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BWW Interview: Mara Lieberman, Director of BENEATH THE GAVEL, Discusses the Cross-Pollination of the Art and Theatre Worlds

Bated Breath Theatre Company, under the leadership of Executive Artistic Director Mara Lieberman, presents the NYC debut of its acclaimed immersive theater experience, BENEATH THE GAVEL, at 59E59 Theaters. The piece, drops its audience into the center of an art auction, giving them a behind the scenes look of the art world with a theatrical twist.

With the show in it's final week, BroadwayWorld had the opportunity to chat with the show's writer and director, Mara Lieberman, on all things art and theatre, as well as how she prepares for a night of audience interaction.

Check it out, below!

So, what is BENEATH THE GAVEL about?

BENEATH THE GAVEL is the story, well, I call it the biography of a painting from conception to auction. It traces the paintings, artists and commissioner through the course of the painting's lifetime and all the people involved with the painting. It is also an immersive experience that begins when an audience member buys a ticket. The audience gets play money, a paddle, auction booklet and funky glasses, and gets to bid on art with play money and actually take work home. Simultaneously, we are looking at the white-hot art market, this crazy phenomenon that's been a part of the art market, where art is seen as sometimes just as asset to be flipped, and all the players in art world, in art history and now, that have contributed to the white-hot art market phenomenon.

With the interaction, can elements of the story change each night, or are the audience members more like bystanders?

We work in typical theatre style, that's surrealistic, therefore the narrative is intricately constructed, choreographed, in order to change space and time on stage with the body. You have to have that level of really intense physical training. So, I would say that there are moments where the play opens for interaction with the audience during auction scenes, and there's a scene in which we go behind the scenes of an auction house and we get to follow the director of operations through her day as she interfaces with all these famous people and artists. So the play is an interesting balance of participation and observation.

Not only are you directing the piece, but you wrote it as well, correct?

Yes, and I'm also the artistic director of Bated Breath, and we work in an ensemble early on in the process, where we devise pieces based on research I've done and certain narrative points that I think I would like to hit. This piece is also largely inspired by Barbra Strogin, who has worked for over 26 years, in the fine art auction industry. She has trained auctioneers, and has actually trained us to do the auction.

So, she personally helped you with this piece?

Yeah, she trains these auctioneers, including us, and she's our partner in crime, so to speak. A lot of her stories are directly in the play, and she's been really inspirational. I consider her part of the team as our art world consultant. So, anyways, we begin this process of devising, in which we record video and everything that goes on, and then I go away for a period of writing. So, it's a very interesting combination, I think, of live theatre and more traditional writing. But, because we use the bodies so expressively to tell stories, being a rehearsal room with the company is a vital piece of the process.

As you stated before, you're the Executive Artistic Director of Bated Breath. Can you tell us more about the company?

Oh, yes. We partner with museums to create original theatre inspired by their exhibition. We really love the cross-pollination of museum patrons and theatre patrons. We're very passionate about the decline in both theatre and museum audiences, and we feel like our particular brand of interactive, immersive, physical, very energized, blurring the boundaries of the performance, is a great way to get people connected to the material on exhibit, and it is, so far, been a very exciting adventure for us. This is really different for us, to be using a traditional theatre space. I'm usually in a site specific place, using the architecture of the museum as a character in many way. But, this piece grew out of a desire to have a piece that speaks to museums on a more global now. Not based on a exhibition, but what's better than really looking at the art world and the meaning of what's hanging on the walls in museums and how they got to be there. In many ways, I think that this is a love song to museums because the play really asks the question of "Who does art belong to?" There's a lot of really famous art that's sitting in storage and shipping containers in offshore shelters and other countries, and is art's supposed to be a financial vehicle or is a conservator of culture and something that belongs to everybody as a way to tell the story of our culture and civilization?

This isn't the first place you performed BENEATH THE GAVEL, right?

Right. We opened this at The New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut, where we are based. But, we only had six performances there before we booked this.

So, what's different in your approach in terms of a traditional theatre space, rather than a museum?

One of the exciting things about working with a museum is that the set is the walls, painting, the light coming in the skylight, the aesthetic values of a museum, certainly creates an atmosphere. So, in some ways it's funny trying to turn a the theater into a museum or a gallery space. And, of course, it's a black box, so we did the best we can on a limited budget. But, what's really exciting for me is that there's a lot of projections in the show, and a lot of short movies, that the characters interact with, and this is the first time they've been in actual black out, because we're always dealing with ambient light in a museum space. So, it's phenomenal to look at all the production elements that can support this narrative and physical style, as well as the immersive qualities. I'm thrilled. My training has been in traditional theatre, so I didn't realize how much I would love bringing it to a traditional theatre space. I don't think I've seen anything like it. And, I'm not trying to brag, I just think it's really unusual, and the way we act with the patrons. Even know, we are interacting with audiences members via email through our characters.


So, the performances are happening right now as audiences members are emailing characters. And they don't know that the characters aren't real people. It's definitely an experience of surprise and the blurring of the boundaries by breaking expectations in a different way than other immersive pieces.

BENEATH THE GAVEL drops the audience into the epicenter of the white-hot art market to explore the rise of branded art in the collision of High Art and High Finance. Based on stories from auction world insiders, this immersive, physical theatre piece gives the audience an unforgettable inside look at the only market - besides the stock market - to show up on the front pages of every major newspaper. The show also includes opportunities for the audience to bid on and take home real works of art. Not a Rockefeller? Bated Breath Theatre Company will provide the (fake) money.

For more information and tickets to see BENEATH THE GAVEL, click here.

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