Archive for the 'Culture Vulture' Category

Culture Vulture: Alice Neel at the Metropolitan Museum

August 1, 2021

Alice Neel is a name I’ve long been familiar with but, like most people, I suspect, I had no specific file on her painting until the Metropolitan Museum mounted its spectacular show of her work, “People Come First.” We finally got around to seeing it a week before it closed. I love the amazing cross-section of New Yorkers she painted, with a big focus on bohemian life, working people, queer artists, and casually explicit sexuality. Others have written more eloquently and more knowledgeably about the work in this exhibition. I’m just going to share a few of the pictures that called out to me.

Waiting in line to get into the Alice Neel exhibition, everyone got to spend time contemplating this enigmatic canvas:

Culture Vulture: cinema summer

August 1, 2021

Streaming movies and TV have been a godsend during the pandemic. Talk about essential services! Over the last few weeks, I’ve been exploring two different avenues – this curious phenomenon called Going To a Movie Theater And Watching On The Big Screen, and in the opposite direction digging around among the kind online cinematic arcana Richard Brody likes to write about in the fine print of the New Yorker.

The first movie we saw in the theater was In the Heights, not a perfect movie but perfect for the moment, a feel-good New York City summertime romance with lots of dancing in the streets. The second theater movie, even more exciting, was Summer of Soul, a meticulous reconstruction and recontextualization of the Harlem Cultural Festival, which took place across six weekends in 1969. After enjoying the incredible line-up of performances – Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone, the Fifth Dimension, Nina Simone – I gobbled up every interview I could find with Questlove, who created the film with the freewheeling precision of a genius mixtape. I loved learning that Aretha Franklin was originally supposed to perform the duet with Mahalia Jackson on “Precious Lord, Take My Heart” but cancelled at the last minute, leaving Mavis Staples to step in for a once-in-a-lifetime performance that is the highlight of the film. Also: Jimi Hendrix desperately wanted to be invited to play the festival; he was shut out but instead booked dates at a local blues club just to be in the vibe.

The third film I saw in the theater inhabits a whole other realm of cinema. Zola began life as a series of 148 Twitter posts by exotic dancer Aziah “Zola” King about a crazy road trip from Detroit to Tampa that turns into a much scarier ride than anticipated. David Kushner’s Rolling Stone article “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted” led to this wildly original film cooked up by director Janicza Bravo with playwright Jeremy O. Harris. Fast, wild, sexy, and nerve-wracking, Zola depends on the brave and hilarious performances of the central quartet – Taylour Paige as Zola, Riley Keough as Stefani (the faux-naif who lures Zola into an elaborate con), Nicholas Braun as her dweeby boyfriend Derrek, and Colman Domingo as Stefani’s pimp, known as X. I thought Keough looked a little familiar; only afterwards, I learned that she was not only the den-mother/gang-boss in American Honey but also the daughter of Lisa Marie Presley (which means her grandfather was Elvis and her stepfather was Michael Jackson). As we left the theater, my friend Ben and I agreed that the movie felt like a mash-up of Tarantino and Tangerine (Sean Baker’s dazzling iPhone-shot film about trans hookers in LA).

Meanwhile, some discoveries from off the beaten path:

BE PRETTY AND SHUT UP! – Succumbing to some promotional offer, I subscribed to MUBI, which specializes in art cinema and emerging filmmakers even more obscure than what you’ll find in the Criterion Collection. I’ve watched LOST LOST LOST, six reels from Jonas Mekas’s Bolex with stilted voiceover, crude titles, and un-annotated glimpses of NYC in the 1960s (Frank O’Hara and Leroi Jones – later known as Amiri Baraka – at a play reading! Julian Beck and Judith Malina at a street demonstration!), and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s nutty Psychomagic: A Healing Art. There’s currently a whole series called “Sex, Truth, and Videotape: French Feminist Activism.” Who knew that the great Delphine Seyrig had taken it upon herself to do make a simple, one-camera, black-and-white, no-frills talking-heads documentary of her conversations with other women about their experiences acting in films?

