This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

TWI-NY TALK: ANDREW MASULLO

Andrew Masullo’s canvases are like eye candy for the heart and soul (photo courtesy Mary Boone Gallery)

Andrew Masullo’s canvases are like eye candy for the heart and soul (photo courtesy Mary Boone Gallery)

Mary Boone Gallery
541 West 24th St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Saturday through April 27, free
212-752-2929
www.maryboonegallery.com

Every time Andrew Masullo starts a new painting, he has no idea how it will turn out. The New Jersey-born-and-raised artist, who spent much of his career in New York City before moving to San Francisco in 2005, doesn’t preplan what shapes and colors he will use on generally smaller-size canvases, just letting the creative process flow out of him. Sometimes it takes a few months to complete a work, and sometimes many years, and even then he might decide at the last minute that the painting looks better upside down or sideways. (He did go through a brief period in which he employed a paint-by-numbers system.) Last year Masullo scored a unique triple play, being included in the 2012 Whitney Biennial — something that was extra satisfying given that he had been fired from an administrative job at the institution three decades earlier — as well as Pulse and Volta. Masullo currently has a sparkling show up at Mary Boone, where dozens of his nonobjective works are grouped on the walls, from a collection of colorful canvases arranged around one corner to a series of eight small pieces lined up in a horizontal row, almost military-style. Primarily featuring straight-from-the-tube colors in geometric patterns that play with negative space, the paintings are extremely pleasing to experience, like eye candy for the heart and soul. The exhibit was organized in conjunction with his regular New York gallery, Feature Inc., which is run by the single-named Hudson, and continues through April 27. Masullo, who has quite a sly sense of humor, recently discussed the show and more from his home in San Francisco.

twi-ny: You are undergoing a major resurgence of late, being singled out last year at the Whitney Biennial, Volta, and Pulse, and now you have a big solo show at Mary Boone. Has this sudden burst of attention surprised you?

Andrew Masullo: A resurgence is about the career, which is very different from the work itself. That kind of hoopla doesn’t help me make the next painting so I don’t pay it too much attention.

twi-ny: What was it like being asked to participate in the Whitney Biennial after having been fired from the Whitney many years before?

Andrew Masullo: My reaction to being included in the Biennial was amazement mixed with an equal portion of “it’s about damned time.”

Eight small works are spread out along one long wall in Andrew Masullo’s show at Mary Boone (photo courtesy Mary Boone Gallery)

Eight small works are spread out along one long wall in Andrew Masullo’s show at Mary Boone (photo courtesy Mary Boone Gallery)

twi-ny: You let your paintings develop on their own, without preconceived notions of size, color, or shape of image. What about the process of hanging your work, specifically for the Mary Boone show? Is there a similar randomness, or is it much more carefully planned and organized? The canvases, especially the eight small pieces along one wall, really seem to work in the cavernous space.

Andrew Masullo: The hanging was both planned out ahead of time (the sparer walls) and figured out on the spot (the more complicated walls) and it was mostly Hudson’s baby. I was the splinter in the kitty’s paw, complaining when something didn’t feel right, moving a few pictures from here to there, until the installation sounded like a Handel aria (harpsichord and all).

twi-ny: You like to work while listening to classical music and watching television. What composers and TV shows were you checking out while creating the work on view at Mary Boone?

Andrew Masullo: While I was making the paintings? I never listen to classical music while painting but it doesn’t mean that it's not swimming around inside me. Mozart and Berg hold special places in my heart but for the past few years I’ve listened mostly to Handel’s operas and oratorios (I swear I have been, or will be, a countertenor in some past or future life).

I paint listening to either news shows or junk shows and not much in between.

twi-ny: You’ve cited Joseph Cornell, Florine Stettheimer, Forrest Bess, Augusto Giacometti, and Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart as some of your favorite artists. Are there any current, living artists that get you excited?

Andrew Masullo: Franz West, but he died.

twi-ny: You were born and raised in New Jersey, went to school at Rutgers, and were part of the downtown New York City art scene of the 1980s, but in the early 2000s you moved out to San Francisco. Do you miss living on the East Coast? Throughout your career, how do you think your surroundings affected your work?

Andrew Masullo: I’m a New York painter through and through. New York City was my classroom for over two decades — the people, the streets, the galleries, the museums. I sucked as much juice out of New York as possible. When it became clear that the tables had turned and New York was sucking the juice out of me, I vamoosed to San Francisco. Without having thrown myself into the madhouse that is New York City, I would have never learned to paint. There would have been no me.

twi-ny: Your alma mater, Rutgers, is currently immersed in a scandal involving mental and physical abuse of the basketball players by the coaches. Have you been following that? Not to belittle that serious situation, but have you ever had art teachers who were particularly tough on you?

Andrew Masullo: I’m not following the Rutgers story. As for my own days at Rutgers, there’s only one tragic-filled event I can think of. One semester I received a B in painting class while Martha, a well-intentioned but untalented student, received an A. When I asked for an explanation the teacher told me that Martha had lived up to her full potential, whereas I had not. I knew in my heart the teacher was right. It’s a lesson I still carry with me.

