Golden Years: Time and Space Limited Turns 50 | General Arts & Culture | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

For the last 40 or so years—and counting—it's been the increasingly unattainable rents that have become the overriding obstacle to any artist angling to exist in New York City. But in the 1960s and '70s, before the speculative real estate boom that finally brought the hammer down, that element wasn't so much at the forefront. White flight had driven earlier residents to the suburbs, and apartments in the city, especially in the now long-desirable Lower East Side, were cheap.

At more of a premium were two other components that are crucial to any urban artists' survival: 1) open spots in their hectic schedule between day jobs and the requisite networking and 2) finding the room in which to make their art. Time and space. It was those two entities being in such short supply that in 1973 inspired the name of the theater company that avant-garde playwright, visual artist, multimedia set and lighting designer, and activist Linda Mussmann founded and runs with her wife, singer and actor Claudia Bruce: Time and Space Limited. This month, TSL will celebrate its 50th anniversary as an organization and its 30th year of its likewise-named arts center in Hudson.

"It doesn't seem like that long," says Bruce when the pair are asked how they each feel when reflecting upon TSL's legacy. "Things around us have changed drastically over the years. But you can't stop change, you can just ride the wave."

"We're always reimagining and reconstituting TSL," Mussmann adds. "The way we go goes with the times. We don't have tons of grant money to work with, so we rely a lot on private donations and on adding different elements to what we do. But we're not owned by anyone else, and we've built a strong base. So that gives us the freedom to be flexible."

Down on the Farm

Mussmann grew up on a family farm in Gary, Indiana, an experience that had much to do with preparing her for her future demanding, resourcefulness-dependent jobs as an artist, arts-organization wrangler, and venue manager.

"Most of the first 18 years of my life were full of hard labor," she says. "Gathering eggs, baling hay, plowing fields, moving cattle around. I got to be good at problem solving and good with my hands, which has been really important for building sets and lighting rigs and doing repairs and renovations. It's funny, back then there were certain jobs that were seen as women's work and certain jobs that were seen as men's work. But when the cows got in the corn or some other crisis came up, like when I was 14 and a tornado hit the area, there was no gender bias. Everyone pitched in to help. We sold eggs door to door, and I remember how amazing that was to me when I was a kid: Every time you'd go to one of the houses in town and someone came to the door, you'd look behind them and see some whole other world going on in there. It was like a new set behind every door."

Her interest in sets and what plays out on them blossomed, and after excelling at Purdue University, Mussmann moved to Chicago in the turbulent year of 1968. There, she studied theater at an institution whose history would greatly shape TSL's community-oriented outlook: the Hull House Theater, a site that had originally been the innovative Near West Side immigrant settlement house cofounded by activists Jane Adams and Ellen Gates Star in 1889. "The church had been a big part of rural community life in Indiana," explains Mussmann, who counts Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf as key artistic influences. "But at Hull House, I learned more about the social reform work that Jane Adams had done, and that really inspired me."

Born in Mississippi and raised in the tiny Northeast Georgia town of Cornelia, Bruce was involved in the area's first summer stock theater company, for whom she acted, sang, danced, made costumes, and built sets and props. Her father ran a successful textiles firm, and she traces her theatrical streak to her family's visits to New York while he did business as igniting her own interest in performing. "Seeing Broadway, with all of the bright lights and all of the plays and musicals that were going on there," she recalls. "I knew then that I was going to live in New York someday." And eventually she did, settling in the East Village in 1969, the same year that Mussmann arrived there.

Spirit of '76

"New York was an amazing, very happening place in the 1970s," says Bruce, who worked as an usher for the initial run of Kenneth Tynan's famously bawdy avant-garde revue "Oh! Calcutta!" "There were all these protest movements going on, and there were over a hundred off-off-Broadway theaters in the city at the time. It was so rich, culturally. It was roiling."

"We treasured our industrial spaces, our non-traditional venues; we made theater anywhere," says Mussmann, who waxes fondly about sharing the scene with such iconic peers as John Cage and Merce Cunningham. By the dawn of the decade, she had begun writing and directing her own experimental plays and site-specific multimedia performance pieces that utilize film, audio and video recordings, projections, and her own DIY lighting systems, which were fashioned using castoff items. "I built a simple lighting board, and we used pizza sauce cans from the place up the street for the light cans," she says. "We got to know when the pizzeria was throwing the cans out, so we'd just go up and get them." In 1973 Mussmann launched the Time and Space Limited company to present her own works and classics by Chekov, Ibsen, Pinter, Ionesco, Beckett, and other repertoire greats, setting up residence at the Universalist Church on West 76th Street.

click to enlarge Golden Years: Time and Space Limited Turns 50
Claudia Bruce performs in the TSL production “Omaha to Ogden (Southwesterly)” in 1986.

