In June of 2017, Czaplinski took the post of Performing Arts Director of the Wexner Center of the University of Ohio in Columbus, Ohio. From 1999 to 2002, he served as a programming manager for BAM, and then served as artistic director of On the Boards in Seattle until 2017. During the 15 years at On the Boards, he was involved in commissioning and producing some 80 new works, while also contributing greatly to the support and nurturing of local artists. Particularly innovative among his programs there was the launching of the on-demand performing arts specialized “On the Boards TV” channel in 2010, which won the Seattle Star’s Genius Award. Under Czapinski’s leadership, the New York Times named On the Boards “One of the best contemporary arts theaters in the U.S.”
|Brooklyn Academy of Music: BAM
Established in 1861, BAM is one of the oldest performing arts centers in the U.S., where cutting-edge theater, dance, opera, music concerts and also films are shown. In the early days, BAM introduced famous people from Enrico Caruso, Arturo Toscanini and Isadora Duncan to Pina Bausch, Merce Cunningham, Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Robert Wilson when they were still the young generation that BAM supported the careers of and sent out into the world to become big stars. Today, BAM has three theaters, ranging from the 2,100-seat opera theater to a small 300-seat mini-theater, where an international program of mostly new works are presented. Since 1981, BAM organizes the “BAM Next Wave Festival” every autumn presenting mostly new works by innovative new artists to mid-career artists and famous established artists.
Performing Arts Japan (PAJ)
Performing Arts Japan (PAJ) is the name of the grants program of The Japan Foundation, that provides performing arts organizations (festivals, theaters and presenters, etc.) based in North America (the U.S. and Canada) and Europe with (1) support for tours of outstanding Japanese artists and works in the performing arts, and (2) support for collaborations by Japanese artists and artists from North America and Europe for the creation of new works.
|On the Boards (OtB)
On the Boards is known for commissioning works of contemporary performing arts and for actively inviting cutting-edge works and artists from overseas to perform in the U.S. Launched in 1978 as an organization presenting performing arts of artists spanning the genres of dance, theater, performance and literature. In 1998, OtB moved to the building of the old Queen Anne Hall long loved by the citizens of Seattle and changed its name to On the Boards/Benque International Theater Center.
With its two theaters, the Merrill Wright Mainstage Theater with seating for 300 and a studio theater with seating for about 80, OtB presents an annual program of about 40 works. Until now, OtB has presented the work of such famous international artists as Laurie Anderson, Bill T. Jones, The Wooster Group, Rosas, Romeo Castellucci, Jan Fabre, John Jaspers and more. And from Japan, it has presented Sankaijuku, Dumb Type, chelfitsch, Gekidan Penino and others. OtB also focuses programs on the support of emerging artists in the American Northwest and around the world with its “NW New Works Festival and its Performance Lab that provide opportunities for artists to present works in progress.
Ohio State University Wexner Center for the Arts (WCA) performing arts program
The mission of this Center states: “Through exhibitions, screenings, performances, artist residencies, and education programs, the Wexner Center acts as a forum where established and emerging artists can test ideas and where diverse audiences can participate in cultural experiences that enhance the understanding of the art of our time.” Under this mission, the performing arts program annually organizes and presents performances/showings of a lineup of about 20 works of theater, contemporary dance, music and crossover works by innovative international artists. Along with the performances, opportunities are provided for the students and faculty to participate in workshops, discussions and master courses for an interactive experience. To further encourage artistic innovation, The Wexner Prize program has also been established to bring recognition to artists for exceptional work.
|On The Boards TV
Established in 2010, this website channel features on-demand full-length videos of contemporary performing art works performed at On the Boards. The fee for viewing is 5$ per work, with access coming at all hours from around the world. Fifty percent of the income from viewing fees on this channel is returned to the artists. It aims to provide a historical archive of the performing arts. The OtB theaters have contracts with a number of specialized production companies and cooperation is provided for the artists with each filming. Each performance is filmed with 4 or 5 cameras rendering high-quality HD recordings. Many of the users are institutions of higher education such as Princeton Univ. Yale Univ. and Ohio State Univ. in the U.S., making the films freely available to their students and faculties. Showings of these performing arts films are given at theaters in various locations as well as for programming at festivals.
|The Wexner Center for the Arts of Ohio State University has been a pioneer in promoting a broad range of artistic expression in contemporary art, film and the performing arts. In 2019, contemporary arts curator Joanna Burton was appointed the new director of the Wexner Center. Prior to this, in 2017, Lane Czaplinski was named director of the Wexner Center’s Performing Arts Department after serving as artistic director of the influential performing arts base On the Board for some 15 years. In this interview, Czaplinski speaks about his philosophy and the Center’s current programs.
