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March 8, 2006

With 'Stew,' arts initiative links up with New York's Public Theater

By Barbara Palmer

A "green room," furnished with a sofa and rug and stocked with pots of coffee, wine and pastries, sits at one end of what, until recently, was the basketball court in Roble Gym. At the other end is a research department, improvised from plywood and poster board, with stacks of books by Henry Louis Gates, Hegel and William Burroughs and images from vintage French and German movie posters.

In between is a temporary 200-seat theater that is serving as a kind of short-term laboratory for the Los Angeles-based musician, playwright and filmmaker Stew as he and collaborators work on Passing Strange, a new musical about growing up black and middle class, commissioned by New York's Public Theater and the Berkeley Repertory Theater. Joining Stew (who is known by a single name) in the three-week residency is a troupe of about 20, including writer and musician Heidi Rodewald, director Annie Dorsen, choreographer Karole Armitage and other cast members, as well as artistic staff from the Public Theater. Stew and other resident artists who are participating in campus classes and workshops will present work-in-progress performances of the musical at 8 p.m. March 10 and 11 in the Roble Theater. (All tickets for the performances have been reserved.)

The residency, a partnership with the Public Theater, marks the launch of a "Creative Risks" series to bring contemporary artists to campus to develop works, a project of the newly formed Stanford Institute for Creativity in the Arts (SICA).

"Creative Risks" represents a way of thinking about using the university, with its intellectual and other resources, as a patron of the arts in a way that also enriches the university, said Bryan Wolf, the Jeanette and William Hayden Jones Professor in American Art and Culture and a co-director of SICA.

As Stanford has committed itself to expanding and integrating the visual and performing arts into university life and curricula as part of a new arts initiative, it's become clear that "we can't simply create whole new programs from scratch," said Wolf. But "what the university can do is affiliate with exciting programs and institutions outside Stanford that complement what we do," he said.

Of all American theaters, New York's Public Theater is the one whose mission comes closest to the way that the Department of Drama defines its own goals, Wolf said.

Founded in 1954, the pioneering and egalitarian theater is responsible for bringing Shakespeare to new and diverse audiences through Shakespeare in the Park in Central Park. Its administrators also have long encouraged emerging playwrights and directors by bringing such politically and culturally resonant works as Hair and Angels in America to the stage.

The Public Theater is "deeply interested in artists of color, playwrights and people in the arts who have a harder time than others getting their voices heard," Wolf said. "It overlaps wonderfully with the way that the Drama Department here understands its mission."

The construction of a black-box style theater in Roble, now home to the Department of Drama and its Dance Division, was a tour de force on the part of the department's technical staff, who put it all together in a matter of weeks while working on other projects, said Harry Elam, the Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities and chair of the Department of Drama. (Ross Williams, the department's technical director, noted with satisfaction that he overheard the visiting artists on their first day calling back to New York on their cell phones, saying, "It's really a theater. It's not a gym.") The theater is temporary, designed to be disassembled and reassembled relatively quickly, Williams said.

Wolf views the current partnership as a "kind of a first date," with both partners testing ways in which the university and the theater might work together in the future. "So far, it is working wonderfully," he said.

Stew, taking a break from rehearsals, agreed. The residency has offered the artist and his collaborators the opportunity to work away from the distractions of New York City in an environment that infuses the process with energy, he said. "This is a very progressive way to make art," he added.

Passing Strange is rooted in the critically acclaimed shows that Stew performed at Joe's Pub, a cabaret operated by the Public Theater. Based loosely on the artist's life, the musical is billed as the story of a young man who journeys from an "incurious" black middle class through "various promised-land bohemias" toward a sense of belonging. The work, performed by a cast of seven, incorporates narrative, song and visual projections. "We wanted to take what is strong about cabaret and bring energy to the more staid musical theater," Stew said.

The stories of those who have freed themselves from "uptight, conservative, anti-gay, philistine" black families are "a new genre of the slave narrative," Stew told a group of students during a presentation last Thursday. His own upbringing in Los Angeles provided him with everything he could ever want "except the right to have nappy hair," he said.

Stew said he welcomes interactions with students, in part for the opportunity to talk with them about how their experience compares with his own coming-of-age in the early 1980s. "The star of this piece is a kid old enough to be going to this school," he said.

"A large part of what's wonderful about theater is how it's about community," he said. Theater, like music, is something that "you make with people," he said.

"It's a myth that art is this precious thing where you have to tiptoe around and make sure the artist is not disturbed," he added, his voice dropping to a dramatic whisper. "I want to be disturbed."

Passing Strange will be produced by both the New York Public Theater and the Berkeley Repertory Theater in the 2006-07 season. Although all tickets to work-in-progress performances of Passing Strange have been reserved, unused tickets may be released beginning at 7:45 p.m. both nights. For more information, call the Stanford Ticket Office at 725-2787.



Barbara Palmer, News Service: (650) 724-6184,


Bryan Wolf, Stanford Institute for Creativity in the Arts: (650) 724-8122,

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