Yes, Jane Fonda was married to Roger Vadim and co-starred with Yves Montand in Tout Va Bien but how often have we gotten the chance to hear her speak fluent French in conversation? The crew of interviewees is amazing: Ellen Burstyn, Viva, Shirley MacLaine, Cindy Williams, Maria Schneider, Jill Clayburgh, Louise Fletcher, and more, no makeup, no fancy backdrops. Almost all of them are amazed and thrilled to be asked questions they’ve never addressed before: have you ever been asked to play a scene where two women express friendliness to each other?

CAN YOU BRING IT – Rosalynde Leblanc and Tom Hurwitz’s documentary beautifully conjures the original production of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s D-Man in the Water while observing Leblanc’s restaging Jones’ choreography on a group of young dancers at Loyola Marymount College in Los Angeles. The Jones/Zane company figured heavily in the pop-dance explosion in NYC in the 1980s; like Twyla Tharp’s and Mark Morris’s, their company was like a favorite rock band. It’s thrilling to see this footage of gigantic Bill, tiny Arnie, chubby Larry Goldhuber, gorgeous Heidi Latsky, impy Sean Curran (below), athletic Arthur Aviles (I’ll never forget his gravity-defying performance in D-Man) – all of them dancing in vintage footage, the survivors speaking with wrenching eloquence.

Zane died of AIDS in 1988; he was 39. Demian Acquavella, the D-man of the title, died in 1990; he was 32. Jones’s status as long-term survivor is etched on his craggy face. The documentary is a tribute to the artists who lived through the worst of the AIDS epidemic and responded to it in their work. The fresh-faced kids in LA know virtually nothing about AIDS, which makes their approach to the production both dewy with innocence and kind of clueless. Jones has done a beautiful job of stepping into the role of community elder, and it’s moving to observe the patience and presence he brings to speaking with the students. (His smooth, avuncular speaking voice uncannily recalls Barack Obama’s.) And even though I don’t think about it that much, he’s literally an icon in my everyday life – a signed print of Keith Haring’s drawing of him (based on a photo by Tseng Kwong-Chi, another shining downtown artist lost to AIDS, like Haring) hangs just inside my front door.

WATER MAKES US WET – Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens’ goofy yet informational documentary about the politics of water has made the rounds to festivals for a couple of years, and they’ve made the film available for free on Vimeo through the end of August. Modelling their spiritual practice as “ecosexuals,” they wander up and down the state of California in their RV, visiting wastewater treatment facilities, communing with philosopher Donna Haraway in her back yard (below), and chatting up sewage handlers who have cultivated tremendous tolerance for

the shit jokes that come their way. A program in San Francisco called “Adopt a Drain” enrolls local residents to keep drains swept clear of garbage and debris. Motto: “Your #2 Is Our #1.” Their irrepressible message is “Fight despair with joy!” I love getting access to smart, powerful lesbian couples and the wisdom they generate – see also the “On Being” podcast featuring author Glennon Doyle and world-champion soccer star Abby Wambach, two people I knew nothing about until listening to their funny and savvy chat with Krista Tippett.

PRIDE – “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” is an old saying whose truth has played out in world-changing ways these last couple of years. The U.S. government has plenty of money in reserve to not only vaccinate everyone in the country but to pull American citizens out of poverty with direct payments. Something significant happens when white male supremacy gives way to leadership by women and people of color. The remarkable achievement of the Hulu series Pride is that it doesn’t have to stretch very far to tell the story of the gay liberation movement primarily through black, trans, and female voices. The series makes that look so simple, easy, and obvious, but in reality until the last two years no overview of the gay movement has foregrounded these voices. (Sarah Schulman accomplishes the same corrective in her recently published, invaluable history of ACT UP, Let the Record Show.) The sixth and final episode, for instance, “Y2Gay,” spotlights Margaret Cho, David Wilson, Brontez Purnell, Dean Spade, Chase Strangio, Cece McDonald, Dr. Lourdes Hunter, Raquel Willis (below), and Ceyenne Doroshow. And the decade of the ‘70s, a turning point in gay history, is given a very different and richer spin because of the voices that black lesbian feminist filmmaker Cheryl Dunye chooses to tell the story. The whole series is so beautifully scripted and shot that you (almost) don’t mind the maddening deluge of the same commercials over and over on Hulu.

