EVERY ACT OF LIFE (Jeff Kaufman, 2018)
Tribeca Film Festival
Monday, April 23, SVA Theater 2 Beatrice, 8:00
Tuesday, April 24, Cinépolis Chelsea 6, 5:00
Wednesday, April 25, Cinépolis Chelsea 2, 6:15
Thursday, April 26, Cinépolis Chelsea 9, 4:00
Four-time Tony winner Terrence McNally and his husband, producer Tom Kirdahy, appeared in the 2015 documentary, The State of Marriage, about marriage equality, but director-producer Jeff Kaufman and producer Marcia Ross were surprised to learn that no one had made a film about McNally himself. So they did. The result is Every Act of Life, an intimate portrait of the Texas-born activist and playwright, who has also won two Obies, four Drama Desk Awards, and an Emmy and has been a fixture in the theater community for six decades, writing such popular and influential works as Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune; The Lisbon Traviata; Lips Together, Teeth Apart; Master Class; Kiss of the Spider Woman; and Love! Valour! Compassion!
Kaufman and Ross combine archival footage of many of McNally’s works with personal photos and new interviews with an all-star lineup that includes Angela Lansbury, Nathan Lane, Audra McDonald, Larry Kramer, Edie Falco, F. Murray Abraham, Tyne Daly, Billy Porter, Chita Rivera, John Slattery, Rita Moreno, Joe Mantello, and Christine Baranski, among many others. The film follows McNally through every act of his life, from his childhood in Texas living with abusive, alcoholic parents to his homosexuality, from his relationships with Edward Albee, Wendy Wasserstein, and others to his bout with lung cancer and marriage to Kirdahy. Every Act of Life is having its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 23, with Kaufman, Mantello, Abraham, Lane, and McNally participating in an “After the Screening” conversation moderated by Frank Rich. (The film is also being shown April 24, 25, and 26.) Just as the festival got under way, Kaufman, who has also directed Father Joseph, The Savoy King: Chick Webb and the Music That Changed America, and Brush with Life: The Art of Being Edward Biberman, discussed the project via email in this exclusive twi-ny talk.
twi-ny: You first interviewed Terrence McNally and his husband, Tom Kirdahy, for The State of Marriage. How familiar were you with him and his work at that time?
Jeff Kaufman: Marcia grew up in Mt. Vernon, just outside of NYC, and the great love of her youth was coming into the city to go to the theater. It shaped much of her life that followed. I grew up near Seattle with a love of classic movies and art, so my discovery of the theater came a bit later (in part by subscribing to the Fireside Theatre Book Club). We both loved Terrence’s work but also made some lasting discoveries through making this film.
twi-ny: Do you have a favorite play of his?
JK: For Marcia, her favorite play by Terrence (of many) is Love! Valour! Compassion! She says it speaks so beautifully about relationships. There are many characters and moments and plays of Terrence’s that keep reverberating for me, but I would mention (so others can look them up) the spiritual moments in A Perfect Ganesh and Corpus Christi, the sense of family and scope of life in L! V! C!, and the deep connection to the power of the arts in Master Class.
twi-ny: What made you think he would be a good subject for a full-length documentary? Was it difficult to get him to agree to the film?
JK: When we interviewed Terrence and Tom for The State of Marriage, we were so impressed with how direct and open and full of feeling Terrence could be. His life and work have changed many lives, and launched many careers, so his story is about a community of remarkable people as well. Through Terrence’s life and work we connect to a history of the theater, the struggle for LGBTQ rights (as Nathan Lane says, “Terrence has always been ahead of his time”), overcoming addiction (thanks in large part to Angela Lansbury), and what it means to keep searching and growing (and loving) throughout your life. So, for us Terrence, like his plays, speaks to a lot of important concerns.
And since we worked well together in the previous film, it wasn’t hard to get him and Tom to agree. They’ve been great to work with throughout the project.
twi-ny: Terrence gives you remarkable access to his life. Did that happen early on in the process, or did you have to establish a rapport?
JK: Our first conversation about doing this film was with Tom Kirdahy, a theater producer and former AIDS attorney who is also Terrence’s husband. Tom understood completely that honesty and access are essential. None of us wanted a fawning tribute. Terrence wasn’t comfortable with every aspect of our interviews, but he was remarkably forthcoming and unvarnished. I’ve interviewed hundreds of people, but Terrence is unique.
twi-ny: Were there any times he asked for the camera to be turned off?
JK: When he decides to open the door, he opens it all the way. There may have been a few things he pushed back on a bit, but we always got what we needed.
twi-ny: Terrence is known for being a perfectionist and, at times, demanding, yet he is very relaxed throughout the film. Did the making of the film actually go that smoothly? Whose idea was it to have numerous scenes in which two characters speak very comfortably to each other?
JK: I always try to put interview subjects in a positive frame of mind (even while asking a lot, on several levels). Marcia is a great ally in this as well. Often when I’m working with the film crew to set up the shot, Marcia engages in her singular way (and depth of theater knowledge) to help keep the subject engaged and relaxed. Then I conduct the interview. Since you asked, I came up with the idea for the various sequences (Edie and Murray talking about Frankie and Johnny, etc.).
twi-ny: You have amassed a terrific cast of characters from both his personal and professional life for the film. What was that experience like, “casting” the documentary? Was there someone you really wanted to interview but was unavailable?
JK: Casting is key in documentaries, narrative films, and the theater. Also important for our work is to get people to tell stories that put the audience in a scene with the subjects of our films. We were pretty much able to talk to everyone on our list . . . but I would have loved to go back in time and film Terrence with some of the people who are no longer living. We got as close as possible to that by finding unseen footage of Edward Albee and Wendy Wasserstein, having Bryan Cranston read an amazing letter to Terrence about what a writer needs to keep going, and getting Meryl Streep to read a letter from Terrence’s beloved high school English teacher.
twi-ny: In the film, Terrence and the actors talk about the importance of collaboration, which even extended to many of the documentary participants helping the Kickstarter campaign by contributing special rewards for donors. How does collaboration in theater compare with collaboration in film?
JK: Both are essential, and as Terrence says, life is about collaboration as well. I have a strong vision for what I want the documentary to be and say. So does Marcia. However, that only comes together through the work and vision and talent of many people.
twi-ny: What was the single most surprising thing you learned about theater and Terrence McNally while making the film?
JK: I don’t know if this qualifies as a surprise, but Marcia and I were both impressed by finding in Terrence, and others in the film, great artists who could easily rest on their laurels but who instead are still inspired, still learning, and still striving to do new and better work.
