Archive for mountebanks

Of Banks and Mountebanks

Posted in BUNKUM, CULTURE & POLITICS, Indie Theatre, ME with tags on May 6, 2011 by travsd

The original Mountebanks logo

As I begin to “reassert my brand” in preparation for a huge new wave of theatrical activity, I thought it might be a good time to post an explanation of why I called my theatre company Mountebanks — and, indeed, what a Mountebank is.

Since childhood — early childhood — I have been driven by a vision. When I was as young as five years old I actually ran away from home, hoping to wind up like Dorothy with Professor Marvel, Huck Finn with the Duke and the Dauphin, Pinnochio with that weird Fox and Cat. The ultimate theatrical life for me would involve traveling with a crystal ball in a gypsy wagon, selling snake oil and telling fortunes even as I spout Shakespeare.

In the early 90s, after my years of formal theatrical education and apprenticeship were ended and I set about making a career plan, I naturally returned to this vision. Or rather, fate kept throwing it in my face to rediscover. In ’89 someone gave me a copy of Geek Love to read and I made my first trip to Coney Island. In the early 90s I started working in a bookstore, where I read P.T. Barnum’s Struggles and Triumphs and became obsessed. In ’94 or so, a friend got me another job that would make use of my writing skills — in the development department of the Big Apple Circus. These experiences kept drawing me into that vision. But I know that it was there latently all along,  or I wouldn’t have been so receptive to these developments.

At the same time, in my young adulthood, I was having a sort of political awakening. After years of considering myself of the radical, working-class left, and admiring the intellectual edifices artists like Shaw, Brecht, Eisenstein and Meyerhold had constructed underneath and around their work, I became…a born again libertarian.

And like the prototypical neo-con, I went at it with the fervor of a true believer. When I had first arrived in New York, I had actually investigated the socialist and communist parties. But what I read in their newsletters turned me off immensely, as did the rantings of some of my professors and fellow students at NYU, which I attended in the early 90s. I am sympathetic to the common man, but that’s where the similarities between me and those people ended. At the same time I had all sorts of experiences that shaped a new philosophy for me:  I took an actual economics course; I worked in a bank as a receptionist and read the periodicals the bankers subscribed to; then I worked in that bookstore,  and read numerous tomes on political science (in addition to Struggles and Triumphs), and wound up eventually at the work of the philosopher Herbert Spencer, who struck me like a thunderbolt. (For a brief article on him and his ideas go here).

This, mind you, was during the height of the culture wars of the 1990s. I think, if anything, my main association with the left was that I considered artists like the other minorities in that great Rainbow Coalition and I wanted the government to support artists. But I realized after a few years that my art was really nothing like the kind of art the government was supporting. Indeed, a lot of the art the government supported seemed mediocre, grossly conventional, self-congratulatory and smug. I really wanted to be beholden to nobody. I wanted to be free. Isn’t this what an artist is supposed to want? To be free?

And so I hit on this idea of the Mountebank. For a definition, here’s a little section from my book No Applause: Just Throw Money:

…Performing his shows on moveable tables or “benches”, the mountebank (literally “mount the bench” in Italian—as in “climb up on this improvised stage”) was part businessman, part entertainer, making quack medicine his dodge. But he was also a showman, presenting a variety bill that might include clowning, slack-wire walking, juggling, conjuring, and feats of strength. The show was just bait, however. When the crowd reached critical mass, the mountebank would proceed with his real agenda: selling medicinal tonics, elixirs and powders and performing simple medical services, such as corn cutting.

The mountebank was the ancestor of the pitchman, the carnival barker, and the circus spieler, not to mention our entire modern model of entertainment programming presented by advertising sponsors…

Though such medicine shows (as they came to be known) have their origins in the Middle Ages, they persisted as late as the 20th century, and, have come to be thought of as characteristically American. This is the “snake oil” patent medicine salesman of song and story, once a fact of life in rural America, and most prominently embodied in the character devised by W.C. Fields. Such shows were to co-exist with and enrich vaudeville, sending forth such distinguished alumni as Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Eubie Blake, Jesse Lasky, and Harry Houdini.

