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ArtsEmerson blows up winter with TNT mash-up

Spalding Gray in Steven Soderbergh’s “And Everything Is Going Fine.”

Spalding Gray in Steven Soderbergh’s “And Everything Is Going Fine.”

Reggie Watts in “Transition,” a film that will kick off The Next Thing Festival on Friday.

Reggie Watts in “Transition,” a film that will kick off The Next Thing Festival on Friday.

And now for something completely different.

No, not “A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman.” ArtsEmerson’s idea of different is assembling a program of monologists, theater artists, musical improvisations, and modern dance, all in live performances captured on video and screened as part of The Next Thing Festival (TNT), a celebration of (mostly) undiscovered work, opening Friday.

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TNT aims to combat the dead of winter by offering young American performance artists rarely seen outside New York or modern art spaces. But the 10-day “mash-up” of film, music, and theater emphasizes performance art both modern and classic. Alongside rising talents such as Mike Daisey, who headlines TNT with his performance piece “American Utopias” (this Friday and Saturday), there’s the late, great monologist Spalding Gray, represented by two films at the festival. Daisey counts Gray as an important influence, and indeed the shadow of the actor-raconteur looms large over these young performers, all seeking innovative methods of self-expression.

TNT is a new venture for ArtsEmerson. “We’re experimenting with this as a format that marries live performance, film screenings, workshops, and live streaming,” says David Dower, director of artistic programs for ArtsEmerson: The World on Stage. The film component, he says, “came from wanting to put things in context. We wanted to show the continuity between under the radar performers and artists such as Spalding Gray and Monty Python.”

Gray’s seminal “Swimming to Cambodia,” filmed in 1987 by Jonathan Demme, proved prescient, anticipating poetry slams, “reality” drama, and the memoir craze. With just a desk, vivid language, and his gift for storytelling, Gray recounts his experience as an extra in the film “The Killing Fields.” Weaving history and the political turmoil Cambodia was experiencing at the time, Gray takes the audience on a journey that is part performance, part therapy, and all riveting theater. It screens Friday at 9 p.m.

Gray committed suicide in 2004 after battling depression for several years. But that’s not dwelled upon in Steven Soderbergh’s 2010 documentary “And Everything Is Going Fine” (Feb. 17 at 1 p.m.). Instead, Soderbergh, who directed Gray in 1993’s little-seen “King of the Hill” and also filmed Gray’s 1996 monologue “Gray’s Anatomy,” uses rare recordings and footage of his TV interviews, theatrical monologues, and interactions with family members. Gray’s reflections about life and death, sex and love, psychology and more create what amounts to his final monologue. Gray’s wife, Kathie Russo (one of the film’s producers), son Forrest Gray (composer of the score), and Daisey will discuss the film following the screening.

TNT kicks off with “Transition” (Friday at 6 p.m., with a repeat showing on Feb. 22 at 9 p.m.), a multimedia cavalcade directed by Tommy Smith and his frequent collaborator, monologist and musician Reggie Watts. The eclectic, projected imagery and experimental improvisations may leave some viewers feeling a little like Woody Allen wrapped in discomfort as he sits through a stoner poetry slam. But the bushy-haired Watts, a stand-up comedian, former frontman of the rock band Maktub, R&B soul singer, and experimental performer, is a mesmerizing presence. “Transition” has played numerous arts festivals across the country. The 2009, 60-minute film taped at On the Boards in Seattle helped launch the first-ever live-performance download website, OTBTV.

Director-playwright Young Jean Lee’s “The Shipment” (Saturday and Feb. 23 at 6 p.m.), a theater piece filmed in 2009, is experimental, even subversive in its upending of cultural images. The Korean-American playwright and director has described her work as a “black identity-politics show,” and though it is certainly provocative and politically incorrect, it isn’t polemical. Performed by five black actors, “The Shipment” offers a potty-mouthed stand-up comic, a rapper, and a drug dealer, each one a twist on the familiar media images and cliches of black life.

Douglas Scott Streater’s monologue (“White people be evil. . . . You think I enjoy talkin’ ’bout race?”) begs the question: Is he subverting the foul-mouthed angry black comic as a persona shaped by the entertainment industry? Another skit skewers the black urban narrative in contemporary American culture as a young man named Omar (Okieriete Onodowan), who aspires to rap stardom, is seduced into drug dealing, thrown in prison, and befriended by a religious fanatic named Paul the Extremist, who eventually turns him into a bling-drenched star.

Perhaps the most conventionally theatrical piece is “El pasado es un animal grotesco” (The Past Is a Grotesque Animal). The 2012 video, directed by Mariano Pensotti, one of the most noted experimental directors in the world, screens Feb. 23 at 9 p.m. Set in 1999 in Buenos Aires, it’s about four 20-somethings whose lives take unexpected turns as Argentina’s economy collapses over the next decade. All the action is played out on a revolving stage, similar to the famous “turntable” set in “Les Misérables” but sparse and stripped down. Guided by a narrative voice-over, we witness the passage of time and transformative moments in the lives of the group.

While many of the films and performers in this series seem all the more obscure in the company of Spalding Gray, one selection with at least a recognizable pedigree is Spike Lee’s film version of the 2008 Broadway hit “Passing Strange,” which had a theatrical run in 2009. “Passing Strange,” an autobiographical musical story of adolescent rebellion and artistic self-discovery written by Stew (Mark Stewart) and Heidi Rodewald, takes the main character called Youth from his religious, middle-class upbringing in 1970s Los Angeles to Europe. In Amsterdam and Berlin, he encounters misadventures with sex, drugs, art, and politics. Lee’s film screens Feb. 24 at 1 p.m.

For a complete schedule go to www.artsemerson.org.

Loren King can be reached at
loren.king@comcast.net.
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