TWI-NY TALK: NICK VAUGHAN & JAKE MARGOLIN: A MARRIAGE: 1 (SUBURBIA)

Nick and Jake

Nick and Jake collaborate both personally and professionally, using their life together as a starting point in their art

HERE
145 Sixth Ave. at Dominick St.
April 23 - May 4 (Tuesday - Sunday, 8:30), $10 in advance, $20 within twenty-four hours
Installation free Tuesday - Sunday 2:00 - 10:00
212-647-0202
www.here.org
www.nickandjakestudio.com

Married couple and professional partners Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin have taken over HERE, filling the downtown arts center with the multimedia immersive presentation A Marriage: 1 (Suburbia). Employing the visual sensibility of Gilbert & George, Nick and Jake examine what has become of the American Dream and the concept of the nuclear family through photography, video, performance, and installation that will continue to evolve from April 23 through May 4. In the art exhibit, which is free, they employ maps that have been reconfigured to portray superimposed families on them and/or video of the two men in the background; pages from John Updike’s Rabbit Run torn out and put on a wall, with highlighted phrases and blue lines connecting them to tell a different kind of suburban story; a hallway of colorful light boxes depicting the conventional 1950s ideal of the American family; and wall sketches that will be added to over the course of the two weeks. Every night will feature a sixty-minute live show ($10 in advance, $20 within twenty-four hours) featuring text written by Jessica Almasy and performed by Jess Barbagallo, with long-duration actions by Brandon Hutchinson and Libby King (April 23-25), Sean Donovan (April 26-30), and Chantal Pavageaux (May 1-4); brand-new Guggenheim Fellow and award-winning choreographer Faye Driscoll serves as consulting director.

“It was super fun for me to work with Nick and Jake; they are both so earnest, humble, and smart and amazingly open inside their process,” says Driscoll. “I loved working on ideas around performance in a visual art context; it opened up my thinking around my own work and gave me some new structures of making, and permission for a different type of exploration. But I think it really helped that all three of us have backgrounds in working in theater. We very easily found a common language around dramaturgical questions and rigor. And we all have an easy willingness to engage in the labor involved in making things. We did a lot of figuring out on our feet, which is how I think best. I think in A Marriage there is clear play with that merged and excessive space of togetherness of coupledom, but as opposed to the work just becoming insular and exclusive, there is actually something deeply generous and activist happening in what Nick and Jake are creating.” At the center of that togetherness and activism is an exploration of America’s changing relationship with same-sex marriage. Nick and Jake, who are still part of the TEAM arts collective where they met, discussed that and more as they prepared for the start of this fascinating undertaking.

twi-ny: Did either of you grow up in the suburbs?

Jake: Neither of us grew up in the suburbs. We both grew up in small university cities, Nick in Fort Collins, Colorado, and I in Berkeley, California. I think it’s safe to say that we both grew up with a healthy distrust of the suburbs — growing up, my family hosted a singing group at our house in which Malvina Reynolds’s “Little Boxes” was a pretty frequent request. Growing up with parents who had no interest in the suburban version of the American Dream is part of why I grew up thinking that the suburbs were for other people. But I also felt that because I was gay it wasn’t an option, even if I wanted it. I grew up knowing a fair number of kids who lived in the suburbs of the Bay Area, and many of them were nonwhite, and not wealthy, which I mention only to say that I didn’t have a view of the suburbs as a place that was exclusively white or monied. But my sense of it was that the suburbs were exclusively heterosexual. And as I realized that I didn’t fit into that, I had a real sense that even had I wanted anything to do with the suburbs, I wouldn’t be welcome — that the ’burbs weren’t for people like me.

twi-ny: What do you think has happened to that American Dream since your were kids?

Jake: When we talk about the “American Dream” we are talking about the heteronormative version that aspires to a suburban nuclear family. There are as many different versions of the American Dream as there are people in this country, so I just want to clarify that we are using it as a cliché. And I think a major shift has happened since we were kids, which is that this version of the American Dream is now opened up to include LGBTQ people. Even growing up in a hyperliberal place, I had a sense of gay people as being abnormal – a deviance from the norm that are tolerated because Berkeleyites are tolerant and open-minded people, but still a group of people who are in some way going to have to live on the outside of mainstream society. As many things about gay culture have been accepted into the mainstream since we were kids, now that set of aspirations that were traditionally exclusively for heterosexuals, aspirations towards suburbia, the nuclear family, and all of that – are on the table.

Nick and Jake explore the suburban ideal of the American Dream in immersive multimedia installation (photo by twi-ny/mdr)

Nick and Jake explore the suburban ideal of the American Dream in immersive multimedia installation (photo by twi-ny/mdr)

twi-ny: An earlier part of A Marriage at HERE included your watching twenty hours of Fox News. What are your feelings toward America’s evolving relationship with same-sex marriage, primarily as portrayed in the media?

Jake: That piece was trying to get at how we are surrounded by these media portrayals of same-sex marriage, almost swimming in these sound bites. And we’d been floored by the general tone on Fox News about same-sex marriage – it felt so belittling whenever we saw it. That said, I should fess up that Nick and I don’t own a TV, and other than when we are on tour with the TEAM or other projects (or holing up in motels to make art pieces), we watch very little TV. Probably my greatest exposure to how the media portrays same-sex marriage is the package of clippings from the New York Times and various Bay Area publications on the topic that my mother sends us every few months.

In general I am so thrilled by the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage, both by the country in general and by the media that I am exposed to. Thrilled and grateful for the hard work and sacrifices that have been made by so many people to make this happen. However, I feel a certain ambivalence about this acceptance because I wonder who’s terms this acceptance is on. I wonder about the sense that we are accepted as long as we conform to a version of heteronormative social structures that people have spent the last however long – forty years? – trying to dismantle. I grew up with plenty of models of people living outside the construct of marriage – whether it be raising a family with their partner and never getting married or remaining single. So while Nick and I have a pretty traditional marriage in all respects other than our gender, I don’t have a sense that it is an inherently superior situation than any other. It just works for us.

