Tell me your name, where you’re from, and where you’re based.
I’m Talya Chalef and I’m based in New York. I’m from Cape Town, South Africa by way of Melbourne, Australia.
How did that work exactly?
My dad was Australian. I grew up in Cape Town and in my early twenties, I went over to Melbourne to study and found myself living in Melbourne after that.
And when did you move to the US?
Four years ago!
Four years ago! Oh my gosh.
It was August 2010!
Happy four-year anniversary!
Thank you. I always say, “Four years in August,” and just the other day I was like, “It’s now!”
Why did you move?
I got into an MFA program and came along. I did the MFA in playwriting at Columbia.
So, you’ve been based in New York that entire time.
And this is your first time at SPACE?
How did you come to be here?
I was sent an email by Emily because she had spoken with a friend of mine who I had studied with, and she needed photographs for a benefit they were having. She was like, “We can, in exchange for pay, give you a residency.” And I said, “Yes!”
Because I also take photographs, so yeah, it was really serendipitous. It was awesome because I’m developing a work. It’s such a privilege to be able to spend time here to do that.
Can you talk a bit about that work? You’re working on it now as you’re here?
Yes! Sure, the project is called Port Cities and it’s been a baby of mine for a very long time. It’s an ambitious five city project that I’ve been thinking about for many, many years. I did a development for it in 2011. It is an investigation into myths and legends of 17th century Dutch trade routes and then using that as a link to these five cities. Then, investigating the city’s contemporary issues against the backdrop of itself being a port city. So, I’m starting with New York next year and we’re presenting in shipping containers on the Red Hook, or in the Red Hook, shipping container yard.
Oh, that’s exciting.
The brief I gave myself was that each of these projects on or near the city’s port, that they would explore the myths, legends, and fairytales from that time—and use that as a frame to explore the current issues in that city. Each project needn’t be a theater project per se, but that it could take the form of anything.
That’s very broad!
It could be a durational performance. It would be an installation. It could be a sound-based work. It could be a video work. But it would have a live element and it would be on or near the city’s port. It would include a projection element of some kind, and that projection element would be exploring movement. So, it would use the idea of movement to be the connecting thread because the movement of these ships was the connecting thread between these cities. Then, it’s the movement of water. What I was thinking of doing was using film footage, a still frame, capturing movement in that frame, splicing that footage together, and using the footage as a projected element in the piece. That would then act as a structural device that would be imagined as waves.
Ah! I see.
So, you’ve got these waves coming in of movement. Each project would be documented and that would be a movement. Then, all of the the cities’ movements would be compiled into a website or DVD of some kind. It would be a project in five movements, like an opera.
Yeah, I was about to say, my background is in classical music. So, when you say, “Each one is a movement,” that makes perfect sense to me. That’s a really interesting take on the form, I think. I like that. So, how does this project compare to other work you’ve done?
Well, there’s a through line. I like to work site-specifically. So, it’s exciting to me to always make work connected to a location, either its history or its architecture or its sense memory. A lot of my work is about intergenerational memory, traumatic memory, landscape, politics, [laughing]; and I work very visually, and kind of play with images. So, it’s quite connected to what I’ve done before. Also, coming from other places in the world, I like to think internationally; having a local work but allowing the frame to always reference the bigger scope, which is the international… thing… [laughing] for lack of a better word.
It’s funny because it seems like they’re broad topics, but then hearing you explain the work in detail, all of the connections are very clear, I think.
How have you been using your time here to work on the project?
I am starting to work with actors in a few weeks’ time, and I don’t like to pre-write anything. I like to devise, well, I have written before, but for the most part, I like to devise with the actors. This time is mostly about me diving back into the themes, back into the images. I’m listening to a lot of music. I’m watching a lot of little clips. I’m reading a lot. I’m kind of scouring websites and Wikipedia links and gathering information, making natural links. I’m sketching and dipping into the world so I can start to imagine the very broad architecture of the piece. That way, when I start to work with the actors, I have a better sense of what to bring into the room when I’m playing with them. Yeah, and it’s daydreaming, which I don’t get to do in New York because I feel like a lot of the time, I’m producing a lot of the work. So, I’m running around, emailing, and organizing. It’s easier to quantify that time. It’s so nice to slow down and to just breathe and imagine and not feel the pressure of having not left the house. Here, there’s no pressure.
There’s nowhere to go!
Yeah, and I don’t need to go and make something out of the fridge. So then, it’s slower, allowing daydreaming. I think it’s so important.
It’s actually been really interesting for me to do several interviews and that seems to be a common thread, especially people coming from the city where half the time you’re spending a sort of business person. Then here, you really have to get away from that because you can’t make an artistic project from a business perspective. You have to refuel those creative juices. How did you start doing photography?
Um, I’ve always had a camera. My dad gave me a camera. He was into cameras. He gave me a camera when I was a lot younger. Then, I had an old SLR camera and then a DSLR camera. I’m not a tech whiz kid, so half the time I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I seem to know what I’m doing! [laughing] Actually, a lot of my work from the start was slide projection. So, I worked with old Kodak carousel slide projectors and projected onto the bodies of my actors. I played with depth, as a director and a photographer. I played depth and landscapes and textures and objects and characters and so on. I would move my performers from being invisible to visible, playing with what is in the forefront and then having them disappear into the background; which I’m still doing, but I’ve moved into a lot more video and projection mapping stuff. But, I’m always thinking in images, and music is the thing that allows me to think in images.
