Trailer made for the airwaves

By CHARLIE BUTERBAUGH

The interview with Sabrina Artel is both a radio program in the making and a live performance that enriches scenes surrounding her 13-foot vintage trailer.

After a show at the Catskill Festival of New Theatre last weekend, Artel met with Dah Theatre company performers from Belgrade, Serbia, who have been actively opposing the war since it started in Yugoslavia in 1991. People who had just seen the show listened from lawn chairs in front of Artel’s trailer as she elicited insight from the artists.

This summer is Artel’s third in residence at the NaCl Theatre in Highland Lake, and her post-performance shows often include interviews not only with actors, but also with people from the audience on a given night.

The outdoor amplification of what people say while sitting around Artel’s kitchen table is an essential part of her unique journalistic medium. An audience is with her throughout the process of what she has named “Trailer Talk.”

Whether she’s at Livingston Manor’s annual Trout Parade, a chili cook-off for Sullivan County’s fire departments or the New Hampshire primaries in Dixville Notch, Artel endeavors to find connections between different groups of people. She found herself sandwiched between satellite vans from CNN and NBC at the March for Reproductive Rights in Washington, DC, and in New Hampshire, she interviewed John Kerry’s brother, Cameron, when the temperature outside her 1965 beeline trailer was 20-below, and only 40 degrees warmer inside.

If she could, Artel said she would drive across the country, park outside a well-known ranch in Crawford, Texas and interview people at the vigil Cindy Sheehan (the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq) has set up to urge President Bush to bring American men and women home from the war. A large part of the audience Artel seeks would be right there, listening as she documented Sheehan’s unconventional means of political activism, unconventionally.

“You come into the trailer and immediately your sitting with me at my kitchen table,” Artel said. “People are used to talking to the press, but many have not been in this context.”

Artel began her life in Sullivan County like many do: first as a weekender an eventually a full-time resident enchanted by the natural beauty and intrigued by the unique intersections of rural and urban cultures. Coming from a career in acting in New York City and Los Angeles, she bought a house in Liberty 11 years ago. She graduated from New York University with degrees in theater and anthropology.

“It’s come back to these interests,” Artel said of Trailer Talk.

Never ceasing is her interest in small town America and “what is happening here in Sullivan County.” She described the county’s contemporary culture as “a time of complex transitions” and said this idea of a small town is something that is often characterized in the media by assumptions.

“I strive to break that open and find out what it is because it’s not as simple as we’re often told,” Artel said. She can gather hours’, sometimes days’ worth of recordings from one location, which she edits into one-hour radio programs. She likes to include the sounds of her given surroundings on location—sounds of traffic, birds, or the trailer door opening and closing.

Air American and Pacifica Radio have broadcast her programs, and Kevin Gref holds a regular spot for Trailer Talk interviews on his radio show “Making Waves,” which airs Tuesday evenings at 9:00 p.m. on Radio Catskill (90.5 WJFF).

“It’s so important that we’re all talking to each other,” Artel said. “Face to face, people are given a chance to participate in conversation. It’s a different kind of coexistence that happens inside this trailer.”

She added: “We live in a culture of celebrities and media. What’s problematic about this is that we’re often not having direct contact with each other, and often that contact can be predictable.” This predictability could serve as an explanation behind Artel’s motivation to expand the parameters of radio to production to include live interaction between guest, audience and herself.

“Trailer Talk, from start to finish, is something that is public and shared,” she said.

Artel bought her first trailer in Mongaup Valley. It was double the size of the one she uses now. “It needed work but it had wooden trim inside,” she said.

She started wondering how she could incorporate the trailer into her life as a performer.

“I wanted to find a way to speak to people in their communities and also to play an active part,” she said.

Then she found the little beeline on a road between Callicoon and Jeffersonville, and she bought it. It came from Elkhart, IN, “which is still the trailer capitol of America,” she said. “I had two vintage trailers, and my family thought I was crazy.”

Artel has grown up with a fascination with the surprise of what can happen when you travel. She was born in Texas, and as a kid, her family spent several summers on the road in a big old Chevy station wagon.

“I like the feeling of the unknown and unexpected encounters, both familiar and unfamiliar,” she said.

In a digital era that pushes artists to continually reach new audiences, this radio producer has found a unique way to include listeners in her fieldwork as she documents cultural and political events, interviewing passersby and invited guests in her vintage trailer.

The live art making of Trailer Talk gives the performer in Artel an outlet to put her fast-reacting mind to work.

In her discussion with the Dah Theatre company performers last weekend, Artel asked, “Was there a point when you questioned what your role as a performer was in the situation of war?”

Maja Mitic, a core member of Dah, replied, “Our theatre has been made out of that question.”

TRR photo by Charlie Buterbaugh
Sabrina Artel, left, host of Trailer Talk, interviews Sanja Krsmanovic Tasic, Dijana Milosevic and Maja Mitic after their performance at the NaCl Theatre in Highland Lake. (Click for larger version)
TRR photo by Charlie Buterbaugh
Sabrina Artel, left, host of Trailer Talk, interviews Sanja Krsmanovic Tasic, Dijana Milosevic and Maja Mitic after their performance at the NaCl Theatre in Highland Lake. (Click for larger version)