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Used for Whatever Purposes: Symbolism, Power and Ganesh Versus the Third Reich

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Andy Sturdevant, host and creative director of Salon Saloon, shares his perspective on Thursday night’s Ganesh Versus the […]

Photo courtesy the artists

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Andy Sturdevant, host and creative director of Salon Saloon, shares his perspective on Thursday night’s Ganesh Versus the Third Reich by Back to Back Theatre. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

In a 2010 interview, director Oliver Hirschbiegel was asked about the many, many Internet video parodies of a scene from his 2004 film Downfall, where an increasingly crazed Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz) appears to be ranting to his staff about everything from Twitter outages to Sarah Palin to Kanye West. Hirschbiegel said this of these appropriations: “The point of the film was to kick these terrible people off the throne that made them demons, making them real and their actions into reality. I think it’s only fair if now it’s taken as part of our history, and used for whatever purposes people like.”

Bruno Ganz’s performance is referenced in Back to Back Theatre’s production Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, as is Charlie Chaplin’s performance in his film The Great Dictator. As masterful as both cinematic performances are in their own ways, both are also, as Paul Schmelzer puts it in his great interview with Back to Back artistic director Bruce Gladwin in the Walker magazine, an “embarrassingly extreme reduction of the evil of Hitler.” By definition, a symbol, no matter how powerful, can never encapsulate the full range of the experiences it represents. Hirschbiegel has said that in his film, he sought to portray Hitler in a more three-dimensional way, as a broken, pathetic human, and therefore robbing him of his symbolic power. It’s the frothing, pathetic quality of Ganz’s performance in the film, though, that makes the Downfall clip such an attractive target for parodists and meme artists. Who gets the right to use a symbol, and to what ends? Symbols are, in the end, about power.

Bruno Ganz in Downfall

It’s those questions of power that animate Ganesh Versus the Third Reich more than any other idea. Only a small part of the play, really, is about how the power of a symbol can be used, co-opted or reclaimed. The larger question is about who has the power to use, co-opt or reclaim symbols, and what can be done with that power.

As you know already if you’ve read about the show, it depicts a fictionalized version of the Back to Back company writing and rehearsing a show about Ganesh traveling through time and space to Nazi Germany to reclaim the swastika from Hitler. The theater company are not Jewish or Hindu — they’re white Australians. Four of the five of the actors, though, are “perceived to have intellectual disabilities,” in the words of the company.

The production process they take us through, of course, is fraught with these questions of whether or not creating such a show is good art, but if it’s even appropriate or ethical. On top of this are larger questions of power dynamics within the group. The director David, played by Luke Ryan, has that smarmy, condescending quality that certain influential members of the creative community sometimes have, and over the course of the show, his creative clashes with the rest of the cast take on a shockingly brutal quality. And the abuse is not a one-way street; the members of the cast can be incredibly cruel to one another. At one point, the show’s writer and its Ganesh (Brian Tilley) off-handedly castigates some of the other members for their speech impediments. It’s not easy to watch.

The show asks a lot. Sometimes literally: viewing the audience and addressing what is, in the production, the empty seats of the theater where the rehearsal takes place, David asks the unseen audience if they’re perverts, there to see a “freak show.” The woman in front of me actually spoke out loud, in a way that suggested she was shaken by this accusation, a soft but resounding “No!” Questions of exploitation, privilege, co-option and power are weighty ones.

It’s a tough show, but a very rewarding one. At the end, the outpouring of love and admiration from the crowd was matched only by the enthusiasm of the actors onstage. It felt like we’d all been through a quite a journey together. There is a great power, too, in theater, and it’s a power Back to Back wields masterfully.

