Ryan Conarro’s usual artistic realm is the stage — either on it, as an actor, or beside it, as a teaching artist, director and playwright. But over the next few weeks he’ll be stepping out of that familiar frame of reference into a new zone: the art gallery at the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council. It’s a move that’s prompted changes in how his art is created and presented, and one that’s likely to provoke shifts in audience members’ experiences, as well.
“It’s been a great journey for me — and I’m still on it — to understand and sort of internalize the idea that this is a gallery, it’s not a theater event,” Conarro said.
On First Friday, Conarro will debut his original performance installation, “this hour forward,” which will include video projections, static images, an original soundtrack and live performance. Conarro said he’s pared down the performance aspect over time so that it doesn’t dominate, abandoning initial plans to sing on First Friday, for example.
“The live performance part has been getting simpler and I think that’s good," he said. “It’s almost more like a presence than a performance. I’m really trying to view what I’m doing live as being one art object in the space of many, so it doesn’t become the primary source of attention.”
One of the big differences between his work for theater and this project, he said, was the way he had to approach the concept of time and adapt to a venue that isn’t geared toward narrative structure like a theater. On First Friday, people will be coming and going from the gallery space all evening, and he’ll have no control over how much of his piece they will see, when they’ll come in, or in what order they will view things.
“I think that’s been part of the challenge for me, and sometimes the headache,” he said. “I took a story idea, but I can’t control how the story is experienced the way you can in a theater setting. It’s definitely an experiment in that way.”
Conarro’s piece focuses on themes of love and marriage, drawing on those concepts to explore larger questions of identity and the roles we play in our relationships and in society. Three concurrent events in his life prompted him to begin work on “this hour forward”: his brother was preparing to get married, his own serious relationship had just ended, and the United States Supreme Court was revisiting the fairness of the Defense of Marriage Act, and with it the idea of the “legitimacy” of same-sex marriage. As Conarro sifted through his reactions to these events, and struggled with some unexpected emotions, he realized he wanted to push some of his questions past the personal realm into something more transformative.
“I realized ... that the topic and the context around marriage and commitment and gay marriage and gay rights were sort of fraught emotionally for me and that’s what made me think maybe I should work with this a little bit more,” Conarro said.
His current work in the master’s program at Goddard College, where he is focusing on interdisciplinary arts, provided additional motivation for making the project happen, as did his existing strong interest in interview-based theater and documentary -- explored through plays such as Perseverance Theatre’s “50 Stars of Gold” which he co-wrote in 2008, and New-York based Theater Mitu’s “Juárez: A Documentary Mythology”, which he helped develop and acted in this past summer. The interview element appears in his current project with a twist: he is both observer and subject in “this hour forward.” But though there are strong elements of self-examination in the piece, and though the themes are highly personal, its development as an artwork has allowed him to distance himself from it a bit, and to view himself as a persona within it, rather than having it be a reflection of his own story.
“In the creation of the show I realized that at some point it’s become its own thing. It’s not me anymore,” he said.
For audience members who come to the show, he hopes this distinction is clear.
“I hope that the audience will be able to look at it as a piece of art, an artistic work, and sort of separate that from me, if they do know me,” he said.
The distance between artist and artwork is one of the things that intrigued him about doing the project in the first place, Conarro said, specifically how that distance operates in the theatrical arts versus the visual arts.
“I like it when a visual artist says ‘I painted this after my mother died, that’s what inspired this,’ and if I see something in the painting that I can connect to that emotional story, I like that, it helps me interpret the artwork,” he said. “But on the other hand, with a performance artist, if it’s a personal story, I sometimes find them self indulgent, or it feels like it’s supposed to be therapy. I don’t know how well I can objectively evaluate this piece anymore .... so I’ll be interested to get people’s feedback on that.”
Among the personas Conarro adopts for this piece are roles as groom and bride, for which he will don traditional groom and bride attire.
“That has become a big part of the work, wearing the dress and the tux and thinking about gender roles and straight marriage and gay marriage,” he said. “It’s more about what those things indicate than what they are — the dress and the tux. It’s been really fun to go down that line of questioning and start to play with the material: ‘What happens if I Photoshop myself into an image wearing this?’’”
Questions of identity and roles can be particularly intense in the gay community, Conarro said, for multiple reasons.
“It’s such a mysterious topic, that sense of identity,” he said. “This culture puts hetero and homo in such stark divisions, it’s interesting.”
Other images in the show feature text from newspaper articles about DOMA and other issues, such as gay parenting.
“Another thing I’ve been thinking about is what is the responsibility of artists, and I think, in this case, maybe it’s not responsibility, but it can be a helpful dynamic thing in the community to acknowledge the political aspect and maybe to point to it a little bit. So I decided to go ahead and put some things in that are directly referencing some of the issues around gay and lesbian rights.”
Conarro first came to Alaska as an AmeriCorps volunteer in 2001, working in Nome as a broadcast journalist for KNOM Radio. After returning to New York for a bit, he arrived in Juneau to perform with Perseverance Theatre a few years later, and is now a company member with the theater. His projects with them have included direction of last season’s “A Christmas Carol,” and the role of Lynn Schooler in the theater’s world premiere of “The Blue Bear”, as well as co-writing credit on “Eight Stars of Gold (with Maia Nolan)”, commissioned for the state’s 50th and the theater’s 30th anniversaries. He is also a founding member of Generator Theater Company, with whom his projects include “Shakespeare’s R&J” and “True West,” and an adjunct artist with Theatre Mitu, based in New York. Locally he has also directed shows for Opera to Go and for Juneau Douglas High School, among many other projects.
Conarro is also an active teaching artist through the state arts council’s Artists in Schools program, which has taken him all over the state. His current project involves classroom work at both Thunder Mountain High School and Glacier Valley Elementary, where he is coordinating a project focused on storytelling through puppetry in seven different classrooms. Previously he worked as resident drama teaching artist at Glacier Valley; in 2008. the school’s production of “Tides and the Tempest,” written by Dave Hunsaker, went all the way to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., after winning the center’s Creative Ticket National Schools of Distinction Award; it was the first Alaska school to achieve that honor.
Lately, Conarro said he’s been moving toward more experimentation in his work, a goal that has dovetailed with an interest in original work and with his master’s degree program at Goddard College.
In March, Conarro and his sister Sarah, also a local artist, produced an original performance installation called “keep coming back because..." which included theatrical performance, original songs, visual art and projections. Conarro said that show turned out to be more theater-based than visual arts-based, whereas the current show, produced in a gallery, emphasizes the latter.
As a genre, performance art is typically known for being nontraditional in format and structure and for its fluidity within media. Use of the term started in the 1960s, according to the Museum of Modern Art, to refer to different types of live art events and performance pieces. In some cases, the artform can emphasize the idea of art as something conceptual, rather than as an object that can be owned or captured in time.
Conarro said “this hour forward” is a work in progress that is likely to change over the course of the performances. He’s looking forward to hearing what people think about the show.
“It will be interesting to see how people experience it and read it. Because I do think it can take a different kind of engagement than looking at a painting or seeing a play. I think both can actually be more passive than performance art, which might some take more effort to find the deeper meaning in.”
“this hour forward” will be on view all month at the JAHC Gallery. Conarro will be performing several times as part of the exhibit: First Friday, from 4:30-7 p.m.; Thursday, Oct. 10 from 5-7 p.m.; Friday, Oct. 11 from 5-7 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 19 5-7 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 20 2-4 p.m. For more information visit www.jahc.org and ryanconarro.com.