For nearly five decades, Jedediah Wheeler has been a champion of dance, music, theater, opera, performance, and circus artists who are deemed too bold or avant-garde to be accepted by the arts mainstream. He began his career as an advocate for these creative outliers when, in 1975, he went to work for A Bunch of Experimental Theaters, Inc., an ad hoc collective of theater auteurs who are now widely considered touchstones for innovation in live arts. Formed by Richard Schechner, the Bunch represented his company The Performance Group as well as Charles Ludlam’s The Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Andre Gregory’s The Manhattan Project, Richard Foreman’s Ontological Hysteric Theater, JoAnne Akalaitis and Lee Breuer’s Mabou Mines, Meredith Monk’s The House, and multidisciplinary artist Stuart Sherman. Located in a loft in what was then NYC’s spice district and is now TriBeCa, The Bunch set about to raise the visibility and viability of these visionaries through promotion and touring. None individually could afford good management, but they lent support of various kinds to each other, rather than acting as competitors. Under the directorship of Mercedes Gregory, Wheeler toured its artists and produced The Bunch Festival, a pioneering experimental theater festival in New York.
In 1978, Wheeler joined another innovative collective: Performing Artservices, Inc., whose founders, Jane Yockel, Margaret Wood, and Mimi Johnson, focused on providing reliable administrative services for another cohort of now-venerated performing artists—a group that shared the groundbreaking instincts of The Bunch and included a few of its members. At the time, its best-known artist was John Cage; Robert Ashley, Alvin Lucier, and Philip Glass had yet to be widely recognized. In dance, the roster included Judson Dance Theater and Grand Union choreographers David Gordon, Lucinda Childs, Douglas Dunn, and Trisha Brown. In theater, it was Mabou Mines and Richard Foreman.
Artservices determined that for avant-garde artists to survive—and even thrive—they would need to be as organized as their more commercial counterparts. (The expectation had always been the opposite: if the artist was avant-garde, doing business with them would be chaotic.) Artservices established a full-service operation that provided for every conceivable administrative need: fundraising, production, and touring.
Wheeler was the booking manager. With a sister office in Paris (Artservice) under the direction of Benedicte Pesle, Performing Artservices developed opportunities with the important European festivals: the Festival d’ Automne in Paris, the Avignon Festival, the Berlin Festival, the Holland Festival, the Venice Festival, the Edinburgh Festival, and BITEF (Serbia), as well as with Maison de la Cultures throughout France, in Italy and Scandinavia, and at a new venue in London—the legendary Riverside Studios lead by David Gothard (CBE). With the United States yet to develop asiezeable appetite for new dance, music, or theater, Europe offered the only possibilities for American genius in the performing arts to be appreciated and renumerated.
Artservice in Paris represented Robert Wilson, whose visionary theater work was not viable in America (with the exception of New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music) but found consistent work in every major European cultural capital, and Merce Cunningham. Wheeler collaborated with Pesle on the world premiere European tour of the seminal interdisciplinary collaboration of its time: Dance, created by Lucinda Childs, Philip Glass, and Sol LeWitt, and performed by the Lucinda Childs Dance Company with live music performed by the Philip Glass Ensemble. In the late seventies and early eighties Paris’ Artservice was the pulse of American performance innovation for the world.
By 1982, prospects arose for a company that provided artists both management and production services. Wheeler formed International Production Associates (IPA) with the highly respected Robert LoBianco. The concept of fusing management and production in one practice followed the principle that new ideas in performance required expertise on- and off-stage to overcome the expectation that an unconventional performance would be an insurmountably challenging task for a presenter. IPA’s first clients were Philip Glass and the American Repertory Theatre (ART).
ART had recently been established at Harvard by Robert Brustein and Robert Orchard, and the company was quickly breaking barriers in Cambridge, MA by producing plays directed by Andre Serban and Lee Breuer. IPA’s first tour included ART productions of Moliere’s Sganarelle – An Evening of Moliere Farces, directed by Serban; and of Wedekind’s Lulu (Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box), directed by Lee Breuer. Underwritten by American Express, ART’s atypical productions were showcased in Avignon, Amsterdam, Edinburgh, and other European cultural capitals throughout the summer of 1982. The repertory casting featured Cherry Jones, Thomas Derrah, John Bottoms, Catherine Slade, Carmen de Lavallade, and Tony Shalhoub. In 1984, IPA organized the first U.S. tour of ART’s The King Stag by Carlo Gozzi, directed by Serban with a set by Michael Yeargan and costumes, masks, and puppetry by Julie Taymor.