(M)imosa: “When You Go to Buy Real Shit, You Need to Bring Real Shit”

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Elliott Durko Lynch  shares their perspective on Thursday night’s “(M)imosa” by   Trajal Harrell, Cecilia Bengolea, François Chaignaud, and Marlene […]

Photo by Miana Jun

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Elliott Durko Lynch  shares their perspective on Thursday night’s “(M)imosa” by   Trajal Harrell, Cecilia Bengolea, François Chaignaud, and Marlene Monteiro Freitas . Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

I’m writing as a representative of the local live news-magazine Salon Saloon, hosted by Andy Sturdevant, which I work on as a technical producer at Minneapolis’ Bryant-Lake Bowl. For five years I have also been on the technical production team of Dykes Do Drag, which also is produced at the BLB five times a year; in the Theater booth my alias is “Diethyl Mercury.”

First:

Excerpted from below:
Appendix B. Required reading for (M)imosa

1. At the very least see Paris is Burning or, at bare minimum, watch this clip on “reading.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z2lEtUqxg44

2. At the very least, Wikipedia postmodern dance or Judson dance.

3. Read the supplied program notes.

4. Visit http://genderqueerid.com or do some Google or Tumblr searches for genderqueer, gay, drag… improvise.

5. Read these two articles about the NEA Defunding Crisis and Gay Performance Art and representation in the 1990s:

     Preaching to the Converted (1995) by Tim Miller & David Roman, Theatre Journal

     Have You Heard the One about the Lesbian Who Goes to the Supreme Court?: Holly Hughes and the Case Against Censorship (2000) by Richard Meyer, Theatre Journal

Gucci-Bags

“Gucci Bag”

Let’s just say it, drag shows are hard to make happen; all those microphones need to actually work, every act needs to have just the right kind of microphone stand for their persona, someone awesome needs to be there to make sure those items and other props get to the right place onstage, and if possible everyone should get along. In the end, these shows are all fabulous and acts tend to include a few key elements (there are quite a few that happen in Minneapolis, see below) ; let’s make an informal list of what they include:

  • Play with representation & the act of becoming,
  • Performed play with sexuality,
  • Play with gender expression and realness, (may it be butch, Femme, or something in between, or poking out either end.)

What these drag shows do not include is lenience in duration. If there are 26 acts, then each of those acts have to deliver and be ready to go out onstage right on time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not throwing shade (or whatever catch word Buzzfeed wants me to say today) at our beloved (M)imosas.  Let’s be more specific, it was very “Judson” or “post-modern” of (M)imosas to embrace duration and time. Some other PoMo dance choices included that the piece:

  • utilized desyncronisation & competition between disparate acts or elements,
  • dropped theatrical edifice and spectacle for sometimes ‘low’ acts and elements,
  • included agitational experiences and elements which lasted sometimes for long periods of time.

The event clocked in just a few minutes shy of the runtime of Lincoln. I respect the choice to embrace time. The multi-simulacra encrusted, remix embedded, (M)imosa (which, as mentioned in the show, “is also a cheap kind of cheese with a cow with large udders on the label”) was a presentation which schizophrenically embraced elements of Judson-style post-modern, contemporary dance and of Paris is Burning  without much social commentary. Lets face it, I had a great time, but the casual non-commentary was where I was challenged as a viewer.

While I appreciated the formal stylistic investigation and many of the performance treats that I experienced (see the shortlist below), I was surprised and somewhat disappointed that the genderqueer body was invoked lightly during this performance.  My Theater Arts B.A. taught me to evaluate performance based on how it “effectively challenges people to ask questions.” Perhaps as a genderqueer artist in America where political viewpoints are so polarized, I prefer an overtly subversive political agenda in work that invokes the genderqueer body. At the drag shows I see locally, it still is a challenge to be who you are, especially onstage sometimes. Don’t get me wrong now, play is always good, and sure gender expression is invoked lightly very often in subversive, (or not so subversive) drag acts all over the place, and in mainstream culture (Drag Race has been on television for many years, cosplayers are dragging characters at conventions and on their Tumblr feeds, and Lady Gaga had that “bro” persona for a while). But 30 years after Paris is Burning, being transgender, genderqueer, or anything other than a cisgender heteronormative white male or female is still something of a revolutionary daily act.

