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On the Opening of Little Island

PigPen & Ayodele Casel


APR 11, 2023 | ISSUE 6

Ayodele Casel by Patrick Randak, Edited by smART Magazine
PigPen Theatre Co. by Thom Kaine, Edited for smART Magazine

Between West 13th and 14th street, crouched amidst the glinting waves of the Hudson, a curious and captivating bleach-white structure cools its feet in the river. Even from a distance, it’s easy to see that Little Island is no ordinary park. This 2.4 acre waterside wilderness is New York’s newest and most innovative effort to return live entertainment to the city. Inside, nestled between lush botanic gardens, twisting Lombard-esque pathways, and boulder-pricked grass slopes, three rustic stage spaces are welcoming performers back home. Here, musicians, dancers, actors, poets, mimes and more are returning to work among the elements in The Amph, The Glade and The Playground. Spectators are gathering to appreciate art safely again, breathing easily in the brisk riverside air, and the sense of elation is palpable.

After such a long hiatus, the aching familiarity of a trip to the theatre has ignited a collective gratitude for New York’s inspirational adaptability to change. It feels fitting that Little Island’s aesthetic is modelled on the aging wooden “pile fields” in the river, the ghosts of piers past. There is a sense of rebirth here, of using the foundations of the past to build a stronger future, and of taking hold of something seemingly fragmented and nurturing the beauty that remains.

18 months into the pandemic and Broadway theatres are still impatiently drumming their fingers, awaiting their beginner’s call. However, in the absence of comfortable indoor spaces, the show has managed to go on elsewhere. When the pandemic drove everyday activities outside, entertainers adjusted to the change. The word theatre has been redefined, and al fresco venues have sprung up like budding flowers across the city, with Little Island among them.

Some might ask what sets this floating hive of activity apart from its competitors? Since it’s conception in 2013, Little Island was destined to include performing arts spaces and was built to accommodate acts of every kind. However, it can be argued that the true essence of its individuality lies with four exceptionally talented Artists-In-Residence: Ayodele Casel, PigPen Theatre Co., Michael McElroy and Tina Landau. These remarkable individuals will spend the next three years breathing life, ingenuity, and joy into every inch of the island, combining their collective wealth of perspectives and disciplines to enrich our understanding of what it means to be an artist. Each will direct and perform their own work, nurture relationships with community partners, curate festivals and review artist submissions for Perform In The Park.

Casel is a tap dancer, actress, choreographer, and co-curator of Little Island’s Dance Festival, alongside Torya Beard. Arya Shahi is an actor, musician, co-founder of PigPen Theatre Co., and co-curator of Little Island’s Storytelling Festival. They join us to discuss the thrill of NYC’s artistic recovery, how the festivals will challenge our perceptions of art, and the indefatigable adaptability of artists in the face of adversity.

sM | What was your first impression of Little Island as a creative space?

Ayodele C. I was really excited about a beautiful public park being created in the city with the explicit intention of having art in every corner. One of the things that feels most right to me is that the park is always open. Even when there are rehearsals happening for shows, people can be in the space. You’re always in community with the people there, and I love that there's no pretense, no wall between the artist and the audience. It’s unique, and in a year where we have been mostly isolated, it feels great to always have a touch point with audience members.

Arya S. The pandemic has played an important role in the beauty we now find in being able to gather, so to see Little Island manifest has been magical. People sometimes criticize us for being whimsical, but it really is a magical thing! A new piece of land is just floating on the Hudson. The leadership team knew early on that it should be a vessel for people to engage with their location; parks can be very passive spaces, but I think that due to the size of Little Island, once you are on it, you're automatically engaging with it, so we keep thinking about how we can we support that.

sM | How would you describe the post-pandemic atmosphere of New York’s artistic community?

Arya S. I think that New Yorkers are very ready for the return to cultural spaces. As for the artists, in my opinion, making independent theater is always insane and often feels like the Wild West, so throwing a world pandemic into the mix was just another thing! I have a lot of faith in indie theatre, in the artists who are used to telling stories in that capacity, and in artists who are just now entering the community. I know many young performers who just graduated, or who just moved to New York, and anything is possible for them. There's a lot of anticipation about people’s first show back, and this will be an exciting way to re-emerge.

I also think this year has been an exercise in establishing your own boundaries, whether that be as an artist or as a human being. People need to reenter the scene whenever and however they feel comfortable doing so. That being said, Little Island’s events have been selling out very quickly, so it's exciting to know that there is a hunger for shows, and that people feel safe enough to gather.

Ayodele C. One of the things that I have been really inspired by is how quickly artists have innovated, across all mediums. It’s like they said, “Oh, there's a pandemic, I can't have an audience? I'm going to take it online, or offer things in this way!” Dancers have been making art in their basements, on rooftops, in the corners of rooms, on the street...they’re dancing everywhere they can. We have really tried to stay as connected as possible to our art. Even without a pandemic, it tends to be our lifeline and the thing that we turn to when we're feeling oppressed in any way.

The role of Artist In Residence is one that both Casel and Shahi take incredibly seriously. Shahi described the role as becoming “arbiters of the kinds of stories you want to tell”; you need only glance at the incredible lineup of performers chosen by both PigPen and the Casel/Beard team to see how beautifully they are serving this city. By sharing Little Island’s platform with interesting, expressive and oftentimes under prioritized artists, they are making significant strides towards levelling the industry’s playing field and bringing authentic representation to New York’s stages.

sM | What’s PigPen looking for when acquiring artists for the Storytelling Festival?

