Meet Fellow Brandon Woolf
Brandon Woolf is a theater maker and a scholar of contemporary performance. Recently, he has worked at the Fulton Center, Uncanny Valley, NYUAD Arts Center, Barrow Group Theater, Dixon Place, the Connelly Theater, and the Kennedy Center. He is also the co-founder of two public performance ensembles – Shakespeare im Park Berlin and the UC Movement for Efficient Privatization [UCMeP]. Between 2010 and 2014, Shake im Park, our playfully (ir)reverent take on the Papp model, created site-specific performances that drew audiences to Berlin’s Görlitzer Park in order to rethink its dynamic spaces as sites of multi-lingual and inter-cultural performance, (post)dramatic experimentation, and participatory art. Between 2009 and 2011, UCMeP engaged performance as a tactical means of “creative protest” and mobilization against the austerity measures that beset public education in California. Currently, Brandon is developing projects that continue to probe theater’s possibilities as a social and civic practice, including: a devised investigation of the five pages in the Talmud that tackle the “Messiah” (at LABA); a biographical reimagining of Brecht’s Mother Courage as a site of the destruction of the American “home”; and an existential exploration and racial deconstruction of our “Golden Age” of television. Brandon received his Ph.D. in Performance Studies from UC Berkeley in 2014. He was a Fall Directing Fellow at the New York Drama League in 2015 as well as a “Next Stage” Artist-in-Residence there in 2017. In 2016, Brandon joined the English Department at NYU as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Theater and currently serves as the Director of their Program in Dramatic Literature.
At the end of page 96b of tractate Sanhedrin, the editors of the Babylonian Talmud begin a lengthy discussion of the coming days of Messiah. One might argue that the next five pages of Sanhedrin constitute the first sustained attempt to explore messianism as political theory (and not only as religious conviction). Living in exile, generations of Rabbis turned to predictions across the Scriptures about the end of days and dared to dream of an ideal polis as a spiritual-cum-political event yet to come. Just what/who are we waiting for? What should we do while we wait? Is repentance necessary for redemption? And what must happen before the “coming”? While the Talmud tackles (complex mathematical calculations of) when the Messiah will arrive to bring about times of peace and political salvation, the text also spends a good deal of time speculating about how low humanity must fall and how terrible the geopolitical situation must become before the “new beginning.” Rain. Famine. Forgetfulness. Hate. Ignorance. War. It is this preemptive “travail of the Messiah,” the Talmud argues, that forces us all to reckon with the complex dialectics of War and Peace; forces us to reckon with what it means to hope and the productive and destructive power of waiting. The texture of this Talmudic text-fragment is heterogeneous to say the least. Dialogue. Debate. Parable. Philosophical reflection. Social commentary. Prayer. Apocalyptic conspiracy theory. I think these pages provide an exceedingly rich archive of stimuli for a new work of devised performance that reflects and refracts the hope and resignation of our current political moment. Quite naturally, I am also awed by the magnitude of this project: the intertextual life of the “Messianic idea in Judaism” is just so extensive. Also, it all sounds so very serious. I mean, is Rabbinic exegesis suitable fodder for performance? So, another central formal challenge this performance must face is to find the associational meetings points of Talmudic hermeneutics and its pop-cultural-analogues, scenic leanings, cartoonish moments, song-and-dance numbers, etc. As this project is still in its early phases, I am not yet sure just what the final output will or should be. Is it a more “traditional” theater piece? Is it a series of dialogues with music, movement, and video? Is it a “social installation” (with food)? What I am certain about is that a year-long fellowship at LABA will provide an array of invaluable resources and a generative period of incubation to further shape the project.
What is your favorite East Village spot?
When I lived in the East Village ten years ago, I spent a lot of time at MUD. On occasion, I still pick up a pound or two of their coffee to bring back home to Queens. But most recently, I have been spending time at Mast Books, which I am grateful to have discovered on a nostalgic stroll down Avenue B.
What is the place that most inspires you?
The Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz in Berlin under the tenure of artistic director Frank Castorf changed my understanding of and ideas about what theater can and should be – both aesthetically and institutionally. That time has now come to an end (I am more than skeptical about the incoming administration). But each time I set foot in that brutalist behemoth of a building after first moving to Berlin until this past summer’s regime change, I left feeling immensely grateful for what I encountered on (and off) the stage – no matter if I loved or hated the performance.