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O joy!

19 Jan

One of the most interesting and original painters I’ve seen in New York recently, is the French-born, NYC-based Sydney Albertini. I discovered her accidentally, as I was walking up the Bowery one afternoon, her works exhibited on the walls of an empty loft facing the street. From what she told me, she discovered that space randomly, saw it empty, called the owner and rent it to exhibit her works there. Her paintings are a combination of drawings and colour, and the collection O Joy! that I had the chance to see consisted of self-portraits, female dancing figures or more abstract designs, drawn on brown paper simply pinned on the walls. Next Albertini will be showing her work at FIAF. The Institute is hosting her collection ephemere from February 10th to March 12th 2011.


Manhattan Vibes

17 Nov

An interview with jazz vibraphonist Christos Rafalides. By Aktina.

It is early June. Leisurely enjoying the sun in my back yard in Monemvasia, in Southern Greece, I skim through Athens Voice– one of the Greek free-press equivalents to [as the name suggests] Village Voice. I read somewhat indifferently, until I run into a one-page profile of Christos Rafalides- the Greek vibraphonist from the Northern city of Kozani, who has established himself in the highly demanding NYC jazz scene, individually and with his group Manhattan Vibes. I instantly think that I should contact him- the idea of a Mediterranean festival had already started taking shape in my head and he seemed to embody the type of artist I was looking for: a young diasporic artist, with a world sensibility, rooted equally in his home and and the NYC cultures. I decide to send him an email as soon as I return to NYC and I am thrilled when he responds right away. Several weeks later, in late September, we meet in mid-town Manhattan and engage in a lively, fun discussion-conducted in English, with few words and exclamations in Greek here and there.

Tell me a bit about your background and how your journey with music started.

I started as a kid, we had musicians in the family. My brother is a musician and my father used to sing in the church. So music was always very welcome in my house. What happened is as soon as I showed some interest in music my parents supported me so from then on I’ve been studying all my life- up to a certain point. I was born in Kozani, then I went to Thessaloniki to study classical percussion and classical harmony. I finished my classical studies and then I got a scholarship to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston. It was in Berklee that I started jazz, I started from scratch, I was new to it. I used to play classical music and I got all the discipline that a classical musician needs. I had really loved the spirit of freedom and improvisation that I was getting from jazz but I couldn’t translate it to my music, to my instrument, as a classical musician, I needed the knowledge. So I go to Berklee, my major is ‘jazz vibraphone performance’, an instrument that belongs to the classical percussion family. As a kid I used to play drums and piano so the vibraphone was a perfect combination of both those instruments and when I discovered it I thought “man, that’s it, I just found my voice, I found my instrument!”. At Berklee I did my Bachelor’s in jazz vibraphone performance and then I came to Manhattan School of Music in NYC. That’s where I met my mentor, one of the greatest jazz musicians, Mr. Joe Locke. I did my Master’s with him and after I graduated I started working professionally in NYC. That was 11 years ago…Time flies!

How hard was it to break into the NYC jazz scene?

It’s not an easy path. But it’s a path that’s worth taking a ride. You meet a lot of interesting people, a lot of soulful people, a lot of intellect. In the music industry, I met some really interesting human beings from completely different cultures than mine.
And what makes it really interesting is always when you see the soul and the tradition of this music getting mixed with the intellect of today. And that’s in every art form, that’s what you’re looking for-a combination of the intellect and the soul so that you don’t go only for the ears, you go for the heart.

Where there moments when you doubted yourself, you wondered, what am I doing here?

Oh of course, that happens all the time! I still do it, and now it’s even worse because you’ve now spent half of your life doing this and then you wonder, “hmm am I doing the right thing?” But this comes with creativity, you can’t separate it from creativity. There’s hopefully a healthy ego somewhere that helps you maintain yourself in that field of creation. But insecurity is what makes it so beautiful. Because if you were so secure about your work what would be the point doing it? You always need somebody’s feedback. And that’s the beauty of it. But yeah, I am always doubting myself. All the time. I mean people would come to me after a concert and say oh you sounded great, and I’ll be “yeah right, whatever…” [laughs]. That happens to every performing arts field.