PROFESSIONAL BULL RIDERS MONSTER ENERGY BUCK OFF AT THE GARDEN
Madison Square Garden
31st - 33rd Sts. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
January 5-7, $28-$551
After-parties at Hooters on January 5 and American Whiskey on January 6
The Professional Bull Riders’ twenty-fifth anniversary tour barrels its way into Madison Square Garden January 5-7 for the twelfth annual PBR Monster Energy Buck Off at the Garden, as thirty-five brave athletes will try to stay atop bucking bulls for the wildest eight seconds in sports. Among those competing to unseat current champion Jess Lockwood is Cooper Davis, the rider we interviewed two years ago who went on to win the 2016 world championship. Last year we introduced you to brothers Tanner and Jesse Byrne, the former a bull rider, the latter a bullfighter who protects the riders from danger. This year we get an inside look at the man who serves as a kind of master of ceremonies for all competitions, PBR “Exclusive Entertainer” Flint Rasumussen.
Since 2006, Rasmussen has been putting on clown makeup and revving up PBR crowds in between bull rides, telling jokes, dancing — specialties include Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk, the Harlem Shake, twerking, and flashdancing — and going into the audience and meeting PBR fans. An eight-time Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Clown of the Year, eight-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo Barrelman, a big-time high school athlete, and a former math and history teacher, Rasmussen is an avid hunter and fly fisher and the host of Outside the Barrel on SiriusXM Rural Radio (channel 147). His father, Stan, was a popular rodeo announcer, a profession taken up by Rasmussen’s brother Will, while his other brother, Pete, was a former member of the PRCA and the Northern Rodeo Association. Flint married barrel racer and horse trainer Katie Grasky; their two daughters are involved with rodeo as well. After a day of skiing out west, Rasmussen answered questions about his life and career, giving careful thought to his replies, delivered with a refreshing honesty.
twi-ny: PBR refers to you as its “Exclusive Entertainer,” specifically not using the word “clown.” Is there a trend to stop using such terms as “rodeo clown?”
Flint Rasmussen: We went to “Exclusive Entertainer” for a couple reasons. PBR is not a rodeo; it is just bull riding, so Rodeo Clown is not an accurate title. Also, I don’t really look at myself as a traditional clown. The only thing about me that is Clown is the makeup.
twi-ny: This will be PBR’s twelfth annual competition at Madison Square Garden, the longtime New York City home of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which featured such famous clowns as Emmett Kelly. Even if you don’t see yourself as a traditional clown, do you feel that history when you enter the World’s Most Famous Arena, especially with Ringling Bros. now closed down?
FR: With my background, the history that I feel at MSG is more sports and entertainment oriented. It is the home of the Rangers, the home of Bill Bradley and Patrick Ewing and Spike Lee talking smack to Reggie Miller from the front row. The Big East basketball tournament was there for so long. Every great musician has performed there. Billy Joel? Yes!
I am not really a circus guy. Believe it or not, I have never had much interest, or read much history, on circus clowns. I was always comfortable in front of crowds and wanted to be an entertainer of some sort. My family was involved in rodeo in Montana, and I just performed as a rodeo clown on a dare a couple times. It just happened to take off for me, and it turned into a career. We have held on to the tradition of the rodeo clown makeup as a salute to that rodeo tradition and to distinguish me from the cowboy-protection bullfighters who I work with.
None of this is out of disrespect for the true clowns, but I don’t feel I really adhere to much of that tradition in my performances. We use music. I wear a microphone. Much of my performance is ad lib comedy, almost stand-up at times. And my outfit is almost a sports uniform. It is just more contemporary.
I do think, however, that Ringling Bros. was a real part of our history, and a true show. Every show after it somehow stems from how things were done at the circus to entertain crowds and provide a family show.
twi-ny: Who were your inspirations?
FR: My inspirations were athletes, comedians, and musicians. My favorite basketball player ever is Dr. J. He was a great player and great entertainer all in one. I watched Michael Jackson wow crowds of every age. He was the greatest entertainer of all time! Then there was Billy Joel on his piano, Bon Jovi and their big hair, and Garth Brooks taking country entertainment to a new level. And stand-up comedians — Eddie Murphy, Howie Mandel, Jerry Seinfeld — with their amazing timing and audience interaction.
twi-ny: Since this is a blue state with a lot of cynics when it comes to any form of entertainment, do you approach the New York City crowd any differently from those in other cities?
FR: New York City is different than anywhere we go, and probably the most difficult place. New Yorkers expect the best, because they get the best every day of the year. They like to be involved. I have learned over the years to use a lot of audience participation and interaction instead of just liner comedy. I definitely cannot do the same show in New York City as I do in Billings, Montana, or Sacramento, California, or Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I like to think that is why I am the one with this job.
twi-ny: Has the New York audience changed over time?
FR: When we first came to New York, the fans knew absolutely nothing about what we were doing. We constantly had to educate while trying to entertain. Now they “get it” a little better. Also, the people around the city seem to appreciate when we are in town.
twi-ny: When you’re here in New York City, do you have any time to take advantage of the culture? What are some of your favorite things to do here?
FR: Through the years, my family and I have seen some Broadway shows, which I absolutely love! We caught a Knicks game. And we were able to see museums and other sights. Probably not as much as one should; the job we are here to do is always on my mind. Probably my favorite thing to do is eat way too much of the greatest pizza in the world!
twi-ny: You’ve played football, ran track, and were a champion barrel racer — and you were a high school teacher as well — but this is a whole different thing. People might not realize how dangerous your job can be, as shown by that rope takedown you experienced in Glendale in 2012. What goes through your mind when you’re suddenly face-to-face with a fearsome bucking bull?
FR: The danger thing is hard for any of us to address, because we look at it differently. Most people probably look at my job and say, “I could do that,” because it looks like I am just out there goofing around. But there is a lot going on. If I am not paying attention at any given time, I could get hurt very badly. But as far as the bulls go, I think people in cities don’t understand that most of us grew up in a rural, ranch-type setting. We have grown up either around, or directly involved in, the large-animal industry.
I am looking out my window this very moment doing this interview and can see cattle. I have been in corrals sorting cattle my entire life. This lifestyle exists in a strong way in this country. It is how people eat! Yes, bucking bulls are different. But they aren’t bucking because they are pissed off. They are bucking because their bloodlines tell them that is what they are here to do. Not every horse runs fast. But the ones in the Kentucky Derby are bred to do it, so they do. Bulls are not rare, exotic circus animals. There are millions of people in this country who are around bovines every single day as a way to provide food for this country and to make a living for their families.
So when anyone in the PBR is face-to-face with a bull, they aren’t really thinking; they are reacting in the way that their body and mind have been conditioned to over the years.
twi-ny: How was your Christmas?
FR: Christmas is a great time and my favorite holiday. It was a cold and white Christmas here in Montana. My personal and family situation has not been good in the last year or so, so it was different and difficult. I have had a wonderful career, and I love the opportunities, but it can be very hard on a family.
twi-ny: I’m sorry to hear that. You’ve been in the rodeo and professional bull riding business for thirty years, you suffered a heart attack in 2009, and you will be turning fifty shortly after the MSG dates. Does that change your approach to your job?
FR: My health and age have, of course, changed my approach. I no longer completely depend on the physical comedy and dancing aspects. I can’t do many of the things I used to do. I listen to my body a lot to try and stay ahead of any health issues with my heart. I really do think that for a guy nearly fifty, I am in very good shape and can still shake it pretty dang well.
twi-ny: Yes, you can definitely still shake it pretty dang well; our readers can check out some of your best moments here. When the season ends and you head back to your home in Montana, what’s your favorite thing to do there? Since your daughters are or have been barrel racers too and you own and operate a horse ranch, do you ever get a chance to get away from it all?