As we were creating this piece, this ambivalence felt very strong – a real sense of “Now we have the option of fitting into all this iconography, but do we want to have anything to do with it? This inevitable-feeling march towards the mainstream, do we want it or are we losing something really important tied to our heritage as a people relegated to being the Other.” And then the Prop 8 case gets argued in front of the Supreme Court, and when I hear the justices waffling about “Is this really the right time?” and “Can’t we just wait for the states to decide on their own?” I find that I swing completely in the opposite direction and feel strongly, “How dare anyone say that I am different or that our relationship is in any way inferior” and find that I want that mainstream acceptance – that I feel completely entitled to it.

twi-ny: Among your collaborators is one of our favorite people, Faye Driscoll. How did that collaboration come about?

Nick: She’s one of our favorite people too! I first met Faye when I designed the set for Taylor Mac’s The Lily’s Revenge a few years ago. For the third section of the epic piece (which Faye choreographed) we stripped the space bare and taped out “‘scenery’ on the wall.” I’ve been following her work ever since and have collaborated on a couple of operas which she choreographed and I designed.

It was after the premiere of You’re Me at the Kitchen, though, that Jake and I decided to ask her to help us out with this project. She has such a clear and deceptively simple way of cutting to the core of visual ideas. You always have the sense watching her work that things are actually happening, that there’s a real exchange taking place. She’s also one of the smartest people I know. It seemed, therefore, only natural to ask her to help us curate and develop the eleven nightly actions for our piece, none of which is dance, per-se. . . .

twi-ny: The images of you and Jake in the installation evoke the work of Gilbert and George. Did they serve as any kind of influence or inspiration?

Nick: Absolutely. I don’t know if it would have been possible for the two of us as a couple and artistic team not to address Gilbert and George in some way. At some level I think their work was probably influencing us from the very beginning of our collaborations, but I don’t know that we realized it until their retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum a few years ago.

I think there is a very different approach to performance and it’s something that has certainly come up multiple times as we’ve developed the nightly actions. G&G were revolutionary in that they presented themselves as objects, stripped (or at least muted) of identity. Our presence in our work (hopefully) serves to frame the world through our eyes so you’re looking with us, not at us.

But there are small references peppered throughout the piece: There’s a large wax panel work that bears a slight reference to G&G in its framing. There are three sprayed-paint performances that I think in some way give a little nod to the silver and red body paint of the duo. But there are also other little nods to other artists who have inspired us.

There’s a piece in the downstairs hallway (and bathrooms) that lightly reference this wonderful Sol Lewitt piece Jake and I saw at MassMOCA last year in which he took an art criticism journal and diligently connected every use of the word “art” so you got this strange kind of matrix and it turned the text into this impenetrable geometric construction. We’ve taken a much looser approach, deconstructing John Updike’s Rabbit Run and attempting to give some kind of graphic anchor to the images that feel related, from a very subjective set of criteria.

Installation includes geographic portraits made of cut maps emphasizing negative space (photo by twi-ny/mdr)

Installation includes geographic portraits made of cut maps emphasizing negative space (photo by twi-ny/mdr)

twi-ny: You met while working together at the Team, and now you're married. How has the dynamic of living, working, and performing together impacted your relationship?

Jake: One thing we joke about is that normally your spouse is the person you can come home to and gripe about work and your coworkers. . . . We can’t really do that. Our collaboration came out of conversations that we had while on tour with the TEAM as well as while on tour with Yoshiko Chuma. It feels that through the TEAM we have the most wonderful outlet for making theater with a group of the smartest and most talented people we know. And we realized that we shared an interest in installation art and how performance functions in that setting, and what started as daydreaming while on tour turned into works-in-progress at various places and ultimately this residency at HERE.

The show will change over time, with people encouraged to return to see where things have gone. Dare we read anything into the work as coming from your real-life marriage?

Jake: Each night of the show we will do a different performance action, so they will accumulate over the course of the run, while a fourteen-day-long action in which we, Brandon Hutchinson, Libby King, Sean Donovan, and Chantal Pavageaux read the entire oral arguments of Perry v. Schwarzenegger into clear bags, creating an expanding sculpture of the captured breath. We hope that people will come by later in the run to see how this has evolved, and the tickets are structured to encourage that – the ticket that you purchase is good for return visits so that people might stop by for ten minutes on a later night to check in on it all.

This question makes me laugh – I suppose it does feel like our marriage evolves over time and that if you check back in with us at a later point it will have gotten larger and more complicated and more fleshed out . . . but I suspect that is true of all relationships.

Earlier this year we were debating whether we should condense the performance actions into brief excerpts that could all be performed each night — and ultimately decided that they really only function if they are given the room to take a whole evening each — that their duration is at the core of the thing. Perhaps there’s an analogy there with our marriage, and probably with marriage in general – that it’s slow work, and things take time to breathe and grow, and that in fact this expansive time is a really good thing. A great perk of being married is that there isn’t the pressure to get things right immediately, because we’re in it for the long haul.

(A Marriage: 1 (Suburbia) runs April 23 - May 4 at HERE and will include several special programs. The April 24 performance will be preceded by “Cocktails & Context” at 7:30 and will be followed by the panel discussion “The Ambiguity of Acceptance,” and the May 1 show will be followed by a discussion moderated by Risa Shoup and featuring Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Erin Markey, Glenn Marla, and Tony Osso.)

