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Neo-benshi film cabaret at Hudson Hall pairs new performances with classic films


A scene from "It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."

HUDSON, N.Y. — Picture a film projected on a silver 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 — perhaps a poem, some music, even dance.

Welcome to “A Night of Neo-Benshi.” First held in 2019, to launch The Flow Chart Foundation’s public programing, it returns for a third time to Hudson Hall.

The evening opens FCF’s inaugural “Gathering” weekend that celebrates its new Flow Chart Space. The non-profit was founded in 1998 by Pulitzer-winning poet John Ashbery, a part-time Hudson resident who died in 2017 and would have turned 95 this year.

“It’s very simple,” said Jeffrey Lependorf, FCF’s executive director. “We take clips of films, remove dialogue and sound, and then neo-benshi artists create new dialogue. They might lip-synch it, do a voiceover, or something poetic totally contrary to the actions. But they can’t hep but talk to one another. They’re fully visible 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 text I’m using is a John Ashbery poem, I found lines that fit their lips moving.

“Madhur Anand, a wonderful poet, is coming down from Toronto. She’s also an environmental scientist, so she’ll be combining poetry and science to ‘Attack of the Mushroom People,’ one of the great B-Movies. “There’s even dance to ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,’ while one performs the text, his partner will be dancing. That will be great fun.”

Other clips include “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 which she conceived of as a visual poem, that she sometimes calls “Not-a-Neo-Benshi,” Lependorf said.

“The other six films are performed live and run the gamut from beautiful lyric to ridiculous and silly. The whole program is maybe 65 minutes. You’ll be wanting more.”

Back in the silent film era 100 years ago, he explained, when films were shown in Japan, audiences would often be puzzled by what they saw.

“So benshi artists — short for a longer word that means ‘Moving Picture Narrating Person’ — would set up in front of the screen and do dialog, perhaps recite a poem, explain context. They were highly paid, even famous. Of course, when Talkies came in they all lost their jobs. Twenty years ago, a bunch of Bay Area poets created ‘neo-benshi,’ a kind of poets’ theater, [using] 10-minute clips of modern films.”

“I attended one a number of years ago and it was just a blast, so I knew that’s what I wanted to launch our public programs with.”

FCF’s original mission, he explained, was to explore poetry and the interrelationships of various art forms.

“Besides being a poet, Ashbery was also a visual artist, did a great deal of art writing, loved music,” said Lependorf, also a musician, opera composer and director of Art Omi’s international music residency. “How the arts inform one another was of great interest to him. I’ve been reading his work since college.”

Each neo-benshi is unique, performed one time only.

“It’s always a diverse group,” said Hudson Hall Executive Director Tambra Dillon by phone. “Jeffrey has participated every year, and also emcees. There has been a musical neo-benshi,' a dance performative one, even unspoken. It's a lot of fun. Every film is 5 to 7 minutes long and goes by at a pretty fair clip.”

“In the past we’ve sold it out, with a capacity of 300. With social distancing, we’re looking at anywhere between 150 and 200.”

Hudson Hall at historic Hudson Opera House is a landmark building on Warren Street, Hudson’s main commercial thoroughfare. Built in 1855 as City Hall, with the town hall on the second floor, “everything happened there,” Dillon said, “from high-brow to lowbrow.”

On both the speaking circuit and vaudeville circuit, Susan B. Anthony spoke there three times, Teddy Roosevelt spoke there, firemen had their annual ball there.

By 1962, however, its section of Warren Street “was pretty much completely abandoned,” Dillon said. Worried the building would not survive, local businesses banded together and purchased it.

“There’s been a 30-year restoration of the building, brick by brick,” Dillon said. “The restoration of the performance hall in 2017 was the most monumental significant step, with an elevator tower so it’s fully accessible.”

The evening is part of an eclectic lineup of cultural programming.

“Our programs respond to and reflect the community,” Dillon said. “We have so much local talent in our backyard, we have access to an incredible array of artists.”

This fall, Irish theater company Gare St. Lazare Players makes a return visit with a solo show trilogy of Samuel Beckett works: “Molloy,” “Malone Dies” and “The Unnamable.”

“Their one-man adaptation of 'Moby-Dick' — Hudson was a whaling town — was a big hit, audiences just love them,” Dillon said.

Also this fall, Bard College Conservatory of Music will present the Chinese opera “Painted Skin;” and acclaimed Harlem Quartet will perform a Clarion “Leaf Peepers” concert.

“It’s hard to describe neo-benshi,” said Dillon, “it’s kind of 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 a lot of faith in Jeffrey,” she added.

“It’s Cabaret Cinema,” says Lependorf. “You don’t have to be a poetry expert to have a great time.”

If 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

Tickets: $20 

Reservations and information: 518-822-1438, hudsonhall.org

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