HUDSON, NY – Imagine a movie projected onto a screen in an elegant hall. The images are clear, even familiar, but something is missing – the original sound is gone. Instead, a performer standing in front of the screen offers a new audio option – maybe a poem, some music, even dance.
Welcome to A Night of Neo-Benshi. It was first held in 2019 to launch the Flow Chart Foundation’s public program and returns to Hudson Hall for the third time.
The evening opens FCF’s first Gathering weekend celebrating its new Flow Chart Space. The nonprofit was founded in 1998 by Pulitzer Prize winner John Ashbery, a part-time Hudson resident who died in 2017 and would have been 95 that year.
“It’s very simple,” said Jeffrey Lependorf, FCF executive director. “We take clips from films, remove dialogue and sound, and then neo-benshi artists create new dialogue. You could lip-sync it, do a voice-over, or something poetic that’s completely at odds with the actions. But they can’t help but talk to each other. You are fully visible when standing in front of the screen. It’s not improvised, it takes a lot of practice.”
“I’m doing the famous Stella scene from ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,'” Lependorf said. “The lyrics I’m using is a poem by John Ashbery, I found lines that match her moving lips.
“Madhur Anand, a wonderful poet, comes down from Toronto. She’s also an environmental scientist, so she’s going to combine poetry and science in Attack of the Mushroom People, one of the great B movies. “There’s even dancing to ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,’ while one performs the lyrics, their partner dances. It’s going to be great fun.”
Other clips are “Anna Karenina”; “The women;” and “The Thousand Faces of Dunjia”.
New this year is the premiere of a 15-minute film, Black Spring, by poet and performer Tracie Morris.
“It’s a really beautiful film that she conceived as a visual poem that she sometimes calls ‘Not-a-Neo-Benshi,'” Lependorf said.
“The other six films are performed live and range from beautiful lyrics to the ridiculous and goofy. The whole program lasts maybe 65 minutes. You will want more.”
In the silent film era 100 years ago, he explained, viewers at film screenings in Japan were often amazed at what they saw.
“Benshi artists — short for a longer word meaning ‘moving, narrating person’ — would sit in front of the screen and engage in dialogue, perhaps reciting a poem, explaining the context. They were highly paid, even famous. Of course, when talkies came along, everyone lost their jobs. Twenty years ago, a couple of Bay Area poets created neo-benshi, a type of poet theater. [using] 10-minute excerpts from modern films.”
“I attended one a few years ago and it was just such a great time, so I knew I wanted to use it to start our public programs.”
FCF’s original mission, he explained, was to explore poetry and the interrelationships of different art forms.
“Ashbery was not only a poet but also a visual artist, wrote a lot of art and loved music,” said Lependorf, also a musician, opera composer and director of Art Omi’s international music residency. “He was very interested in how the arts informed each other. I’ve been reading his work since college.”
Each Neo-Benshi is unique and only performed once.
“It’s always a diverse group,” Hudson Hall chief executive Tambra Dillon said over the phone. “Jeffrey has attended every year and has been presenters as well. There was a musical neo-benshi, a dance-like one, even unspoken. It makes a lot of fun. Each film is 5 to 7 minutes long and runs at fairly fair intervals.”
“In the past we sold it out with a capacity of 300. With social distancing we’re looking at somewhere between 150 and 200.”
Hudson Hall in the historic Hudson Opera House is a landmark building on Warren Street, Hudson’s premier shopping street. Built in 1855 as City Hall, with City Hall on the second floor, “everything happened there,” Dillon said, “from high-profile to low-brow.”
On both the speaking circuit and the variety circuit, Susan B. Anthony spoke there three times, Teddy Roosevelt spoke there, firefighters had their annual ball there.
By 1962, however, the Warren Street section was “pretty much completely deserted,” Dillon said. Concerned that the building would not survive, local businesses banded together and bought it.
“The building has been restored brick by brick for 30 years,” said Dillon. “The 2017 restoration of the performance hall was the most monumental step, with an elevator tower that is fully accessible.”
The evening is part of a diverse cultural program.
“Our programs are responsive to and reflect the community,” said Dillon. “We have so much local talent in our backyard, we have access to an incredible range of artists.”
This autumn, Irish theater company Gare St Lazare Players are making a return visit with a solo show trilogy of Samuel Beckett’s works: Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable.
“Your one-man adaptation of ‘Moby-Dick’ – Hudson was a whaling town – was a huge hit, audiences just love it,” said Dillon.
Also this fall, the Bard College Conservatory of Music will present the Chinese opera Painted Skin; and the acclaimed Harlem Quartet will perform a Clarion “Leaf Peepers” concert.
“It’s hard to describe Neo-Benshi,” said Dillon, “It’s like karaoke meets film. Some of them are hilarious, some are quite serious and poetic, some are performative. We usually never know what’s going to happen until we see it come together on stage.”
“I have great faith in Jeffrey,” she added.
“This is cabaret cinema,” says Lependorf. “You don’t have to be a poetry expert to have a great time.”
when you go
“A Night of Neo-Benshi”
What: Flow chart cabaret cinema
Where: Hudson Hall, Hudson Opera House, 327 Warren St., Hudson, NY
When: 7 p.m., July 30
Reservations and information: 518-822-1438, hudsonhall.org