TWI-NY TALK: DONNA UCHIZONO — LIVE IDEAS: THE WORLDS OF OLIVER SACKS

(photo by Mia}

Donna Uchizono will present two works during NYLA festival celebrating Oliver Sacks (photo by Mia}

LIVE IDEAS: THE WORLDS OF OLIVER SACKS — RE: AWAKENINGS (DANCE)
New York Live Arts
219 West 19th St.
Thursday, April 18, 8:00, and Saturday, April 20, 4:00, $40
Festival runs April 17-21
212-691-6500
www.newyorklivearts.org
www.ladonnadance.org

In the preface to the 1990 edition of his bestseller Awakenings, Dr. Oliver Sacks wrote, “It is now 21 years since my patients’ awakenings, and 17 years since this book was first published; yet, it seems to me, the subject is inexhaustible — medically, humanly, theoretically, dramatically. It is this which demands new additions and editions, and which keeps the subject for me — and, I trust, my readers — evergreen and alive.” In celebration of Sacks’s upcoming eightieth birthday (on July 9) and the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Awakenings, New York Live Arts is hosting its first Live Ideas festival, “The Worlds of Oliver Sacks,” five days of special programs that medically, humanly, theoretically, and dramatically examine and explore the good doctor’s inexhaustible contributions to the field of science and the arts. The festival includes the world premiere of Bill Morrison’s short film Re: Awakenings; a series of talks delving into Sacks’s work with people who have Tourette’s, Parkinson’s, and hearing loss; an evening of music and dance with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, choreographer Aletta Collins, dancer Daniel Hay-Gordon, and conductor Tobias Picker; back-to-back presentations of Harold Pinter’s A Kind of Alaska, the first with spoken words, the second in American Sign Language; and such panel discussions as “Disembodiedness: Body Image & Proprioception,” “Musicophilia & Music Therapy,” “Neurologists & Philosophers Consider Sacks at 80,” and “Minding the Dancing Body,” the latter bringing together NYLA executive artistic director Bill T. Jones, Miguel Gutierrez, Colin McGinn, Alva Noë, and Gwen Welliver.

Sacks himself will participate in an Opening Keynote Conversation with Jones and will introduce a screening of the 1974 British television documentary Awakenings, followed by a Q&A. “Live Ideas” also features a pair of works by New York-based choreographer Donna Uchizono, performed by Levi Gonzalez, Hristoula Harakas, and Rebecca Serrell Cyr: a “Sacksian version” of Uchizono’s 1999 State of Heads and the newly commissioned Out of Frame. Earlier this week Uchizono discussed her involvement in this inaugural festival while preparing for the April 18 and 20 shows.

twi-ny: How did you get involved in “Live Ideas: The Worlds of Oliver Sacks” in the first place, and how familiar were you with his work prior to becoming part of the festival?

Donna Uchizono: I received a phone call from [NYLA artistic director] Carla Peterson asking me if I would be interested in creating a work about Awakenings based on Oliver Sacks’s work. I was, of course, completely honored and intrigued while simultaneously humbled by the offer. My father had his PhD in psychology and was interested in the workings of the brain. My father had a great love for books and had a huge library. Oliver Sacks’s books were among the many books my father owned. He gave me a copy of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat to read quite a long time ago. I had also seen the film Awakenings so was somewhat familiar with the horrible loneliness and “silent scream” of sleeping sickness. Heartbreaking. It’s quite a different challenge being commissioned to create a work about a specific topic other than a concept that is driven by oneself. The new work is turning out to be much more representational than work that I normally create, which I think is quite natural given the subject and the context in which it will be performed.

twi-ny: You’ll be presenting State of Heads, which premiered at Dance Theater Workshop in 1999. Why did you choose this to be part of your Sacks presentation?

Donna Uchizono: Coming out of a much larger discussion, the reasons for State of Heads being in the program are many and beyond the scope of this writing. But when the suggestion to move away from a program that included a play, music, and dance on one evening, to that of separate evenings of dance, music, and theater, State of Heads was discussed as a piece that may be included in the evening of dance because of its movement vocabulary. As I wrote in the choreographer’s notes, State of Heads explores the feeling of waiting and the passage of time in the state of hiatus where familiar time and scale are pushed. Using the separation of the head from the body as a point of departure, in an exploration of disjointedness and the sense of a will apart from the mind driving the movement, surprisingly created a world of endearingly odd characters. State of Heads reveals endearment in the awkward where the ordinary become extraordinary. The accounts of the patients that Oliver Sacks writes about in his book Awakenings are remarkable, where most definitely the ordinary become extraordinary and where profound “humanness” is found in the most unlikely places and time.

Live Ideas festival runs April 17-21 at New York Live Arts

Live Ideas festival runs April 17-21 at New York Live Arts

twi-ny: You’re also debuting Out of Frame, incorporating text from Dr. Sacks’s work. What was it like transforming his scientific studies into dance?

Donna Uchizono: I rarely use text in my work, but Oliver Sacks is not only a neurologist of note, he is also a well-known writer, thus it seemed natural to use his words. It was Oliver Sacks’s words that conjured up the images and movement for Out of Frame. I made a conscious decision not to view Bill Morrison’s film that incorporates actual archival footage or revisit the film Awakenings while creating the new work. I did not want to imitate but rather to create the movement vocabulary and images from Sacks’s writings. I was deeply moved by Dr. Sacks’s humane understanding of the plight of his patients. It was the idea of compassion and the need for tenderness towards the individuals that drives the work, rather than his scientific studies. The short solo seems to float between three states — the physical torque of the disease, the human beneath the dress, and the dreamlike temporary state of L-DOPA.

twi-ny: This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of your choreographic debut. What are some of the key differences in being a New York City dancer-choreographer in 1988 as opposed to today?