How has your cultural background, your classical training and your musical influences having grown up in Greece influenced your music?

My family comes from Asia Minor so I grew up with that Middle Eastern kind of sound in the house. So when I heard western music and western harmony coming from jazz in particular I thought that this was the most interesting thing. I think that if it was the other way around, if I had grown up with western music and suddenly came across Middle Eastern sounds I’d be like, man what is this, who came up with this! So I think what made me follow that path was that in my house it was completely new. Imagine, I was growing up in the eighties and at that time when I was growing up and was getting all the information and finding out what’s going on, there wasn’t any jazz in Greece, there was nothing like that. But the Middle Eastern influence of course was there because of the proximity. So it was such a discovery. I remember the first cord I played, my brother showed me a C7 cord on the piano and it freaked me out! You know these moments- I remember the first time I saw a vibraphone in front of me and I remember thinking that it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life…Everyone has these moments you know….

So does all this affect how you make your own music, how you play it, how you hear it?

It’s jazz, the beauty with it is that you can apply your cultural background to it and still you cant hurt it, you just create something new. That’s why they say that classical music and jazz music are the two kinds that do not have a passport cause everybody wants to play them all over the world. Everything else is local and ethnic for example, rembetika- nobody wants to do it only Greeks, or flamenco in Spain. But jazz and classical are the two kinds that everyone wants to play. [here I can’t help but compare with Greg Squared’s interview and his perspective on the topic].

You have collaborated with many musicians, for instance, Jovanotti, Plessas, the Manhattan Vibes musicians, and of course your mentor, Joe Locke. Is there a conscious attempt in these collaborations to fuse different musical styles?

It is not conscious. Unless it is a specific project. For instance we have Jazz Mediterraneo and the concept is based on taking tunes from the Mediterranean and arrange them a bit different using elements of jazz. We did some Greek tunes, tunes by Hatzidakis, Theodorakis, Lucio Dalla. It is something we’re still working on, it will come out one day. But with Manhattan Vibes the concept is creating a style of music that is very contemporary with influences from all over the world blended together while never loosing the element of dance and groove. We have a record coming up, it is called Blue November.

Can you tell me a bit more on how Jazz Mediterraneo started and the work you do?

It started with Petros Klambanis on bass, Fabio Monrgera on trumpet, Benny Koonyevsky on drums and myself on vibes. I took some Greek classic songs and I arranged them, then Fabio brought a couple of Italian songs, then we did a couple of Jewish songs…But the project is still evolving. We’ve performed twice at Kellari Parea at the Cava Room downstairs, it was fun! We have material for a concert. But it takes more than the musicians playing the music right, you know. You need a venue to present it and an audience to listen and based on their feedback you develop the band’s concept.

You often go back to Greece for work and you have collaborated with many jazz musicians in Greece. What’s your perspective on the status of jazz music in Greece?

There is definitely talented musicians in Greece who try to play jazz and creative music in general. They got the Mediterranean temperament, tones of history, intellect and they are right in the middle of east and west. What makes it hard for them is the environment that doesn’t help jazz to flourish. The commercial music most of the times is terrible and it’s everywhere, from radios to television and it doesn’t leave any space for anything else to evolve. But I admire their effort to maintain a scene that produces some world class musicians.

How much exposure do you think Greek music has to the international scene?

Very little. It is only a handful of jazz guys that go abroad and perform. On the International classical music scene we contribute a lot more and we’ve been contributing for years. In jazz it’s only recent that a couple of musicians started making it outside the country. I’m really optimistic though because in our days everybody is taking advantage of technology which allows you to have access to the international arts scene. People can see and hear who was playing at the ‘Village Vanguard’ last night, you know, and that helps tremendously.

You are planning to organize a jazz festival in your native Kozani. Tell me a bit more about this.