FR: Montana is definitely home to me. But as I get older, I really don’t like winter. Montana will always be home, but I wouldn’t mind getting farther south once in a while. I fly home between almost all of our events. In the summer I fish when I can. My daughters go to rodeos in the summer, and I get to as many of those as I can. I have helped coach track the last couple springs up here. My oldest daughter, Shelby, is a freshman at Montana State University on a rodeo team scholarship. (Yes, that does exist.) And my younger daughter, Paige, is a junior at Belgrade High School, where she is a hurdler/jumper/sprinter on the track team. She is also very talented in rodeo. They are both very musical, too. Their mom, Katie, trains amazing horses for them, which allows them to excel and be successful.
I also do a weekly radio show called Outside the Barrel on SiriusXM Rural Radio that emphasizes the Western lifestyle, music, and comedy. I host a stage talk show in Vegas for a couple weeks out of the year, too. I probably need to find a way to get away from it all once in a while. But it isn’t a bad life to not get away from.
The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 28, $79-$99
I spent much of the summer of 2014 serving on a jury for a murder trial, a case involving a drug-related shooting in Harlem. One of my fellow jurors was writer, director, and Emmy-nominated actress Polly Draper. Best known for her portrayal of Ellyn Warren on the groundbreaking drama thirtysomething, the Yale grad (both BAA and MFA) has also starred on and off Broadway (Closer, Brooklyn Boy); wrote and starred in The Tic Code, inspired by her husband, jazz musician Michael Wolff, who has Tourette’s syndrome; and wrote and directed The Naked Brothers Band television series and movie, starring their sons, Nat Wolff (The Fault in Our Stars, Buried Child) and Alex Wolff (In Treatment, All the Fine Boys). Draper, who has also won a Writers Guild Award, has been experiencing a career renaissance of late, portraying recurring characters on The Big C with Laura Linney, The Good Wife with Julianna Margulies, and Rhinebrook, as well as playing a key supporting role in the Kickstarter-funded indie hit Obvious Child.
She is now appearing off Broadway through January 28 at the Signature in 20th Century Blues, a bittersweet drama written by Susan Miller (My Left Breast, A Map of Doubt and Rescue) and directed by Emily Mann (Baby Doll, The How and the Why) about four sixtysomething women who have been getting together once a year ever since they met when they were all arrested at a political protest forty years earlier. Draper plays Danny, a divorced photographer and mother who has taken their picture every year. When Danny tells journalist Mac (Franchelle Stewart Dorn), veterinarian Gabby (Kathryn Grody), and real estate agent Sil (Ellen Parker) that she is having a solo show at MoMA and wants to include the forty years of photos, displaying them publicly for the first time, questions arise as the women look back at their past and consider their future. Danny is also contemplating taking care of her aging mother, Bess (Beth Dixon), in her apartment, which her friends do not think is the best idea. “She’s my mother,” Danny explains. “And, I don’t know how long I’ll get to be a daughter.” (That line rang extra true for me, as a half hour after I saw the play last week, my mother passed away in my sister’s Upper East Side apartment.)
A relaxed, easygoing woman with a broad sense of humor and a natural talent for leadership, Draper, like Danny, is passionate about everything she does. “When it comes to my art, I have very strong feelings,” she said when we met to talk shortly after the bizarre trial ended with a hung jury. And also like Danny, she is passionate about justice and freedom, as evidenced by her reactions to the trial in addition to her activism for numerous liberal causes. What follows are edited excerpts from our 2014 interview and a brand-new email exchange about 20th Century Blues, the legal system, working with family, and more.
twi-ny: I can’t believe it’s been three and a half years since we sat on that long, bizarre murder trial. What are your thoughts looking back at that summer in court? At the time you called it a musical comedy.
Polly Draper: I think about that experience so much!!! And did you hear that those guys got convicted finally? I guess the second jury didn’t have our crazy guy on it. But I doubt they had as much fun as we did! What a mind-blowing experience!!!
twi-ny: I know! What was your single favorite moment of the trial?
Polly Draper: Meeting you guys. Meeting all the fun people and going out to the Chinese restaurants. I had a lot of fun. The only thing that wasn’t fun was the deliberations because of the crazy person. But even the deliberations had their fun things, like every time he’d fall asleep or when he wasn’t there. All the characters . . . It was fascinating for me in every way.
twi-ny: If you knew then what you know now, would you put yourself through it again?
Polly Draper: Definitely! Absolutely! I know some of the people wouldn’t say that at all, but I would so do it. It’s one of the most fascinating things that happened in a long time to me.
twi-ny: You’re currently starring in Susan Miller’s 20th Century Blues at the Signature. What initially drew you to the play itself and your part specifically?
PD: First of all, I was drawn to the play because it dealt with friendships between women and also with issues common to women my age. Plays written on this subject matter are few and far between.
Secondly, I really related to the character I was playing and her struggle to realize her artistic vision, which in her case involved putting together a photography exhibit at MoMA. Having struggled with many of my own artistic endeavors, I could identify with the obstacles she faced.
I also intimately understand this character’s relationship with her mother, who is in the throes of dementia, because my own mother is suffering from Parkinson’s disease–related dementia.
twi-ny: I’m sorry to hear that. The play follows four women who have documented their friendship through forty years of photos. What’s your longest current friendship?
PD: I’ve known my oldest friend, Wende Lufkin, since we were eight years old and share all my childhood and teenage memories with her. We live on opposite sides of the country and rarely see each other but are inextricably bonded by our shared past.
The two old friends I see constantly and have been entwined in my life for the past forty years are writer Jenny Allen, who I met in college, and actress Brooke Adams, who I met doing a play when I first came to NYC. (The two of them were at opening night for this play, in fact, rendering it even more meaningful to me.)
twi-ny: Speaking of long friendships, it’s now been forty years since thirtysomething debuted. In June 2007, you reunited with the cast for a “Look Who’s Fifty” story, and this past September EW did a “Where Are They Now?” feature. It really was quite a group of creative people; all these years later, everyone is still very busy, with many of the actors becoming directors, including yourself. Why do you think that might be?
PD: When we were on thirtysomething, all the actors were encouraged to direct. Regrettably, I wasn’t interested in doing so at the time, but I think the fact that so many of my cast members did it demystified the process for me. We were also encouraged to volunteer ideas for scripts, which got me interested in the whole process of script writing. Some of my castmates, like Melanie Mayron and Peter Horton, had already been directors and writers before they got on the show.
Everyone in the cast was smart and ambitious. So . . . I’m guessing that accounts for all the many directing / writing / acting projects among us.
twi-ny: You’ve directed your family in The Naked Brothers Band series and movie, wrote and starred in The Tic Code, which was inspired by your husband’s Tourette’s syndrome, directed one of your sons in a play written by your other son, and next up is Stella’s Last Weekend, which you wrote, directed, and star in with your sons. Why do you think working with your family has gone so well? Do things ever get especially difficult either on the set or back at home?