Donna Uchizono: I feel quite lucky to be part of a generation that started to show their work during the late 1980s and early ’90s. At that time it seemed as if anything was possible. We could design spaces, design programs, and find places to create. We were not yet aware of the looming financial shutdown that was about to happen. We looked around at other choreographers and there seemed to be a possible linear path moving from individual and emerging choreographer to having a small dance company. By the mid-’90s the financial wall had crumbled. I think it is much harder to make work now. Well, it is for me anyway. Young choreographers today seem to be much more aware that there is no obvious financial path. What remains the same is the need to make work.

twi-ny: You’ve had a long relationship with Dance Theater Workshop, which recently morphed into New York Live Arts. What do you think of the new venue?

Donna Uchizono: I have had a long relationship with with the wonderful and dedicated Carla Peterson, who continues to champion experimental artists. I am quite thrilled and honored to be in this Live Ideas festival, and the staff at NYLA have treated me with openness and generosity.

TWI-NY TALK: THE THE THE THUNDER

The The The Thunder take a break in the studio

The The The Thunder take a break in the studio while preparing for East Coast tour, which comes to Glasslands March 18

Glasslands Gallery
289 Kent Ave. between South First & South Second Sts.
Monday, March 18, $10, 8:00
www.theglasslands.com
www.thethethethunder.bandcamp.com

There is precious little information available about new bicoastal band The The The Thunder. Formed last year by six high school friends from Long Island, TTTT has no videos posted online, few pictures, and, for the most part, no last names. (We had to do some dirty digging to find them out but were later asked by the band to not include them below in order to maintain the mystery, so they have since been deleted.) But what can be obtained is their excellent debut album, All at Once, eight indie gems that form a cohesive whole. TTTT itself has rarely been a cohesive whole; while lead vocalist and guitarist Dan, bassist Artie, keyboardist Julia, and drummer Glenn are based in Brooklyn, guitarist Nick and violinist and singer Jill live out in Seattle. On March 18, TTTT will be at Glasslands with Queen Orlenes, My Roaring Twenties, and Great Caesar. We recently corresponded with the band about their music, their friendship, their name, and their romantic entanglements, making a boo-boo that the band had some fun with.

twi-ny: You did not record your debut album, All at Once, all at once but instead on two coasts, with Jill and Nick out in Seattle and Glenn, Artie, Julia, and Dan in Brooklyn. What was the experience like the first time you all played together as a unit, both in rehearsal and then live onstage, in front of an audience?

Dan: We grew up together, and we’ve been playing music together in some form or another forever, so we were comfortable with doing a week of condensed practicing to pull everything together. But there were definitely some moments of calling each other in the middle of the night and making sure we were all practicing separately.

Julia: Yeah, it was an odd order to things. We had to set up shows before we’d ever played together, and that was nerve-wracking. But then putting out an album was nerve-wracking and that worked out OK, so we just had to psych ourselves into believing the live thing would work, too, if we put our backs into it.

Arthur: One benefit we frequently overlook is that the whole process forced us to make decisions regarding the source material during tracking as well as during the mixing and mastering process. Making a record can become an ever-widening pit of “what ifs,” and sometimes being forced to choose is really a pleasant alternative to infinite levels of undo.

twi-ny: There are two marriages among the six of you, Jill and Nick as well as Julia and Glenn. Does that change the dynamic of the band, either in the songwriting process, in the studio, or on the road? Is there something we should know about Artie and Dan?

Dan: I’m pretty devastated to find out my wife has been married to Glenn this whole time. Although I also have a thing for Artie.

Julia: I never meant for you to find out this way.

Glenn: Wait, what?

Arthur: Having the ladies around keeps us all nice and even. Sometimes there are too many guys out there on tour.

Jill: Nick and I were high school sweethearts but we never gelled as a creative duo — my fault, not his; in general I don’t “play well with others.” Somehow adding four other people, who happen to be our close friends, into the mix makes it easier. Still, when we work on demos in Seattle, we never write or record our parts in the same room. But we do exchange sultry glances onstage.

Dan: It’s really worked for us. Bands say this a lot, so I’m afraid to use the cliché, but the dual marriages paired with the lifelong friendships makes the band a lot like a family. A lot of love flying around. And a lot of history. I mean, Glenn and Artie were my best men. Nick and Jill introduced me to Julia. No Fleetwood Mac–style love triangles yet.

Nick: Not yet. But once superstardom hits, then I think we’re primed for some dramatic divorces, icy silences, bitter betrayals, and cryptic messages in songs aimed at one another. It’s going to be great!

twi-ny: You were all high school friends in North Massapequa and Plainedge. How much did you dream of getting out of Long Island when you were kids? Back then, did you ever envision working together as a group as you are now?

Jill: I think most Long Island teenagers spend long nights at diners drinking coffee and eating cheese fries and talking about how boring their hometowns are — but I don’t think the idea of “escaping” crossed my mind. The city wasn’t a hope or a dream, it was an inevitability, for me and for a lot of my friends. With regard to playing with friends, it’s the only way it ever made sense to do it — I didn’t want to make music with strangers.

Dan: We’ve been playing together in different projects since we were kids. I played with Jill separately. I played with Artie separately. I played with Glenn, Artie, and Julia in another band. And Glenn and Jill played together in something. But this is the first time we’re all together. It was a no-brainer once we started, but for some reason putting everyone in the same band never occurred to us. It also grew out of the songs I was writing. They called for more instruments and parts.