The mountebank was the prototypical theatrical entrepreneur. His brother in charms was the ciarlatano (Italian for “babbler”), whose bag of tricks was a little bigger, embracing not only medical cures, but magic and fortune-telling as well. Gypsies (more properly known as Roma, a people believed to have immigrated to Europe from India), became associated with the latter line of work, which remains a staple at fairs, amusement parks, and carnivals to this day. The classic American charlatan is captured in the character of Professor Marvel from the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz, with his crystal ball, his turban, and his dubious ability to see into the future.

Originally, I wanted to call my theatre “Mountebanks, Incorporated”. I thought it would be a really hysterical reference to “Murder, Inc.” But when I began to set myself up officially, I realized that it was a problematic to use that name when I wasn’t actually yet legally incorporated.

Also, at the time, there used to be a major corporation called “Beatrice”. For a while, at the end of commercials, you’d hear this woman’s voice say “We’re Beatrice.” (My buddy Matt Mania howled at one point, “Everybody’s fuckin’ Beatrice!”). So, another in-joke. I thought it would be funny to echo that slogan: “We’re Mountebanks.”

The intimation of semi-criminality appealed to me. Sounds roguish, dangerous ,risky.

But here’s what really clicked for me. “Banks”, as have just seen, means “benches”. Banks arose in these same late medieval marketplaces. It was the capital created by those moneylenders that soon thereafter made the RENAISSANCE possible. It is therefore CAPITALISM and NOT SOCIALISM that supports, encourages and fosters art. Whereas, in socialist and communist countries, an artist who displeases the government can be defunded at their whim, or in a worst case scenario, imprisoned or executed.

At any rate, I wrote a huge manifesto when I founded my theatre company Mountebanks in 1995. Like I said, I was a true believer. I was going to post some excerpts of that manifesto in this post but I just went back and re-read that stuff  and, while I still stand behind my ideas, the person who wrote the manifesto sounds like he’s OUT OF HIS FRIGGIN’ MIND. So fat chance!

Do I have criticisms of the market and its deleterious effects on our culture? I do indeed. I am now a more nuanced believer. I love small business and I hate big ones, like all good Americans should. And I certainly believe morality must always trump the profit motive. No one talks about it, but that’s the central crisis facing our nation at the moment: the battle for its soul. But let us save that for a future post.

Everything from Nothing

Posted in BUNKUM, Indie Theatre, ME with tags , , , , , , , , on February 2, 2009 by travsd
Company of American Vaudeville Theatre, Todo Con Nada, 1999

Company of American Vaudeville Theatre, Todo Con Nada, 1999

I ran into an important figure from my past a few months back. I can’t refer to him as a friend, for we never were that; let us call him a very dear colleague. Indeed, I’ve long thought of him as the Father of All I Hold Dear in Indie Theatre, or as we called it in those days, “Off-Off Broadway”. So delighted and surprised was I to see this individual on this recent occasion that I actually used those words in greeting him: “Hey, It’s the Father of All I Hold Dear!”

The remark produced snickers. (Too often is my earnestness mistaken for irony; it often got me my ears boxed as a child. This is how comedy is born.) Yet it was true. The person I greeted is flawed, no doubt, but so much of what I value, so much of what I am able to do, so much of what and whom I choose to surround myself with, would be impossible without his existence that I can’t help but think of him as the progenitor (if a partially unwitting one) of it all. Old friends already know who I’m talking about: it’s Aaron Beall.

It’s easy to recall the history of the Lower East Side theatre Beall founded in the late 1980s, Todo Con Nada. The reason it’s easy is because it was recited to the audience in every curtain speech before every production. Aaron, like many of us who grew up around him, saw himself in the great American entrepreneurial tradition. The word “entrepreneur” initially came from the theatre; only later was the word applied to other enterprises. In this sense, the entrepreneur is an impresario. The Adam of the type is P.T. Barnum. In this tradition, the self-mythologizing begins BEFORE the course of action is even undertaken. Hence Nada was “legendary” from the beginning. As with Hercules, Paul Bunyon, Gargantua, Romulus and Remus, Superman, and Jesus of Nazareth –the myth began in the crib.