PD: My family is the most important thing to me, so it is not surprising that all of the work I have created involves them. And it doesn’t hurt that they happen to be extraordinarily gifted actors and musicians.
I was actually surprised by the lack of stress we had on the set of Stella’s Last Weekend. The last time I worked professionally with Nat and Alex was on The Naked Brothers Band when they were wild and crazy little boys, so it was a treat for me to work with them as wild and crazy adults.
Because we worked together before and because we all know each other so well, we not only trusted each other, we have a shorthand communicating with each other. This resulted in all of it feeling surprisingly effortless from beginning to end. Nat and Alex both had great ideas for their characters and great improvisations they did in the scenes. They also kept everyone on the set in constant hysterical laughter with their brother antics.
I think the movie reflects the joy we all had making it. I am really proud of it and I can’t wait until it comes out so people can see it. The screenings we have had of it so far have been phenomenally successful.
And Michael, who also did the score for The Tic Code and The Naked Brothers Band, did a killer score for this one too.
twi-ny: Would you say that the camaraderie that you helped foster in the jurors room during the trial compares to that on a film set?
PD: That’s what my husband said. He said, “This is just typical of you. You always wind up hanging out with the people you’re doing a project with, and this is your new project.”
twi-ny: You move smoothly between film, television, and theater, from Obvious Child, The Good Wife, and Golden Boy to Closer, Rhinebrook, and now 20th Century Blues. Do you have a particular preference as an actor for one medium over another?
PD: I think I just like doing work I’m proud of. I like working on interesting projects no matter what medium they’re in.
There are advantages to the control you have and the instant audience feedback of acting onstage, but there is something magical about the intimacy of acting on film as well.
I love to write scripts because I can play every role in my head.
I love to direct because it is thrilling to create the real-life version of what used to be just my fantasy.
It is also beyond exciting to watch what each actor brings to my words.
I also love the process of editing because it is so much fun to give shape to the movie and fix mistakes and choose music and find meanings in all of it that I never saw before.
So basically, I love every part of the process of acting, writing, and directing except the actual business part. That part I hate and fear. Unfortunately, it is one of the most important parts!
twi-ny: Getting back to the play, what gave you the blues in the twentieth century? And what about now, in the twenty-first century?
PD: Oy vey. I guess the simple answer would be to say that the blues I had in the twentieth century were more personal and involved growing up, and the blues I have in the twenty-first century are more global and involve fear for all of mankind.
When you and I served on that jury almost four years ago and Obama was still president, I don’t think either of us could have guessed the seismic shifts that have happened this year. The list of things that give me the blues now have to do mostly with our president and the flame he fans of lies and hatred and backward thinking, but he seems to be just a by-product of a frightening trend worldwide.
My blues in this century are every thinking person’s blues: They concern the environment, the spread of misinformation, North Korea, Putin, guns, nuclear holocausts, sexual predators, prescription drugs, women’s rights, civil rights, immigrants’ rights, terrorists, the Koch brothers and where they put their dark money, Steve Bannon and his scary white supremacy fans, cyberwarfare, Republican congressmen, our judicial system, and any old men with weird orange hair.
STAIRWAY TO STARDOM
145 Sixth Ave. at Dominick St.
September 12-23, $18-$45, 8:30
Before there was Star Search, American Idol, The Voice, and America’s Got Talent there was Stairway to Stardom, a no-budget New York City public access television show in which men, women, and children performed with big dreams in their heads, hoping to make it big. Writer, director, choreographer, performer, and “global paradigm architect” Amanda Szeglowski explores the American dream of reaching for fame and fortune in the vastly entertaining and ridiculously clever multimedia production Stairway to Stardom, which opened at HERE on September 12. The sixty-minute show features Szeglowski and her cakeface company, Ali Castro, Jade Daugherty, Ayesha Jordan, and Nola Sporn Smith, in glittery silver-sequined gowns and high heels singing, dancing, and sharing their successes and failures, their hopes and desires with a dry, wry mechanical delivery deliciously at odds with the spectacular longing for stardom that lies beneath.
The narrative follows the arc of a contemporary U.S. life in the arts, from what creative kids want to be when they grow up and what their parents expect of them to discovering their unique talent and then working odd jobs as they strive for artistic (and maybe even financial) success while also experiencing regrets. The performers are joined by Prism House — Brian Wenner and Matt O’Hare — who provide live video and music mixing, featuring excerpts from the original public access program. Szeglowski, who is also HERE’s marketing director, formed the all-female cakeface in 2008; their previous “linguistic performance art” projects include Don’t Call Me McNeill., Alpha Pups, and Harold, I Hate You. The new show continues through September 23; there will be a talkback following the September 20 performance, and September 15 and 19 are ’80s nights, in which the audience is encouraged to dress with their best retro flair. The show begins at 8:30, but HERE will be projecting clips from the original Stairway to Stardom in the lounge beginning at 7:00 every evening. Shortly after opening night, which kicked off HERE’s twenty-fifth anniversary season, Szeglowski found time to answer some questions about her own career trajectory.
twi-ny: As you were preparing for the opening of Stairway to Stardom, your native Florida — you went to high school in Tampa and college at USF — was being battered by Hurricane Irma. What was that experience like, balancing the two? Are your friends and family safe?
amanda szeglowski: Yes, thank you for asking. My family lives in West Tampa, so we were all watching the storm very closely. It was an incredibly stressful time to be in tech rehearsals all day and night approaching the culmination of a show I’ve been building for three years while this monster of a storm was creeping towards my family. I was checking in on them every chance I got and FaceTiming to see all the prep they were doing to their houses, going over the evacuation plans. . . . Being a part of that process helped me feel like I was with them. But growing up in Florida and having been through many hurricanes actually gave me some comfort as well. We know how to prepare and we take it seriously. That’s not to say that wine isn’t the first thing in the hurricane supply shopping cart — it is. But I felt better knowing this wasn’t my family’s first rodeo; they knew exactly what to do.
twi-ny: Were you ever a fan of such programs as Star Search, American Idol, The Voice, or America’s Got Talent?
as: I loved watching Star Search as a kid. As I got older and the shows got more scripted I lost interest. I think Idol changed the game by making the auditions part of the show, and then it became a gimmick of who could be the most outrageous. But I will occasionally watch clips from these shows when my parents call me and insist that they just saw the greatest thing.
twi-ny: What is it about the public access show that spurred your creative juices? You treat it with respect without getting overly kitschy or mean-spirited.
as: The TV show was so raw — so vulnerable. These weren’t people trying to become a character on a reality show; these were people really trying to make it. I respect that. There wasn’t any competitive aspect to the TV show; they were just performing and hoping to be seen. Sure, when you see clips from the TV show there are moments that you want to laugh, but I spent hours and hours interviewing people about their lives for my script, and a lot of it was pretty damn sad. At least these people were out there trying. I wanted to honor that drive and explore what happens to all of us along the way, because I think that fire is there for almost everyone in the beginning.
