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Immersive Theater Pioneer En Garde Arts Re-Emerges

The latest show presented by En Garde Arts, “Red Hills,” a play about the Rwandan genocide, takes place on the entire empty ninth floor of an office building in the Financial District, as I write in  my article for TDF Stages about “Red Hills” , which is running through July 1. “Red Hills” comes 33 years after En Garde’s first shows, which were then called site-specific; they took place in empty streets and abandoned buildings throughout New York, as you can see in this photo gallery. In hindsight, they’ve been labeled immersive, and there’s more on the way.

Founded in 1985 by Ann Hamburger, a then recent graduate of Yale School of Drama, En Garde attracted a Who’s Who of avant-garde collaborators in its first 15 years, some of whom went on to mainstream success. Decades before Tina Landau directed SpongeBob SquarePants on Broadway, she helmed two adaptations of Euripides for En Garde, one staged at the East River Park Amphitheater on the Lower East Side, the other in a pier off Penn Yards, starring Jefferson Mays. En Garde staged Another Person is a Foreign Country, a play by Charles Mee directed by Ann Bogart, in an abandoned, dilapidated nursing home on Central Park West.
The musical JP Morgan Saves The Nation was presented outside Federal Hall, with a score by a young composer named Jonathan Larsen, before he had finished Rent. Father was a Peculiar Man, an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov directed in 1990 by Reza Abdoh (who is the subject of an exhibition currently at P.S. 1) presented some 60 performers at 16 different locations, empty slaughterhouses and cobbled streets, in the Meatpacking District.

In 1999, Hamburger closed up shop to work out West, first at La Jolla Playhouse, overseeing the premiere of Thoroughly Modern Millie, then taking charge of the shows worldwide at Disney’s theme parks and cruises. In 2004, she returned to New York and retooled En Garde Arts.

“What interests me in storytelling, and how I define community, has changed,”

she says. “Community does not only mean a
physical place or neighborhood, it is also a collection of people all
interested in an idea or social issue.  With ‘Basetrack Live,’ it is
active duty servicemen and women, veterans  and their families that
defined our community; and with ‘Wilderness’ it is parents with teenagers
searching for connection and
healing.” A new show, “Undocumented”, will looks at the immigrant experience under the Trump administration.

Still, En Garde Arts continues to seek out unusual sites. Last summer, for example, as part of the River to River Festival, En Garde  put on Harbored at the Winter Garden at Brookfield Place. The piece employed more than 50 performers to dramatize immigrant tales collected from novelist Willa Cather, from explorers Lewis and Clark, and from passersby. And then there’s the ongoing series, BOSSS — which stands for “Big Outdoor Site Specific Stuff.”

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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