Interviewer: Yoko Shioya [Artistic Director, Japan Society]
Why don't we start with talking about your background?
Growing up in Kansas, I played basketball in college at the University of Kansas. I was also an English major and interested in writing. After I graduated, I wrote a book about basketball. My college basketball coach, Roy Williams, who later was inducted into the Hall of Fame of Basketball, wrote a foreward for the book. He asked me what I was going to do with the rest of my life, and I said I was going to work in the arts. So, he introduced me to his colleague, performing arts presenter, Jacqueline Davis. She runs The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center now, but she used to be Executive Director and Artistic Producer of the Lied Center
at University of Kansas. His whole thinking was that I wrote a book and that was cultural, like the art stuff.
I had not had any idea that there was an industry supporting all of the performances that I had seen at the Lied Center. I thought they had miraculously materialized on campus. But after five minutes meeting with Jackie, I instantly understood what was going on. And eventually, I ended up working for the Lied Center. I started working my way up, from coordinating events, then helping edit grants, and then writing grants. Because I was a literature major, I could write. And once I began doing that it led me to framing my activity as a programmer.
Another strange set of circumstances was that I was hired by Joe Melillo at BAM. That was when Joe was succeeding Harvey Lichtenstein as the executive producer. BAM created a program manager position for someone to work with Joe in the same way Joe used to work with Harvey. So, I moved from Lawrence, Kansas to Brooklyn in New York City to begin working at BAM.
BAM was pretty much my graduate school for both being exposed to the scene of New York, the kind of international scene that funnels through New York, as well as getting practice in the role of running an institution and programming for an institution.
Had you had more opportunities to be exposed to Japanese performing arts while you lived in New York?
I think my first experience with Japanese artists was with Sankai Juku at the Lied Center, prior to moving to New York. Then, like lots of people who work in the performing arts, Butoh was sort of the gateway for me, too. Also, lots of my senior friends or mentors were serving on The Japan Foundation's PAJ (Performing Arts Japan) grant panel at that time. So, I remember being exposed to that second-hand. And then ultimately, I became aware of Dumb Type, for example when I ended up at On the Boards, which was one of the first organizations to bring Dumb Type to the United States.
BAM, for which you served as program manager from 1999 to 2002, is one of the performing arts centers with the longest histories in the U.S., having been established in 1861. Today it has three theaters, ranging from a 2,100-seat opera theater to a 300-seat small theater, where theater, dance opera music concerts and also films are shown, and with a program that presents the latest works in all genres. What kind of program and artists did you bring ta o BAM?
I was not a decision maker for any programming at all. I used to joke, that when Joe sent me to look at projects, that meant that the artist would never go to BAM. (laughs). Artists understood that if I was going to their shows that meant they would never go to BAM. I was like a bad omen or something. (laughs) I was only thirty years old and I had never worked anywhere like BAM. While I was facilitating conversations with BAM's other curators on music, film, special projects and technology stuff, and I would have meetings with them to kind of move projects along, I worked mostly in an administrative fashion—such as talking with managers and/or production team to nail down details. At the same time, if I had not worked at BAM, I would never had gotten hired at On the Boards. The fact that I had been affiliated with BAM helped a lot to get that job.
I worked for BAM for three years. As soon as 9.11 happened, as you recall, a lot of cultural institutions were concerned about their funding and started to make cuts. My position at BAM was in danger of going away, and a search was on at On the Boards in Seattle for the artistic director position that was open after Mark Murphy
had left. A lot of people had encouraged me to apply for that job. I applied and got it and worked there as artistic director from 2002 for fifteen years.
What was it that made you decide to apply for the position at On the Boards? The On the Boards theater was very far from New York in Seattle, a city of only 600,000 at the time close to Vancouver, Canada. But that city has a very unique culture, now famous companies like Starbucks and Amazon were started.
I think the opportunity to program my own organization was most interesting to me. I also think the fact that it was an organization founded by artists from a specific community and focused on their own community was also interesting. That tension between working with a local community when you are trying to create a platform for visiting artists is, I think, actually a tricky one. In the interim after Mark had left—the empty period was about 18-months or so—the On the Boards organization wasn’t doing very well. It was kind of like an old house that had really good bones, but it hadn’t been taken care of. It needed a lot of work. With that, however, I understood it had a really good foundation and it had a strong mission. It was in a progressive city, Seattle. I felt that with contemporary arts I would be able to do anything I wanted—which proved to be true. I never felt any limitations in terms of what I could program.
