Gravitation Generator: Rachel Chanoff On MASS Moca, Sundance Institute & Celebrate Brooklyn 2013

Rachel Chanoff has been working in performing arts and film for 30 years and is the founder and director of THE OFFICE performing arts + film, a New York City-based programming, consulting, and production company. She is the Curator of Performing Arts and Film for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), Director of Programming of the CenterSeries at the ’62 Center for Theater and Dance at Williams College, Consultant to the Feature Film and Theater Programs for the Sundance Institute, a member of the New York Jewish Film Festival selection committee, and Curator of Music and Family programming at 92YTribeca, and the Artistic Director of Celebrate Brooklyn!, New York’s longest running free outdoor performing arts and film festival. Rachel is also proud to serve on the board of the 52nd Street Project, The Jewish Fund for Justice, The Builders Association, and Working Films. She is also a long time participant in the Theater Development Fund’s Open Doors program, which introduces underserved high school students to the theater.

Celebrate Brooklyn! has just announced its 2013 schedule which includes a jaw-dropping eclectic array of artists based locally and from all over the world consisting of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Os Mutantes, The Waterboys, Trampled By Turtles, Jamie Liddell, Dan Deacon, Big Boi, They Might Be Giants and others.

Tractor Beam: Why did you get into the performing arts? 

My parents loved music and were theatergoers and took me to a lot of performances. I aspired to be a director, but studied religion in college.

DE: How did you first become involved with Celebrate Brooklyn at The Prospect Park Bandshell? What were the first years like for you? 

I was already programming the performing arts center at SUNY purchase and working for Sundance, when I heard that Celebrate Brooklyn was looking for someone to do the programming.  I dialed up Nanette Rainone and threw myself at her feet, because I knew that Celebrate Brooklyn would be my dream job.

DE: What does a typical day for an Artistic Director entail? Tell us a little about The Office’s team. 

The Office is a hilarious cultural crockpot. There are 5 of us; we’re working on 9 projects with ever -looming deadlines and a complicated mix of collaborators. We all program, but also each have another area of specialization. for instance, Olli programs and writes all of the brochures for institutional partners and Nadine programs and does all the contracts. I’m super blessed to have four geniuses working for me – I basically just bask in their reflected glory.

DE: As the curator of numerous performing arts and film venues The Office is a powerhouse in the performing arts world. How did The Office start? 

I started the office because I didn’t want to focus on just one thing. I’m curious about film and music and dance and I love being part of all of those communities. I also wanted to work in a politics free environment, where I could wear sweatpants and bring my flatulent dog.

What the office does best is work with institutions to figure out the most resonant programs for their communities. We love to be at the beginning of things, to help create accessible, interesting, engaging and surprising cultural experiences.

DE: What are some of your favorite programs of previous seasons? What are you some you are looking forward to?

Producing is more satisfying than presenting; the investment of creativity, blood, sweat and tears and the feeling of realizing a piece from just an idea is so engaging and daunting–that’s the most fun. We’re so proud of so many of them.

Rewind which is a cantata based on the text of the South African truth and reconciliation commission was a particular favorite. It has four South African soloists, an octet and a local choir of 100 voices. We’ve done it all over the world and because of the local chorus component, we’ve really been able to connect deeply to each city where its been produced. The social justice factor is also very compelling for us.

DE: What are three keys to gaining your interest in producing a project through one of your venues? How important is a theme to the direction of programming?

1: Is it unique?
2: Does it have a social agenda that appeals to us?
3: Are the collaborators fun? We have a “no asshole” policy at the office.

DE: How would you describe the major differences between curating Celebrate Brooklyn! and running a more traditional, large music venue like Barclay’s Center or Terminal 5?

We strive to give Celebrate Brooklyn and every place that we work a strong curatorial voice. The mix of events needs to be smart and excellent and surprising and a catalyst for discovery! Commercial venues are driven by that almighty dollar.

DE: In regards to music, theater, cinematic and client productions – such as your long-term relationship with Hal Wilner – how closely do you get involved with the creative development of these projects?

Each case is different and there is no model. We’ve been thrilled and honored to work with Hal. I’ve learned so much from him and he’s a mad visionary. Often, I’ve brought him an idea like Leonard Cohen or Bill Withers or the music of the civil rights movement and he’s created a show that is so singularly his, so illuminating and special that one can only marvel at his crazy talent.