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Brazilian artist plans street theater at High Line

On one busy street corner in Manhattan, things are about to get even odder, if that's possible.
/ Source: The Associated Press

On one busy street corner in Manhattan, things are about to get even odder, if that's possible.

Pedestrians who find themselves at the intersection of Tenth Avenue and 17th Street in Chelsea later this month might come across someone in a black leotard dancing awkwardly through the crosswalk, or a woman rushing by in only a skimpy hospital gown, or someone in a helmet crossing the avenue attached to a billowy parachute, or a man walking dollar bills on a leash.

It's all part of the world premiere of Brazilian artist Michel Melamed's very public play "SEEWATCHLOOK," a series of 28 scenes performed free from Oct. 6-16 that explore the boundary between show and reality. The eight hourlong shows will be performed at night, from Thursday to Sunday.

"The question is what do you see when you look at what you watch," says Melamed, a director, playwright and actor who has had his work shown at P.S. 122, The Public Theatre's Under The Radar Festival and was a 2007 member of Lincoln Center Directors Lab. "You must open your eyes to see more than the first layer."

The new work takes advantage of being directly in line with a seating area and windows of an elevated stand on the High Line, the long abandoned, 1.45-mile-long elevated railroad that once carried freight, and now a lush, green pedestrian artery.

Melamed, 38, hopes some of the 2 million annual visitors to the High Line will sit and watch his increasingly more elaborate scenes — jolting them out of their pedestrian trances.

"It's like a 24-hour stage," he says.

He's already gotten the attention of the federal government. During a recent rehearsal, Melamed sent two actors — one dressed as an Orthodox Jew and the other as a bearded Muslim — into the crosswalk. They met in the middle and then a briefcase that one was holding accidentally opened, spilling out dozens of condoms. The two men work together to stuff them back into the briefcase before the traffic light changes.

The bizarre sight, like the rest of the scenes, is supposed to make watchers re-examine their expectations. It apparently had that effect on an official with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Melamed was unaware that a building abutting the intersection is an agency office until an official came out to ask what was going on. Security cameras ringing the outside of the building had captured the strange rehearsal and DEA members were watching with curiosity and alarm. (Melamed has since moved a staging area for his actors away from that building.)

The incident, he says, proved his point: The DEA's reaction — concern — says something about the way its agents see the world. Others who saw the same incident might break down laughing or cheer, illustrating that how one reacts to something he or she see depends on each individual.

One of his most challenging images will be of a small, fluffy dog out for a walk who is dressed in an orange jumpsuit, goggles and face mask — like an inmate at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Though Melamed hasn't gotten permits from the city to perform his show, he says he doesn't really need them, since his actors won't be blocking traffic. There won't be any indication that a performance is being produced until the end, when he and his team hands out programs to the audiences — whether they knew they were indeed an audience or not. He will also be filming a documentary for Brazilian cable about his experience.

The High Line, which originally opened in 1934, has been enormously popular with tourists and New Yorkers alike since the first section opened as a park in 2009. It also has attracted artists interested in using the unusual space for open-air film screenings, sound installations, sculptures, dance performances and the like.

"It's great that the High Line inspires people to use the park as their stage," says Kate Lindquist, the director of communications and marketing for Friends of the High Line, which is aware of Melamed's upcoming work but is playing no role in it. "Spontaneous and planned performance is part of what makes the High Line a vibrant public space."

The work is specifically made for the intersection and Melamed got more than 300 resumes when he advertised for between 12-14 actors. While the performers are encouraged to interact with pedestrians, their parts have also been carefully written by the artist.

A few days ago, a friend sent him a picture of a homeless man and asked if he had started performances. "That's very deep, in fact," Melamed said. "Are you saying that a homeless man is an actor? What is reality and what is fiction in this case?" And if the man photographed is an actor, do we care less? Or more? Does it even matter?

"Life is special — or it's not," he said. "It belongs to you."




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