Culture Vulture: Jean Genet, Shirin Neshat, IT’S A SIN, and NOMADLAND

February 21, 2021

I have a theory that we will look back on this winter as the hardest time of the pandemic, second only to March and April of last year when it first came crashing down. Starting in November, when the weather started to turn cold, and lasting through whenever spring starts to thaw us out, we’ve been confined to quarters, enduring horrible news, ongoing dreadful death rates, excruciating isolation, mind-numbing boredom, and pretty universal depression. In New York City, Andy and I have been combating that somewhat with weekend art excursions.

We started our Saturday afternoon art adventure by watching the first explicitly erotic gay film – Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour (1950), a silent film about prisoners and the sadistic guard who spies on them masturbating (an astringent sound score by Simon Fisher Turner was added later) – and ended the evening watching the latest gay erotic show, It’s a Sin, the latest HBO series by Queer As Folk creator Russell T. Davies.

In between we trekked to the Chelsea art district to see Shirin Neshat’s show “Land of Dreams” at the Gladstone Gallery. I’ve been a huge fan of Neshat’s work since I first saw her images combining veiled Muslim women holding weapons and Persian calligraphy. Neshat’s Iranian parents sent her to Los Angeles to attend high school, and she was enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley when the Iranian revolution occurred. She has not been back to Iran since 1996 and currently lives in New York.

For her latest show, she travelled around New Mexico meeting people, taking their photographic portraits, and asking them to tell her their latest dream. At the gallery 111 of these portraits hang, each of them with calligraphic additions – their names, their birthdates, sometimes the text of their dreams, sometimes images from their dreams.

In an adjacent gallery, Neshat shows a two-channel video installation that is a fictionalized version of her travels through New Mexico, juxtaposed with scenes from a sinister sort of factory employing dozens of lab-coated “dream scientists.”

Shortly after we walked into the gallery, a woman asked Andy to snap a picture of her and a male friend of hers. It turned out to be Neshat, who showed up to rendezvous with her friend and collaborator Youssef Nabil, an Egyptian photographer (above). So we got to meet the artist and chat with her a little bit, which excited the fanboy in me. I can’t remember if she told us this or if we heard her say it in one of the several YouTube videos we watched later, but she doesn’t actually think of herself as a photographer. She said she doesn’t own a camera, and indeed in videos she’s seen directing a cameraman who actually takes the photos. She has made a number of films, most of them – like the one playing in the gallery – pristinely shot in black and white, juxtaposing weathered unusual faces with wide-open stark landscapes. The two-channel video can be viewed on the gallery’s website at certain hours of the week, along with a 25-minute documentary about the making of the show.

While we were in Chelsea, we poked our noses into a couple of other galleries. The Jack Shainman Gallery is hosting “Half and the Whole,” a show by photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks of images from 1942-1970 that document the civil rights movement, including some beautiful candid shots of Malcolm X. I was struck by this curious, anomalous image from 1962 called “Invisible Man Retreat, Harlem, New York.”

Some dazzling and trippy geometric prints caught our eye at the Dobrinka Salzman Gallery. They turned out to be early works by an Italian artist named Riccardo Vecchio.

Once you’re in the art trance, even trash on the street starts looking like readymades.

We had two more predetermined destinations. One was the new Daniel Moynihan Train Hall, with its gleaming interiors (currently sparsely populated of course, but envisioned to be teeming with commuters sometime), spectacular skylights, and all kinds of artwork including this colorful three-part stained-glass piece by Kehinde Wiley called “Go” on the ceiling of the 35th Street entrance.

