A Performance Project in Progress

Co-Created by
Ben Gassman & Brandon Woolf

Culinary Theater is a new, neighborhood-food-based project that playwright Ben Gassman and I are developing as 2018-19 artists-in-residence at the Performance Project @ University Settlement. What is a neighborhood? What does it mean to be a neighbor? What do the senses have to do with community? Why should 70 year olds and 17 year olds want to sit down and eat together? What do they have to learn from each other? These are some of the questions Culinary Theater will engage with as we utilize cooking and the sharing of kitchen knowledge as occasions for communication, intimate encounter, and ultimately performance that helps us see, smell, and taste more clearly what we most want out of our neighborhoods and from our neighbors.

Following the lead of Chinese van companies that shuttle people between lower Manhattan and Sunset Park, lower Manhattan and Elmhurst, undercutting the subway and going direct, we want to explore a different sort of intersectionality and interconnectivity, the veins of the city whole, that don’t necessarily announce themselves on the maps we’re used to – or on any project by Mr. Bourdain or Mr. Ansari. Hungry ethnographers, working to keep our appetites transparent and their caloric costs on the table, we will talk to and eat with potential collaborators on their home turfs, recruiting younger residents to spend time with older neighbors (and us) in their homes learning how to cook traditional, familial recipes. From this living archive of collaborative, inter-generational and inter-cultural encounter, we will (somehow) construct an inter-sensorial theater work about the richness and complexities of evolving neighborhood texture – in both its congeniality and its antagonism. We are not sure just yet how this performance will look or taste. Perhaps: Dinner theater meets Carolee Schneemann. Rachel Ray meets Rirkrit Tiravanija. We are interested in the culinary as a method and medium of intergenerational exchange – political and artistic. Bertolt Brecht used “culinary” to mark the ways our lives and traditions have been packaged – and plastic wrapped – for easy consumption and digestion: TV dinner at the theatre. We are working to re-ironize the “culinary,” with a return to “slow food”: hearty conversation, celebration, big ideas, bar-room-banter, kvetching, and debate. Delicious yet purposeful. And always also painfully aware of the ways our cultural food fetishes risk being both catalyst and symptom of larger-scale problems with the ways those very cultures are “experienced,” “cherished,” and potentially exploited, erased, or flattened.