BAM’s inaugural Next Wave Festival, in 1983, presented Philip Glass’s new opera The Photographer, directed by JoAnne Akalaitis and David Gordon, with music performed by Glass’s ensemble. IPA provided the production and administrative support as well as a national tour.
In summer and fall of 1984, IPA introduced Ushio Amagatsu’s provocative Butoh dance company Sankai Juku to U.S. audiences at the Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles and Summerfest at SUNY Purchase in New York. When Kinken Shonen (featuring a live peacock at all times on stage) was performed at New York’s City Center, the front page of The New York Times featured a photo of the company’s ritual descent on the facade of the theater. Subsequent U.S. Tours of Sankai Juku’s mesmerizing performances followed bi-annually.
In 1984 BAM’s Next Wave remounted the Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’s landmark 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach, in partnership with IPA. IPA went on to produce the first world tour of Einstein in 1992, in venues as far-flung as Barcelona and Tokyo.
Seizing considerable momentum, Wheeler and LoBianco set in motion in the U.S. the biannual junkets the Philip Glass Ensemble already enjoyed in Europe. Enthusiasm for Glass’s work was growing, and U.S. presenters were eager to find out how his trademark minimalist/maximalist music composition would be received in cities as varied at Lawrence, Kansas, and Berkeley, California.
In 1985, IPA produced and toured the original Glass theatrical work A Thousand Airplanes on the Roof. With text by David Henry Hwang, innovative 3D set design by Jerome Sirlin, lighting by Robert Wierzel, and direction by Glass, the production toured widely throughout America, with Glass and his Ensemble sleeping between engagements on a country-western bus outfitted with bunks. The world premiere was staged in a hangar at the Vienna International Airport for the Danau Festival, and the production then traveled to Berlin, where it was presented in an ice hockey arena adjacent to the Wall.
In 1984, Wheeler teamed with the writer, editor, and downtown observer John Howell to create and publish Alive Magazine, a full-color chronicle, in words and pictures, of the burgeoning avant-garde performance scene in downtown New York.
Robert Wilson’s The Knee Plays, with music by David Byrne, became another signature production of IPA when it toured the U.S. in 1986. To solve a major obstacle posed by any Wilson creation, IPA developed a technical package that included the complete lighting equipment needed to fully realize the work as Wilson imagined—one that presenters could install in a matter of hours.
1986 also was the year that IPA produced Jean-Baptiste Thierree and Victoria Chaplin’s enchanting Le Cirque Imaginaire with premiere performances in Cambridge, MA and Lower Manhattan, New York. The thumbnail circus set in motion new possibilities for circus arts in America.
Lincoln Center presented IPA’s the Knee Plays at Alice Tully Hall in December 1986. Based on the resounding success of that production, Lincoln Center’s program director, William Lockwood, and the president of Lincoln Center, Inc., Nathan Leventhal, invited Wheeler and his IPA cohort to create a new festival to showcase the abundance of new dance, music, theater, and opera yet to be discovered. Lincoln Center, not known then (or now) as a home for avant-garde work, was keen to be part of the New York performance scene.
Wheeler created the Serious Fun! summer festival, which brought downtown artists of every imaginable stripe uptown to the 1100 seat Alice Tully Hall. Many of these artists – particularly dancers – had never performed outside loft spaces with minimal capacities. Serious Fun! became an eagerly anticipated annual event, produced by IPA with funds and space provided by Lincoln Center.
Affordable tickets and split performance programs characterized Serious Fun! Alice Tully, a prestigious concert hall with 1,000 seats, came to host artists otherwise seen at gritty venues like The Pyramid Club or Franklin Furnace, connecting the likes of Rachel Rosenthal, Ethyl Eichelberger, Eric Bogosian, Scott Johnson, Leo Bassi, La La Human Steps, The Blue Man Group (before Astor Place), Diamanda Galas, and the Pomo Afro Homos. Serious Fun’s debut at Lincoln Center showcased uptown newcomers Jawole Willa Jo Zollar with Urban Bushwomen, Jon Hassell with Farafina, Julius Hemphill’s opera “Longue Tongues” performed by The World Saxophone Quartet, Dollie Deluxe from Norway and downtown diva Ann Magnuson direct from the Pyramd Club.