Glenn: The “something” Jill and I played in together was barely a something. It was two weeks in 1998 and I was fired. By Jill.

all at once

twi-ny: You recently tweeted, “Happy Birthday, @LouReed. TTTT would not exist without you. Thanks.” You’ve been compared to a wide range of artists, from the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, including Reed and the Velvets, the Cure, the Cars, Talking Heads, Gang of Four, Bloc Party, and even Devo. Do you consider any of these groups important influences on you? What is your favorite decade of music to listen to?

Nick: With six people it’s hard to pin down a decade for the band as a whole, but I’d like to think it’s mid-to-late ’70s New York punk/New Wave. Music that says something but still rocks, is interesting and thoughtful while still raw and vibrant.

Julia: Lou Reed and a lot of the New York ’70s scene always seemed weirdly approachable to me, talented as they are. Plus, Candy Darling is from Massapequa!

Glenn: The comparisons to those bands are always nice but I do think we have a modern take, which is probably due to being so varied in our individual tastes.

Jill: If the rest of the band saw my list of Pandora stations, I’d be politely asked to leave.

twi-ny: Many of the songs on All at Once reference death and dying both specifically and metaphorically, with such lyrics as “I’m working on a heart attack,” “We don’t have forever,” and “Did it really have to end / All those good times.” And this past December 21, you released the postapocalyptic “It’s Not the End of the World (it just feels that way).” Are some of you more death obsessed than others? Aren’t you all too young to be thinking these thoughts?

Dan: That’s probably coming from me. I wouldn’t say I’m death obsessed, but I find it hard not to see the sadness in happiness and good times. The inevitable end of things. Even something as small as a great night with your friends. But it’s not negative. I think that’s where real beauty is. In moments as they happen. Trying to hold on to them. And making them happen as much as possible.

twi-ny: There are three articles in your name; why not two? Or four? Why three? Maybe it involves a subtle tribute to Matt Johnson hidden in there somewhere?

Dan: The The The The Thunder just seemed ridiculous.

Nick: I agree with Dan. I can’t believe you even asked that.

TWI-NY TALK: MARC SPITZ

Marc Spitz

Music journalist and playwright Marc Spitz examines his wild years in new memoir

Housing Works Bookstore Cafe
126 Crosby St. between Houston & Prince Sts.
Monday, March 18, free, 7:00
212-334-3324
www.housingworks.org
www.marcspitz.com

“I didn’t know how to be undamaged,” music journalist and playwright Marc Spitz admits near the end of his latest book, Poseur: A Memoir of Downtown New York in the ’90s (Da Capo, February 2013, $15.99). In his brutally honest autobiography, Spitz delves into his early dreams of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, a life he got to live out, experiencing dazzling highs as well as dirt-bottom lows as he partied with the best of them, from up-and-coming musicians to legendary stars. Spitz, who was born in Far Rockaway and raised in the Five Towns, wrote more than a dozen cover stories for Spin magazine, spending time with such seminal groups as the Pixies, the Strokes, the White Stripes, and Weezer. He has also penned books on Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Green Day, and the L.A. punk scene; published a pair of novels: How Soon Is Never?, in which a character is obsessed with Morrissey and the Smiths, andToo Much Too Late, about a fictional garage band named the Jane Ashers; and has written a dozen plays, including Retail Sluts, Your Face Is a Mess, The Hobo Got Too High, and “. . . Worry, Baby.” Poseur is a special treat for people who, like the author, came of age on Long Island and in Manhattan during the 1980s and ’90s, as Spitz writes about the Green Acres Mall, the Lynbrook movie theater, the Chelsea Hotel, the Kitchen, the Holiday Cocktail Lounge, Don Hill’s, the Slipper Room, and other haunts. On March 18, he will be at Housing Works, reading from Poseur and participating in a conversation with his friend and colleague Chuck Klosterman.

twi-ny: Like you, I grew up in and around the Five Towns area and couldn’t wait to start hanging out in the city. Many of my friends still live out there. What is it about Wrong Island, as you call it in the book, that makes some people want to escape and others settle in?

Marc Spitz: I should say that today, in my early forties, I have such an affection for that area, and realize how much I took the safety and comfort for granted. But as a kid, you just can’t work through the restlessness. And it feels like absolute torture to know that the city is so close. You could get there in less time than it took to watch an episode of Dynasty. It’s one thing to grow up in Ohio or Michigan and pine and plan for Manhattan, but it’s quite another to see it and smell it on a regular basis and not be able to have it for very long. Even when I would cut class and spend the day there, I was always keeping an eye on the watch and the train schedule in my head. The Five Towns just seemed so small. All five of them put together didn’t add up to St. Marks Place for me then. But again, this is someone who now Googles Bea’s Tea Room or Mother Kelly’s in the middle of the night. I think Bea’s is gone now. Have you ever had the macaroni salad from Bea’s? I don’t know what they put in it but it’s become mythical among Five Towners, the side-order equivalent of a unicorn or a mermaid, and I’ve been searching for it ever since, obsessed like Eugene Levy in Splash.

twi-ny: You’ve interviewed many of the biggest rock stars in the world, writing magazine articles and books, but with Poseur, you’re now, in essence, interviewing yourself. Was that hard to do?

