Alex Kahn and Sophia Michahelles: 17 Years of of Theme Performances for NY's Village Halloween Parade
THE ART OF PROCESSION:
In 1998, Jeanne Fleming, artistic director of the reknowned New York Village Halloween Parade commissioned Alex Kahn and Sophia Michahelles to design a giant puppet performance to mark the parade's 25th Anniversary . The ensemble of artists, performers, and stage technicians they gathered together to create "Metamorphosis" became known as Superior Concept Monsters (after an old sign that hung on the Parade’s puppet barn in upstate New York). Every year since then, SCM has designed large-scale performances that embody the changing theme for each year’s Parade, eventually branching out to other events nationally and internationally. Our projects evolve over many months, and involve hundreds of volunteers at every stage of the process. Over the years we have developed open community workshops, which we call “puppet-raisings” – that bring hundreds of volunteers together to build, rehearse, and ultimately perform these works.
The resulting pageants employ not only giant puppets, but also elaborate masks and costumes, handmade percussion instruments, mobile architecture and projections of light and shadow – a unique fusion of art forms we call “processional art”. Performing in procession poses a unique set of artistic challenges. Crucial aspects of timing, design, sightlines, and audience interaction all differ greatly from conventional “stationary” theater. Cycling performances recur for ever-changing audiences as the parade moves forward along its linear route, mirroring the cyclical/linear duality of time itself. Because processions often involve hours-long marathons of movement, processional elements must be engineered for lightness, spontaneity, durability, and visibility, while choreography and sound must allow for repetition without sacrificing vitality.
Beyond the technical and artistic challenges, there is also the social artistry involved in coordinating large groups of volunteers with little previous training, into a seamless and vibrant ensemble. Processional art is a sophisticated “total artwork,” not only because of how it fuses movement, form, and ritual, but because it demands inclusiveness. Just as it takes a dozen people acting in concert to animate a single giant puppet, procession is bigger than any one person’s vision (hence “Superior Concept”). It can only be generated through shared creative action, and leaves a shared identity in its wake. Inspired by the power of collective performance, Superior Concept Monsters decided to form a non-profit entity, in order to further its community-based work and to promote understanding of procession as a potent and contemporary artform, and in 2005, Processional Arts Workshop, Inc. was born.
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