Archive for March, 2009

In Praise of Rats and Thieves

Posted in Indie Theatre with tags , , , , , on March 27, 2009 by travsd

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What was RAT? RAT was a sort of a kind of a thing.

Its key players were playwright Erik Ehn, and Nick Fracaro and Gaby Schafer (formerly of Thieves Theatre, now of International Culture Lab [www.intlculturelab.org]). This extremely informal entity (founded 1994) organized annual conferences of indie theatre artists, sponsored an online user-group called the RAT-list long before such things were common, and acted as a sort of general gadfly to whatever Sacred Cows they could sink their teeth into.

I always sort of hovered around the entity, stuck my toe in, but never quite jumped off the diving board. While I participated in the New York conference in 1997, I stopped short of actually saying anything at meetings, or joining in theatre games. Since I had cast myself in the role of observer anyway, I opted to cover subsequent RAT Conferences in Philadelphia (2001) and San Francisco (2002) for American Theatre and the Village Voice. The final one was held in Argentina in 2003, and since then the RAT has been asleep, though its constituent members have been quite active at their own pursuits.

RAT served an excellent function in its own right, but it also possessed a great deal of unfulfilled potential. Most importantly, it connected people from small, radical theatres all over the country, turning them into pen pals (and occasionally pen antagonists), colleagues, and often genuine friends. The network it created joined previously isolated (often embattled) artists from around the country, all of whom faced similar trials – not just economic and artistic ones, but metaphysical ones. When the whole world seems to be telling your indie theatre it has no right to exist, it’s nice to get an e-mail from a friend in Minneapolis or Miami who also has no right to exist. This is where the RATlist and the RAT Conferences are sorely missed. They provided a centralized communications platform that brought people together. While there’s plenty of activity on the web now, and plenty of professional theatre groups…I don’t know any entity that is actively linking renegade experimental theatres on a national level. RAT did that for almost a decade; now there’s a vacuum.

This linking function is also what points up the unfullfilled potential. Since so many connections were made over the years, there grew the inevitable talk about formalization and structure. It seemed natural to many that the next step that should be taken was a sort of circuit, a cooperative arrangement whereby small theatre groups could tour to other cities, crash at the houses of their hosts and perform in their theatres, then return the favor by hosting visiting groups at their own venues and houses themselves. Apparently, this had happened some at the individual level. But the potential was there for something really amazing…a sort of nationwide network of indie theatre safehouses, with a sharing of resources that would make otherwise impossible tours economically feasible. With all the communications tools at our command now, such a thing is definitely possible.

But the problem became: “Who will do it?” Ehn himself proved a most frustrating leader, because he didn’t want to be one. While the group had come together initially at his suggestion, and members were to drawn to his side to listen to his enigmatic, koan-like pronouncements, playing the role of theorist and prophet was really the extent of what he was willing to do. Furthermore, there was a sort of antipathy, not just on Erik’s part, toward the idea of anyone taking on a genuine leadership role. The group was “anti-leader”, meant to sort of cohere organically, naturally, democratically and anarchistically. But, as any natural scientist can tell you, any social species that congregates does so around a leader. The bees have a queen, the gorillas have a silverback, and the geese fly in their V behind a lead goose. Absent someone willing to exercise centralized guidance, the result is inertia and diffusion.

Many people worked long and hard at making RAT happen, none more so than Nick and Gaby. For example, the meticulous chronicle of those days still to be found online [www.ratconference.com] is their doing. And truth to tell, they were always the real reason I ever had anything to do with RAT. I came to New York originally with a lot of visions fueled by second-hand paperbacks of absurdist plays and books about the original off-off-Broadway of the 1960s. I rather foolishly came to the city expecting that the adventurous aesthetics of those times had taken hold somehow, that at least — in this city of infinite variety and freedom – they were to be found somewhere. That was not the case. Oh, there was something called off-off-Broadway, but the aesthetics of the time had moved on. What dominated on stages of the time were autobiographical, identity-based performance art; ethnic folk performance; rather antiseptic Marxist deconstruction; and infatuation with technology. My experimental one-act plays, influenced by Beckett and early Sam Shepard, were very much out of step with the times. [The one remaining thread to the past, the Ridiculous, remained in flower, however, and would flower more still. This is another story, to be elaborated upon in another post].

The Thieves Theatre were the first people I ever encountered who possessed something like my idealism and disregard for the existing market — even the off-off-Broadway market. Their most famous project had involved living in a teepee at the base of the Manhattan Bridge for nine months. Their name, ‘Thieves Theatre” is an homage to Jean Genet, an actual thief in addition to being an actual playwright, and was tantalizingly close to the name of my theatre “Mountebanks”. We both romanticized this association between being actors and living outside society as “criminals”. We shared a love also of Artaud, and the latter’s belief that theatre should be harrowing, traumatic, hallucinatory, metaphysical – it should resemble childbirth, and the horrors of war, and it should point the way toward the obliteration of the self that is sex. Onstage and off, I seek grotesques: clowns, strippers, transvestites, physical freaks…and those, like magicians and acrobats who bend reality…and only those writers, actors, singers, dancers and musicians, who approach magicians and acrobats in their ability to warp reality in that way.

For me, Nick Fracaro is like that. What most people haven’t understood about Nick in particular is the quotes he puts around “criminal”. He is one of my most cherished colleagues and friends – and he is grossly misunderstood by a lot of people. Public discourse is a kind of performance, and in this arena, Nick holds nothing back. He is the king of the Jeremiad, the harangue, and the 2 a.m. jag. If he were in congress, he would be in charge of the filibusters. But unlike most such talkers, he is not a bore. He has the passion of a tiger. He is like John Brown. I personally find it thrilling, but many have felt threatened by him. Frankly, I’ve always felt it was a middle class hang-up that creates the gap in understanding. Nick and I both come from the Lower Depths. Where I come from, the grown-ups would have drunken, loud, out of control conversations (sometimes, arguments, sometimes fights) until the wee hours of the morning. It’s called living life. Nick has been a teetotaler for many years, and he’s never actually assaulted anyone that I’ve ever heard of (except maybe their ears), but that’s beside the point. I’d much rather embrace somebody who’s passionate about what I’m passionate about – and mix it up with him – then avoid the conversation. Some say that Nick is nuts. I say that he is colorful – which happens to be the opposite of grey.

Gaby (Nick’s wife) seems less radical at first, but when she starts going, you see the light of fanatical fervor come out of her eyes as well, and you realize why the two of them are together. The two of them seem to be working hard at legitimizing at the moment (with some other partners) with the International Cultural Laboratory. But then, what could be more idealistic than saying your small company is the “Laboratory” for “International Culture”? That’s a tall order!

H’m…but on the other hand… if someone were to create an international RAT…

3 Chances to Catch Trav S.D. and Caveman Robot This Week

Posted in Indie Theatre, ME, My Shows, VISUAL ART with tags , , , on March 23, 2009 by travsd

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Three chances to catch Trav S.D. and Caveman Robot:

1. Live at 92 Y Tribeca this Wednesday

The Caveman Robot Radio Adventure Show

Trav S.D. presents this old time radio show featuring cult comics character Caveman Robot (http://www.cavemanrobot.com) , Trav S.D., Robert Pinnock, Pete Macnamara, Richard Harrington, Moira Stone, and Chris Harcum, with live music and sound effects by Lumberob and Uke Jackson and hand drawn/collage video images of the adventure by Jason Robert Bell, all combining for an experience calculated to make you yell “Oolar!”

92YTribeca
200 Hudson Street

This Wednesday March 25 at 8pm
Tickets are $10

2. Listen to our recent performance on WFMU’s The Acousmatic Theater Hour: http://www.wfmu.org/playlists/shows/30766

3. Tune in to us live on the Joey Reynold’s Show, WOR radio (710am), March 25, 10:40pm

I hope you’ll join us!

Benefit This Friday

Posted in Contemporary Variety, My Shows on March 18, 2009 by travsd

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Did you know…

* That “the 3 Lowlifes” is the debut of the slapstick comedy team of Roger Nasser, Robert Pinnock and Trav S.D.?

* That the sketch performed by the 3 Lowlifes was written by Mr. John Devore, with an assist by Messers Pinnock and S.D.?

* “Mother Nature” is played by the lovely Alyssa Simon

* We’ve just added a bunch of cool new people to the bill including Carmen Mofongo (Michele Carlo), Audrey Crabtree, and Ambrose Martos (formerly of the Happy Hour trio).

It’s going to be an amazing show and all for a good cause, so please come down!

Here are the details again:

Celebrate the First Day of Spring at

Trav S.D.’s AMERICAN BURLESQUE
Spring Equinox Benefit for
Theater for the New City’s New Green Roof

Hosted by Cyndi Freeman

With

Amber Alert
Carla Rhodes
Audrey Crabtree
Ambrose Martos
Carmen Mofongo (Michele Carlo)
Albert Garzon
Leela Corman
Katherine Adamenko
Vangeline
Jeff Seal and Chris Manley
The Three Lowlifes

With your host Trav S.D., and many more, including a surprise visit from MOTHER NATURE. And it’s all for TNC’s new green roof!

Friday, March 20, 11pm
Theater for the New City’s Johnson Theater
155 First Avenue
(between 9th and 10th Streets)
New York, NY 10003

Tickets: $20
(212) 254-1109

Back Office, Front and Center

Posted in Indie Theatre with tags , , , , on March 15, 2009 by travsd

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The divine Ms. Porter’s comment to my recent post on the subject of “freaks” was both timely and anticipatory. I had intended one of the pieces in my Indie Theatre series to be a sort of paean to the key role of certain arts administrators I have admired.

Yes, goddamn you, administrators!

Although, this certainly can’t have been her intention, Catherine stepped in at just the right time to receive laurels from this naked Emperor. I just saw the new Dixon Place, the $5.6 million Christie Street facility which she had a central role in creating as that theatre’s development director for the past decade. Catherine is a terrific actress. She has also dreamed up and co-produced some amazing site-specific shows with Peculiar Works Project. But she really ought to be equally if not more proud of her achievement at Dixon Place, which is a pretty important legacy in its own right.

Here, I want to pick up on the climax of my lengthy diatribe on the “virtues and vices of the treadmill”. Theatre is an organizational art form. Poets and painters can work alone in garrets. Theatre artists require organizations. (Yes, solo performers can busk, but it’s a precious few who would choose that life over working in theatres). And just as individuals must grow artistically in order to remain vital; organizations must grow materially in order to survive. The instant an organization ceases to grow, it starts to decay. There is no such thing as stasis in the real world.

Dixon Place was founded in Ellie Covan’s apartment in East First Street in 1986. It was one of the first places my ex-wife and I use to frequent when we moved here the following year. It was a haunt for all sorts of readings and amazing performance art. (The late Ethyl Eichelberger was and remains my favorite of all that generation; he inspired me immensely.) In the middle period (the nineties) I gave several performances and readings at Dixon Place’s second iteration in the Bowery. For a time, they were housed at the Vineyard Theatre, and now they have this impressive, completely professional new space of their own. I can’t help feeling some sort of tangential pride of association; I grew up right alongside it.

Another organization I feel a strong connection to is also one Catherine does some fundraising for, HERE Arts Center. My connection actually began with its predecessor organization, the Home for Contemporary Theatre and Art. In the early 90s, I once performed on a bill there with John Leguizamo and Aaron Beall. In 1993, HOME teamed up with Tiny Mythic to create HERE. I was first in the space in 1994 or thereabouts for some sort of panel or workshop put on by either the Arts & Business Council or NYSCA, and that’s where I first saw HERE’s Artistic Director Kristin Marting in action. I have admired her ever since. I have never seen her when she wasn’t a blur. Like Catherine, she is also at heart an artist (specifically a director of her own hybridized style of gesture-based theatre), but along the way, has managed to turn a fledgling independent operation into a solid institution. Not long ago, HERE bought its own space. Very, very few Indie theatres have made it that far. (HERE has also nurtured me by hosting three of my plays, further cementing the connection.)

Lest ye think that by digging in roots and creating these strong not-for-profit infrastructures, Porter and Marting somehow are too “establishment”, I think back to where I first got to know them both…at the 1997 RAT Conference. I think RAT will deserve its own post in the weeks to come – for now let us just define it as a now defunct, very loose alternative theatre communications network brought into being by playwright Erik Ehn, and Gaby Schafer and Nick Fracaro of Thieves Theatre. In 1997, the second year of the New York International Fringe Festival, the annual RAT conference was held in New York as a sort of oppositional event. For various personal and professional reasons (in my case, a sort of constitutional, knee-jerk antinomianism), we all threw in with RAT rather than Fringe. In a word, we and our cohorts at the time considered ourselves fringier than the Fringe. And right on down the line, Porter and Marting in their various enterprises have continued to make and support interesting, far-out work, proving (to me at least) that its possible to make a viable organization and still remain “pure”.

Like both these women, I live this sort of double life in the arts, both an artist and an arts administrator. I have performed the latter function at Theatre for the New City, Big Apple Circus, Coney Island USA, and the New-York Historical Society. It’s long been my dream to be able to merge the two lives; to be successful enough at the latter on my own behalf, to support the former. Because I learned this lesson early (if not early enough): no back office, no freak show.

And there have been so many cautionary tales of venues from our generation – seeming institutions — that have not been able to survive: Todo Con Nada, Collective Unconscious, Surf Reality, the Present Company Theatorium*, and now the Ohio. To survive, never mind grow, is an astounding achievement in an art form this expensive and this risky. In the doubtful event that either Porter or Marting are able to slow down a moment and take some satisfaction in the things they’ve accomplished, they ought to do so.

* The Present Company itself flourishes as much as ever of course, but the Theatorium is greatly missed.

The Finishing House

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre with tags , on March 14, 2009 by travsd

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What a case of putting the cart before the horse is The Finishing House, now playing at Dixon Place through March 28. First rate acting, direction and design…in the service of a rather shaky play.

Author Jack Hanley presents a dystopian vision of life in North America a generation or two hence, but his premises are at once too numerous and too derivative. A single original one would have done nicely. Instead we are given a sort of hodgepodge of conceits culled from the likes of Soylent Green, A Clockwork Orange and Escape from New York. Dr. Timothy Matchett (Bob Jaffe) is the product of a genetic experiment (he is literally hung like a horse) who also happens to run a secret government euthanasia parlor, implausibly located in his living room. Bee (Jessica Howell) is a cult member from Manhattan (now a separate country) who wants to experience the ultimate rush in the form of the death-dealing “Passion Light”. Matchett’s wife Elizabeth (Natalie Ferrier) simply wants to grow her strawberries, bonding with the Mexican workers who have overwhelmed the country in a manner redolent of the worst predictions of Thomas Malthus and Patrick Buchanan.

The script has it moments, but they pale in comparison to nearly every other element of the production. Director Christopher Eaves has gotten from his performers and designers some visionary work…from the larger-than-life theatricality of the three actors; to the clear plastic dress shirt worn by the hero; the pseudo-Egyptian make-up worn by all the cast; the opening image of the married couple in stark, gorgeous silhouette; the impressionistic painted strawberry field; the scary electric “clunk” of the Passion Light. But in the end, the excellence of these elements all exceed that of the script itself, like so many gorgeous decorations on Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. What we are supposed to take away – emotionally or in terms of political consciousness – remains as shadowy as tomorrow’s stock picks.

www.dixonplace.org

New Batch of Archival Videos at Youtube.com/TravSD

Posted in Contemporary Variety, ME, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on March 12, 2009 by travsd

With the help of collaborator Art Wallace, I just posted a bunch of archival videos on my Youtube page. Included are some segments from my American Vaudeville Theatre at Surf Reality in 1998,  my Health & Wealth Elixir show at the Brick Theatre in 2006, and my performance in Art Wallace’s 2005 film “Ken Sippillary: Faith, Hope and Love”. I hope you’ll check ’em out!

Seen above: Robert Pinnock as Professor Zero

IN PRAISE OF FREAKS

Posted in Art Stars, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2009 by travsd

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Memo to publicists and producers:

One sure fire way to get me to NOT come to your show is to take this approach: “You’d better make your reservation quickly. Tickets are going fast. We’re almost sold out!”

Not because I think it’s a ploy, although I suspect it often is. If it’s a ruse, in my case, it backfires. It will prejudice me against your show all the more if it’s true.

I’ve never been interested in hits. The show that everybody wants to see? That’s the show in which I have no interest. My happiest experiences in the theatre have tended to be when I was one of a spoiled handful in the audience, sharing some unique, seemingly accidental event with the lucky few. I don’t want to be part of some stampeding New York herd. I don’t want to jump on some band wagon. And I definitely am not interested in some phenomenon someone else has already discovered.

New York is supposedly the most sophisticated town in the world, but at times it seems like it’s full of lemmings. “You’ve just got to do this! You’ve just got to do that!” That’s not why I moved to New York, to conform. Thousands do, of course. They flock to New York burning with ambition to perform in Oklahoma!, One Life to Live, Cats, and The Death of a Salesman. To me, they constitute a George Romero scenario: Theatre of the Living Dead. But as Romero illustrated so wittily, you can find zombies at your local shopping mall. Why come to the capital of the world to be one?

Give me freaks. This is my thesis. This is why I am here. New York’s supposed to be where oddballs come to flower into themselves. Let the beautiful people flock to California. Here, we’re supposed to cultivate a tough and poisonous substance. Here, you need to take what we’ve got to say like a pill. Who wants the Before and After pictures to look the same? I’ll tell you who: tourists. Give me the rara ava. I happen to know two different women with the relatively run-of-the-mill name Jennifer Miller. One is a professional Bearded Lady; the other is never seen in public – including the grocery store – unless she is wearing a pair of joke shop elf ears. Now: there must be a million other Jennifer Millers in this country. I can see them now, with their “Garfield” coffee mugs, their Lionel Ritchie CDs and their devotion to daytime television. I’m sure they’re very nice people.

If you’re one of the Borg, I don’t wanna know ya. Give me performers who are not pretty or conventional looking, with faces and bodies and voices that ensure an unringing telephone. Those who are bent, short, twitchy, toothless, fat, pockmarked, bug-eyed and otherwise deemed unfit for commercial consumption. Give me the people with personality disorders, the geeks (literal and otherwise), the drag queens and closeted transvestites, weirdos, the promiscuous, insomniacs, chain-smokers, manic depressives, drunks, hopheads, people with dark secret lives. Faces with tics…actors with speech impediments and crooked noses and two left feet…beanpoles, the queer, the wall-eyed. Give me the angry, the unbalanced, people too cantankerous, outspoken, and idiosyncratic to make it in any scene that prizes surface over substance. Oh, you can be pretty, but you’d better be brilliant or crazy to compensate for that flaw.

I want to see some people in your circus. I don’t write for no damn fashion magazine.

****

As a postscript, and in no way an elaboration on the previous point, I’d like to proffer props to some wacky, way out kids I saw in the Frigid Festival a few days ago. Number 11 Productions presented Jet of Blood, a piece by the insane French theorist Antonin Artaud. It would be a mistake for any critic to review a work so purely experimental as a “show”, but I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed myself – probably almost as much as the cast, who tackle the dense and darkly symbolic work with the energy and playfulness of a group of neighborhood urchins playing cops and robbers. The production contains constant surprises, a couple of moments of genuine power, but above all, a quality of youthful verve and humor too often missing in non-linear outings of this type. Any production in which a woman shoots milk out of her breasts like two squirt guns is okay with me.

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