Yes, we’re trying to bring NYC-based jazz musicians to play in a four day festival in Kozani. I have a really good feeling about it. There is a whole team of people in Athens and Kozani working on it. I figured that since all these amazing musicians here in NY are part of my musical family, I’m gonna try to initiate a Jazz Festival in my home town where these artists can go and perform once a year.
We’d like to do it in May of 2011. The vision for it is to become like one of these festivals that always happen outside of big cities, in villages. There’s nothing similar happening in the area [Kozani is in Northern Greece] and people there are hungry for culture so I am sure it will attract a big audience.

And besides the festival, what are your other plans for the future?

Jazz Mediterraneo is one….I am also writing music for a series on PBS called Cooking Odyssey and it’s about the Greek cuisine, they show how to cook Greek recipes. I am looking forward to see how that will evolve. I’ve been also playing with Jovanotti, he’s based in Italy but we plan to play again when he comes back. The main thing that occupies my time as we speak is the new Manhattan Vibes album, Blue November. It’s a lot of work. I think it will come out by the end of December and we have to start promoting it.

So New York is your home?

Yes! I’ve been here for 16 years now… I could live somewhere else- I love San Fransisco, San Diego… I don’t really care. But… it’s New York, you know… You have access to everything- either you go out with friends to hear a good orchestra or a jazz band [he tells me that one of his favourite hangs is at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola]. Going out in NYC can become an art …. especially if you are financially independent. But while at home I like to practice my vibes and write music. I love spending time with quality people with humor. Love good food and a glass of red wine!

Christos and Manhattan Vibes play frequently around the city. Check out their calendar on where to catch them soon!

Playwright profiles: Eyad Houssami

19 Oct

BTSblog presents you the playwrights of the first Between the Seas staged readings event.

Eyad Houssami grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia and pursued his Bachelor of Arts in Theatre Studies at Yale University, where he directed seven full scale productions. He has also performed in the dead Byzantine cities in Syria, a beach party twenty minutes north of the Lebanon-Israel border, and a 13th century mansion in Damascus. As a writer, he has contributed to peer-reviewed academic journals, international magazines, and regional dailies. A recipient of Rotary and Fulbright research grants, he earns a living as an editor in Beirut, Lebanon.

What inspired the writing of Mama Butterfly?

During the summer 2006 war in Lebanon, I was evacuated from Beirut by American marines on a ship flanked by Navy warships. Around 1,200 civilian deaths were reported in Lebanon; 44 civilian deaths were reported in Israel. My great-aunt, a widow, chose to stay in Beirut despite having the means to evacuate unlike most. Her decision, my privileged evacuation, and the devastation of war prompted me to write Mama Butterfly, my first play. It is based on a series of interviews conducted in 2007.

How did you get into playwriting and what is the type of theater you are interested in?

I first began writing for the stage while studying performance with Deb Margolin at Yale. I am interested in stories and dreams that unfold in the theatre, the place where, despite a future of screens and speeds so great, we will continue to remember, experience, and preserve our humanity.

What does the Mediterranean mean to you?

Millennia of trade, migration, and empire.

Eyad’s play MAMA BUTTERFLY will be featured in the Between the Seas staged readings, on Tuesday October 19th, 7-8 pm at Solas Bar [232 East 9th str.]

Playwright profiles: Anthoula Katsimatides

19 Oct

BTSblog presents you the playwrights of the first Between the Seas staged readings event.

Writing ‘Ham-n-Eggs & Purple Golashes’ (HEPG)

I am a Greek-American, born and raised in the ghetto of Astoria, Queens in NY. I mean no disrespect when I say ghetto. Astoria was a ghetto when I was growing up because my family lived among and
socialized with Greek people. My parents were immigrants who struggled their whole lives to raise their children in a foreign country while maintaining their ethnicity, culture and religion. They succeeded but unfortunately it did result in a bit of an identity crisis for me, their only daughter of four children. My piece was born out of this inner conflict between my Mediterranean and NY identities when I hit my thirties. I felt and continue to feel as though I spread the vibrancy of the Mediterranean culture by just being me. It can be liberating to embody this special, gorgeous “Greekness” but sometimes it is the very thing that I rail against because I feel like it has kept me captive instead.
Growing up sheltered in Astoria by the Greek mantra “what will people say” truly imprisoned me in one world…in one self….and I did not know it on the surface but deep down I kept trying to escape….trying to find myself and only when I was confronted with two personal tragedies did I start to really open up and broaden my horizons and widen my world….and get stronger….and more independent. Although the conflict still looms within.