The two met in 1976, when Bruce, then working as a reporter for the feminist newspaper Majority Report, attended a TSL theatrical adaptation of Gertrude Stein's modernist novel The Making of Americans. They've been together as life partners and collaborators ever since, with Bruce becoming Mussmann's muse and appearing in many of her works as well as taking on the position of TSL's codirector. The 1980s were a fruitful time as the company's reputation in New York's avant-garde axis continued to blossom thanks its stagings of reinterpreted repertoire plays and surreal Mussmann originals like 1984's "Room/Raum" (from her 1981 book of the same name) 1985's Harbors Wait, a dance performance piece at the Museum of Modern Art. A highwater mark was her epic, six-part "Civil War Chronicles" series (1987-1989), which utilizes dance, music, films, slides, and elliptical text to reexamine history. But, as the song goes, money changes everything. And, as TSL competed for grants to keep going, money was changing New York. At an accelerating pace.

"It was the era of Reagan and real estate," remembers Mussmann. "Lofts were becoming 'cool.' We could see the handwriting on the wall. We knew we couldn't stay in New York if we wanted to keep doing what we do." The final straw came in 1991, when TSL was one of four theater companies in the US that refused a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts that had mandated an anti-obscenity pledge. "It was eye-opening," says Bruce about the decision. "So we started looking around for a new home for TSL, somewhere that could be constantly evolving."

A Diamond in the Rough

That place turned out to be 130 miles north of Manhattan: a sprawling former bread factory in the then-withering, post-industrial city of Hudson. "We'd had a weekend home in Gallatin where we'd been coming up to write since 1983, so we already knew the area well," Mussmann says. "And we knew the taxes were much lower in southern Columbia County than in [bordering] northern Dutchess County." When the 9,600-square-foot, warehouse-like structure on Columbia Street (known as Diamond Street during Hudson's red-light era) became available in 1993, Mussman and Bruce were instantly smitten. "We knew immediately it was the place when it came up," says Bruce. "It needed a lot of work at the time—it always does—but we could see the possibilities right away."

Despite their shared optimistic vision, launching such a venue in what was then an economically blighted and culturally barren city was still a daunting prospect. But with their Lower East Side-learned chutzpa, TSL bought the building, and the couple dove right in. Mussmann took on much of the renovation work herself, the facility soon opened as not only an outlet to show performance works by the TSL team and others, but also as a screening room for art house films, a gallery, a venue for live music by local and touring bands and live readings, and a community center offering programs for underserved neighborhood kids. Most of the other arts and nightlife venues, galleries, restaurants, and shops that make Hudson the cultural destination it is today sprouted up after TSL had paved the way, and Mussmann and Bruce took a chance on the city when few others were willing to do so. "We either deserve the credit or the blame for the gentrification of Hudson," says Mussman with a laugh. (The saga even inspired the script of A Bread Factory, a 2018 film shot at TSL Hudson starring Tyne Daly.)

Throughout its presence in Hudson, the community-advocacy aspect of TSL has been important to its directors. "When we started doing work on the building, there was this group of little girls who lived around the corner on Fifth Street who used to come and bang on the door, wanting to know what was going on inside this place that had been boarded up for so long," Bruce recounts. "It was clear that they weren't getting enough to eat, so we started buying them all sandwiches from the deli up the street. Well, that started to add up quickly, so then we just started making them peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches here. Pretty soon, word got around to the Rotary Club and they started buying us bread for the sandwiches and dropping it off every day." In the early 2000s, when the St. Lawrence Cement company was attempting to push through a project that would have constructed an environmentally unsound cement plant and river port in Hudson, Mussmann and Bruce were in the thick of the ultimately successful fight against it; Mussmann, who ran for mayor during the same period, now serves on the Columbia County Board of Supervisors. The organization has also raised money to send kids to camp and put up bail for troubled community members.

An Ongoing Legacy

As it welcomes its fifth decade, TSL Hudson is still riding the wave and maintaining its flexibility. Over the years, the center has added appetizing attractions like regular livestreams of the Metropolitan Opera and, recently, a used bookstore in its basement space. The milestone is being marked with the July 1 opening of "Made Up Mythologies," an exhibition of works by acclaimed painter Roberto Juarez created specifically for the occasion.

"I've known Linda since 1980, when she was resident director at [Off-Off-Broadway experimental theater] La Mama and I had a space there," says Juarez, who's lived in Hudson since 2000. "TSL is such a sanctuary for creativity, whether it's great painting, great music, or great poetry. Where else around here would you be able to see something like [radical, Vermont-based puppet troupe and past TSL headliners] Bread and Puppet Theater?"

click to enlarge Golden Years: Time and Space Limited Turns 50
Linda Mussmann and Claudia Bruce, codirectors of Time and Space Limited circa 1980.

The seeds sown by Mussmann and Bruce's efforts have inspired next-generation arts groups in town, such as local presenters the Hudson Eye. "TSL really is the anchor of the arts community for the entire region," says the Hudson Eye's founder Jonah Bokaer, whose foundation was established in 2019 and hosts the Hudson Eye Arts Festival annually. "The legacy they've built in New York and here really encapsulates this country's modern artistic experience."

As TSL continues on its course and looks toward the future, that legacy is being preserved via the online Mussmann/Bruce Archive, which features a timeline, films of their early work, event posters, and more.

"I think the heart of the message of what we do is 'art saves lives,'" says Bruce. "We know that's true. We've seen it happen."

About The Author

Peter Aaron

Peter Aaron is the arts editor for Chronogram.
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