Performance artist Karen Finley found sizable, enthusiastic new audiences with the now-famous work We Keep Our Victims Ready which had three sold-out shows. Molissa Fenley, Jane Comfort, Marie Chouinard, and, Bill T. Jones gave striking shared performances. Robert Wilson’s breakout work, Overture for the Fourth Act of Deafman Glance, with Sheryl Sutton, opened the festival in 1987, and his Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights further tested the production expertise of the space in 1992. Michael Nyman’s opera The Man Who Mistook his Wife His Hat, from the story by Dr. Oliver Sacks, made its American debut in 1988.
David Gordon collaborated with Red Grooms to create The Mysteries and What’s So Funny?, a milestone in Gordon’s extensive career. Rose English, the British performance artist, performed with a stallion on the Tully Hall stage. Megadance, an annual evening of ten or more choreographers, showcased previously hard-to-find works. One evening provided a retrospective of dance associated with the Judson movement, including Steve Paxton, Simone Forti, and Lucinda Childs, as well as a conceptual work by Paul Taylor. Serious Fun! celebrated hip hop dance in 1987. Bill Irwin created his Broadway bound-show Fool Moon for the festival. Lincoln Center found a youthful voice! Those and other accomplishments earned Wheeler a coveted Village Voice OBIE for Outstanding Achievement in 1992.
IPA specialized in championing work of non-traditional performing artists, most notably Spalding Gray, whose monologues are now legendary and benchmarks for monologue excellence. Through IPA, Gray found audiences across America—at universities, colleges, and unconventional performance spaces. The company also produced tours for Karen Finley, Lisa Kron, Meryl Tankard, Reno, and Scott Johnson among others. In 1996, IPA produced a new evening-length dance work inspired by Route 66, Tharp!, choreographed by Twyla Tharp, that was performed coast to coast.
IPA produced many (if not quite all) of Philip Glass’s chamber works, including Beauty and the Beast and Les Enfants Terribles, based on the films by Jean Renoir and scored for the Philip Glass Ensemble, as well as Hydrogen Jukebox, which featured lyrics by Allen Ginsburg. The Ensemble performed Beast in sync with the famous silent film, Terribles was choreographed by Susan Marshall, and Jukebox was staged by Ann Carlson. Glass’ score for the Edgar Allan Poe short story Descent into the Maelstrom —conceived and adapted by Molissa Fenley, Philip Glass, and Matthew Maguire for the Australian Dance Theatre—debuted at the Adelaide Festival. Godfrey Reggio’s game-changing films Powaqqatsi and Koyaanisqatsi toured worldwide with music played live by the Philip Glass Ensemble.
Integral to IPA’s success was its staff which included many outstanding individuals who have made impressive contributions to the performing arts on their own. Notable among them is Linda Brumbach, founder and CEO of Pomegranate Arts now based in Jersey City, NJ.
At Wheeler’s instigation The Metropolitan Opera asked Philip Glass to compose an opera commemorating the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. Wheeler negotiated the largest commission ever paid by The Met Opera which resulted in Glass’s The Voyage.
In 1996, Wheeler produced T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in partnership with En Garde Arts, Inc. in the derelict Liberty Theater on 42nd Street, starring Fiona Shaw, directed by Deborah Warner. It earned a Dramatists Guild Award and critical acclaim. In 2000, IPA produced the Abbey Theater’s radical production Medea, also starring Shaw and directed by Warner with a set by Tom Pye, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Majestic (now Harvey) Theater. That production toured the U.S., finishing with a Broadway run.
Continuing his history of innovative stage works, Wheeler produced and toured the Robert Wilson / Philip Glass 3D music theater event Monsters of Grace, featuring lyrics by 13th century Sufi poet Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks; live music; and a 3D film created by the cinematic innovation company Kleizer-Walczak. Each audience member wore special glasses (LA Eyeworks) to see the first feature-length film ever created digitally with once again a live score performed by the PGE. More than 740,000 people—the largest overall audience for either Glass or Wilson—experienced Monsters with sold-out performances in Europe, Canada, and the U.S.
