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Murder-Mystery Opera? Aisle Three Culturemart stocks its shelves with ambitious new work

By MARK BLANKENSHIP

Multimedia chamber operas about murder and reality television don't just write themselves, and neither do video-driven solo shows about women with two sets of DNA. What's more, artists don't create this ambitious work in a week or a month or a season. They usually need years of support.

But that kind of backing is hard to find. Sure, lucky artists can snag a residency at a theatre or performance space, but packed calendars and tight budgets usually limit their time and resources. That's why HERE's Artist Residency Program (HARP) is so distinct: It specifically supports ambitious, interdisciplinary projects for up to four years.

And every January, audiences get to meet the HARP artists at Culturemart, a festival that features work-in-progress presentations from all the residents.

Running through January 23, this year's twelve shows include Miranda, an interactive murder-mystery opera that asks audiences to decide which of three suspects committed a crime. This will be its fourth Culturemart appearance. On the other extreme, this is the first year for Chimera, a solo show about a woman who discovers that her twin is living inside her. Cutting-edge video design allows her to be literally beside herself over the news.

For Kristin Marting, HERE's artistic director, it's a treat to see new shows next to veterans. "They key thing is that you've got artists that are right at the beginning of their process and artists that are very far along and close to production," she says. "For an audience who comes into the process, they're going to be able to see work at all different stages and learn so much about artists and the way they're thinking."

Kamala Sankaram, who created Miranda, says Culturemart and HARP have overhauled her process. "Some people come in with fully fleshed-out ideas of the piece they want to work on, but I was not one of those people," she explains. "I came in with this vague idea that I wanted to write a modern opera, whatever that means, and that I wanted to do something with reality TV. As I've developed the piece over the years, it's been very important hearing people actually say, 'Yes, that's interesting, but I want to know more about the relationship between these people or why this person acts this way."

Miranda has gone from a conceptual work to a character and story-driven piece, and Sankaram is excited to have Culturemart audiences see what's happened since last year. "It's sort of like losing weight, and the people who see you every day don't notice, but the people you don't see as much can really tell," she says. "Sometimes, you can lose sight of exactly how much something has changed if you're seeing it in the process of its change."

But Culturemart isn't all about the artistic journey. Chimera co-creator Deborah Stein cites the practical value of showing at the festival every year. "The deadline is part of the benefit of it," she says. "It's put up or shut up time: Make some choices and figure out how to execute something that you're not embarrassed to put in front of people. And that means you make glorious, sort of accidental discoveries because you're just trying to get the damn thing done."

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Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor