The Shades of Gray: German, American, New York
Heidi Mueller Smith and Miriam Ibrahim, founders of The Shades Of Gray
It seems there's no avoiding the cultural reference, regrettable as it may be.
"Those book people stole our name!" exclaims Heidi Mueller Smith, referring to the non-namesake trashy beach-read trilogy that has so far refused to get out of the headlines this summer. Let's set the record straight: The Shades of Gray is based on the idea that there's a wide palette to choose from- an innumerable amount, even- of "shades" in both people and in the arts. And that's where the comparisons end.
The multi-arts organization formed in 2011 in New York derives its name from the common approach of its two founders, Miriam Ibrahim and Heidi Mueller Smith, to the process of character development and analysis of a story. In their experience with theater production, which the two often discussed while riding the same train home from Stella Adler Studio of Acting, a story's heroes and antagonists weren't so easily distinguishable as they're often made out to be. Building on this theme, Ibrahim toyed with the idea of founding a company that could explore the ways through which the complexity of life and these "things in the grey" can be expressed, through various mediums, from the stage to the canvas.
Mueller Smith and Ibrahim decided to take advantage of this artistic synergy and created an organization that would support other artists and their work in the city. Since its founding just one year ago, Shades of Gray has already presented a handful of stage productions and exhibitions featuring actors, directors, playwrights, and multimedia artists from both Germany and the United States. It just completed its first Artist Exchange last month, hosting Hamburg-based artists at the SoHo gallery Space on White in a series called "Sorry for the Color." It will soon take its fall production, an original movement-theater rendition of the Grimm's fairy tale "Sterntaler-The Star Money," to a rooftop in Alphabet City.
The story of the Star Money involves a poor little girl who gives away all of her possessions- down to her very last piece of clothing- to help others, only to be rewarded when the stars above her turn to coins and fall from the sky. Ibrahim describes the movement theatre piece as an exploration of "the physicality of emotions," performed by Japanese artist Nao Daobashi. While asking the question "is it that easy to give away and to do good?", explains Ibrahim, the piece looks to identify and portray the internal experience represented by the falling money-stars in the children's story.
The "Sterntaler" theme is also reminiscent of its artistic directors' investment into the organization. Apart from minimal support from an arts foundation and donations, The Shades of Gray is run largely on their own resources, essentially running the organization as volunteers, with Ibrahim's Queens apartment sometimes even doubling as a studio. But it upholds the principle of the organization to support fellow artists and is the reason Ibrahim, originally from Germany, has chosen to make a go of it in New York. "Everyone helps everyone else here," she says, but in the same sentence, Ibrahim says she has a long-term plan. "We just started here," she says, but hopes to one day launch a Shades of Gray in her native Hamburg.
The very first Shades of Gray event centered on the concept of outsiders, or at least the perception of "being on the outside." Inviting actors to take the stage and share a real-life experience of when they felt like an outsider, it established a working theme of examining the less obvious conflicts that drive characters on the stage and in life.
This fall, Mueller Smith will take the helm to direct an original play titled "Inside Out," set in an environment about as colorful as they come: a New York City subway car. At first placed together purely by circumstance and limited to outer appearance, the characters will be forced to interact during the course of the play, touching on the familiar Shades of Gray theme as the characters develop. Audience judgments of the faces on the train should be challenged and deconstructed as they interact, and the categorization of "insiders" versus "outsiders" will be subject to a changing group dynamic.
In many contexts, gray is portrayed as largely colorless, and "symbolizes dull," says Mueller Smith. But it's a result more than a color, she and Ibrahim say, and one you can only get from mixing those colors that symbolize exactly what life is not: black and white.