After that spectacle, a walk up Ninth Avenue brought us into the armpit of Times Square, the stunningly ugly backside of the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

In the grimy underpass across the street, one of several vacant storefronts in the neighborhood featured artwork sponsored by Chashama, the public art project enterprising curator Anita Durst operates using disused corners of her family’s vast real estate empire.

Our final art destination was the storefront for Playwrights Horizons, one of NYC’s great Off-Broadway theaters. It’s been shuttered since last March, like all theaters in the city, but incoming artistic director Adam Greenfield enlisted our friend David Zinn, the Tony Award-winning set and costume designer, and Avram Finkelstein, one of the founders of the AIDS-era art collective Gran Fury, to curate a lively public art project keeping the block activated.

The first artist they commissioned was Jilly Ballistic, who created a gigantic mural in the form of a dollar bill regularly updated with a reference to the number of Americans who have died of covid-19.

Being on Theater Row at dinnertime led us to one of our favorite local restaurants, Mémé Mediterranean on 10th Avenue at 44th Street. They were being scrupulous about allowing indoor dining with a limited capacity; there were only two other tables dining when we sat down for a delicious tagine and a shawarma royale.

It was a very satisfying expedition. We spent the after-dinner hours with It’s a Sin (just the first episode) and Shirin Neshat interviews on YouTube. Sunday afternoon we watched Chloe Zhao’s new film Nomadland on Hulu, an extraordinarily beautiful and moving collaboration between the director (I recently saw and loved her Songs My Brother Taught Me) and actress/co-producer Frances McDormand, who gives yet another spectacular, vanity-free performance as a miner’s widow living in her van barely scraping by as a day laborer on a series of hard low-paying jobs. Long wordless scenes of her rolling through Nevada, Arizona, Nebraska, and South Dakota eerily echo the wide-open spaces we saw in Shirin Neshat’s film the day before.

And then, as we generally do, we repaired to our separate abodes to cook food for the week. Andy set about making a big pot of jambalaya, and I applied myself to following Gabrielle Hamilton’s recipe from last week’s New York Times Magazine for Russian salad, which is refrigerating overnight and gave me a chance to sample a new taste treat I discovered at the farmer’s market yesterday – pickled hard-boiled eggs.

Culture Vulture: revisiting the Wooster Group’s TO YOU, THE BIRDIE! (PHÈDRE) on DVD

February 10, 2021

The Wooster Group’s contribution to pandemic theater-adjacent entertainment debuted a couple of weeks ago: “Fran and Kate’s Drama Club,” a monthly Zoom chat between Frances McDormand at home and Kate Valk from the Performing Garage, where the company is rehearsing a new production of Brecht’s The Mother. The Drama Club’s first episode showed some short documentary films by Julie Lashinsky from the Wooster Group’s extensive archives and brought on Hilton Als as talk-show guest. Als will return for the second episode, which happens Thursday February 25. See here for details and tickets.

Fran and Kate met in the process of creating To You, the Birdie! in 2000. This was the Wooster Group’s adaptation of Racine’s Phèdre, based on the translation by the late Paul Schmidt, a renowned man of letters who was a member of the Wooster Group for several years. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte, the production featured the core Wooster Group actors – Kate Valk as Phèdre, Ari Fliakos as her stepson Hippolytus, Scott Shepherd as Theramenes, and Willem Dafoe as Theseus – joined for the first time by  McDormand, a Yale-trained stage actor who’s spent most of her career acting in films, including Fargo, for which she received an Academy Award, playing Phèdre’s maidservant Oenone.

I’ve owned the DVD of the Wooster Group’s To You, the Birdie! since they first made it available in 2011, but I never watched it until last night. Andy had never seen the show but had heard me talk about it numerous times, so we watched the whole thing. The single camera video couldn’t possibly convey the vibrancy and presence of the live show, so it was somewhat disappointing to me. I was more excited by the documentary clips that came as a DVD extra. But I was astonished at how much of the story and the play came through for Andy, much more detail than I’ve ever comprehended. We talked about how the first time you see a Wooster Group production you’re watching for narrative, for storyline, and that is often extremely frustrating because LeCompte (I’m going to call her Liz) could care less about that. When you see the show again, you relax your story-seeking mind and let the multisensory experience wash over you, letting your eyes wander all over the stage, where there is always something going on, sometimes comprehensible, sometimes cryptic. Impossible to see it all.