Consider how earnestly the film was referenced in the title of (M)imosa. I walked into the theater with the expectation that the piece may carry the discursive socio-political responsibility when Drag was inside the “High” frame of the “High Art” theater. However, with so much weight placed on Judson-style choices like duration, a disruptive flattening of spectacular and celebratory acts (mics going out, competition, consistent interruption by another performer), it felt like the genderqueer body, though highly prevalent onstage, seemed less important. Especially because the historical cultural document Paris Is Burning was implicated as a source for this work without directly talking at all about race, class, sex workers, ACT UP, or the AIDS crisis.

In that way (M)imosa seems to overlook that not everyone has been converted to informed liberal members of the contemporary dance in-crowd; or perhaps the in-crowd was their target audience and they didn’t feel they needed to inform. That “preaching to the converted” sensibility lowered the stakes quite a bit for me over time. It reminded me that these personae do not exist on stages or in documented history alone. Genderqueer and non-cisgendered people  are people in the world today. Gender expression is not something that everyone puts on and takes off, as Drag.  We haven’t gotten out of the woods yet people, especially between the coasts, and the presence of the genderqueer body onstage is still an act of defiance against those who would seek to qualify the genderqueer or non-heteronormative as deviant and obscene.

There were temporary sections during the performance when celebration of gender and sexuality seemed like the most important thing (again, see below), and they were some of my favorite moments. I was teased in the final House of Labeija-esque monologue by the recoding of the phrase “the legendary children.” In my read, it was inclusive of the artists onstage turning the gaze upon the audience and specifically the dance “in crowd.”  Though, with so much stage-gazing who did they expect to see in Minneapolis, Steve Paxton?  Perhaps aligning Judson with the Drag Balls was to point towards the current dance scenes impending cultural cliff from cliché to archetype. After all, voguing was appropriated into a mainstream form, it can’t be long before Sarah Michelson contemporary dance moves are incorporated into a new music video for a song by Madonna or Rihanna. Surely then, that Authentic Movement wouldn’t be real like a Gucci bag… remember? “When you go to buy real shit, you need to bring real shit.” At least that’s what I took away from that monologue.

Thoroughly enjoyed the performance, and the thought process that ensued. Thank you!

Appendix A. My Short-List of Keepers:

a. The “no to spectacle” loud sound, solo opening section

b. “You can fuck, but first you must fuck me”

c. The Portugal story

d. The soul song vs. opera number

e. Fantastic day glo-socks

f. The big ballet number

g. “I Love Purple”

h. “Darling Nikki”

i. Kate Bush (though I hear this was stolen from a local performance at “Pegasus”  jk. )

Appendix B. (at top of article)

 

Appendix C.  Local Live Drag Shows, Homegrown Drag somewhere other than at the Gay 90s.

1. Sequin Sundays every week at the Townhouse

2. Dykes Do Drag, Every February, April, June, September, and November at Bryant Lake Bowl

3. Minneapolis Burlesque Festival January 31st  at the Ritz Theater

4. Watch some Eddie Izzard on Netflix.

 

Goodnight.

Elliott Durko Lynch

 

Our Modest Utopia: Seeing She She Pop’s Testament with my Real-Life Father

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Shanai Matteson, co-producer of Salon Saloon,shares her perspective on Thursday night’s performance of Testament by […]

Me and my dad

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Shanai Matteson, co-producer of Salon Saloon,shares her perspective on Thursday night’s performance of Testament by She She PopAgree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

“I only know two people here,” My dad declared after scanning the crowd that had assembled for She She Pop’s Testament, a deconstruction of King Lear that I’d promised to write about on behalf of Salon Saloon, a monthly show I help produce.

You know two people here?” I asked skeptically (the man lives in Moose Lake and is far from a regular at Walker performances).

“Yeah, I know two people here.” He paused, “What do you think the odds are that I’d be seated right next to them?”

“Next to who?” I looked around dumbly for familiar faces.

“Next to the only two people I know here!” He grinned, and I realized he was referring to his daughters seated beside him. My sister and I have both heard this joke a hundred times, but if my dad is King of anything, it’s the recurring wisecrack.