Marc Spitz: Yes, I’d rather interview a hundred rock stars than, say, my mom, who I interviewed for Poseur. Or spend time with my own journals and notes and old (bad) writing. I think you have to live in the past quite literally to do a memoir, and I certainly had to drop out a bit. No more bar hopping or dating. I turned forty and just figured it was time. I was also fueled by a certain sense of cause. Like I really wanted to snatch the NYC myth away from these ’60s and ’70s folks who’ve been dining out on their NYC for far too long. Who is to say that their NYC, even with Warhol and CBGBs, was more valid than mine. They won’t get out of the way unless you push them, you know? “Yeah, great. Max’s Kansas City . . .” What about Max Fish, guy? Of course, I was totally in love and inspired by the ’60s and ’70s NYC as a kid and tried to emulate it when I first moved here in the late ’80s. Staying at the Chelsea and all. That’s fine and good when you’re a teen or in your twenties, but into your forties you kind of hunger for your own sense of historical placement, and like I said, sometimes you have to just take it. So while it was difficult and unpleasant and at times just plain sad to go there, interview wise or mind-set wise, I felt like it was necessary.

poseur

twi-ny: In Poseur, you write, “When you finish a book, it doesn’t matter if it never gets published; it doesn’t matter if it even gets read by another human being not obligated to read it, like a girlfriend or a thesis tutor. You change. You are not the same. Whether or not the book is any good doesn’t matter. You are better.” Did finishing this memoir feel any different from finishing your previous books or plays?

Marc Spitz: I only recently realized it was over. Like when it was out. The day after the book party, I was hung over and sort of a roach with the lights suddenly on scurrying blindly. Not sure where to go, but it was good. For nearly three years, I’ve had such a sense of purpose and direction, all of it, or the majority of it, anchored to this thing. And suddenly it’s just . . . on sale. You’re a ranking number on Amazon . . . and not a very high one. There’s no earthquake. No explosion. No rapture. Not even the Rapture. But in a way, while the closure is always anticlimactic, and the more personal the book, the more painful that anticlimax can feel (totally overshadowing any triumphs such as being asked to do an interview like this one), it has to happen, especially if you want to be prolific. I want to write a lot of books. I have a deadline for my next one and an idea for the one after that. And a new play. So . . . you know, you can’t linger. The feeling of it being done is no different from the feeling of the first book being done. It’s like President Bartlett says: “What’s next?” After the good, long bender anyway. . . .

twi-ny: A few months ago, a copy of Esquire arrived in my mailbox, replacing Spin, which ended its print version in the fall. You wrote for Spin for many years, including more than a dozen cover stories; how did you react to the news of the print magazine’s demise? Did it surprise you?

Marc Spitz: I made my break with Spin emotionally a long time ago, probably before I even left in 2006. It was fairly obvious where things were heading and it was not a good prognosis. So it’s like when you hear the news that a lifelong junkie finally overdoses. You’re not at all surprised but you’re still shaken for some reason. I got Car and Driver, by the way, not Esquire. I actually read Esquire. It’s tricky to talk about this because I still have old friends and coworkers who are employed by Spin and working hard on the website (even though they have not covered Poseur at all . . . despite about a hundred pages of Spin-related memories . . . but it’s not like Boston’s a big college town). Part of me hopes they keep the brand going and part of me wishes it would just bow out gracefully and not be part of some giant web conglomerate’s Ken-Taco-Hut. But I am not proprietary about Spin’s legacy. I remember people grousing about “the good old Guccione days,” which I totally missed. I was part of the new guard coming in after he sold it. It’s human nature to kvetch about such changes, especially if you’re genuinely moved by them, so I will just say . . . “badly.” And “no.”

twi-ny: Since you began writing, music journalism has changed significantly; now just about anyone can consider themselves a critic by starting a blog, writing a few words, and uploading a photo or a video. Do you think that’s been good or bad for the music industry in general and music journalism specifically?

Marc Spitz: Yeah, I was talking to my ex the other day, Lizzy Goodman, who is also a music writer and I said, “Wow, did we pick a shitty career.” And she said, “Well, you made it look like it was a good choice.” Which was both flattering and made me feel guilty. I think in order to get pieces that win awards and change lives and keep the art of rock writing going, you need to spend time and money. I toured with bands. I traveled across the country and the planet and what I filed had all that flavor. It seems like now it’s like, “Wiz Khalifa came by the office . . .” which is, you know, a hub with a bunch of laptops and it’s posted for people that night. Which is the market. You can’t argue with the market. It’s what people want. But it’s not going to spit out another Lester Bangs or Julie Burchill any time soon. It’s just information now. Photos and files and 250 blips of text. As far as the music industry, I don’t really know. I just heard that record sales are up for the first time in a decade. That can’t be all Adele, can it? Is it? It is? OK. I have to go back to my trash can now.

twi-ny: On March 18, you’ll be at Housing Works in conversation with Chuck Klosterman. In the book, you write, “Chuck was good. It would have been so much easier if he were a fraud. I decided the thing to do was to kill him.” Have you and Chuck remained friends over the years? Do you still get those kinds of jealousy fantasies?

Marc Spitz: We have remained friends. We have a drink once or twice a year, and I always enjoy his company. I read his books. He reads mine. I’ve been lucky to do this during a time when you really had a sense of your peers, whether it was Chuck or people like Chris Norris when I was at Spin or Rob Sheffield, who is both another old friend now and also a genius writer; the very best at what he does and a voice you can’t imitate. I don’t know that people filing the above-mentioned text blips have that sense of Beatles/Stones/Beach Boys late ’60s competition thing, which we all definitely felt. If someone wrote a killer feature, your next one had to just blow the doors off theirs and vice verse. Blow the bloody doors off! It looks like my career is winding down and I will never get to do a U2 cover story and Sia Michel — our then-boss gave Klosterman that one - but otherwise we’re cool. Better than cool. The Housing Works thing, by the way, was something he offered. I didn’t ask him to do it. That’s the kind of guy he his, very generous and curious and with a good perspective on his (maddening . . . just kidding) success.

