When David Sefton resigned as the executive and artistic director of UCLA Live at the end of the 2009-10 season, he complained that excessive budget cuts would afford him little opportunity to keep the campus’ venturesome performance series relevant. The deciding factor was the university’s elimination of the high-profile and hugely valuable International Theatre Festival that Sefton had established. With generic programming in its stead, UCLA overnight got the reputation for provincialism, eclipsed in scope and sophistication by the programs at UC Berkeley, UC Davis and the smaller UC Santa Barbara.
But in 2011, UCLA appointed Kristy Edmunds to replace Sefton and just as suddenly overturned that reputation. Edmunds has had long-term relationships with many of the same progressive artists — such as theater and opera director Robert Wilson, composer Philip Glass and performance artist Laurie Anderson — whom Sefton championed. On Friday night, Edmunds opened her first season at UCLA with a production in Royce Hall of Eugène Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” by Théâtre de la Ville-Paris, thus heralding the return of international theater, if not the festival.
But make no mistake. Edmunds, who has headed the Melbourne Festival in Australia and the Park Avenue Armory in New York, does not intend to fall into the same traps that made Sefton unpopular with the UCLA School of Arts and Architecture, which oversees the campus performance program. Even though her first season is notable for its lowering the quotient of mainstream material perhaps even further than Sefton had, she is banking on making the work feel far more UCLA-centric. Edmunds is already involving the vast university community and resources as well as the broader arts community at large with the advent of three-year residencies and shorter fellowships that will go to both major and emerging artists. And she hasn’t excluded such popular speakers as David Sedaris.
I first visited Edmunds in her office behind Royce Hall in the spring. Moving crates lined the walls, and she seemed in continual motion, commuting between Manhattan and L.A., buzzing around the campus and around town. She had little time to put together a season and everything to learn about her new home.
“When I started, I was working at lightning speed,” she says. “There was nothing, no inherited nothing, just the blinking cursor. But you don’t walk into things and have absolutely no idea about what you want to do.”
Earlier this month, we met again. She had finally unpacked and moved full time to L.A. with her two young sons and her partner, Australian dancer and choreographer Ros Warby. The 47-year-old Edmunds is friendly, focused and intense. She laughs easily, her laughs punctuating elaborately structured sentences and a formidably formal vocabulary. With her first season about to begin and scheduling for 2013-14 in full swing, she appears more, not less, of a whirlwind for what is essentially a one-woman show with only a small support staff. Yet she emanates the centered, curious calm of someone who manages her time closely.
Edmunds emphasizes that UCLA is back in the picture. The first sign of that, she notes, was when she was in discussion for the job, “because I didn’t want to come in and have it be, so here’s a person with a certain reputation who’s here to close down the shop.”
“I always look at resources and expectations to see if they are in any form of alignment,” she adds. “And rarely are they. But the other part of those resources, aside from direct financial contribution, is will, the will for art forms to be able to find footing, find an audience and thrive as part of the ethos of what this university is. Of that I have no question.”
This means a return to significant and adventurous programming, she says, with an annual budget of nearly $3 million for presenting. “And while it’s nowhere near the depth and scale that I’d love,” Edmunds says with a sigh, “it’s definitely a significant start, if not yet on the level that UCLA previously enjoyed.” Sefton had been quoted as saying that he worked with around $9 million, but Edmunds said that was a misleading figure for comparison, because he was including significant operating costs and she was talking only about programming.
What’s new with Edmunds is her hands-on development of major projects and her compulsion to bring students and the wider university community into art making. This impulse comes from her own background, having begun as a filmmaker and visual artist from the Pacific Northwest who took a job at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon in her early 20s and made it her business to begin, as she puts it, building a bridge between the artistic community and the institution.
In 1995, Edmunds, in her 20s, founded the Portland Institute of Contemporary Arts, or PICA, making it the center of the modern art community of an increasingly hip and artist-attractive city. At PICA, she also started the Time Based Art Festival, a 10-day event that grew into one of the major performance festivals in the country.