I invited my dad and my sister to see Testament with me because I thought they might help me get perspective on the show, an experimental piece about father-daughter relationships. Family conflict, sibling rivalry, identity, inheritance, love– all juicy topics we rarely discuss in our family– would be deconstructed on stage! I told them before the theater grew dark that I was sorry if this made them uncomfortable.

“We are not actors. Instead, we give ourselves and others interesting tasks to fulfill and solve them in public on stage.” – She She Pop

Testament is a challenging performance. It asks a lot of its audience. It begins with the women of She She Pop suggesting that we (the audience) play the part of King Lear’s entourage, drawing a thread between Shakespeare’s tragedy and what we experience in the theater-space they’ve created, a kind of platform for collective public negotiation. As promised, they bring out their real life fathers, dressed sharply in sweater-vests and button-down shirts, and proceed to spend the next two hours negotiating the conditions of their relationships. Sometimes this is hilarious, other times uncomfortable or heartbreaking, but it always seems they’re on the cusp of a monumental transformation,“the changeover of generations.” And it seems we’re on that cusp too, all of us, though we’re never sure when it will happen.

In this space, King Lear isn’t a Monarch in search of the most deserving heir to bestow his fortune upon, but an ordinary man terrified of retirement. And his daughters? They aren’t opportunistic quarreling siblings, but ordinary adults trying to negotiate their own identities amid the prospect of an aging parent in need of care.

Speaking for King Lear‘s Cordelia (the tongue-tied, banished little sister), and perhaps for herself too, one of the women of She She Pop confesses, “He wanted me to take care of him, but I refused to compete.”

Looking at it this way, you can begin to identify with the struggles Lear’s daughters went through to deal with their old man and his bizarre way of divvying up the family real estate. This thread between Lear and our deconstructed/reconstructed Royal Court continues to get tangled. She She Pop carefully reveals the often-conflicting definitions of respect, vulnerability, love and forgiveness that transpire between fathers and daughters, taking the audience through the process they took to engage their fathers in the development of Testament. It’s a creative project for which at least one of the elderly gentlemen expresses reservations, protesting their depiction as frail and needy old men, while trying to speak candidly about their frailty and neediness.

What I loved about this performance was that these roles are not so much “performed” as they are “negotiated.” Throughout the two hours we spent together in the theater there were moments of pause, when the entire cast came together to collectively brainstorm new themes for exploration, inventing their own hilarious methods of measuring the immeasurable. Though much of it was absurd, it felt oddly familiar, like the conversations in my head when my parents come to visit.

Testament felt immediate and important, and not just because my father was seated beside me in the theater. For years I’ve been watching my parents age at what seems like an increasingly fast clip. Unlike Lear or the fathers of Testament, my parents have no material wealth to speak of, so they hardly speak of it. What does inheritance mean when you’re no longer talking about material wealth? When does the changeover of generations happen when it seems that nothing changes but the balance of overwhelming responsibility?

That was one of the biggest questions that Testament raised in my mind, especially during the gut-wrenching storm scene, which I won’t spoil for you in a blog post. I’ll just say that after intense negotiations, the daughters raise a white flag, confronting the inevitable deterioration of their fathers and promising to witness this transformation with compassion – even laughing at the same jokes told over and over again.

I might have cried, but by this point I was holding my breath, trying not to let my own father know that I was picturing his eventual decrepitude. Was he thinking of this too? Was he asking himself, “would my daughters care for me if I got sick?” It’s something we’ve never talked about.

At the bar

After the show was over, the three of us went out for a drink. It was hard to think of what to say, I was still reeling from the performance. Halfway through Testament one of the fathers talks about his “modest utopia,” a Corbusier-inspired modular apartment that can be attached directly to the kitchen of his daughter’s flat. It would have everything he needs -“Autonomy. Provisions. Social Contact.”

I asked my dad if he could tell me about his utopia, a place where he’d have everything he needs to grow old and be cared for by his children, if it came to that.

“I don’t think about that.”

“Why not?”

