Managed Mayhem



W. Eugene Smith, Jazz Loft, ca. 1959, black-and-white photograph. Courtesy of the Heirs of W. Eugene Smith and the W. Eugene Smith Archive at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.

It’s late August in Brooklyn, and two men are trying to figure out how to hoist a piano up to a third-floor window and then release it so that it smashes onto the sidewalk below. “I think the major issue is just balancing out its weight,” says one. They push open a door to the roof to explore their options. A security alarm goes off; they’re undeterred.

The two men, director Chris McElroen and “professional problem solver” Dan Baker, are part of the team behind Chaos Manor, a multimedia performance inspired by the unconventional life of W. Eugene Smith. In the 1950s, Smith, celebrated for his front-line World War II photography, found himself increasingly at odds with his Life magazine editors. He quit his job and, several years later, embarking on what some might call a midlife crisis and others a visionary project, left his wife and children and moved into a dilapidated Manhattan building frequented not only by “derelicts, hustlers, and thieves” (in the words of his biographer) but also by some of the “biggest names in jazz.” From his fourth-floor apartment, Smith spent the next eight years relentlessly documenting the sights and sounds around him. His forty thousand photographs and 4,500 hours of audio reels captured hundreds of musicians, including legends such as Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, and Roy Haynes. 

If Smith made it his single-minded mission to document the cultural life of a five-story building in Manhattan, Sam Stephenson, in turn, has made it his single-minded mission to chronicle Smith in his loft. With a Jazz Loft Project book, ten-part radio series, and traveling exhibition under his belt—as well as a Smith biography on the way—Stephenson joined forces last November with McElroen to begin another project, this one perhaps a bit more experimental than the rest.

In Chaos Manor, they’re planning a nighttime spectacle that will treat an entire building as a stage set of sorts. video will be projected on the building’s brick facade, a live jazz band will play from within, and actors will appear in and out of windows—all while audience members watch from the blocked-off street below. Their site, the Invisible Dog Art Center, is a former factory turned artists’ space on Bergen Street. It’s the sort of Brooklyn arts venue composed of musty, vast rooms with unfinished wood floors. Knobby garlic-shaped forms from previous exhibitions hang persistently from the rafters. The protean venue is an ideal container for the evening that Stephenson and McElroen envision: the clanking freight elevator, for instance, will house the band for the thirty-five-minute duration of the show. “The band’s going to start in the basement,” Stephenson says, “and slowly make their way up to the top.”

W. Eugene Smith, Jazz Loft, ca. 1959, black-and-white photograph. Courtesy of the Heirs of W. Eugene Smith and the W. Eugene Smith Archive at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.

According to Stephenson, chaos will build gradually throughout the performance, beginning with the sound of trickling water. “The building will be dark, and then one light will come on,” he explains. “Then an actor playing Smith will appear in the window, typing a letter. Character by character will be projected onto the side of the building: ‘Dearest mother, I am as calm as a sleepy lagoon, but I may be a volcano on the verge of eruption.’”

“As cacophony builds [toward] a climactic moment when the piano crashes,” adds Stephenson, “there’ll be the band playing really dissonant, far-out jazz, and a whole bunch of Smith’s tapes playing at once.”

Clearly, Chaos Manor isn’t the sort of production that involves actors delivering lines on a stage, and so rehearsals haven’t been of the recite-and-tweak variety either. Stephenson explains, “Our idea is that it is done in a way that embraces the spirit of the loft, where everything was improvised.” One day of preparations involved the cast reading Smith’s letters and jointly delving into his psyche. “Smith’s persona is exactly like that of Blanche Dubois,” actor Lucy Owens remarked during that session, “with all their posturing and self presentation.” Stephenson noted that the often-grandiose Smith compared his own work to Beethoven’s symphonies and Joyce’s Ulysses.

Several days ago, with a week and a half remaining before showtime, rehearsals had progressed to the point that the cast was now standing in Bergen Street, looking up at the building as technicians tested out front and rear projections on the facade. “That looks good!” cast members yelled toward the third floor as black-and-white footage of Smith’s Life magazine images came into view. At that stage, several actors didn’t even know yet what characters they would be playing. They didn’t seem worried. As with anything this innovative and free-form, one had to wonder: What would be considered a successful performance? Or a failed one?

Reflecting for a moment, McElroen responded, “I don’t think it’s possible to fail if your goal is to make chaos. So I don’t think we could fail unless technology implodes on us and nothing works. But other than that, if we start with Smith in a window and end with Smith in a window, and we see chaos in between those two points, then I think we’ve succeeded.”

Chaos Manor will be performed at the Invisible Dog Art Center, at 51 Bergen Street, on September 16 and 17 at 8:30 P.M.

Dawn Chan is a writer living in New York.

Read Sam Stephenson’s dispatches for The Paris Review Daily here.