknown musical Rent which was about to begin rehearsals at New York Theatre Workshop. He was a waiter at the time.
The last En Garde show was Secret History of the Lower East Side on the rooftop of a school building. It was poorly reviewed, which always hurts, and as I was wheeling my year-old twins across the rooftop just before we opened, looking for an umbrella to cover their heads, I was exhausted. I was witnessing profound change happening in New York City, and the derelict sites I usually fell in love with were in short supply. It felt like there were increasingly few locations where it was possible to create work. The wise Mac Wellman said to me “why is it that theatre companies have to last forever? Perhaps they have a life cycle. They have their time.” I felt like I was ready to move on.
I folded En Garde and left New York for the La Jolla Playhouse where I had probably the shortest run as Artistic Director in the history of the American Theatre. For soon, a call came from a search firm who told me they were looking for someone to create a global division for Disney. Disney. I’ll never forget the first time I pulled my car “backstage” and saw Donald Duck walking with his head off toward the changing rooms. I very nearly shifted into reverse and gunned it away. But the challenge before me was thrilling: elevate to the highest possible level the artistic quality of Disney’s live performance outlets around the world. I began with only a secretary in a dilapidated warehouse across the street from “Imagineering” and was told to “go figure it out.” I didn’t know what else to do so I ran the division like a theatre. I wrote up my mission and vision statement and flew around the world sharing with people my dreams for how we could bring terrific theatrical minds into the theme park world to create Broadway-caliber theatre, parades and fireworks shows. I hired free-lance writers, directors and composers for the first time in the history of the parks and Disney said I invented the “consultancy model.”
The first show was Aladdin at Disney’s California Adventure, a 2,000-seat proscenium theatre. We broke all the rules, doing things Disney had never been done before. We took the rubber head off the Genie, put an actor on stage with prosthetics to sing live, dance and act. No recorded music. We cast the show exclusively with all people of color. As director Francesca Zambello said “It’s Agrabah! Let it be authentic.” We cast a quadriplegic woman with the voice of an angel in our chorus with the unintended consequence that she became a beacon to the disabled people who came to the parks. Aladdin has been running since 2002 and continues to be popular to this day.
I brought in Bobby and Kristen Anderson Lopez for Finding Nemo the Musical, a wonderful show we produced for the Animal Kingdom in Florida. John Caraffa was the choreographer and when the first audience of 1,700 plowed into the theatre with strollers and diaper bags and whooped and hollered, he turned to me and said, “Now I know why you do this.” Bobby and Kristen met John Lasseter through their time working on our show. Fast-forward, and they are lifting statuettes at the Academy Awards for their work on Frozen. Diane Paulus, who worked in my office as a student, did a wonderful cruise ship show for Disney that we also mounted in Hong Kong. I adored my team, traveled all over the world, and I’m proud of the inventive work we did in this most conventional of corporations. Although it may sound ungrateful to admit, after 8 years, I was bored. I had pushed the envelope as far as Disney would let me. It was time to come back to New York City.
Coming home thrust me into the most significant transition of my creative life. I went from a team of 30 to working alone, from having $3 ½ million for a cruise ship show to wondering where I was going to get $10,000 for a commission. I was suddenly in the world of having to acquire rights again. I wanted to create forward thinking, innovative, boundary defying work from the ground up in the commercial theatre. I spent some time cultivating projects and ideas and threw myself into the process, but soon realized that these projects couldn’t be launched fully formed. They needed time to grow, and they should have been developed in the not-for-profit theatre first.
All the while, a steady stream of people asked if I was going to launch En Garde Arts again, which surprised me on many levels. First, in LA no one knew about En Garde Arts. I was known for my work at Disney. It never occurred to me that En Garde would be missed. New York had changed vastly. “Immersive” had become the new buzzword. Many foundations I’d had relationships with in the past have turned away from supporting theatre and those that haven’t are looking to continue supporting organizations where they have existing relationships. I struggled to work out a correct business model for what I wanted to do now and find my way to where I belonged, hoping to avoid pain and suffering but alas, and as always, that goes with the process. Which brings us to the present. I realized the work I really wanted to produce has to be cultivated in the non-profit world, and decided to launch En Garde Arts again. I needed to make a home for developing work that was relevant, meaningful and boundary pushing, not for its own sake, but because theatre that embraces its environment, its surroundings and the communities it inhabits, is what’s most interesting to me.
