Art beat: Performances in the raw

Naked Stages is an incubator for performance artists

– For performance artist Molly VanAvery, her nine-month journey to the stage at Intermedia Arts was a time of personal and artistic self-discovery.

It began in 2001, when VanAvery and artistic partner Molly Bassett won one of four Naked Stages grants awarded annually to emerging performance artists. They set out on a series of interviews over several months of people from families with gay parents — VanAvery grew up in just such a family — planning to create a performance piece around their talks.

What actually ended up on stage, though, had nothing to do with that. VanAvery and Bassett’s “Core Relations” was instead an exploration of their friendship, a bond that had been both tested and strengthened during the creative process.

“As we were trying to create together we really ran into a lot of [both] tension [and] joy,” VanAvery, now an administrator with the program, said.

During its seven years, Naked Stages — coordinated by Intermedia Arts with the support of the Jerome Foundation — has sponsored more than one performance artist who won a grant with one idea and ended up producing something completely different. Actually, VanAvery’s story is a common one.

This year, it happened to May Lee-Yang, who was putting the finishing touches on her piece, “The Child’s House,” in September. The title refers to the Hmong term for the uterus, and in the piece Lee-Yang grapples with both her own desire for children and the recent hysterectomy undergone by her mother, a Hmong shaman.

Yee-Lang, a writer and spoken word artist, said the idea for “The Child’s House” was developed only after she was selected for Naked Stages, and it was refined as she worked with program director Laurie Carlos, an Obie Award-winner for an off-Broadway production.

“The (Naked Stages) program really isn’t just about the final product, it’s about the process of getting there,” Lee-Yang said.

Put simply, she learned how to be a performance artist — everything from creating a performance-art work to mounting a production to marketing herself. Like boot camp for the stage.

Her fellow recruits were dancer and actress Byrd Schuler, the storyteller known as “Auntie Beverly,” Beverly Cottman, and Juma B. Essie, who shared Lee-Yang’s background in spoken word.

Essie said in developing “Too Real 2B Free,” an exploration of image and authenticity, he had unprecedented time and freedom to experiment.

“In going through that process, if you’re really committed, it’s likely that idea is going to change,” Essie said. “… To concentrate for nine months — that gestation period — is really new.”

For his new piece, Essie planned to incorporate video, electronic looping of his voice and — in perhaps the most radical shift of all for a spoken word artist — silence.

Or, as Essie called it: “Spaces for thinking and meditation.”

Beyond learning the ropes of performance art, the Naked Stages artists came to terms with what, exactly, performance art is. It’s a slippery term, one that can refer to works with bits and pieces of theater, musical performance, storytelling, video art and any number of other disciplines.

For many, performance art calls to mind works that are disturbing or provocative or uncomfortably confessional — the type of thing that’ll make you squirm in your seat. It can be thrilling, too.

“We’ve had a range of everything,” Diane Dominguez of Intermedia Arts said. “Be it very abstract work to personal storytelling to in-your-face, very politically themed works.”

For Lee-Yang, “The Child’s House” was performance art not because of its content or form but because only she could perform the piece.

“Performance art, really, I think, comes from a much more personal place, where I as a creator need to be present on stage,” she said.

VanAvery echoed that explanation in her own comments.

“It’s kind of like a singer-songwriter,” she said. “The songs are so much more powerful … because they wrote it.”

VanAvery and Bassett never again performed “Core Relations” after its Naked Stages debut. But the duo did go on to create their characters Karyn and Sharyn, a pair of feminist folk musicians. That collaboration lasted six years.

It wasn’t the piece she produced that made Naked Stages such a valuable experience for VanAvery; it was that, when it was all over, she could say, “I am an artist.”

Naked Stages I, featuring “This Here Now” by Byrd Shuler and “Layer(s)” by Beverly Cottman, runs Oct. 16–18 at Intermedia Arts, 2822 Lyndale Ave. S. Naked Stages II, featuring “Too Real 2B Free” by Juma B. Essie and “The Child’s House” by May Lee-Yang, runs Nov. 6–8, also at Intermedia Arts.

All performances begin at 8 p.m. General admission is $12 for adults, $10 for students, seniors and Fringe Festival button-holders, and $6 for Intermedia Arts members. To make reservations, call 871-4444.