How NY PopsUp Aims to Get the Performing Arts Industry Back to Work

In recent weeks, New Yorkers might have stumbled upon a socially distanced pop-up performance by Jon Batiste at the Javits Center, or one by Patti Smith at the Brooklyn Museum. They were both part of NY PopsUp, the joint public-private program announced by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and overseen by Scott Rudin and Jane Rosenthal, promising hundreds of arts events across all five boroughs of New York City and beyond between now and Labor Day. Variety talked with NY PopsUp Artistic Director Zack Winokur and tap dancer Ayodele Casel, a member of the initiative’s artistic council, about how NY PopsUp aims to revitalize artists and audiences alike.

Ayodele, you recently performed as part of a recent NY PopsUp event at three museums in three different boroughs. What was that like for you?

Ayodele Casel: I actually underestimated how good it would feel to be performing in person again, not just with an audience but even with other artists. Because I have been completely isolated! People asked me what it was like performing in a mask, but we were so present and thankful and in the moment that after awhile I didn’t even notice it.

There’s no performance schedule available for NYPopsUp. Why not?

Zack Winokur: Right now we don’t publicize in advance because it contravenes health policy. Announcing something would potentially be unsafe, which is partly why we’re doing so many events. The philosophy behind this that while we cannot gather en masse, we want to bring a mass of performance experiences to as many places as possible. Right now we’re basically doing weekends and the occasional weekday, but as we get into warmer weather and more vaccinations, I hope we will be delightfully unavoidable.

The artists involved are a mix of big names (Chris Rock, Amy Schumer, Hugh Jackman) with creators who might not be as familiar to most people. What’s the philosophy there?

Winokur: For me and for everyone on the artists council, the task is really to reach to the edges of our network and bring all those folks into the fold. We want to represent our whole field, and this is part of that. It should be a delicious mashup between well-known and lesser known. One part of the mission of this endeavor is to collide a lot of disciplines in order to cultivate wider and deeper relationships between artists of different fields. This is an exciting moment to say we don’t have to stay in our lanes. Let’s work together.

What are some of the other goals of NY PopsUp?

Winokur: One is to really revitalize and reenergize the city and state that we love through the power and potency of live performance. Creatively I think it affords an opportunity to try things that they might not otherwise, and to perform in front of audiences and with audiences in a different way than normal. These performances are not all on stages. They’re on fire escapes and plazas and parks and sidewalks. These events need to meet people in every area of the city and state, so not just in Broadway theaters but also on the footsteps of workplaces, or meeting people during commuting time or during a break time for shift workers. This is a state initiative. It answers to the people of this state, and it needs to be representative of the demographics of this city and state.

Casel: What’s important to me is being out in the community. It’s important for communities to be in communication and interact with artists. Because sometimes not everybody gets to go to a theater, but everybody appreciates and consumes art on a regular basis.

Winokur: For arts workers, the mission is really about getting as many New York artists as we can in front of audiences again, and paid for it. We are built on an equality model where every artist is paid the same.

Casel: I’m grateful to be able to bring other artists along. We’ve had a year where we haven’t been able to be out there. The money has gone, the opportunity has gone, and sometimes with that comes emotional turmoil. It takes a toll in that way. To be able to call in other artists feels incredible.

What do you hope are some of the long-term effects of NY PopsUp?

Casel: I’m thinking about how to involve even more artists, and for me, maybe even passing the torch on to younger artists. How can I introduce more artists to more audiences all over the city?

Winokur: I hope that we’re also seeing the beginnings of collaborations that will blossom over the next couple of years, and also seeding some things that I hope will just become part of the fabric of the city and state as we rebuild it. I want a full and juicy and abundant recovery, but I also hope that we don’t lose the intimacy and potency of these performances that are created because of the current safety constraints.

Casel: I’m just glad that artists are being appreciated and thought of again. One of the things that I was excited about was all of the ways that we can collaborate in these performances. It kind of evens the playing field. I love that we’re saying dance is as important as music is as important as poetry. All art is valuable and all art is essential.

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