“The Lightning Series” taps new creative energy to remake a Venice cultural institution

Story by Christina Campodonico

Photo by Richard Michael Johnson

In the 20 years since Dr. Joel Shapiro bought an old Masonic lodge on Electric and California avenues to transform it into a solar-powered experimental arts incubator, the Electric Lodge has made a name for itself with performances, lectures, screenings and workshops that push the boundaries of creative expression.

But a surge of new energy is rippling through this Venice arts institution as it shifts its focus from renting its theater, studio and classroom spaces to visiting artists to actually producing and curating its own programing with greater frequency.

Leading that charge is Associate Artistic Director Josh Berkowitz, a performance artist and curator, who began presenting his work at the Lodge through a performance laboratory called “Max 10” about a year ago. He and Shapiro connected over the teachings of performance art guru Scott Kelman, for whom the Lodge’s Kelman Theater is named, and met weekly to train in Kelman’s technique.

“We got to know each other creatively in the purest sense,” says Berkowitz, 28. “We would go back and forth and do these abstract sounds and movement.”

It was “the exact hybrid” Berkowitz was looking for — “somewhere between poetry and clown and obliviously theater,” he says — and also the beginning of a creative relationship that has taken the Lodge in a new direction for the 2016-17 season.

With Shapiro’s blessing, Berkowitz put on an original Electric Lodge production, “H2Ode: An Offbeat Tribute to Water,” as part of last summer’s citywide art festival Current: LA. He also began curating the nonprofit’s monthly variety show “High Voltage,” which brings together artists of various disciplines to perform experimental short works during Abbot Kinney’s First Fridays.

Before Berkowitz, Shapiro would select performers via formal proposals. Now selections come more from personal experience.

“I said to Joel, ‘I just saw this crazy clown group downtown, I just saw this juggler in Hollywood, and I’m working with this other person who’s doing something with a giant inflatable bowl.’ And I thought, ‘I’d like to curate based on that, on what I see,’” Berkowitz explains.

From there, Berkowitz started “curating on his feet” — scouting for artists in the city’s underground theater, dance and poetry scenes.

“Curating is walking this tight rope between right brain and left brain, between producing and finding the artistic aesthetic that is best for a venue,” he says. “I started to notice that I could put some more serious dance pieces with some more ridiculous avant-garde hip-hop.”

This comingling has led to some provocative pairings, whimsical mashups and a deep well of artists from geographically diverse L.A. areas, as well as larger audiences coming to the Lodge.

The night I go to “High Voltage,” it’s like watching stand-up comedy cross-pollinating with experimental performance art. A man in a snake suit slithers through the audience, coming on to patrons with a lusty lisp and a lecherous grin. A clown blows up balloons that pop to reveal love notes. Another performer reads correspondence between himself and a teenage stalker, while slippered sidekicks shuffle around in silk robes, reading letters, too.

Awkward comedy combines with high-brow hipster humor to tickle the audience’s funny bone. The house is packed and unafraid of sighing, awing, guffawing or even standing up to get a better view of the performers, namely the snake-man, who slides and writhes on the floor as he “swallows” Berkowitz, playing M.C., into his snake suit whole. The scene is weird — maybe even a little cringe-worthy — but wildly entertaining. The full house and youngish audience can’t get enough of these antics. Their laughter is contagious, filling the room with an enthusiastic energy.

It’s this kind of excitement for experimental performance that Berkowitz hopes to kindle through his curation of this month’s “Lightning Series,” continuing through Jan. 28. Movement-based works take center stage on Jan. 19 and 21 with new pieces by L.A. choreographers Finn Murphy, Victoria Marks & Alexx Shilling, and Jay Carlon & Lindsey Lollie making up a triple bill on Thursday, and a dirt-throwing physical theater performance of Galiana & Nikolchev’s Useless Room’s “The Last One” taking over on Saturday. (Yes, there will be rocks and dirt on stage).  Sunday (Jan. 22) brings clown and ringmaster Roger Fojas and his group the Forest Furries (think Winnie the Pooh for adults), as well as an installation piece by poet Bobby Gordon called “Good Things in Shitty Packages.”

“Inside of a dirty magazine is some poetry. Inside a parking ticket is some poetry. Inside some wrappers of McDonald’s is some beautiful poetry,” says Berkowitz of Gordon’s piece.

Just as Gordon’s work invites discovery, Berkowitz hopes that the “Lightning Series” encourages theatergoers to venture outside of their comfort zones and fuses fans of niche performance genres into mutually benefitted arts audiences.

“Sometimes these communities can be insular. It’s the same 60 people,” says Berkowitz. “It’s just nice sometimes when this 60 person community and that 60 person community — boom! — they collide and they feed each other.”

For Shapiro, 63, Berkowitz is the jolt of new energy that the Lodge needs right now, as it aims to add members to its board, raise $100,000 in donations this year, preserve itself as a Venice cultural institution, serve as an “antidote” to the disappearance of Venice’s artistic communities and tap into the area’s influx of young, tech-savvy and creative entrepreneurs.

“The Lodge has been reaching out to millennials big time,” says Shapiro. “So it’s great to see [Josh] have this opportunity, because that’s what we need. We need to keep in step.”

“The Lightning Series” continues through Jan. 28 at the Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice. Visit lightningseries.eventbrite.com for the complete schedule.