After 10 years running PICA, Edmunds accepted the call to head the Melbourne Festival, a well-funded showcase for international performance. After four years in Australia, she moved to New York, where she helped turn the 19th century Park Avenue Armory into an extravagant 21st century arts venue.
Edmunds’ latest challenge will be to bring all these facets of her past — namely her community-based work in Portland, the large-scale international scope of the Melbourne Festival and the site-specific environmental aspect of the Armory — to UCLA.
She says she’s taking everything about the campus into consideration, beginning with her main venue, 1,800-seat Royce Hall. “I need to understand Royce extremely well,” she says. “I mean from its physical properties, how it works acoustically, how it works on its sightlines, what doesn’t work well but has been put in there anyway.
“And then there must be a rekindling of relationships with theater, film and television for the Freud Playhouse and the Little Theater. I’m investigating Schoenberg Hall, the Sunset Recreation Center and the amphitheater. I’m trying to understand what is possible, so that I can know where best to house and situate work without giving away the farm or leaving Royce empty.”
Even so, she doesn’t exclude working off campus. “I have a primary responsibility to UCLA, but there are certain works in which the venue matters utterly,” she says. “I also want to know what [local artists and colleagues] are doing and what they want to be doing.”
I mention to Edmunds that I sense less student involvement in arts presentations at UCLA than there once was. “I had a chance to watch how the last year of UCLA Live played out,” she affirms, “and I was not seeing a student population in there.
“For many of us, if our life experience has any bearing on today’s world, we experienced usually the first kind of provocation of what we thought something was artistically when we hit university or college. Our horizons got expanded mightily.
“So how do I find the right vehicles for engaging students, ensuring that they can have that experience as well as maintaining a public? How do I make sure students can afford to get here?”
Edmunds’ answer includes a plan to bring everything together by funding artist fellowships and residencies for creating new work in a student environment. “It’s an experiment,” Edmunds admits. “It works by being able to say yes to every possibility we can have. Because when you say no, that closes down everything.”
The first fellowships are to performance artist Anderson and director Wilson, with UCLA offering a commitment to present projects over three consecutive seasons. And Edmunds’ dream is that the artists will take full advantage of the university’s assets, especially ones they don’t even know exist when they first arrive. That was the case with Anderson, who discovered the special collections in the libraries, which, Edmunds describes as having “lit Laurie on fire” when she made her first site visit. “Now, we will determine how to shape the evolving idea of what she wants to make, because of here and for here, and to get behind the presentation of that.”
“With Bob [Wilson], this year is more about planning and discussing. He’ll come out and look at things. In ’13-'14, I will present one if not two of his smaller-scale plays. Then we’ll begin the analysis for a larger one in development.” Meanwhile, Anderson’s latest work, “Dirtday!,” arrives at UCLA next month as part of its West Coast tour.
The fellowships are more about developing and “road-testing” a work in progress. Earlier this year, composer and theater and dance artist Meredith Monk inaugurated the program by work-shopping “On Behalf of Nature” with her vocal ensemble. The piece will now be presented at the Freud Playhouse the third weekend in January. During the workshops, to which students from various disciplines were invited, Monk had “some real breakthroughs,” Edmunds enthuses.
“It’s all about how you adrenalize the work and then see what happens from there.”
The other residencies have gone to L.A. media artists Lars Jan, developing a hybrid of performance, installation and public spectacle to be performed “in a triptych of hydraulically animated, jumbo aquariums,” and choreographer Barack Marshall.
There’s more. Edmunds’ first season has a mix of cutting-edge younger performers such as the self-described weird violinist Hahn-Bin and major presentations by the likes of veteran choreographer Trisha Brown. For 2013-14, she says to expect attention on emerging American theater artists next season.
Meanwhile, this season, she will be traveling to Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Mexico looking at work. “With dance and theater, you don’t just pull it off a YouTube clip,” she jokes.
“But I have to balance the travel against seeing work here. I have spent less time in the course of my career seeing work in L.A. than I have in many other places, and I’ve gone a lot this past year, quietly, to dance and theater in particular.
“There is a lot to contextualize,” she says, which isn’t a bad way to think of both the mission of art and the job of college.