On the Boards, Seattle’s flagship venue for experimental dance, theater and performance art, has hired its fourth new artistic director in 40 years — Rachel Cook, coming from DiverseWorks in Houston, Texas. She starts Jan. 2.
On the Boards, Seattle’s premiere venue for onstage experimentation, has announced a new artistic director — Rachel Cook, coming from her job as curator at DiverseWorks, an art, performance and literary center in Houston.
Cook, who starts in her new position Jan. 2, will be the fourth artistic director at On the Boards, replacing Lane Czaplinski, who left the theater for the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University in March.
This year, On the Boards is celebrating its 40th anniversary of experimental theater, dance, music, performance art, avant-garde slapstick and everything else that slips between those cracks. Its list of locally incubated — and internationally renowned — artists could be a graduate-school syllabus: Bill T. Jones, Laurie Anderson, Spalding Gray, Pat Graney, The Wooster Group, Crystal Pite, Sankai Juku, Diamanda Galás, Dumb Type, Mark Morris, Romeo Castellucci, Spalding Gray, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Zoe Scofield and Juniper Shuey, Bruno Beltrão, Reggie Watts, Constanza Macras and Dorky Park.
And that only scratches the surface.
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Cook grew up in Houston, earned an undergraduate degree at the San Francisco Art Institute and a graduate degree in curatorial studies from Bard College before heading back to Texas and DiverseWorks.
Why is Cook coming to On the Boards? What were her past high-water and low-water marks? What was the toughest question in her job interview? She answers — and occasionally dodges — the questions below. (The following Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
1: What attracted you to On the Boards/Seattle? What made this an attractive place for you to plant your flag?
What attracted me to On the Boards was their call and the way it was written — some of the value statements like racial equity, the shared leadership model they were interested in. It was so, so refreshing to hear people talk that way. DiverseWorks and On the Boards are sister organizations, in a way. We were founded similarly, with a collective of artists. DiverseWorks was always a multidisciplinary institution: visual, performance, literary. I’m very interested in that slippage in the middle of those things, the conversation in between.
2: And planting your flag? What will that look like?
I see the job slightly differently than “planting a flag.” I see it as a collaboration with the institution itself. I say this phrase a lot: “learning how to look forward and backward at the same time, but being firmly planted in the present.” I’m really interested in learning more about On the Boards, digging into the archives, but also very interested in thinking forward in the community, with the institution, with the artists about what we can dream up together. The imagination part.
It’s really rare to have an arts organization that is so interested in championing the artistic process — allowing that freedom and flexibility.
3: Are there high-water marks and low-water marks you’ve learned from? Those could be projects that worked or didn’t work, could be broad ideas that soared beyond expectations or fell flat, whatever you like.
I keep reminding myself to not be afraid to lean into things I don’t know about. A lot of people, as they grow more mature in their career, forget about the pleasure of looking at stuff and being 100 percent present with the work and with the artists.
And keep being creative — institutions are not stagnant things. You can reinvent them, reinvent the structures of them.
3.5: It sounds like you’re slipping around pointing to specifics about high-water marks and low-water marks — stuff that looked good on paper but didn’t go so well, or stuff that looked mediocre on paper but soared far beyond what you’d imagined.
I learn those things with each project. I tend to see stuff in not such qualitative, black-and-white terms. I don’t think there’s an artistically perfect project. You just have to always trust your instincts. In the back of your mind, you know the projects that are going to be difficult. You have hunches about projects that aren’t quite ready to be made public.
4: What was the most difficult question in your job interview with people at On the Boards?
I don’t remember one single most difficult question — the thing I was most struck by was how much so many individuals were very, very invested, asking how I dealt with failure, what I learned from an artistic project, how I think about racial equity.
At one point I jokingly said to Betsey (Brock, executive director of On the Boards): ‘This kind of feels like ‘Inside the Actors Studio’ or an interview with Terry Gross.” But in this day and age when so many cultural spaces or ways of being in the world are under threat, being able to work and live in a space where you have an active and vocal community — you want to run to that.
5: Anything in particular (artists, works, general aesthetic tides) we should look forward to in your first few seasons here?
I’m definitely going to bring a Southern style, for sure. I grew up in Houston and I’m interested in thinking about the Gulf Coast, and thinking about the Pacific Northwest as a region and the work being made in that cluster of cities. My first project will be a combination of researching the On the Boards archives and lots of studio visits.
Of course, things will change — what will our world look like a year from now? We’re in this political/social reality that’s changing so rapidly.