How did you get into playwriting and what is the type of theater you are interested in?

It was quite liberating when I finally decided to become an actor three years ago at 35 years old after following a pattern of what I “should” be vs pursuing my passion. I found myself sharing my story with others and thought to create a solo performance piece that talked about growing up imprisoned in my culture and not even knowing it. At the same time, I wanted to talk about how grateful I am for that upbringing. HEPG is a wonderful compilation of short stories weaved together with love, humor, conflict, tragedy and brutal honesty. Technically, I don’t think of myself as a playwright (although perhaps now I am). I feel more like a storyteller. This is the first time I have written anything down and I am thrilled to be sharing my work for the first time in the “Between The Seas” festival.

I love theatre that is humble and relatable to the masses. This is what I hope to emulate.
The general messages of my piece that I want to communicate are that of conflict, hope, living freely and the importance of laughing out loud. I want to share my life with the audience and take them on my journey (my journey to Ithaca) which is long, full of adventure, full of knowledge, but also full of heartache….in the hopes of having even one person in the audience relate and walk away not feeling alone in the world.

What does the Mediterranean mean to you?

The Mediterranean to me is all about one island in Greece called Nisyros. The very small, simple, charming place of my parents’ birth. Currently still untainted by strong tourism, Nisyros is a volcanic island with a special heartbeat of its own. Each time I visit, and as soon as I catch my first glimpse of the island from the boat I am traveling on, I can feel my heart begin to synchronize with the pulse of the sea and ultimately with the island itself. Its a magical place.

Anthoula’s play HAM-N-EGGS AND PURPLE GOLASHES will be featured in the Between the Seas staged readings, on TUESDAY October 19th, 6-7 pm at Solas Bar [232 East 9th str.]

Playwright profiles: Damon Chua

16 Oct

BTSblog presents you the playwrights of the first Between the Seas staged readings event.

Damon received an Ovation Award (Best World Premiere Play) for his full-length work FILM CHINOIS, a noir mystery set in 1947 China. This play is published by Samuel French. His short play STUFFED GRAPE LEAVES was picked as one of the Best 10-Minute Plays of 2009 and published by Smith & Kraus. His other plays include A BOOK BY ITS COVER; DARK SIDES OF THE MOON; THE GHOST BUILDING; and 10-minute plays A BOY, A GIRL AND A PUPPET WITH A COWBOY HAT; DOGS ARE EVIL; and EATING FRENCH. A Durfee Foundation grant recipient, Damon has been invited to many theatre conferences including the Last Frontier Theatre Conference and the Cultural Conversations Theatre Festival. His pieces have been presented in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Alaska, Ohio, Pennsylvania, London and Singapore.

About writing AZIZA:
The current struggle between Islam and Christianity is nothing new. For a long time, Spain was ruled by the Islamic Moors, from the late 8th Century to the eve of Columbus setting sail for the New World, a period longer than 1492 to present day. While Islamic Spain was known for its religious tolerance, all good things come to an end, and so they did, resulting in the bloody expulsion of the Moors from Spain in the late 15th Century. Now, as Islam re-exerts its strength in many parts of the world, conflicts are again sharpened.

My interest as a playwright is to uncover universal themes and issues through a juxtaposition of the past and present, in a non-naturalistic way, with a majority of the acting roles written for people of color. I created AZIZA not just as a character piece, but also as a vehicle to further the current “clash of civilization” discussion, spotlighting the tragic consequences of repressive thinking that still exists in many parts of the world today.

