NACL Theatre evolves as it enters its second decade of producing, performing, presenting innovative live theatre in Highland Lake.
Text | Tina Spangler
Photographs contributed by NACL
If you’ve ever been to NACL Theatre Highland Lake, NY 1hances are you saw something unexpected, met someone interesting, and left with a newfound appreciation for theatre.
NACL— the acronym for North American Cultural Laboratory—is first and foremost a home for artists, a creative atmosphere to write and perform original theatre. Coming from performance backgrounds, founders Tannis Kowalchuk and Brad Krumholz started the company in 1997 when they were in residence at La MaMa in New York City. Restrictions on space and time for rehearsal were an issue in the city, so the duo soon moved to Sullivan County and set up shop in two historic Highland Lake buildings: a converted Catholic Church and an old Catskills boarding house, christened the Lakewood House.The church was a perfect performance space with its high tin ceilings and wide open space, and the house next door was an ideal setting for the company’s administrative offices and for an artists’ residence.
Canadian-born Kowalchuk and New Jersey native Krumholz envisioned their new home for NACL as a kind of laboratory for North American artists, where new ideas and projects could be developed and workshopped without distraction, where there’s time for experimentation and where new performances could be presented to a live audience. Over the past decade, NACL has thrived as an artist-run theatre company, with a rotating cast of collaborators from the U.S. and Canada, emphasizing ensemble and collaboration in all that it does.
During this time, NACL nurtured and premiered new theatre works such as “The Confessions of Punch and Judy, “10 Brecht Poems” and “The Mystery of Lakewood House”—and then toured around the world. The boarding house provided a home away from home for visiting artists. And for 10 days each summer, NACL hosted an intensive Festival of New Theatre featuring performances, discussions and workshops, topped off each night with organic meals made with local produce.
Yet, over the past several years, the lives of the co-founders have changed. Kowalchuk had a son in 2008 and moved to Pennsylvania to start Willow Wisp Organic Farm with her husband, Greg Swartz. Meanwhile, Krumholz began a PhD program at The City University of New York. NACL has changed along with them, and 2011 marks a fresh direction for the company.
This year, NACL introduces the monthly Deep Space Series, which will present innovative performances from June to October. Guest performers are invited to be in residence for one week leading up to their live Sunday afternoon performance. “A monthly series is a bit more manageable during the summer months, now that I am farming,” says Kowalchuk. “We chose Sundays to avoid competition by other arts groups, and we want to have a Sunday Supper for the community after the shows. If you are a weekender, you can see the 4 p.m. show, eat some food and leave for the city by 7.”
The theater is also adjusting to the new economy, and the Deep Space Series reflects a paradigm shift and a move toward a barter economy. “We are likely to have less funding from the New York State Council for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts,” Kowalchuk says. “We cannot afford the performance fees that we used to pay visiting artists. So, we decided to offer each group who comes to perform at NACL a week of subsidized living and work space. It is our way to ‘pay’ them and to support their work and creative development. In exchange, they present their performance to our community.”
Somehow, Kowalchuk has found time in the past year to develop new works at NACL. “The Little Farm Show” is a new play that has connected a lot of her current interests: organic farming, collaborative performance, children and families. The performance, created by Kowalchuk with Brett Keyser, is a fast paced, musical theatre performance that asks, “Where does our food come from?” The performance is an entertaining collage of sideshow acts that include scenes about the history of the universe, the history of farming, and how an organic farm operates. “The Little Farm Show” has begun to tour to schools, theatres, and festivals across the region, and this summer will be presented at farmers’ markets in Sullivan County.
Kowalchuk and Keyser also traveled this winter to Guadalajara, Mexico for six weeks to research and rehearse a new performance entitled “EXILIO: My Life as Bolaño.” The project involves NACL, Canadian and Mexican theatre artists and is an examination of different states of exile experienced by those who live in foreign cultures, either by choice or through necessity. The piece is inspired by the writings of Roberto Bolaño, who spent most of his life outside his native Chile. In October, the international ensemble will work at NACL for six weeks and present the work at NACL and at HERE Arts Center in New York City.
A tradition of training
In addition to presenting new theatre works, NACL is committed to performer training. According to the NACL website, “Training is the foundation and ‘internal structure’ of our work as creative theatre artists. It is a practice that is not book research, but rather, work on the physical, the vocal, and the creative impulse and ability inside each actor.”
For the past decade, NACL has offered a summer training retreat open to actors, dancers and directors. The retreat is an immersion into the training practice, led by Kowalchuk, Keyser and NACL associate artist Ker Wells. This year’s retreat in June will be attended by artists from Canada, the U.S. and Japan and will include workshops, lodging and organic meals. Some participants will also do a work study at Willow Wisp Organic Farm as part of the retreat experience.
In a year of change, NACL continues to evolve and strengthen its role in the community. “I hope that our presence here can inspire an appreciation for professional independent theatre, and that we can continually evolve and improve our own work, like our artistic counterparts in other parts of the world,” Kowalchuk says.
ACL Season Schedule
NACL Performer Training Retreat
Sunday, June 26, 4 p.m
“Present DARWINII: The Comeuppance of Man,”
performed by Brett Keyser, written by Glen Berger (playwright of Broadways’ Spiderman). Sunday Supper to follow in NACL back yard.
Sunday, July 17, 4 p.m.
“Buddha and The Rockstar,” by Rosaruby Kagan of Montreal (see picture attached—woman with head in bucket). Sunday Supper to follow in NACL backyard.
Saturday, August 13
“The Little Farm Show”
Barryville Farmers Market. Free
Sunday, August 14
“The Little Farm Show”
Callicoon Farmers Market. Free
Sunday, August 28, 4 p.m.
“Present Stray Dog,” a collaboration with Laura Moran, NACL. Sunday Supper to follow in NACL backyard.
Sunday, September 25
“Seed Circus” – NACL and The Greenhorns present performances: “The Little Farm Show,” Film: “
The Greenhorns,” seed saving workshops, stilt
walking, short agrarian plays, axe making, sauerkraut making, live music, pigs, great local food.
Sunday, October 16
“Josephine,” by Mimi McGurl at NACL
Friday & Saturday, November 25/26, 8 p.m.
“EXILIO” Performances at NACL
“EXILIO” in NYC at HERE Arts Center