There are only limited number of American presenters willing to present contemporary performing artists and companies from abroad who are not known yet in America. But On the Boards was one of those exceptions. In fact, the New York Times even called it one of the best contemporary arts theaters in the U.S. And the Wexner Center at Ohio State University where you moved in 2017 is also known as one of those rare presenters that actually serves as an incubator for contemporary arts.
Yes. I am surprised that people are not more courageous programmatically. For me, working in a contemporary venue, the point is that you get to be exposed to artists whom you don’t necessarily know, forms of expression that are not mainstream, and ideas that are potentially challenging. I appreciate that theaters are places where people can connect with one and another, not necessarily by talking but simply by being in the same place and sharing same time together.
I assume that lots of people would have an appetite and curiosity for challenging work. And I always felt like our charter, whether it was at BAM or Seattle, or here at the Wexner Center, I feel we need to look as far afield as possible and we need to have a global perspective. Those are as important now as they ever have been, given the political climate, not just in the United States but even internationally. Because we can create a certain kind of exchange with other cultures and other countries.
Would you explain about what you meant by saying “challenging work”?
“Challenging” is kind of a weird thing—I myself don't actually think it is much of a challenge. I think that you’re supposed to be presenting artists that your audiences don’t necessarily know or most likely won’t know. And you are supposed to be presenting what I call “weird performance,” that is non-mainstream stuff. It's a same way when you say “challenging literature.” It’s not entertainment and its not necessarily easy to read. I think performance can be like that. Some of it can be boring, some of it can be tedious, but all of that can be quite intentional. It is usually designed to provoke some kind of response in you. Mainstream performance is also designed to provoke things in you but that is typically more of following conventional arcs and storylines and narratives and techniques. In contemporary performance that usually happens in more extreme ways.
At Wexner Center, with it affiliation with a university, the lineup of programs it presents spans a wide range of innovative works. You also have things like an artist-in-residence program for commissioning new works. Please tell me about your criteria for planning season programming.
There are two things. One, there is the side of criteria that involves the art; what that art actually is, where it is from, and what its form is. Is it dance, theater, music, interdisciplinary performance? Is it made by people locally, or by people in your region, or by people in your country, or does it come from different places around the world? Looking at it from a formal standpoint and in terms of different expressions, and trying to think about balance and range, that is how I put a season together. It's almost like putting together a dinner party.
The second set of criteria, while actually being directly related to the first, is what those programming decisions actually allow you to do as an organization. So, if I work with an artist in my community, then I am able to support my local artistic community, then I am potentially functioning as a producer. If I work with Kuro Tanino and someone else and bring them in from Japan, then I am functioning as an international presenter. If I film that show for online distribution—as I did with On the Boards TV
, then my organization is distributing culture online. If I work with artists of color in the United States and work with scholars to help frame that work, then I am participating in a conversation about racial equity, and my organization is also able to participate in that. So, each of these criteria are related but different: one is about what the art does, and the other is about what the art allows us to do. Those are my ways of looking at how and why I am making decisions.
Wexner Center is an organization that belongs to a university, which is different from the position of an independent venue like On the Boards. Are there any new perspectives that you have to carry now?
In terms of being able to work with my other programming colleagues -- we have exhibition curators, film and video curators, it's been interesting to think about thematic programming. Since the new CEO arrived at Wexner, Johanna Burton, who was at the New Museum, we are increasingly exploring themes that can stretch across all of our programs. Additionally, the ability to work with faculty is really interesting.
I think these days in our field, people are suspicious of a sole impresario making all the programming decisions. Because it presents the question of who the program is being aimed at. Depending on who is making the decisions, we know that there is a legacy in the United States of systemic ways of not including people that have actually prevented participation. Somebody like me becomes representative of that systematic exclusion of people. I believe it is important for me to help counteract that by having different curatorial voices. And being at a university actually does this naturally. If I collaborate with faculty who have their own programmatic interests, then I am getting outside of my own ideas. I am increasingly inviting other people, artists, other colleagues to help with the decision making so that there will be other perspectives. They are actually helping animate the programming. Such an example is Jaamil Olawale Kosoko, a New York-based artist. Not only am I working on a project with him, but we will have him in residency, and he is going to curate a couple of projects.