I reapplied for En Garde’s 501c3, and convinced producer Portia Kamons – the one sitting on the floor of my apartment stuffing envelopes back in the day – to come work with me again. She steered me to Ed Bilous’ launch event at Julliard’s new Center for Innovation in the Arts – a fateful night, because what I saw has become one of the great passions of my life. It’s called BASETRACK. Ed had seen an exhibition by a group of photojournalists embedded in a Marine Unit in Afghanistan. Their photographs and videos were taken with iPhones, and the images were unforgettable. Out of frustration that traditional news outlets wouldn’t publish their work, they created a website to make it freely available. This became a lifeline for families of Marines hungry for news, eager to connect with other families with shared concerns about their deployed sons and daughters. The site, BASETRACK, tallied over 5 million hits, and is a fascinating, truly democratic record of the war in Afghanistan. With this material, Ed created a dynamic visual stage environment that a DJ/VJ manipulates using triggers built into a beautiful electro-acoustic score by Michelle DiBucci. Interwoven with this, two actors perform verbatim text from interviews that chart the journey of these young Marines, and the vigilant concern of their families. I was blown away by this work, and felt I’d learned something unexpected about what these men and women go through, individually and collectively. The challenge would be to bring together audiences from opposite sides of the subject matter, start a conversation and make an impact. Not site-specific; this time, subject-specific.
Joe Melillo at BAM understood BASETRACK’s promise and scope immediately, and gave us a week in the 2014 Next Wave Festival. I engaged Tommy Kriegsman of ArKtype to book BASETRACK across the country. Our remarkable creative team now includes playwright Jason Grote, who is adapting the interview texts, and director Seth Bockley. William Fastenow, a colleague of Ed’s at Juilliard is leading the new technology design.
We started a Facebook page of our own to find the dozens of people in the photographs we’d be incorporating in the staged work. One by one we connected with these Marines, and began building a most unlikely community. Three dozen people agreed to be interviewed; this collection is a heart-rending artifact of its own. One young vet told me that he longed to be back in Afghanistan because “life was simpler there.” These stories made me understand the divide between those who understand the harsh issues post 9/11 veterans and their families are facing, and those with no practical knowledge of the human cost of these wars. (I say this without judgment; most artists working on this project started in the latter group.)
BASETRACK has developed into an opportunity for people from the opposite sides of the military/civilian divide to come together for a difficult but meaningful dialogue about the legacy of these recent wars, and militarism in general, without Hollywood heroics or pious banalities. Impossible? Not at all. There’s a hunger for it. Ed and I were warmly welcomed to the Pentagon where, to our great surprise, we found a helpful Lt. Colonel who agrees that the arts can help us come to terms with the complex issues around reintegration. We’ve helped presenting organizations in 20 cities identify expert partners to work with our community engagement program. We’re working to find the funding to conduct more interviews with repatriated vets and hope to launch a Wikipedia style web page so more vets can tell their own, unvarnished stories. For these stories to reach the widest possible audience after BAM, I dream of installing a military style tent near the Intrepid Museum to give BASETRACK a long and meaningful life.
It’s no longer me, just one, working alone with an intern on the floor of my temporary office at the Lambs Club. I now have a small staff of amazing women. A group of committed individuals have banded together to form an Advisory Committee, and they’ve been instrumental in our re-launch. Individually, they are lovely, fun, wonderful people who are helping to make all of this happen. Collectively, I’m convinced they know everything and can do anything. Including finding us donated office space while we get this puppy off the ground.
En Garde Arts is back. Connect with us on Facebook or through our website. We have some ferocious new work to share with you over the coming years.
Called an “innovative urban presence” by The New York Times, Anne Hamburger has a twenty-five year producing history. Besides her storied site-specific work, she was the Artistic Director of La Jolla Playhouse, launching the Tony Award-winning Broadway hits SPRING AWAKENING and THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE. She served as Executive Vice President for Disney Creative Entertainment, and brought nationally renowned theatre artists into the parks for the first time. En Garde has commissioned some of the theatre’s most visionary artists to create large-scale theatrical spectacles earning six Obies, an Outer Critics Circle Award and two Drama Desk Awards. Anne is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama and the mother of twins. Anne spearheads creative development of both for-profit and not-for-profit productions.