by Tom Lee
Mary Birnbaum ’07 is one Harvard alum who knew exactly what to do to break into a career in theater: She founded her own company. The New York-based art.party.theater.company was established in 2009, and as its director Birnbaum has led collaborations with other theaters and organizations while working on projects at Seattle Opera, Juilliard, the Metropolitan Opera and, most recently, assistant directing Terrence McNally’s Master Class on Broadway and at Manhattan Theatre Club. At Juilliard she also teaches acting to opera singers and will direct La Finta Giardiniera next spring. This fall, Birnbaum and a few of her art.party co-conspirators will be in residence at Harvard to create a site-specfic performance in collaboration with undergraduates—all in five days. The project is supported by the Peter Ivers Visiting Artist Fund through the OFA's Learning From Performers program.
art.party’s mission is to create "bold performances for an audacious audience." How bold, and how audacious?
The boldest we ever got was with Starbox, a performance piece in Bryant Park where we convinced the New York press—through crafty use of social media tools—that there would be a box with a mysterious star in it for four days. Because we tweeted that the Starbox had been to Paris and Tokyo, the Daily News reported that it had—which raised fantastic questions about the increasingly subjective nature of "news." The idea spread like wildfire, and we got covered in the New York Times, the Daily News, New York Magazine and many, many blogs/twitter-feeds, radio stations and local TV stations, which increased audience expectation that a celeb would be in Bryant Park. We had audience members show up with huge "JUSTIN BIEBER, WE LOVE YOU" signs, people camping out for hours to meet Will Smith; it was nuts. When the audience entered the box, they realized the star was themselves. Luckily for us, no one was mad once they’d had the experience inside the box. That felt pretty bold because we were not sure how an audience—and the press—would react to not being told the whole truth.
Audacity-wise, our audiences vary; we’ve had people that take control of their own experience to the point of almost throwing the actors off their game, but these are kinks we generally try to work out in the preview process. We always say that you come to an art.party show not knowing what to expect but that something will be asked of you, as you are an implicit part of the theatrical experience.
What is art.party working on currently?
Our latest show is called Meeting, Important. Set in an office building for 10 audience members around a board table, Meeting explores the theatricality of the corporate world and how group dynamics work for or against individual ideas. When you enter, you get an agenda and become a co-worker at the company.
How did your Harvard experience prepare you for a career in theater?
My Harvard experience was invaluable; it taught me how to be involved in building a show from the ground up, and be a go-getter about making opportunities for myself. Knowing how to apply for performance space, get grants and money from different sources, manage a budget, cast from a pool of local actors, find rehearsal space and understand the tech aspects of theater are all things I do every day, and skills I learned at Harvard.
Another important aspect of my Harvard experience was finding wonderful collaborators. Now, I try to surround myself with artists who are as multi-disciplinary and interested in creating a piece of art—not just in "performing"—as the people I met at Harvard, many of whom ARE the people I met in college.
What can Harvard students expect from art.party’s residency?
To spend a week creating a piece with the art.party regulars—including two designers, a playwright, a producer and me—that takes place at an undiscovered site on campus and in some way plays with Harvard students' identity of thesemselves, or skews a tradition towards the theatrical, like a fake course section, or maybe Primal Scream. Boldness will be required!
art.party.theater.company's Harvard residency takes place October 17-21, sponsored by the OFA's Learning From Performers program. Students interested in participating can click here for more information.