twi-ny: What kind of talent does someone have to display to become a member of cakeface? When someone is auditioning for you, are you more like Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Jennifer Lopez, Usher, or Miley Cyrus?
as: HAHAHA. I think I’m a Simon and Paula hybrid. I’m Simon because I have a crystal-clear vision of what I want, and if you don’t fit, I am not going to beat around the bush. I never want to waste anyone’s time. But Paula has a way of finding a spark in people and being respectful of their contributions, and I try to always do that. I’ve received many post-audition emails over the years from people that I didn’t hire saying the experience was really special. I’m proud of that.
twi-ny: Is anyone associated with the public access show still around? Did you have to go through any kind of permissions process to use some of the original footage?
as: The show was public access. But I did get the tapes directly from someone who was given them by the host of the show, Frank Masi, before he died. [Ed. note: Masi passed away in 2013 at the age of eighty-seven; you can watch a YouTube tribute to him and the show here.]
twi-ny: How amazing was it to perform in such great costumes, as well as high heels?
as: The costumes, which are by Oana Botez, are absolutely fantastic. It’s such a blast being able to sparkle head to toe on a downtown stage — very atypical for the scene. The heels are challenging, but anything else with those costumes would be absurd, right? And the performers are all pros, so they make it work. I wanted an over-the-top glamorous look that I could juxtapose with the stark reality of our words. Oana definitely achieved that.
twi-ny: What did you want to be when you were growing up?
as: The opening text, which I call a monologue (even though it’s delivered by five voices), is basically a run-on sentence ticking off all of my childhood dreams. It includes a mermaid, grocery store checkout clerk, princess, trapeze artist, restaurateur, and movie star. Of course, I always wanted to be a dancer, but that’s obvious, and our unfulfilled dreams are so much more interesting.
twi-ny: What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
as: I’ve had a slew of them. The story in the show about working in the housewares department at Burdines was my life at age fifteen. I had no idea how to sell kitchen appliances and would literally walk away from customers and kick back in the stock room. That was pretty awful. There’s another story about a boss with revolting coffee breath; that was my first job in NYC. But another horrific experience was telemarketing. In high school I worked at a call center selling satellite broadcasting to elderly people in rural areas. I had to convince them they needed HBO. It was super sleazy, plus I got sexually harassed by my boss. I’d say fifteen was not a banner year for my career trajectory.
twi-ny: What would you like audiences to take away from the show?
as: I’d like them to be reminded of our often-naive notions of success and talent, reflect on the choices they’ve made, and leave with a glimmer of hope.
JODY OBERFELDER PROJECTS: THE BRAIN PIECE
New York Live Arts
219 West 19th St. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
Wednesday, June 28, gala benefit $200, 7:30
June 29 - July 1, $25-$35, 7:00 & 9:00
New York-based director, choreographer, dancer, and filmmaker Jody Oberfelder’s The Brain Piece, premiering at New York Live Arts June 28 – July 1, continues her exploration of our internal organs, following on her extraordinary 2013 piece, 4Chambers, an immersive, multimedia, interactive journey inside the human heart. Performed by Oberfelder, Mary Madsen, Pierre Guilbault, and Hannah Wendel along with ten dancer docents, The Brain Piece is divided into two parts, “Mind Matters / Head Space” and “World of Brain,” combining film, visual art, installation, dance, music, and text for an audience limited to 72 members. The cerebral, multimedia piece includes her award-winning short film Dance of the Neurons, made with Eric Siegel, which turns firing synapses into a colorful, joyous dance. Oberfelder, a travel and yoga enthusiast and former lead singer of the punk band the Bagdads, founded Jody Oberfelder Projects in 1989 and has previously presented such works as The Titles Comes Last, Moved, Re:Dress, and Throb. The charming, gregarious, always energetic creator took a break from rehearsals to tell twi-ny all about The Brain Piece.
twi-ny: We recently bumped into each other at the Whitney Biennial, where you were serving as a docent for Asad Raza’s “Root sequence. Mother tongue,” an installation of living trees paired with specific objects, one of which you contributed. As museumgoers made their way through the exhibit, I couldn’t help but think of it as a kind of improvisatory dance with nature, especially with you there. What was that experience like?
jody oberfelder: We’re actually called caregivers. The people who pass through sometimes don’t know we’re positioned as such as we, as you describe, do this improvisatory dance with people in conversation. The show has been up since March and we’ve seen the trees go from bare, to blossom, to leafing, and now they can’t wait to get planted outside. Many people have passed through. Asad’s work balances organic, inorganic, and human all in the space. Having a person in the room is as important as the trees and the caregiver’s placed object. I’m learning that conversation is often this invisible thread that links things together in the present.
twi-ny: Your work is very scientific; were you interested in science when you were a kid?
jo: I would not say I grew up with a scientific bent. I had a fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Dowd, who explained the digestive system with panache (“...and out the other end” — we were all snickering). I’ve come to science through the body, and through a curiosity about what makes us alive. There is a beautiful ecosystem within us and a giant cosmos outside of us. Did you ever see that film by Charles and Ray Eames — Powers of Ten — it’s all about zooming out and zooming in. That, to me, is what science is about. Things can be very specific and very vast.
twi-ny: Yes, Powers of Ten is quite eye-opening. How did you find/choose your science collaborators — Dr. Wei Ji Ma, Cecilia Fontanesi, and Ed Lein — and what did each one bring to The Brain Piece?
Word of mouth.
Cecilia is a dancer and a neuroscientist. She met one of my dancers, Mary Madsen, at a party. I loved talking with her from the very beginning. The thing she said, “The brain is everywhere in the body,” totally clicked with my premise of dancers illuminating brain life.
Wendy Suzuki, who helped illuminate the brain-body connection for me, introduced Wei Ji to me. Wei Ji has been a great collaborator. He comes to rehearsals to “fact check” and advise. He’s in Dance of the Neurons. I audited his class at NYU on illusion. We did a combo lecture / performance in Amsterdam.