After seeing the show at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn at least twice (possibly more – and I might have seen some work-in-progress showings), the impressions I retained were stark and scattered: Ari Fliakos’s flawless naked body, Scott Shepherd’s phenomenal vocal performance speaking all of Phèdre’s lines sitting in front of two microphones at the back of the stage, the noisy and hilarious badminton games, the heightened sound score throughout (including snippets of female harmony singing created in collaboration with Suzzy Roche), Kate Valk’s absolutely diva-esque commitment to embodying Phèdre (with all the crazy things this staging asks her to do), Frances McDormand’s equally fierce commitment to ensemble playing.

One of the pleasures of following a company over time is watching beloved performers stretch and grow and do different things and build on previous performances. Opera buffs and balletomanes can get very geeky about bodies of work. I loved following the Twyla Tharp company in the early days, whose names and personalities I knew as well as the members of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The core Woosters (Kate, Ari, and Scott) are absolutely rock stars to me, and I enjoy not only their bravura performing skills but also the humor embedded in the nutty, sometimes perverse things they (under LeCompte’s direction) push themselves to do. Case in point: throughout To You, the Birdie! all three of them repeatedly scratch or wipe their crotches, pits, or butts and then sniff their fingers or the towel afterwards. Like all running jokes, it gets funnier every time you notice it.

And then there’s the crazy scene where Phèdre is receiving some kind of colonic treatment conducted by a trio of female attendants holding a douchebag and insanely long drainage pipes while Hippolytus is holding the queen steady on an awkward porta-potty contraption. And the whole time Kate and Ari are playing some kind of game where she’s nibbling or licking his naked torso and trying to feel him up discreetly and he’s swatting her hand away. Some of this is just impy fun, but it’s never unrelated to the essence of the story being told, which in Birdie/Phèdre revolves around the humiliations of unrequited love, physical intimacy, life in a body.

After watching the video, I got inspired to haul out Andrew Quick’s fantastic 2007 scholarly volume, The Wooster Group Work Book, for which he pored through all the rehearsal tapes and written notes for five Wooster Group productions. I thought I’d devoured the whole book when it came out, but I discovered that I’d read all but the last section about To You, the Birdie! So I had the delightful experience of reading all the documentation and Quick’s interviews with Liz and Kate having just watched the show again. I’d heard that the project originated from Kate’s desire to play a queen, having played any number of maids and functionaries in Wooster Group productions. She brought in Schmidt’s version of Phèdre and the actors read it aloud, but Liz found the text boring and struggled to find a way to make it come alive, which only happened when they borrowed from Japanese theater the idea of one performer (Kate) playing the physical character while another (Scott) gave the vocal performance. Hearing a male voice speaking Phèdre’s lines reminded Liz of Paul Schmidt, so in some way the production developed as a tribute to him. (Schmidt died in 1999 of AIDS at the age of 65.)

Badminton was always key to the staging. “I usually need some kind of distraction, so I can think in the space,” LeCompte told Quick. “I’ll get people doing something that I can watch in the space and this lets me consider the possibilities without them all sitting around waiting for me, because I’m much slower than they are. So, I’ll often start with a game or something like that. So no, I had no idea how the badminton was going to work out. I was just pretending that I knew what I was going to do with it…I was battling to get some irony into a sincere performance and an idiotic text.”

The Wooster Group has always made sophisticated, eccentric use of video and sound technology in its theater pieces. Two practices that began as experiments have become central to the company’s performing style: in-ear devices (like the kind through which TV producers communicate to on-air newsreaders) and TV monitors playing clips that only the performers can see. Once I became aware of these tools, I’ve been wildly curious to know what information pours into their eyes and ears that the audience isn’t privy to. Sometimes the actors are receiving their lines, freeing them from the pressure to memorize; other times they’re hearing something completely unrelated to the work they’re performing. For this show, it turns out the director was sitting in the audience whispering directions and encouragement throughout the performance.

