ON THE SCENE: Discovering ‘Floaters’ in Upper Jay

From left, readers Martha Swan (performed as gallery owner Julian), Vanessa Pillen (performed as transwoman Rachel) and Dylan Duffy (who performed as the artist Richard who created the floaters) are seen here at the Recovery Lounge in Upper Jay. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

A good book, movie or play gets you talking, often days, weeks or longer after you have experienced it. On that measure alone, the reading of Scott Renderer’s latest play, “Floaters,” held at the Recovery Lounge (aka Upper Jay Art Center) on Thursday, May 30, was a resounding success.

While best known regionally for launching and leading the Recovery Lounge, Renderer’s theater chops are deep and diverse. Before moving to Upper Jay, and while living here, he performed off-off, off and on Broadway with the Wooster Group in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape.” He presented over two dozen theatrical events at the Recovery Lounge, including plays by playwrights David Mamet, Harold Pinter and Sam Shepherd. He populated them with local talent, many of whom had no experience in theater. When Renderer suggested a reading to Gabrielle Schutz, now the artistic director, she was more than pleased to accept.

In the play, a visual artist called Richard attends a retreat and is surprised to learn that he is the lone male attending, an experience so upsetting to him that he creates disturbing misogynistic sculptures out of tree forks. Not surprisingly, after including examples of his work in a group exhibition, the other participants found his sculptures revolting and let him know in no uncertain terms.

Richard’s next step is to pitch the work to a cutting-edge gallery in New York, pitching it as having been created by a woman. The gallery owner, Julian, based on the notorious Mary Boone, “Queen” of the 1980s art scene who eventually was convicted for tax evasion, “loved” the work and requested a meeting. Richard now doesn’t know what to do as a meeting would blow his cover. He’s conflicted by the idea that his work is acceptable if created by a woman, but not by a man. It turns out that’s not exactly the case, not how the New York art world works.

His life is thrown another curve by Rachel, a transfeminine performance artist with whom he unexpectedly becomes entangled early on and throughout the play, and a semi-retired gallery owner, Arthur, who has yet another agenda. The story thus results in an entangled web filled with humor, well-presented by a remarkable array of readers who bring all the characters to vivid life.

Shown here, from left, are Susie Doolittle, who performed the role of Hedda, the gallery owner’s assistant, and Gabrielle Schutz, artistic director of the Recovery Lounge/Upper Jay Art Center. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Complicating the reading for many attending is they know that aspects of the play are based on the experience and actions of an artist, now deceased, who once lived in the region.

“It’s exciting to have the opportunity to share a new work and have the community sit, listen to a story unfold, and then unpack it,” said Schutz. “I’m glad that people stayed for the Q&A as many juicy issues about art and identity were brought up within the play. It zoomed through it quickly, and then it took a minute to settle and process all the nuances of the characters, the different relationships, and the art world. It was exciting to get that immediate feedback from the audience, the things that struck them about the relationships, the tensions of identity, art, and the commodification of art.”

Many in the audience knew the art world and the artist well, whose personality and experience stimulated Renderer to write the play. Seeing examples of the brutal work the artist created added yet another dimension, as did being able to reflect days later.

Two of them had not seen Renderer’s work before, George and Rachel McCabe.

“It was very, very funny,” said Rachel. “The actors were great, were very dynamic readers, and I think the play’s balance of humor, seriousness and farce very well. But it was afterward that I began to think more analytically about it and wondered why, at the moment, I wasn’t more disturbed by the floaters, by the sculptures the lead Richard was talking about, the violence and misogyny of his sculptures and that in the opening he was considering suicide. But somehow, you don’t dwell on that for long.”

Shown here are Maria Hoffman and Beatrice Schachenmayr. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

One reason is that one of the women at the retreat, transfeminine performance artist Rachel, reached out to Richard at that moment, and his life and emotions careened off in another direction, at least for a while.

“I think the trans woman enabled you to be OK with him because she was OK with him, but also embodied that juxtaposition of what is funny and what is not, what is art, what is not, why can you like it one minute and not the next when you are aware of the creator,” said Rachel. “At the moment, while watching the play, I didn’t feel so disturbed by that beginning because it is pretty disturbing, as is the quantity (29 sculptures).

“In the first part of the Q&A, many people made comments based on observations they had of Bob Siegal (the artist whose experience stimulated the writing of the play), comments that were more amused than judgmental, while others who knew him were very upset by his behavior,” said George McCabe.

“But that’s not how he was characterized in the play,” said Rachel. “It was as if he didn’t get it, though he should have.”

Both, as did many others, praised the play and hoped it would be staged and seen, while still others were not so sure.

“I felt it lends itself to be best experienced as a reading, as then the concept of the floater is left to the audience’s imagination,” said Linda d’Avignon. “If you show a floater, you take away what it might be in people’s imagination.”

“The play was riveting; it kept me thinking what’s going to happen next,” said Maria Hoffman. “When I whispered to my girlfriend next to me, ‘Oh, is this an underlying message,’ she had a different idea than I thought. It was like reading your favorite book. It pulled me in, and afterward, I was thinking about it all night.”

“I thought it was very funny. I liked the language in the play,” said Beatrice Schachenmayr. “The actors did a wonderful job. Many people attended.”

“When I look at a piece of art one way, having a piece of information, and you can look at a piece of art this way, having another piece of information, and you can love it, hate it, decide you hated it when you figured out the truth of it. That was what interested me with this story,” said Renderer.

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the Lake Placid News for more than 15 years.)

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