Another neuroscientist introduced Ed Lein to me: Gary Marcus. My company manager at the time, Clare Cook, was giving him private Pilates lessons. Gary and I had several conversations, which culminated in him saying, “You know, you should meet Ed from the Allen Institute for Brain Science. He specializes in the biology of neurons.” Ed and I had a back and forth on a kind of Skype sketchpad, and he drew little pictures of how neurons are formed that eventually became the literal storyboard for Dance of the Neurons. I embellished, of course, and played with all the ways neurons “dance” and form synaptic connection. I’m most grateful to these scientists, who are also artists.
twi-ny: Without giving too much away, how will the physical space of New York Live Arts come into play? Only the second half will take place in the theater on a proscenium stage, correct?
jo: It’s my hope that there really is no separation between the sections, that the more experience-based portions of the work continue to inform the world of the brain in the theater. There are nine films in part two. When you go to movies, you don’t question that the actors are not that big. I think the problem with live theater is that we’re in a long shot for too long. I’m creating an atmosphere of a giant brain with moving parts. I think this is the nature of brain plasticity: zoom in for close-ups, see what the alignment of neurons are doing at this time, how we’re constantly in a perceptual loop.
twi-ny: 4Chambers involved a significant amount of interaction, at one point bringing the audience into physical contact with the dancers. Will there be anything similar in The Brain Piece?
jo: You’ll see.
twi-ny: Good answer. I only recently learned that the doctor who performed the autopsy on Albert Einstein actually removed his brain and brought it home to study. What is the most unusual thing you learned about the brain while making this piece?
jo: That the brain is a noisy place and we’re constantly trying to figure things out and make sense of the world. And that our bodies are the vehicles for us to sensorially enter the world. Ask a neuroscientist to define “mind” and they have no clear thing to pin down. There were philosophers, then psychiatrists, and now great discoveries in seeing the pictures in the brain, seeing what makes things go off, decay, or become more plastic, make connections: That’s the dance of neurons. But the mind — it’s like vapor. We breathe in present and past. It’s in constant motion. And dancers are the perfect vehicles to convey this movement.
twi-ny: How have the two works brought the heart and the mind together for you?
jo: The heart leads to the mind. When working on 4Chambers, I interviewed Wendy, who talked about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system and how all the way down from our brains our hearts operate. We feel our hearts, but it’s triggered by the mind. You know how what your brain is doing by what your heart is doing, and vice versa. “I can put my hand on your heart and feel your heartbeat, but if I put my hand on your skull, I can’t feel your thoughts.”
twi-ny: Regarding Dance of the Neurons, your choreography has always been very cinematic, and The Brain Piece includes that short film, which has been garnering prizes at festivals. How do you see the two disciplines merging in your work?
jo: Thank you. Someone at a festival said I was a filmic choreographer. I like that. I’m pretty visual. Like a filmmaker, I’m in the business of arranging time and space and hidden narrative. I use a lot of improvisation around ideas and look for dancers who can take the ball and run with it. I like to think that if I give the performers imaginative tasks, the content will form, and it’s my job as a director and choreographer to prepare for a rehearsal with a loose storyboard of possibilities, then go deeply inside the physical investigation for the interaction with audience members, the films, and the onstage content. Devising content is a matter of honing in on what feels right.
I worked with a wonderful dramaturg this time around: Jessica Applebaum. The piece has had many renderings. She helped me not be afraid of the complexity of the subject matter and to go forward making. Details and big picture always in mind. Jessica has also left me a lot of space these last months to figure it out on my own. Today our neuroscientist, Wei Ji, was there to see me finish the finale in our last moments of our last rehearsal!
I love it now. I’m even surprised by it.
twi-ny: I’m very much looking forward to being surprised by it as well. This might be an obvious closing question, but now with the heart and the brain covered, do you anticipate continuing to explore the mind-body connection with different organs as the focus?
jo: The sex organs will probably be combined with the guts. Like when you feel something in your gut. Intuition. Power.
PROFESSIONAL BULL RIDERS MONSTER ENERGY BUCK OFF AT THE GARDEN
Madison Square Garden
31st - 33rd Sts. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
January 6-8, $26-$208 ($506 for PBR Elite Seats)
In her introduction to the 1931 book Family Fun: Games and Good Times for Children and Parents, Mabel Travis Wood wrote, “The family that plays together stays together.” The Byrnes have taken that to a whole new level, a kind of Flying Wallendas except trying to maintain their balance on bulls instead of the high wire (although, as the above photo shows, they do occasionally soar through the air). In 2004, bullfighting champion Ryan Byrne was inducted into the Canadian Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame after a long and distinguished career. His wife, Kelley, is a barrel racer who has written a children’s book about bullfighting. They have raised three athletic sons, Bo, Tanner, and Jesse, who have been involved in rodeo since they were kids; together they run the annual Byrne Brothers Bull Riding and Bull Fighting School in their hometown of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Tanner, a bull rider who has to endure eight seconds atop two-ton bucking bulls, and Jesse, a bullfighter who protects riders from danger when they fall off the bull or dismount after a successful ride, will be in New York City January 6-8 for the PBR Monster Energy Buck Off at the Garden, as professional bull riding — “the toughest eight seconds in sports” — takes over the World’s Most Famous Arena for the eleventh consecutive year. As they prepared for this major event that kicks off the 2017 season, Tanner, twenty-four and married to Meghan, and Jesse, thirty and married to Canadian barrel racer Lauren, reflected on their family, their sport, New York City, and their harrowing run-in with Chocolate Thunder in April 2014.
twi-ny: You both grew up with a father who was a champion bullfighter and a mother who was a barrel racer, and you would all regularly go to the Calgary Stampede. Did you always want to get involved in bull riding?
Tanner Byrne: Yes, I was born into the rodeo and bull riding lifestyle. Tried all sorts of sports and was good at most everything I did, including lacrosse, baseball, basketball. I also played hockey until I was fifteen years old but decided to stick with bull riding. I knew from day one I wanted to be a world champion and follow my one true passion.
Jesse Byrne: Rodeo and bull riding have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I had always wanted to be a cowboy growing up; I loved riding horses, roping, and ranching. As I got older, I tried riding bulls, which didn’t seem to go well with my personality, which is code for, “It scared me!” Once I tried bullfighting, I knew right away what I wanted to make a career of.
twi-ny: As children, which one of your was more protective of the other, whether playing sports or tussling with other kids? Did you fight with each other a lot, and if so, who would usually win?
TB: I’d say as the older one Jesse was more protective of me and always has had my back, looking out for me whenever I was in trouble. If he thought I was doing something too young to do, he always let me know. As for fighting, I have a much bigger reach and height advantage on him now. I think I’d fare OK. But I’ve seen him take some solid hits in the arena and wouldn’t want to fight him, that’s for sure. We are lucky enough to be three brothers who are all best friends. As we got older, we grew closer together as buddies and brothers. We all have a really good relationship, unlike lots of brother combos I know.
JB: Growing up, I was always pretty protective of others, I guess. I’ve never been the biggest person. But what I lacked in size I made up for with heart. If someone was trying to attack, it wasn’t going to go unchallenged as far as I was concerned. Being a far bit older than Tanner, we never really fought amongst each other as typical brothers would, which I’m thankful for, as it didn’t take him long to have the reach advantage over me. One thing I know for sure, if you mess with one of us, you are going to have to deal with us both.
twi-ny: In April 2014, you were both involved in a dangerous encounter with Chocolate Thunder, with Jesse ultimately jumping on Tanner to shield him from the rampaging bull. At the time, are you both just operating on pure adrenaline, or were you well aware of each other, knowing it was brother and brother fighting off the bull together?
TB: At the time of that incident I was unconscious. I didn’t know what was going down, to tell you the truth. After a couple days and seeing the video replay, I was very appreciative of those guys and knew my brother, Shorty [Gorham], and Frank [Newsom] did everything in their power to get that bull off me like they do for all the riders, day in and day out. I know Jesse treats all of us riders like his brothers, and when any of us goes down he really takes it personally. So I’m sure it was more traumatizing for him to see me down. I was out of it so don’t have much recollection.