Aaron had actually gone and done something many of us had dreamed of but never dared. He’d rented a storefront and started his own theatre — on a credit card advance. As far as I know he was aided by no grants, no backers, no inheritance, no bank loan, no nest egg. He risked all. Blind, stupid, reckless, arrogant, breathtaking, glorious faith in himself. Art and entrepreneurship are metaphysical gambits. You stake your very existence on your enterprise. You need, and you ask, no one’s permission. Despite what common sense tells you, despite what friends, advisors, “professionals”, “experts”, tell you, you simply know. One believes in oneself – despite all evidence to the contrary — or one ceases to exist.

The business model on which Aaron created his theatre – though age-old — was radical at the time. No fund-raising was done. As a professional fund-raiser for many years, I can tell you: don’t bother. For the first few years, it’s pointless anyway, and it takes up a great deal of your time. Furthermore (and this is a subject I shall likely return to), there is no such thing as a free lunch. Grant money comes with just as many stifling “strings attached” as the backing of commercial investors does. It’s out of the frying pan, into the fire. (Had enough clichéd metaphors?) Instead, Aaron had used the same technique as the one I had envisioned when at the age of six, in emulation of the Little Rascals, I wanted to have a puppet show in our basement: simply open the door and sell tickets. Rent a storefront; present attraction; open door; sell tickets. Barnum started this way, Keith and Albee started this way, this methodology goes back for centuries and centuries.

Did folks in the original Off-Off Broadway do it, too? Some, no doubt. But there’s an important difference of philosophical orientation. In rebelling against commercialism, the sixties radicals, also tended, overtly or by implication, to reject capitalism. Inspired by Grotowski and so forth, they initiated a Poor Theatre. They often did shows outdoors, did them for free, or passed the hat. The money part was a necessary evil, but an evil.

By contrast, though the product at Nada was every bit as non-commercial, challenging, and strange, Aaron would have made money by it if he could. He called himself an entrepreneur, an impresario. Where the hippies had merely been anarchists, he was an anarcho-capitalist. He would have built an empire—and he briefly did, expanding into a modest Lower East Side chain that included House of Candles, the Piano Store, and Nada Classic  (an ironic but eloquent reference to the Pause that Refreshes). He’d been one of the founders of the New York International Fringe Festival. When he split off to start his own ill-fated splinter fest, he named it Pure Pop. Pop – as in Popular and Populist. He had ambitions. And when the Lower East Side situation crashed for him, he went right into the heart of the beast; the last iteration of his enterprise was in a porn theatre in the Times Square area, the very front porch of Broadway.

But Aaron was a visionary, not a businessman. Empires such as he was attempting are usually partnerships between evangelical nutcases like himself and bean-counters. For the beans must be counted. They must be jealously guarded, sometimes planted, occasionally traded, but they can’t just be tossed around like Mardi Gras beads. When he launched Pure Pop he’d won my confidence by telling me he was going to John Jay College and learning how to write a business plan. He then lost that confidence when he boasted that he was in the midst of cranking out 40 business plans. It is an extremely difficult thing to write ONE good business plan. There’s no possible way to write 40 unless you have some army of monkish accountant-scribes grinding away at it for months on end in some business-hatching cave someplace. My confidence was further eroded when Aaron blithely announced that he’d quit the classes at John Jay, having learned everything he needed to know.


I come not to bury Caesar, but to praise him. (More details on the Nada saga can be found in my Village Voice encomium at I vouchsafe to say that Aaron’s example inspired numerous other venues created along the same model, and scores or hundreds of theatre companies.Thousands of artists plied their trade there.

Of course, similar statistics can be trotted out about many theatres. Here is where I begin to get partial to me and my own. I’m going to speak now about the sort of indie theatre that speaks to me, and I believe, to the pack I run with. It is the indiest of indie theatre, the kind that is independent to a fault.

