Soot, saliva, apricot pits, and broken pens: These are just a few of the unlikely materials used by the outsider artist James Castle to create drawings, handmade books, and assemblages. Deaf from birth, and living in rural Idaho, he nevertheless became a revered figure in twentieth-century art, eventually creating more than twenty thousand works: country landscapes, haunting abstractions, portraits of farm life.
This summer, theater company Our Voices — in collaboration with American playwright Charles Mee (renowned for his own use of found materials and textual assemblage) — will present an exploration of Castle’s world at the 23rd annual Ice Factory Festival. The now-venerable summer lineup of experimental theater, curated by artistic director Robert Lyons, originated at the old Soho location of the Ohio Theatre and continued after its 2011 move to Christopher Street (it also garnered a 2003 Obie).
Presenting seven new works between June 29 and August 13, this year’s program continues the festival’s tradition of highlighting untested plays. “We’re not presenting work that already exists,” Lyons tells the Voice. “The festival has always been conceived as a place where we’re taking the ride along with the artists. It feels like it’s being created new every time.” The works are by playwrights — from established writers like Mee to newer talents like Eliza Bent — as well as by companies making collaboratively devised pieces, and represent, Lyons says, a “snapshot of what’s going on in the scene, right now.”
Though the festival has no deliberate theme, many of this year’s works, Lyons notes, find unconventional points of entry into pressing public concerns. “I think people are looking at our identity as Americans, and what it means, and what we do with it, but in very idiosyncratic ways,” he says. “These shows are contributing to a broader cultural, social, and political conversation, but in a way that’s fresh.”
In collaborative theater ensemble Piehole’s Ski End, that means exploring environmental collapse through the tale of an abandoned ski shop the company discovered while on retreat in Vermont. Walls were half-missing, due to damage from Hurricane Irene; dead birds and faded ski posters testified to an earlier, more vibrant life. “This is really theatrical,” director Tara Ahmadinejad remembers thinking. “It felt very apocalyptic in there.”
The natural world also looms large in She-She-She, Brooklyn ensemble Hook & Eye’s contribution to the festival, which unearths the Depression-era history of the so-called “She-She-She” work camps established by Eleanor Roosevelt for unemployed women. These largely forgotten places, explains director Elena Araoz — who is co-creating the piece with writer Virginia Grise and visual artist Susan Zeeman Rogers — brought together women of diverse racial, gender, and sexual identities. “What does it mean when you have women identifying as different genders meeting up in nature?” Araoz asks. “Is nature the great equalizer?” Onstage, the company evokes the grandness of the outdoors by creating landscapes in miniature: diminutive models that gesture at immense scale.
The chance to delve into stories and test design concepts for the first time is what drew Araoz and her collaborators to the Ice Factory. “I’ve always admired this festival,” she says. “It’s a place for theater companies who are experimenting with big questions, both of form and content: people who are telling new stories in new ways.”
Ice Factory Festival
The New Ohio Theatre
154 Christopher Street