That was my next question, which is hearing you playing the piano earlier, how does that fit into your life?
It’s meditation. It’s not really ever in the work, but it’s just meditation, and a lot of the time I’ll hit on an image when I’m not thinking directly at it. So, if I’m playing, I let myself go into a kind of trance-ish space, and then that allows me to see things; and then I’ll start to imagine images in that place, and then suddenly I’ll have a really clear sense of how I can feel a moment or an ending or an image or a scene or anything. Actually, my thesis… I remember I wrote the ending because I went into the studio, played the piano, recorded the playing of the piano, and then listened to the recording on loop. Then, I started to see the ending in images, and then I wrote the ending furiously on the subway while crying. [laughing] So, it was actually funny. Yesterday, I was playing that old piano and I was like, “Oh! I can see the ending. I think I can see the ending.” So then today I thought, “Oh, let me see what I can hear. Maybe I can’t see anything.”
That’s fascinating. Really interesting to me that your work is so interdisciplinary and then hearing all of a sudden that music informs it. It makes a lot of sense, but it’s so broad, all the influences that are coming together. Now, I need to go see some of your work.
So, when you leave here, you said you were going to work with actors in a few weeks. What’s the next step?
The next step is, hopefully in the next couple of weeks, we’ll start working three or four times a week for the next six or seven weeks. In October, we’re planning on having a development showing of the work in my new studio. So, actually, I just formed a company.
Great! This is the perfect time to plug yourself.
We haven’t launched yet! But my friend Sofy Yuditskaya, who is a film and video and tech whiz kid extraordinare, and she and I have formed a company called The Public Works Department.
That’s a great name.
Thanks. We have a studio in Bushwick that we are cleaning up and fixing up; and we’ll be working out of there, rehearsing in there, creating the work in there, and then actually having the showing in the yard. It’s a big yard.
Where in Bushwick?
It’s off the Dekalb L, so it’s a little out, but it’s a really big space. It’s really exciting. Then, after that, we have another project that we’re developing. Hopefully, we’ll do a residency for that in February, but this then I want to develop after we’ve come up with the initial structure and script. We’ll be doing the rehearsal in April next year. May? Then with the public presentation in the yard with all the lights and the whiz-bang and everything else in June. So, early summer next year is when we plan to have the whole thing.
And then after that, the next city?
Well, yeah, the next city! I haven’t even started to think about which one, but I’m going to start reaching out. I have people and networks and organizations and festivals that I’ve identified as potential for each of those four other cities.
Will you go there to work on the project?
Yeah, and it will be independent of this one. There might be through lines; there might be an image that comes through; there might be a soundscape, but really it’s about the artists in those cities. It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but hopefully we can get commissioned to create work with local artists and designers in those cities.
I’m sure the connections will come through organically. People will make those connections when they see them all together. That’s kind of the best way, to not necessarily lead the horse to water. They can find it on their own. I love that idea. How did you first get interested in the ideas behind the project?
Oh wow, I don’t even remember how but I do remember when. I was in Cape Town in 2009 and I was working on another show. The year before, actually, I had been in Europe. I had gone on a big research tour of site-specific stuff, but I was also on a research trip for Jewish heritage stuff. I was in a lot of port cities and I kept thinking, “How cool that these ports have such rich history in terms of the trade and how the trade meant that so many different kinds of people, Jews included, had been surviving through this trade and in these ports.” I was kind of fascinated by that and also, having grown up in Cape Town, it’s an old port city. I love this history of Cape Town. It’s so fascinating, it’s so complicated, and there are so many layers. There are so many people and so many accents and languages and foods. Everybody always asks me about it, and I go on this long diatribe about how hard it is to explain. You have to be there. Suddenly, I was living in Australia and I thought, “Ah, well, what are the connecting threads between these places?” And then I started thinking… I don’t know why. I love maps. I’ve always loved maps. I don’t know. It just all came together.
Here’s the last question. If you were reincarnated as a farm animal, which farm animal would you be and why?
A farm animal and why… I’m just going to go with the first thing that came into my head, which is cow. I don’t really know why. Actually, I do know why! Oh, no, now I want to change. I can change?
You can absolutely change.
Um, okay, no. I’m going to stay with the cow. I met cows. I was having a particularly hard time in 2008, and I was on an island. It was a festival, and they had cows in a field. I went up to the edge of this fence and about five cows came. It was sunset. It was the most picturesque moment; and these five cows came, literally stood at the fence and stared at me with these eyes. They were just beautiful and generous and sweet and caring. I’m not a vegetarian, so I feel terrible, but I remember thinking, “This is so calming.” Then, I read later that the Dutch actually have cow therapy where people go out into fields and hang out with cows.
They’re just really calming.
That’s a beautiful reason why you should be a cow. That’s great.
I couldn’t think of anything else.
No, that’s perfect.
Interviewed by Arden Armbruster.