Arya S. We wanted the festival to bring together a lot of different disciplines, because that's how our own theater shows work. We use a lot of puppetry, visual art, animation, music and more. We didn't want the pieces to be super polished; before the pandemic, we were saying, “Just come and do a weird thing – we’re in a park!” We also knew we wanted to keep it simple, and start with one person on stage telling a story, because that’s how it all begins. Poetry became an early inspiration for how we might organize the festival, and music featured heavily too. Music cuts through so much noise, literally but also metaphorically. It cuts to the heart. So we wanted amazing musicians, we wanted poetry to be there, and then theater became the third umbrella. We also knew that at points, there isn’t a lot of control over the outdoor space, so our process was about finding artists who could work with what Little Island offers and demands.

Little Island has the power to become an artistic microcosm of the cultural tapestry of New York City, a diverse, inclusive platform where everyone will be seen, heard, and respected. Casel, in collaboration with co-curator Torya Beard, is working tirelessly to ensure that this vision is realised.

sM | Do you feel that representation within the dance community is making progress, and how can Little Island work towards making dance an equal platform for all?

Ayodele C. I do think that the landscape is shifting, by virtue of the fact that I was invited to be an Artist-In-Residence, but it's also not often that tap dancers or percussive dancers get to hold these kinds of roles. One of the things that I love about the leadership team at Little Island is that they are listening. The producers asked, “What do you want to do?” and there was no agenda other than to let me explore my vision. The same goes for the festival’s co-curator, Torya Beard. Our visions are very much aligned, so the first thing that we did was ask what is most important to us. Those things include cultural expression, authenticity, people whose work speaks to their identity—no matter what that identity is—and people who are interested in expression and communication.

In performance, I think a sense of generosity is necessary in order for us to do our work successfully. We're inviting audiences into our experience, and it's a cyclical give-and-take of energy, so I wanted to have artists whose work naturally speaks to those traits. It was very easy for me: percussive dance is completely under-represented, so I wanted more tap dancers to be in these spaces, of every gender identity and ethnicity. I wanted House of Extravaganza and Ana “Rokafella” Garcia. I felt that Indian Kathak dance should be represented, that younger and older people should be there. The list goes on, and I'm really proud of it – it's a strong mix of genres and artists.

Casel and Shahi share a mutual respect for the heady power of music in performance, and it’s potential as a vehicle for self-expression. Casel passionately describes the art of tap as “music in motion.” Shahi fondly remembers PigPen performances at music festivals as “some of the best days of our lives.” As a group, PigPen have an extensive catalogue of original songs; Shahi discussed the role that music plays in their work, and what it means to PigPen to be donning instruments and treading the boards again.

sM | Is PigPen originally a band of musicians who expanded into more conventional storytelling, or a theatre troupe that saw music as the ultimate storyteller?

Arya S. I think we straddle both identities equally, depending on what the ultimate goal is. More recently, we've gotten into the business of adapting pre-existing stories, and in that context, we get to really focus on writing music, editing, making puppets and so on. I think when we are conceiving of a story from scratch, that’s when there are fewer rules. If you come up with a song that you really like, you can come in and just play the song; then all of a sudden, that sparks ideas for a scene. And vice versa, a scene or a character can easily inspire music. We use the metaphor that somebody brings in a seed, and the rest of the company waters it. The plants that live are the ones the audiences see!

Over the pandemic, we have done a lot more writing, building on seed ideas that we've had since college but hadn’t previously had time to manifest. We also wrote music, but we operated in a different way; like, “you record a bit, send it and let’s see what I can add to it.” We really learned what each of us can do in isolation to continue to fuel our company’s creativity. Originally, we weren't going to perform in this Summer’s festival, but we have changed direction on that. We're going to play a concert, but it's tough to want to go up there and take risks in front of people when you haven't performed for 18 months! When we were discussing our set list, we were more excited to play “Bremen” (a song we have played 98,000 times) than anything else because it's comfort food. Some stories are things that you never thought you'd want to return to, but then you really need them.

The pandemic dealt a vicious blow to New York’s entertainment industry, but the undeniable quality of Little Island’s Artists-In-Residence program, and the three-year commitment they have made, is a hopeful sight. It is a stamp of approval, an assertion that the people of NYC still value and crave live performance after all this time. Little Island has created a unique and welcoming space for music, movement and storytelling that will be regarded as a symbol of resilience for years to come.

sM | Do you foresee any future challenges in having to adapt work to meet the challenges of an outdoor, waterside stage?

Ayodele C. I've performed at the Hunts Point station in the Bronx, right outside the subway platform. I've done outdoor performances with NYPopsUp across the city. I’ve performed at the White House. And to me, honestly, the space I’m in doesn't feel much different in that moment when I’m reacting to a community of people in front of me. I think what's important is what's happening right there, and that can happen anywhere.

Little Island has three main performance spaces, but there are also all these overlooks where things will be happening. They aren't necessarily traditional performance spaces, but that's so New York! You might be sitting on a bench and suddenly, something is happening. You're on the subway, and then something is happening. You walk through the park, there are things happening. I feel like in that way, Little Island is little New York. It's all new, and it’s like we're invited to play, so there is no “wrong”. With that freedom, anything can happen.