The play’s production history:
Feb 2008 – Workshop production at Cultural Conversations Theatre Festival at Penn State University
April 2008 – Finalist, Long Beach Playhouse’s New Works Festival
May 2008 – Reading at Long Beach Playhouse
May 2008 – Semi-Finalist, Reverie Productions’ Next Generation Playwriting Contest
Jun 2008 – Staged reading at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference, Alaska
Feb 2009 – Invited to the Staging the Middle East Conference, University of California, Riverside

What are your links to the Mediterranean?

Despite looking 100% Asian, some Spanish blood courses through my body.

Damon’s play AZIZA will be featured in the Between the Seas staged readings, on Monday October 18th, 6-8 pm at Solas Bar [232 East 9th str.]

Playwright profiles: Noelle Ghoussaini

14 Oct

BTSblog presents you the playwrights of the first Between the Seas staged readings event.

Noelle Ghoussaini is an American-Lebanese playwright, director and arts educator. She received her undergraduate degree from Northwestern University in Performance Studies and French and her MA in Arts Politics from NYU. Over the past few years, she has worked for numerous non-profit arts organizations in Chicago and New York City, teaching theatre, dance, photography and playwriting. After completing her Masters in May, she traveled to Palestine where she taught dance at the Freedom Theatre in the
Jenin Refugee Camp. She is currently working as an assistant director for Brave New World Theatre Company and Culture Project. She is also directing Marjuan Canady’s one woman show, Girls? Girls! Girls, which opens at the United Solo Festival in November of this year. She is thrilled to have her third original play, Ruth and the Great Gust of Wind, included in the Between the Seas festival.

Writing Ruth and the Great Gust of Wind
After graduating from college, about 3 years ago, I knew I wanted to write a historical narrative. I began searching for ideas, themes, historical figures that inspired me. I was struck, therefore, when my sister-in-law’s father told me about his aunt, Ruth Reynolds, who was born and raised in South Dakota, but dedicated the majority of her life to the struggle for the independence of Puerto Rico. I quickly learned that there was a large archival section of the Centro de Estudios Puertoriquenos at Hunter College dedicated to her story, with over 40 boxes of first hand documents and over a hundred hour long interviews with Ruth transcribed, detailing her involvement in the Puerto Rican independence movement. I began the research process immediately. Not only did I use the information gathered at the library, but I took two trips to Puerto Rico to attend meetings, interview former Nationalists, historians and friends of Ruth. None of this research, however, could have been done without Blanca Vazquez, a professor at Hunter College and the woman who interviewed Ruth in the 1980s for the Centro’s Oral History project. She knew Ruth well and has supported this project with incredible dedication since its inception. I have since spent the past year and a half writing the script, which has gone through many incarnations. I organized readings and directed scenes from the play at NYU, but Between the Seas Festival is the first time an audience will hear the play in its entirety. The play is deeply rooted in historical truths, and although I have taken certain liberties in developing the drama of the story, the characters, events and facts represented in the play are closely unified with the information I gathered from my research.

How did you get into playwriting and what is the type of theater you are interested in?

Although I did not officially begin my work as a playwright until college, I think storytelling has always been in my blood. Since a very young age, I have always loved being part of the process of telling stories through performance. I started off as an actor at age 5, then director at age 16 and eventually moved into the territory of playwriting. I believed and continue to believe in the power of stories to open new spaces in people’s imagination and to question traditional representations of history and identity. I am particularly interested in theatre’s potential to examine and re-imagine cross-cultural dialogue within a political, social and economic context. Theatre that pushes the boundaries and defies conventions.

What does the Mediterranean mean to you?

The Mediterranean sparks ephemeral thoughts and images of my childhood. It means visiting family in Lebanon and long days near the water. It links me to my ancestors, the Phoenicians, who sailed its seas, thousands of years ago. And it ties me to the Middle Eastern nations that reside along its waters, and Arab peoples that have suffered deeply due political instability, oppression, apartheid and colonialism.