In July 2004 Wheeler was appointed by Montclair State University President Dr. Susan A. Cole to be Executive Director of the Office of Arts + Cultural Programming (ACP). In October of the same year, he opened newly constructed state-of-the-art Alexander Kasser Theater on the university’s campus with Rezo Gabriadze’s shattering drama Forbidden Christmas starring Mikhail Baryshnikov.
In September of 2005 PEAK Performances rolled out. With Wheeler’s artistic direction, PEAK has mounted 253 productions for 708 performances, including 57 world premieres, 54 U.S. debuts, and 66 commissions. Bill T. Jones, Romeo Castellucci, Liz Gerring, David Rousseve, Sir Richard Alston, Page Allen, Susan Marshall, Michael O’Sulleabhain, Meredith Monk, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Andrea Miller, Sean Gandini, Camille A. Brown, Caroline Shaw, Missy Mazzoli, Julia Wolfe, Du Yun, David T. Little, Robert Woodruff, Robyn Orlin, Christian Penderecki, Dorcy Rugumba, Emma Dante, Robert Wilson, David Gordon, Pam Tanowitz, Simone Dinnerstein, Charlotte Vincent, Augusta Read Thomas, Troy Schumacher, Via Katelhong, Angelica Liddell, Miguel Zenón, Bob McGrath, Nora Chipaumire, Jan Fabre, Liz Lerman, Vijay Iyer, Marianne Weems, and Raphaëlle Boitel, among other global artists, have found the freedom and resources to create thrilling new works at the Kasser.
Works produced by PEAK include Harry Partch’s Dr Faustus and David Lang’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, both directed by Bob McGrath; Robert Brustein’s Shlemiel the First, directed by David Gordon from the story by Isaac Bashevis Singer; Liz Gerring’s Dance Trilogy, in collaboration with lighting Robert Wierzel; David T. Little & Royce Vavrek’s breakout opera Dog Days, directed by Robert Woodruff; Hatuey: Memory of Fire, by Frank London and Elise Thoron; and Robert Wilson’s poignant and visually memorable Zinnias: The Life of Clementine Hunter, with book by Jacqueline Woodson and music and lyrics by Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon—notable because work conceived, designed, and directed by Wilson is rarely produced in his home country. PEAK is also the U.S. home of Romeo Castellucci, having presented his theatrical works Hey Girl, The Face of God, Go Down Moses, and Democracy in America. Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company frequently creates new works at PEAK—so far, including Blind Date, A Quarreling Pair, Story Time, Dora, and a fifth that is forthcoming.
Two stand-alone programs at MSU attest to Wheeler’s innovative instincts. Dance for Film on Location at MSU, funded by the Mellon Foundation, selected three choreographers—Heidi Latsky, Nora Chipaumire, and Doug Elkins—to collaborate with filmmakers in the creation of three short works made expressly for film. Six years earlier, Wheeler’s ACP unit produced five short films by the choreographer Susan Marshall, each to be experienced via the then-burgeoning technology of handheld devices. (One of the “in the palm of your hand” dances featured Wheeler himself.)
Intent on finding new ways for individuals to gain appreciation for the performing arts, Wheeler developed a course of study based on the work of the theater artist and educator Paul Baker. Inspired by Baker’s book Integrating Abilities, the popular Creative Thinking course attracts MSU students of all academic interests per semester. PEAK artists are integrated into the course syllabus, providing real world examples of multi-disciplinary expertise, helping each student discover their own innate creative abilities.
The Association of Performing Arts Presenters (now Professionals) bestowed on Wheeler the prestigious William Dawson Award for Programmatic Excellence and Sustained Achievement in Programming (2016).
In 2019, Wheeler expanded access to the best new ideas in the performing arts when his unit ACP partnered with MSU’s Broadcast and Media Operations to capture stage performance for online global streaming. This bold initiative, PEAK PLUS, is the latest achievement in a career defined by the pursuit of new audiences for artists whose counter intuitive vision propel the collective culture experience to new heights.