JB: Being out there to protect the best bull riders in the world comes with a huge responsibility and a lot of pressure. When you then add family to the mix, it definitely creates a unique situation. However, the difference in my mind when it comes to Tanner lies more in his success than safety. I get nervous and excited about the outcome, just being closer to him than any of the other riders and seeing firsthand what he puts into the sport. No matter who comes out of the chute, it’s my job to do absolutely whatever I can to get them out of there as safe as possible. It all comes down to reaction; there’s really no time to think in those moments.
twi-ny: Do you have favorite bulls?
TB: Yes, I do. I like the bulls that I can get the best scores on and the bulls I’ve won the most money on! Some stand out due to riding them at special events. There’s a bull called Compact who I rode at my first event in the championship round that ultimately got me on the PBR Built Ford Tough Series tour, and the rest is history. I also rode that bull again at the World Finals in Las Vegas that led to a top-three finish and lots of money. So my favorites are ones I have a personal history with.
I was recently in contact with Compact’s owner, trying to buy him once his bucking career is over to retire him on my ranch. He’ll live out his days in luxury. He was good to me; I want to be good to him. As a bull owner myself, I’m part of a group, Flying Four Bucking Bulls, raising our own bucking bulls. I’m really fond of growing our young bulls from calves, seeing them grow up and develop as buckers, and go on in their bucking careers.
JB: I’m a huge bull riding fan, and getting to see it up close week in and week out I have the utmost respect for the bulls. They are amazing athletes with a crazy amount of power and agility. It’s always exciting to watch the elite, and when you see the likes of bulls such as Air Time, Long John, and Bruiser, to name a few, you just never know what to expect. But it will definitely be something you remember.
twi-ny: What is the worst injury you’ve suffered from a bull?
TB: Lots of bumps and bruises and broken bones but, “knock on wood,” I’ve been fairly lucky compared to others injury-wise. My knees and wrist give me lots of trouble with torn ligaments that are common with bull riding. It’s nerve-wracking coming back after an injury, but I let my training and my work ethic give me the confidence to know I’ve got what it takes to ride at this level.
JB: Obviously the danger factor is quite high with bullfighting. Like everyone else in the sport, I’ve had injuries to deal with. A few minor surgeries and definitely some broken bones but nothing major in comparison to others. I think the hardest part about injury is not knowing how much your body can take and having to wait to come back to get your answer. It’s not something you can simulate before stepping off into live action.
twi-ny: Tanner, you previously mentioned also playing lacrosse, baseball, and basketball. What other sports did you play as children, along with Bo?
TB: Any sport or athletic event we could do we did. Our parents helped us in all sports and aspects of life. We never were forced into bull riding, probably more pushed to other things like hockey. But we all loved bull riding and rodeo, and with a dad who is a superstar, you grow up wanting to do what your hero did. Like having a dad who played in the NHL or NFL, you’re never forced to do the same, but it’s what you know from day one and all we ever wanted to be. I played a lot of hockey and was a good prospect. Played until I was fifteen and quit when my bull riding and hockey collided. I ultimately had to choose between the two. Josh Manson, one of my best friends and teammates since we were little kids, went on and is now playing in the NHL for the Anaheim Ducks.
JB: Since I grew up in Canada, hockey was a big part of my childhood as well. Rodeo in the summer, hockey in the winter. I also enjoyed playing baseball. However, its season overlapped with rodeo, so it was one or the other, and, well, I’m sure you can guess which one I chose. These days I’m still a fan of both hockey and baseball, and I enjoy getting out for the odd round of golf.
twi-ny: During your off-week from the Built Ford Tough Series each May, you both take part in the Byrne Brothers Bull Riding and Bull Fighting School. What kind of programs are at the school? Is it open to everyone, or do you need some experience?
TB: Yes, we are proud to give back and help everyone we can with the knowledge and work ethic it took for us to get to this top level coming out of Canada and doing well in our fields of riding and fighting. We teach the basics and mindset and try to share everything we know and have in our power to help everyone from advanced riders to rookies to first-timers thinking it would be fun to get on a bull. It’s a fun-filled weekend, and we’re proud to see our students pursuing their careers and succeeding in this sport.
JB: We accept students of all experience levels. If it’s your first time, we provide an introduction to the sport in the safest way possible, teaching the proper basics from day one. If you are experienced and trying to take your skills to the next level, we will work on fine-tuning your approach and eliminating bad habits. Not to forget the mental aspect, which everyone of all skill levels must continuously work on. It’s fun to be able to contribute to the future of our sport and share the passion.
twi-ny: When you’re not involved with bull riding and bullfighting, which seems to be almost constantly, what other things do you like to do?
TB: I love to be home in Canada with my family. We have cattle and bucking bulls, so that always keeps us busy. We love horseback riding and roping. Between events, when my wife and baby daughter, Layla, are able to come with me, we tour around and are tourists everywhere we go. They’re my biggest support, and I owe the world to them. I’m involved in some real estate ventures and different businesses, setting up for life after bull riding, so when I’m not riding I’m always staying busy with one thing or another.
JB: For the last twelve years, bull riding has consumed the majority of my time, if not at an event, traveling to get to the next one. The weeks get pretty short, but I’m thankful to be able to go home for even just a day or two and reconnect with family. Give the senses a break from all the action, let the body recover, and enjoy the calm before it’s back to action.
twi-ny: You’ll be in New York City January 6-8 for the Monster Energy Buck Off. Are the crowds at the Garden different from those at other venues?
TB: I can’t wait! There’s nothing bigger than Madison Square Garden. The crowds are great; they don’t see it often, so they usually get loud and wild. There’s always people we don’t see at other events in New York.
JB: New York is without a doubt one of my favorite events of the year. I get excited just thinking about being able to start our season in one of the most legendary buildings in the world. The passion and energy the fans of NYC bring is contagious.
twi-ny: Do you have time to take in any of the city, and if so, what are some of your favorite things to do here?
TB: I’ve seen lots of popular tourist spots, but the ones that stand out would be the 9/11 Memorial, Times Square, the Empire State Building, and Wall Street. And obviously there’s a lot of shopping when my wife comes with me. I love New York; the atmosphere of it is like nothing else I’ve seen.
JB: I typically find myself arriving a day earlier than a usual event or even departing a day later after it’s over just to take in all the city has to offer. Whether it be Broadway for a musical, touring the shopping districts, or spoiling myself at one of my favorite steakhouses, you can bet you won’t catch me spending much time in my hotel room.
twi-ny: Finally, Tanner, last year I interviewed Cooper Davis, and he went on to win the PBR championship. How do you like your chances for MSG and the season?
TB: I’m planning on the same fate as Cooper! I’ve stepped up my training regimen with my team, Jared Allen’s Pro Bull Team, which is owned by NFL superstar Jared Allen. And I’ve dedicated myself to winning a world championship this year. I believe I have a really good shot in MSG this year and as the winner this year in the PBR as a whole. I’m looking forward to the 2017 season.