AQ: The fact that it’s you giving the instructions to the performers via the in-ear device seems to make perfect sense in To You, the Birdie!

Liz: I don’t do it in any other piece. I have no desire to.

For this piece, the TV monitors played scenes from Marx Brothers movies and dance performances by Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. Unbenownst to the audience, the performers interact with these video clips according to an elaborate, tricky set of rules devised during the development of the piece. The TV monitors present the actors with gestures, facial expressions, movements, or video effects to imitate with their bodies, sometimes tightly choreographed, sometimes left to improvisation. It sounds impossibly difficult to juggle these various tasks; it sounds a little monstrous, as if the director is manipulating the actors by remote control. But that’s what makes the Wooster Group so exceptional. They approach these complicated performance scores with the verve and skill of Olympic athletes while also looking like kids having fun playing.

In this passage from The Wooster Group Work Book, Quick’s questioning teases out of LeCompte a fascinating exploration of the difference between egotism and narcissism.

Liz: I like to set things up and steer them out of control.

AQ: I remember you talking about this in relation to the actors responding to the material that’s on the TV monitors that the audience doesn’t get to see. You describe it as something between imitation and sketching. You seem to want the performer to be working off the material in a way that allows them to bring a certain abstraction to their response. The relationship is natural, but a little off-kilter, but always done in real time.

Liz: Yes, doing something in real time.

AQ: It’s hard for actors, isn’t it?

Liz: Well, it depends on the actors. It’s not hard for Scott or Ari; it’s not hard for Katie. They do it naturally because it’s really the basis of great acting. I think the problem for a lot of stage acting is that it’s so often concerned with the actor’s desire to make sure that he or she is connecting with the audience. So, there’s always this little thing, this patronizing thing, that they are always one little second ahead of the audience, telling them what they should feel and what is coming next. I don’t want performers to be responsible for this. This should be the responsibility of the piece as a whole. It’s not down to individual performers.

AQ: So the ego of the performer has to push to the back?

Liz: In some ways, in other ways it’s pure narcissism. You have to have a certain kind of narcissism because you have to trust that the audience will watch whatever you do. A lot of actors have egoism, but they don’t have this kind of narcissism. Maybe, the egoism comes from film, where the actors always want to make sure that they are doing something important – this is so different to the narcissist, who simply doesn’t care.

AQ: This is quite a demand that you’re making of actors – to relinquish that control.

Liz: A lot of people I work with can’t do it, especially performers new to the company. For instance, Frances wouldn’t wear the in-ear device, she refused point blank – not that I demanded it of her. It was offered to everyone and everybody wanted to use it, except Frances. But for me, the fact that she didn’t take up the offer was brilliant.

AQ: Because of the role she was playing?

Liz: Partly, yes. But also because, without the in-ear, she’s the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on. She’s not in control because I can tell people on stage that she’s in the wrong place and I can have them move her, change her position – so she has to respond to the impulse.

AQ: It’s fascinating that in one of the rehearsals Frances is trying to persuade Kate to take the in-ear out.

Liz: Fran was going around to everyone and saying, “Take the earpiece out – rebel, rebel,” which I loved. That was exactly what I was looking for in Frances’ performance.

AQ: Because Oenone is so rebellious in the play?

Liz: Yes. So, I needed to channel this rebellious energy in her actual performance. Frances would be great in rehearsals, because she was really rebelling against me. But then, when we would go into a performance, she would suddenly become an actress and all that fun and naughtiness, which was directed at me, would disappear. I would say, “What happened to that energy you had in rehearsal?” I knew she was acting, that she was kidding me. I wanted to retain that quality she had in rehearsal in the performance.

