Karissa Krenz: What made you decide to establish the White Light Festival?
Jane Moss: The White Light Festival grew out of a variety of impulses. First, having spent most of my life immersed in the world of the performing arts, I had given a great deal of thought to the unique alchemy that takes place between an audience member and the performance onstage. Art allows us to feel, apprehend, and expand our own inner reality in a uniquely illuminated fashion, and the performance experience is far more about an audience member’s inner life than the express content of the performance itself.
In a related development, about a decade ago technology started to take over our lives in ways that were affecting people’s capacity for a robust inner life, which is precisely the terrain that art thrives in and is designed to serve. With the advent of social media and our increasing addiction to it, people’s lives have become increasingly outer- as opposed to inner-directed. An endless stream of texts, tweets, photos, social media posts, and web surfing was largely turning one’s inner life into an ever-growing landfill of deletions. And people were becoming increasingly anxious when away from their screens and the constant stimulation they offered. One began feeling these developments in the behavior of people during performances—cell phones started going off, there was the imperative to get immediately reconnected at intermission, and it took longer for audiences to settle in and adjust to having a live experience rather than one mediated by screens. I was concerned audiences were missing out on the very gifts that art offers: expanded self-awareness, transcendence, and the connection to our common humanity. Art reveals that we are far larger than we let ourselves experience, and technology, with its attendant addiction, deadens our responsiveness to that message.
That brings up a tangential issue related to technology: namely, it fosters an equally unhealthy addiction to speed. Speed is the enemy of a lot of things, and most certainly of art. It is the antithesis of depth, meaning, nuance, profundity, wisdom. It replaces emotional depth with instant sensation. It replaces the soul with a racetrack. And art requires receptive souls.
Therefore, with the White Light Festival I wanted to create a curatorial vessel with a very different message than anything we had done before. In contrast to explicating an exclusively aesthetic point of view, I wanted to overtly express art’s impact on the perceiver and art’s role in our lives. In other words, a performance isn’t just about art, it is first and foremost about you.
How has the festival impacted you?
I’ve become braver. When we started White Light, I didn’t know how it would be received. Success wasn’t guaranteed, and I had to expose myself personally in this festival more than I ever had before, because it reflected what I believe about who we are. It also made me think about the audience differently and what we bring to their overall lives—and not solely as arts consumers.
The other thing that has been personally meaningful to me is that the festival has been very successful on its own terms. From the beginning, Lincoln Center was very clear about the message and the shift in emphasis from arts consumption to self-discovery, and we have not wavered. I’ve learned that if you can put a vision out there, no matter how initially different it might be, if it’s the right vision, or the right time, it will work. That gives you courage to do it again.
However, what is most rewarding is realizing the White Light idea provides a wonderful curatorial lens. Themes or ideas for festivals are tricky because you don’t want them to be so big as to be meaningless, and you don’t want them to be so specific that you exhaust them in two years. The idea is suitably broad in terms of genres, disciplines, and geography, yet there is a specific quality that we are looking for, namely the complexity of the emotional worlds that lie within ourselves.
How do you think people have received White Light?
Audience reception to the festival and, more important, its message has exceeded my wildest dreams. As it turns out, the emphasis on “turn off your devices and find yourself” proved to be a message the culture was hungry for. We were ahead of what is now a ballooning trend of inner-directed programs, from wellness vacations, to exclusive hotels whose calling card is no Wi-Fi, to a shift away from the consumption of things in favor of having “experiences.” The resonance with artists that the festival has had is also very rewarding. Artists create works to touch the deep places in people’s lives. White Light sets up the context for that to happen.
We often talk about how art can bring us together and connect us. Why is that even more important now?
I am absolutely convinced when you encounter your largest imaginable self, that is where you will find connection to other people. It’s counterintuitive, but exploring our deepest selves does ultimately lead us to more robust relationships with others, from our loved ones to the person sitting next to us on the subway. Beneath the surface, there is such emotional commonality among humanity: our fear of death and aging, our need for love and solace, our hopes and dreams, our disappointments, joys, and sorrows. And perhaps, most powerfully, our need to feel connected to something larger.
It’s been well documented that technology and social media often reinforce our differences, and I believe art does the opposite. The unifying power of art in the time in which we live is more meaningful than ever. It can offer the very best that human beings are capable of at a time when we are bombarded with the worst. Throughout the millennia and in times far darker than our own, art has been created and passed on. The darkness ultimately dissipates, and what endures is art’s light.
Needless to say, when we began the festival, I did not anticipate what was going to happen to the world in the last decade. In a strange way, it would have been far more obvious to launch the White Light Festival this year, if only as a protest. I will say, however, that the current climate has enabled us to introduce some new kinds of programming, such as Richard III, which is about power. From the beginning, White Light was not just about showcasing the inspiring aspects of human nature, it was about illuminating everything about us, which is what art does. I’m not sure we would have thought the message of Richard III made sense for us ten years ago, but it seems very relevant today.
An example of a piece of art that transcends language to connect us all is The Manganiyar Seduction, which you’ve decided to bring back for the festival’s anniversary.
It is a wonderful signature work for the festival—a fusion of East, West, religion, and meaning, all in a rich theatrical setting. I anticipate we will present it once every five years or so as a kind of White Light Festival Nutcracker. It was created by the right people with the right idea at the right time.
How do you envision White Light developing in the future?
Almost by definition, White Light is changing all the time because art is constantly changing. We always follow the work, so the festival reflects what is available in the world at that moment.
That being said, I would like to expand the White Light Conversations and ancillary parts of the festival, and to further elevate the written and spoken word, from think pieces to poetry readings. Perhaps participatory events could also be considered to connect people even more.
The festival will keep evolving, but the core mission will remain very much the same. I’ve thought, since we launched White Light, that Lincoln Center’s motto should be “Find Yourself at Lincoln Center.” That is the core idea of the White Light Festival, “Find Yourself,” and from there all truths will follow you. It’s the hardest lesson in life to learn, and art will assist you in ways you have never imagined.
Karissa Krenz is a New York City–based performing arts professional, flâneuse, and the editor of the White Light Festival Playbill.