For the past twenty years, New York native Grady Gerbracht has been making the most of his daily commute, taking photographs of unique elements he finds on city streets and walls, what he refers to as “incidental” works of art. He can be moved by rust, an unusual splotch of color, a piece of tape, stains, cigarettes in mud, and unusual surface textures. He posts the photographs on Instagram and Facebook, numbering each one and identifying them with pertinent information as well as adding his own interpretation; for example, “#incidentalart No. 18” is described as “#incidentalart #wrap #sculpture #architecture #christo #jeanclaude #form #stretch #storefrontforartandarchitecture,” while “#incidentalart No. 26” features the labels “#incidentalart #found #painting #composition #color #texture #patina #pattern #duct tape #grid #surface #marks #abstract.” As he notes in his hashtags, various pieces are reminiscent of the work of Mark Rothko, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and Larry Poons.
A teacher, curator, “sonic sculptor,” and “spontaneous composer,” Gerbracht, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife and their two children, has previously created such projects as “viaDUCT,” “Commutes: NJ Transit Series,” and “Site & Sound,” involving photography, sound, performance, and intervention in relation to architectural space. He’s had solo exhibitions and been in group shows at Sculpture Center, Smack Mellon, the International Festival of Performance Art in Toronto, the Queens Museum, the Drawing Center, the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, and the Anarchist Art Fair. His current solo exhibit, “#incidentalart,” consisting of twenty-six of his #incidentalart photographs, continues at Senaspace through November 6.
twi-ny: You’ve been taking these “incidental” pictures for twenty years. What got you started?
Grady Gerbracht: I have been doing this for a long time, so it’s hard to say when it began. There was not a landmark event or aha! moment which started it all. It was more of a gradual evolution of personal formal style in confluence with certain conceptual concerns. I think every artist has a particular aesthetic sensibility which is unique to them. Each of us is compelled to make certain kinds of marks or forms, or make certain kinds of pictures, which is how we can tell one artist’s hand from another. I am sure that my openness to aesthetic sensibilities that are not my own has been influenced by a lifetime of learning and teaching about art. To teach, one has to be familiar with art history in all its variety. One also has to be able to get inside the mind of other artists during critiques and studio visits in order to provide constructive criticism. Chance operations (as per John Cage and others) are of interest to me as well. It seems that all of these elements add up to my interest in finding and calling attention to things that look like art in my everyday surroundings.
twi-ny: Why did you decide to call the series “incidental”?
GG: I chose the term Incidental Art because it is the best way I can explain my interests. There are other terms being used to describe similar ideas, such as involuntary painting and found objects. I find this nomenclature too limiting. Though I deliberately selected the works in this show to be based on ideas of two-dimensional painting for the sake of simplicity, my concept of Incidental Art is broader than that. The next exhibition could easily be images of things that look like sculptures, or of found situations that look like performance art or happenings.
twi-ny: The photos in the show were mostly taken in New York City, with a few from Chicago as well. Have you documented other cities in your travels, or is there something unique about the streets in these two metropolises?
GG: Another conceptual strand that runs through my work is the idea of turning the “wasted time” of my daily commute into productive studio time by actively making art during my travels between home and day job workplace. I made a commitment to do just that years ago when I had a three-hour commute to my first teaching job and I noticed that I was spending more time commuting than I was actually teaching. I could explain this through Marxist critical theory (and I have in academic journals) but quite honestly, it is just a practical way to make the best use of my time and it allows me to express myself creatively while on the go. I live in Brooklyn and my office is in Manhattan, so the majority of the images are from these boroughs. Sometimes I travel for my work, so there are images from Chicago and New Orleans in this exhibition because I have traveled to those cities recently.
twi-ny: Photography has changed a lot since 1996. What kind of cameras have you used over the years? Has that had any impact on the photos you take?
GG: Technology has changed a lot. I have made photos that fit into the umbrella term of Incidental Art with everything from professional 35mm and medium-format film cameras and DSLRs to my iPhone. The current exhibition is called “#incidentalart” because all of the images were made with an iPhone and uploaded to @gradygerbracht on Instagram with the hashtag #incidentalart. All of the images were produced actual size for the maximum resolution possible on my phone — that is why they are 15" square. I wanted to be honest about what they are.
twi-ny: You post your photos on Instagram as well as Facebook, which have become repositories for amateur and professional photographers. Do you think that helps or hinders the concept of photography as art?
GG: Because of my commitment to make work during my commutes, I had been using the tools at hand to facilitate my process. I was not taking it very seriously, so I had no problem using the iPhone and Instagram feed. The images became very popular among social media friends and acquaintances, and many times people would ask when I was going to exhibit these images “IRL.” I was not planning to do it, but eventually it became clear that there was a demand so I decided to go ahead and show them.
I could have used fractal software to blow them up larger and look more like “contemporary art,” but I wanted to acknowledge what they are and where they came from. I did not want to stray too far from the immediacy of this pocket-sized studio technology. I still make pictures with my high-resolution DSLR, but that is not what this exhibit is about. The gallery space is relatively small and the venue is not a slick, commercial Chelsea warehouse-sized space, so it seemed appropriate to produce the images at this size for many reasons. I come from a tradition of conceptual art and institutional critique, so I can’t show anything without some consideration of context. I always think about it when I show my work; in fact, many of my projects make direct references to the spaces they are shown in.
twi-ny: Is there a kind of aha! moment when you come upon something that you want to photograph? Are you looking for something specific? For example, many of the photographs in the show share a visual theme of looking like textured paintings, with three-dimensional qualities.
GG: I shoot things I am attracted to, but I also try to shoot things that look like art that I would not make — some of the images in the current exhibition look like Rothko paintings and I like his work, but the one used on the invitation card [ed. note: see top of page] looks very much like a Larry Poons painting and I never really liked the overly worked gobs of paint in his work. The fact is that I saw it on the street while traveling for work in New Orleans and thought, Hey, that wall in the alley looks like a Poons painting, so I framed it that way and the rest is history. I have been doing this so long my kids have begun to stop me on the street and say things like, “Dad, do you want to take a picture of that?” when they see some kind of peeling paint or some rich texture. They know what kind of surfaces I am attracted to — mostly things that look like paintings.
twi-ny: You’ve helped install many art shows in a professional capacity; did that make it harder or easier to install your own work?
GG: It is never easy for the artist to install his or her own work. It helps to have others whose opinions you trust to help with editing and placement decisions. Physically it is just math, so that part is easy.
twi-ny: The mounted photographs are hanging in very specific groupings. What was the reasoning behind how you decided to group them?
GG: I was not planning on hanging them in groups, but when I laid them out in the gallery and started looking at them, considering which should go where, I noticed that certain ones complemented each other, so the final groupings evolved out of aesthetic resonance. I also wanted to show that they could be purchased in groups or in pairs because they are small and affordable works one could compose with them, like tiles.