Working with curators from other fields may be interesting, but don’t problems arise when working with people from other fields? For example, planning an exhibition requires much longer lead-time than performing arts, and a “theme” to cross genres is always set by exhibition curators, and performing arts programmers get frustrated. How about the situation at Wexner?
I think there has always been a tension between different programming areas within an institution, where there will always be favored children—especially in places that have historically had strong visual art programs. But, I think that a new conversation has happened over the last decade or so as a lot of artists and museums have started to embrace performance in a different manner. And that was one of the draws for me to work in this kind of context. I always felt that the contemporary art world sometimes could be dismissive of a place like On the Boards because it was just exclusively performance. And I thought being in a more interdisciplinary context would allow me to challenge prevailing notions about what constitutes interesting contemporary art.
Sometimes the visual art world has a weird double standard. They are very dismissive of artists who make works for stages unless they decide to curate that same artist -- and then all of a sudden, the artists are in vogue. So, I feel working inside an institution like Wexner Center allows me to confront that more head on and I am enjoying that.
Let's talk about Japanese performing arts. How do you orient yourself to Japanese contemporary performing arts from international perspective regarding what's going on?
It goes back to what we were talking about earlier, I have always been interested in what’s the radical form of expression within any particular culture that pertains to performance. I remember in an early trip to Japan, I was in a small studio for Pappa TARAHUMARA and saw their version of Three Sisters
. Oh my gosh! Taking on the text and a form of dance theater – it was pretty outstanding and radical, I felt. I instantly invited it to On the Boards. I remember being exposed to Toshiki Okada
’s work for the first time. It was with Five Days in March
. Then, I presented his chelfish theater company as part of their first American tour that Japan Society organized. As for Kuro Tanino
’s Niwagekidan Penino, actually my predecessor at the Wexner, Chuck Helm and Angela Maddox (then performing arts programmer at Yerba Buena Art Center in San Francisco) saw Panino’s work in Tokyo, and I only saw the work on video. But I was part of their first U.S. tour, nonetheless.
I don’t feel that in any culture there is tons of work that fits into this part of the arts presenting world. There are artists with contemporary interests, but they don’t necessarily get their work produced in a way that is tourable. And there are not many places around the world that present contemporary performance works. Looking at a place like Japan, there are certain companies and/or artists that stand out. Over a period of time, I feel like those artists I mentioned are good examples of ones who stood out as singular artists.
What do you think distinguishes Japanese contemporary work or experimental work from work born of other unique cultures?
Japanese artists whom I have responded to have ranged from a Butoh artist like Akira Kasai
to someone like Toco Nikaido
of Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker. I think Japanese artists' expression can be very audacious. They are not scared to push the envelope far: sound can be very intense, bodies can be really pushed to the maximum, scenography can have a lot of contrast. I feel like there is a lot of control in production values, whether that is purposely messy, with somebody like Toco, or really clear and precise with someone like Kuro. I still feel there is an audaciousness, a willingness to be startling, to surprise, to shock. That is something I don’t see as much in other cultures.
A long time ago when Dump Type won a lot of acclaimed abroad, many Japanese people said that the reason why they were appreciated by Westerners was for their detail-oriented preciseness. Is that still a unique quality of Japanese productions?
There is no doubt that Westerners envy Japanese craft. There’s an idea that Japanese artists are craftspeople. I think that exists, but it is too simplistic. Like “umami
.” But there other aspects of Japanese craft that are much more earthy, much more unpredictable. And there is definitely part of Japanese artistry that walks on the wild side.
Lastly, please tell me about Wexner Center. You only have a small black box theater and an opera theater, but how are you using them for contemporary performing arts? And are there any specific plans you have for the future?
I am thinking a lot about how to use different spaces around town. Just to frame art in a different way. I think people increasingly want to have different experiences than just going to the same old theater.
I am also thinking about how we can use online streaming to create better access. When there are so few places that have access to a place like Wexner Center or On the Boards, I think we have an ethical responsibility to use our resources to provide access to culture. Most cities don't have a place in their community where they can see chelfitch theater company. When chelfitch tours in the Unites States, there are only (a few) hundreds of people who get to see them. That number eventually gets to be two or three thousand people, but, on a tour, it would not be more than that.
So, it is interesting to think how you can have more influence. One of the ways is to do what classical music has done through the ages, or what the museum culture has done through catalogs. It is about figuring out other ways to distribute culture so people follow it and have an idea of what is taking place. That’s why I started On the Boards TV
in 2010, and that is why I am still particularly interested in participating in that realm.
Thank you so much for your time. We will look forward to your new ways to increase access to Wexner's programs.