“I hope I won’t have to. I feel like we’re all making these negotiations all the time. In our heads, but not together. Not in public.”

“Maybe it’s time we start.”

The More of a Freak You Become: Rude Mech’s The Method Gun, Acting, Danger, and the Most Colorful Armed Cults of the 1970s

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Andy Sturdevant of Salon Saloon shares his perspective on Thursday night’s performance of The Method […]

An SLA publicitiy image featuring Patty Hearst. Source: Wikipedia

An SLA publicity image featuring Patty Hearst

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Andy Sturdevant of Salon Saloon shares his perspective on Thursday night’s performance of The Method Gun by Rude Mechs. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

On a recent episode of Salon Saloon, the show I host at the Bryant-Lake Bowl here in Minneapolis, I made some vaguely witty retort to a guest that caught him a bit off-guard. He recovered quickly, and shook his head. “Always improvising on the fly,” he grumbled. “You theater kids.”

“Hey!” I protested. “I’m not a theater kid! I’m an art school kid! I’m a classic art school kid!”

Which is true: I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting. I certainly didn’t mean to sound so defensive, but I think I reacted like I did because theater artists — and the art of acting, generally — have always seemed  the slightest bit baffling to me. Unlike visual arts, or fiction, or poetry, or music, I’ve always thought the way theater artists talk about their work is much more extreme. There’s so much more talk about “risk” and “bravery” and “pain” than in other disciplines; the language seems much more rooted in psychology and self-help and metaphysics. The stakes always seem higher. It just all sounds much more dangerous. It may be that I personally lack the forthrightness and moral courage to be an actor. The only real risk I take on a stage is getting out-zinged by my guest, or running out of Rusty Nails.

“Actors are freaks,” notes one of the characters in Rude Mech’s The Method Gun. “And the more you hang out with them, the more of a freak you become.” It’s a joke, of course, but over the 90 minutes of the show, you watch a troupe of fictitious actors on-stage engaging in some pretty extreme behavior in service of their art.

You don’t need to know much about theater history to know that the Method acting cults that sprung up in the 20th century around figures like Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler emphasized practices that, to a non-actor, can seem absurdly over-the-top. The production takes this approach to its extreme: it imagines a troupe of actors in the mid-1970s so dedicated to a guru-like teacher named Stella Burden that, even when she disappears into the jungles of South America, they carry on without her, rehearsing an unconventional adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire for nine years using the extreme methods she devised. At some point, another character dreamily suggests that they should have put their time and energy into armed robbery. The Patty Hearst-era setting suggests that, under slightly different circumstances, this gang of slightly damaged, lonely idealists could probably have easily found themselves in the Symbionese Liberation Army or any of the other colorful, counterculture-flavored armed cults of the period.

The audience had a great time, hooting and shouting encouragement throughout. It seemed to be an audience that really understood the absurd lengths people will go to make art, and Rude Mechs brilliantly walked the fine line between satire and homage. We see the actors rehearse the scenes of the play (there’s a nice recap in the middle of the show, but you might want to consider refreshing yourself on the plot and dialogue in Streetcar beforehand anyway) and engage in acting exercises. We see the actors break character to discuss the supposed research that went into creating the show and interviewing the original Burden players. The show takes its name from the literal gun that Stella Burden kept in rehearsals, to make literal to the actors the metaphoric life and death decisions they face on stage.

This idea of literal danger is made quite clear at the play’s end; I won’t spoil it, other than to say it’s a real showstopper and one of the best things I’ve seen happen on a stage in years. I can’t remember seeing a show where so many audience members around me inhaled their breath so sharply. It makes clear the fact that, yes, acting is dangerous. It requires, as I suggested earlier, bravery and a willingness to risk your safety, whether psychological or physical. To see it played out in those terms, after puzzling over it for ninety minutes, is nothing less than thrilling.

So what about you? Are you a theater kid? If so, do you thrill to danger and psychological brinksmanship? How about that set piece at the end? And wasn’t the Tiger the breakout star of the 2013 Out There season? Leave a comment!