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At Bard, Gideon Lester Launches a Creative Laboratory

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Amanda Palmer (far right) on set at the Fisher Center

“What can you do without getting super-tired super-quickly?” director Michael McQuilken asks a bare-chested actor. They’re on set at Bard College’s Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts to shoot Amanda Palmer’s new music video, Bed Song. Together they weigh the cinematic merits of sit-ups and push-ups. Meanwhile, a production assistant rushes to steam a shirt for the next scene. A videographer tests angles, wheeling a digital camera atop a miniature dolly across a long table.

All that hustle is typical for a professional shoot. What’s not typical are the undergraduates working alongside the band members, actors, and crew. Ned Moore is an incoming senior at Bard College majoring in classics and comparative literature. He’s been helping change sets and acting as an extra in the music video’s party scene. “I can put my name on IMDB now,” he jokes. “How often do you get to do that?”


That kind of opportunity is about to get a lot more common thanks to Live Arts Bard (LAB), a residency and commissioning program for the performing arts debuting this fall. It’s the brainchild of Gideon Lester, who joined Bard this summer as director of Theater Programs. 

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Gideon Lester, Bard’s new director of Theater Programs

“Bard has always had a strong reputation as a progressive school that’s dedicated to the arts,” Lester says. “But this is a unique chance for Bard to be at the forefront of a college movement to integrate students and professional artists.”

LAB’s residencies, which range from a few weeks to several months, offer performing artists the time, space, and funding to develop their work. Bard students will work alongside artists in the classroom and in the studio, watching them solve creative problems as their projects evolve. They’ll also get a behind-the-scenes look at works in progress before they reach wider audiences. Some performances will later appear at Bard’s SummerScape, while others will run at other international festivals and stages.

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Amanda Palmer at the Fisher Center

Each artist will host at least one event open to the general public. Palmer and her band, The Grand Theft Orchestra, will perform public concerts at the Fisher Center on September 5 and 6, along with a private concert on September 4 that Bard students can attend gratis. Palmer’s husband, author Neil Gaiman, will read a new, not-yet-published short story before the concert on September 5. Bard student bands will open for Palmer each night, while other undergrads will join the concert crew.

Lester says it’s fitting that the title of Palmer’s new album is Theatre Is Evil. “I’m all for theater breaking out of the black box,” he says. “Traditional definitions of film, performance, dance—these are breaking down. It’s common for artists to incorporate different arts into their work.” The future of the arts, he’s sure, is interdisciplinary—and he believes Bard can play a crucial role in making sure that the arts have a robust future in the United States.

“We’re experiencing a crisis today with the performing arts,” he says. Artists in expensive cities like New York have been priced out of their creative communities over the past 15 years. Many flocked to Europe, where funding was more plentiful. But with Europe facing a financial crisis, money for the arts has been drying up abroad, too. All this comes at a great cost to contemporary culture. “Universities and colleges,” he says, “can provide homes for innovative artists.”

Lester, a London native, has dedicated his career to supporting cultural innovation. After studying English at Oxford University, he came to Harvard on a Fulbright scholarship to study dramaturgy, acting as a kind of literary consultant for directors. Once he set foot in the States, he never left. He served as the artistic director at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA, before moving on to the Columbia School of the Arts, where he founded the Arts Collaboration Lab, a program that brings together playwrights, filmmakers, sculptors, and poets.

Now he’s putting his vast knowledge of the arts world to use as he recruits artists for LAB. “I curated the mix of artists so that there would be a range,” Lester says, “a variety of different ages and artists who work in different ways at different points in their careers.” 

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Annie Dorsen appears on September 13

Next up this year are director Annie Dorsen and actor Scott Shepherd. They’ll be creating False Peach, a play based on Hamlet to be performed by Shepherd and a computer. During the fall semester, Dorsen will also teach courses on randomization and democracy in America, the second of which will culminate in a crowd-sourced production that involves the entire campus.

In the spring, choreographer Jack Ferver will teach two courses while developing a dance-theater production based on Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer, which will premiere in New York City in April. Hungarian director János Szász will work on an adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita, to be performed at the Fisher Center as part of the Frank Gehry-designed building’s 10th anniversary celebration. Palmer will be back again in the spring to perform a concert with Gaiman, and return next fall to develop a musical with Bard theater students.

Key to Lester’s plan for the LAB program is that “All the projects have lives elsewhere,” he says. “I think it’s important that as many different populations as possible see it.”

Lester also looks forward to helping students learn about cutting-edge works outside the cultural canon. “It’s important not only to do the greatest hits of the past, but to take contemporary art really seriously as well,” he says. “It will help stimulate their own thoughts about creativity.”

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Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman; photo by Kyle Cassidy

Moore, the senior working on Palmer’s music video, agrees. “This is an extraordinary program, because it’s actually going beyond what conservatories are doing,” he says. “It’s having professionals give their honest opinions to aspiring artists, which is such a hard thing to get. It’s a very unique initiative to do that at a liberal arts school.”

The program offers rich opportunities to students who aren’t majoring in the performing arts as well. Lester remembers director Peter Sellars saying that Hamlet ends not with seven bodies lying on the ground, but with the conversations audiences have afterward. “The arts are a laboratory,” he says. “We get to test ideas about what to do, how to be human, a citizen, a son, a lover, a king. It’s crucial to have artists who can help us imagine new responses to crisis.”

That’s why, Lester says, programs like LAB are so important in higher education. “We need artists in order to understand ourselves and who we are,” he says. “Training students in the arts is training them to be citizens.” —Sarah Todd


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Live Arts Bard
Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts
Bard College
Annandale-on-Hudson, NY

Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra
September 5 & 6 at 7:30 pm
Tickets: $35; to purchase click here

A Reading by Neil Gaiman
September 5 at 6 pm
Tickets: Free & open to the public

False Peach: A Work-in-Progress Presentation
September 13 at 7:30 pm
Tickets: Free & open to the public

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