I’ve often understood the various technological devices that operate in Wooster Group theater pieces sometimes as expressive sculptural objects – non-human characters in the show – and sometimes as masks of a sort. In the closing essay of his book, “Only Pragmatics?,” Quick writes very perceptively about how the Wooster Group performers use masks for liberating and expressive purposes.

When Valk speaks about what might be at the “root” of her own mode of performance in these works, she often invokes the metaphor and the physical reality of the mask to describe a means for moving beyond her own desire to generalize and control. According to Valk, the mask can appear in many guises. It is most obvious in the use of blackface in Route 1 & 9 (1981), L.S.D. (…Just the High Points…), and The Emperor Jones (1983), but it is also at work in the persona of the facilitator in Brace Up! And Fish Story, and in the on-stage relationship with the video camera, the TV monitors and in-ear technologies in House/Lights and To You, the Birdie! (Phèdre). The mask, however, is not solely a device that disguises and hides the personality of the performer. Nor can it be explained as a Brechtian device to expose how the operations of power and ideology shape social structures through the non-psychological medium of gestus. The mask has three functions. It establishes a sense of distance between the performer and the audience, creating a barrier between a two-way process of potential psychological identification; the performer with the audience and the audience with the performer. The mask also pushes aside the burden of always having psychologically to embody the character that is formed in the fictional world being negotiated on the stage. Finally, and perhaps most important of all, the mask works to displace the performer’s construction of their own subjectivity, the requirement psychologically to be themselves on stage. In this sense, the mask operates as a mean through which the performer is able to let certain notions of the self fall away. This leaves the performer free to engage as immediately as is possible with what the stage presents to them. In an unpublished interview from 1991, Valk explains this process by referring to the function of the mask in Noh Theater: “They say the mask is the device that allows for ‘spiritual possession’ because you deny your own self by donning the mask, and then you deny the existence of the mask.” In the Noh tradition, the mask acts as a barrier to the representation of a performer’s subjectivity. Then, in a crucial second stage, where the mask itself is denied, the performer moves into the complete state of dispossession (thus able to be spiritually possessed), which allows contact with the immediacy (the reality) of the on-stage experience. This is why the use of the mask is such a liberating device for Valk: “You truly discover through this two-step process of denial – that by denying your own physicality, and then by going a step further within your own consciousness to deny the existence of the mask.”

A footnote at the very end of Quick’s book led me to an essay I’d been looking for since I encountered it in the program notes for The Emperor Jones and Fish Story on tour in Europe. In my memory it was a long essay by LeCompte about watching TV as a form of meditation. I had it wrong. It was two pieces, a very short Roland Barthes-like list of “Rules for TV as Meditation” and then some “Notes on Form” compiled during the development of Brace Up! bouncing off of an essay about cinematography by French filmmaker Robert Bresson.

  • The TV monitor is visible to the TV performers and is used as a mirror of themselves. The mirror/monitor is used as a means of transformation from self to “more self.”
  • Actors are searching for masks of themselves — not for character. Who they are on the stage is who they are on the stage — period. They must be more “themselves” than in life.
  • Approach the play as a monologue of the playwright’s, not a dialogue among the “characters.”

It’s not necessary to know any of this to see and enjoy a Wooster Group performance. And even knowing these things doesn’t necessarily explain what you’re watching. It just makes this dense, vibrant, multilayered work that much more alive with mystery.

Culture Vulture: Sunday afternoon at the Morgan Library

January 31, 2021

On a museumgoing roll, Andy and I met our friend Robert at the Morgan Library as a light snowfall dusted the city. I was keen to see “David Hockney: Drawing From Life, a smartly curated show focusing on the British artist’s drawings over several decades of a small handful of friends (his early boyfriend Gregory Evans, his dear friend Celia Birtwell who designed clothes for the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix, art dealer Maurice Payne, plus self-portraits) and the final day of “Betye Saar: Call and Response.” When we walked in, we heard live music: a (masked) duo playing violin and cello. After we checked out the two exhibitions, we hung out in the East Room, where we happened to witness a marriage proposal.

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