Noelle’s play RUTH AND THE GREAT GUST OF WIND will be featured in the Between the Seas staged readings, on Tuesday October 19th, 8-10 pm at Solas Bar [232 East 9th str.]

Playwright profiles: Kato McNickle

13 Oct

BTSblog presents you the playwrights of the first Between the Seas staged readings event.

Kato McNickle is a Connecticut-based playwright, director, and artist. ARIADNE ON THE ISLAND is 2010 Clauder Award recipient and 2008 O’Neill National Theater Conference finalist. Other recent playwriting awards include: a 2008 Heideman Award finalist with Actors Theatre of Louisville for ABOUT A HUNDRED PANCAKES; Theatre for Youth National Playwriting Award 2010 for CHANCE OF RAIN: A NOAH RIFF; a 2007 O’Neill National Theater Conference finalist for MINOTAURS. TOREROS; and an Ensemble Studio Theatre New Voices Fellow for FENCERS. Has studied playwriting with Paula Vogel, Bonie Metzgar, and Donna DiNovelli. Is Vice-President of the Mystic Paper Beasts, a Connecticut-based puppetry troupe and partner of The Dragon’s Egg Performance Space. Holds a BA from Brown University in Ancient Studies. Member of the Dramatist Guild and the Star Wars Fan Club.

How ARIADNE ON THE ISLAND was created:
Ariadne on the Island is an expansion on a moment from an earlier play called Minotaurs. Toreros. While workshopping Minotaurs there was a beat that the two actresses played during the second evening’s performance, a moment of a deep truth being spoken that was refused by the hero. “Ahh,” I thought, “that moment could be a whole play.” A whole play that drives toward a deep truth that, once spoken, acts as a wedge that splits the couple. I began work on this play idea as part of a class I was taking at Brown University with Bonnie Metzgar. She is an amazing dramaturg, with an uncanny ability to ask the right question at the right moment. She did that with this play, asking a question that exploded my understanding of the play-world, resulting in deeper character structures than I had originally imagined. I love moments like that, where creative explosions happen, happening because of the collaborative process of theater. So Ariadne and Minotaurs are sister plays, the same story told in different forms.

How did you get into playwriting and what is the type of theater you are interested in?

Playwriting is a natural expansion on my work as a theater director, designer, and actor. It came about as a necessity when I worked for a touring comedy troupe as a theatrical and technical director for which we all had to write. In my local community I produced an annual new play festival, through which I met many playwrights, actors, other directors, and became well-versed in producing and directing new plays. I decided to make my leap from sketch comedy to full-plays by enrolling in a class offered by the O’Neill National Theater Institute taught by Donna Dinovelli. I then spent that entire summer observing the National Playwrights Conference under Lloyd Richards, and read every book on playwriting that I could find.

My Theater Manifesto: Theater is a generous act. We go to the theater to fall in love. We fall in love with the play, fall in love with the work, fall in love with the company. It is important to respect commitment over talent. I can work with commitment. Talent without commitment quickly becomes destructive and a drain on the ensemble. Plays are not perfect entities, they are flawed, the actors are flawed, the audience is flawed, or late, or coughing, or who knows what. And still, we make theater. The progeny of American Realism is film, not theater. Current dramaturgy owes more to the American Musical Form than from the American Realists. Theater is a house of magnificence and eloquence and joyful giving.

What does the Mediterranean mean to you?

The story goes that my grandmother was born during the voyage to America, and so became the first US citizen in the family. The Mediterranean therefore carries with it strong associations of origin and blood-ties. Above her dining table my grandmother displayed a plate depicting Oedipus answering the Sphinx. That image – a reproduction of 5th century Athenian pottery art – has stayed with me from childhood until now. It has inspired a lifelong inquiry into ancient thought, philosophy, arts, religion, and points of Western culture inspired by and borrowed from a common Greco-Roman heritage.

Kato’s play ARIADNE ON THE ISLAND will be featured in the Between the Seas staged readings, on Monday October 18th, 8-1O pm at Solas Bar [232 East 9th str.]