I’m Scotch-Irish; contrariness is in my bones. My father was a hillbilly from the Smoky Mountain region; my ancestors fought genuine feuds, and ran revenuers off their property with shootin’ irons. My paternal grandmother was one of these hill folk. Once, when a cousin reached down to help her pick up a shawl she’d dropped, she smacked his hand down with her cane. No one’s gonna he’p me if I kin he’p it! I like crazy, perverse individualists. Frankly, I don’t exactly know how to talk to anyone else. I love show biz but hate the phonies who generally spread their legs there. Nada (and places like it that sprang up subsequently) were havens for “square peg” artists like me.

When I came to NYC in the late 1980s I had very definite, very eccentric ideas about the sort of theatre I wanted to make. (In subsequent posts, as part of this series, I’ll talk about a bunch of those ideas—for laughs). Essentially, the core of my belief was, and is, a desire to create a theatre that could be poetic, metaphysical, satirical and a little experimental – but still appeal to a mass audience. In other words, it would mix the best elements of the “art theatre” with the populist instincts of the commercial. “Our Becketts must write Las Vegas lounge acts!” I proclaimed, somehow without a shred of embarrassment. Gradually, I think this dream is slowly coming true, and there are large numbers of artists who share something like my vision. But 20 years ago and more when I first arrived there were few places for someone like me to go. It was the age of the Culture Wars. All the cutting edge work was identity-based and autobiographical. Without a contact in the world, I sent my plays blindly out to theatres, and occasionally self-produced my work at places like the Sanford Meisner over on 11th Avenue, and the old Village Gate (now known as the Village Theatre).

Having heard about Nada and seen a couple of shows there, I’d sent plays there as well. But no one ever answered my queries. It’s easy to imagine why, when you have a little experience under your belt. This is New York. Even a rat-infested storefront theatre like Nada receives enough scripts to fill a Volkswagen. Without a proper game plan, playwrights might as well mail in sections of the telephone book. (No doubt, some avant-garde playwright has.) At any rate, it wasn’t until 1996 that I worked up enough gumption to actually approach Aaron after some show and just do the pitch orally. And I was in. That was all it took. I’d already been doing theatre in the city – quite ineffectually – for eight years.

Fresh from my stint as a fund-raiser at Big Apple Circus, I’d recently started my own company Mountebanks, which would present my plays, vaudeville shows, odd exhibitions, performance pieces, and a ‘zine. All of these it would accomplish. I’d labored for the first half of the nineties on a 70-page manifesto and founding document; in 1995, I mailed it out to 200 friends and family members seeking their support. (I bumped into one of these on the subway not long after, an old school friend I hadn’t seen in years. “I got your thing in the mail,” he said, “You know what? You’re nuts!” Then he bolted for his train. I haven’t seen him since, although I did Google him recently. I rejoice to observe that today he remains relatively unaccomplished and obscure, and, furthermore, is now bald.)

While my eventual hope was to have my own physical venue from which to produce all that work, that was not fated to be. Funds trickled in, in three digit denominations, and never did grow beyond that. I was to be itinerant, hopping between venues. I was natural fodder for Nada.

My show, the American Vaudeville Theatre and New American Lyceum, was booked on Mondays, opposite a play by Kirk Wood Bromley, who was also doing his first production there. I also met for the first time Ian W. Hill, who had just started there as kind of theatre manager.

For the next couple of years I made Surf Reality, over on Allen Street, my base of operations, but came back to Nada in 1999 and worked there very frequently over the next couple of years with the likes of Ian, Frank Cwiklik and Michele Schlossberg, Bryan Enk and Christiaan Koop, Matt Grey, etc.  Art Wallace, like Ian, was one of the space managers. Other close and frequent collaborators, Jeff Lewoncyck and Hope Cartelli, I met at the Present Company in about 2000.

I mention these names in particular (to the exclusion of others, many dear and worthy friends) because I believe our work (and our work ethic) shares similar characteristics. It is the work I know best, it is my sort of work, and so it is what I will champion. Logic, not hubris. (Those Greeks had a word for everything).

What some of those characteristics may be is the subject of the next post in this series. Also to come: some relics from our first show at Nada in August, 1996.

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