TWI-NY TALK: TONY LO BIANCO

Tony Lo Bianco has exemplified grace and class during his long career

Tony Lo Bianco has exemplified grace and class during his long career

THE LITTLE FLOWER
Dicapo Opera Theatre
184 East 76th St. between Lexington & Third Aves.
March 11-29, $50
www.tonylobianco.com

They don’t come much cooler and classier than Tony Lo Bianco. The longtime star of stage and screen has appeared in such films as the cult classic The Honeymoon Killers with Shirley Stoler, the Academy Award-winning The French Connection with Gene Hackman, and The Juror with Alec Baldwin and Demi Moore in addition to such Broadway shows as A View from the Bridge and The Goodbye People as well as off-Broadway productions of Waiting for Godot, The Threepenny Opera, and Yanks 3 Detroit 0 Top of the Seventh, which earned the Brooklyn native an Emmy. Since 1984, Lo Bianco has been portraying former congressman and three-term New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia in an evolving series of shows that have included Fiorello! The Musical, Lo Bianco’s La Guardia, and Hizzoner! His latest one-man presentation, The Little Flower, runs March 11-29 at the Dicapo Opera Theatre. The show, which takes place in La Guardia’s office on his last day as mayor, recently made news when Republican mayoral candidate and Gristedes head John Catsimatidis bought up ten performances as a fundraiser; tickets are still available for March 22, 23, 27, 28, and 29. Lo Bianco, now seventy-six, spoke to us from his Central Park West home as he was preparing to leave for DC to perform The Little Flower to an invite-only crowd at the US Navy Memorial Theater on Pennsylvania Ave.

twi-ny: This is a busy time for you. How are you doing?

Tony Lo Bianco: I’m terrific. Today we’re leaving for Washington, and that’s really exciting. It’s like hitting the pinnacle, except if I had the president in front of me. [laughs]

twi-ny: You’ve performed variations of this play in New York and elsewhere. Is Washington a different kind of crowd, since it’s a more political-heavy audience?

Tony Lo Bianco: We’re gonna see, and I think you’re right. There’s going to be a lot of military there too. In New York, the people who are going to come and see La Guardia have a political background and interest as well; they’re not coming to some musical comedy that they believe is going to be “that kind of entertainment.” We’re going to talk about issues, and I’m very excited about that.

twi-ny: The show goes back to Hizzoner in 1984 and has gone through several incarnations since. How has The Little Flower changed from that original production?

Tony Lo Bianco: The original one we did in Albany in ’84 was more of a valentine to Fiorello. It was filmed by WNET, and we received five Daytime Emmys, including one for Mayor Koch, who narrated it. But it didn’t touch on what I’m touching on now. I’m addressing all the issues, and through its incarnations, I’ve changed it and tried to keep up with what La Guardia was doing and thinking at the time as a congressman and all the way past when he was mayor.

I use that mind, that Fiorello mind, and the fact that he was a fusion candidate – which is a key word in our politics today – a fusion candidate because the way we’re set up right now, we’re never going to get anything done. Nobody can agree on anything. The two parties are so far away from each other, we’ve really made a dividing line in our country. So the idea of bringing people together is to be a fusion candidate, which is what La Guardia was. He ran as a Republican because the Democrats at that time were just loaded with corruption; Tammany Hall was in power for 136 years when Fiorello finally ran against them in Congress and beat them after a second attempt. From that perspective, he was able to say things like – and if any candidate says this today, it’ll go a long way – “If I don’t live up to my campaign promises, I want you to throw me the hell out of office.”

twi-ny: You don’t hear that anymore.

Tony Lo Bianco: No, no, no, because it’s a load of “Scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” and so on and so forth. You need a maverick, like he was, a real maverick, who is not beholden to anyone except the people. And the message has to get out to the people to bypass both parties.

twi-ny: The word bipartisanship has become a joke.

Tony Lo Bianco: Yeah, it’s just foolishness. But when you show people that you hire, as La Guardia did – he said, “I’ll hire people from both sides, even if they voted against me….” I think that kind of attitude – you know, they try to scratch the surface once in a while. Like this administration right now is putting up a fake Republican in Chuck Hagel. It’s like a joke. They did it back in Clinton’s time with William Cohen for Secretary of Defense. In the play, I address many issues that are plaguing us in every which way, whether it’s inflation, whether it’s unemployment, juvenile delinquency, all kinds of corruption in government.

twi-ny: All of which is still relevant today.

Tony Lo Bianco: That’s why I’ve redone the whole show and made it very relevant to almost everything that I say. It pertains to what our faults are today and how to fix them – not just bringing them up but bringing them up in a way that is undeniably the truth. Because, and I say this from experience, when the far left or the far right comes to see my show, they both believe I’m talking to them. And that’s wonderful. I mean, I’ve had that demonstration right in front of my eyes – the far left wanting to buy a show so they can promote their point of view, and the far right has done the same thing. So I must be doing something right.

twi-ny: It also says something about the mayors of New York who have served three terms – primarily La Guardia, Koch, Bloomberg, all of whom appealed to Republicans and Democrats, who ran on both sides of the ticket or switched affiliation. The Little Flower takes place on the last day of La Guardia’s third term. Are three terms too many?

Tony Lo Bianco: You know, it depends on what kind of a great job we need. We’re so desperate for congressmen or mayors who are just terrific that if they’re indispensable, then they should stay, because we have a lack of quality people to represent us, which is just awful. It’s just remarkable how hungry and starving we are for leaders. I do think that if we find a gem, the term should be extended. However, history has proven that that’s not to be the fact – especially when they’re crooked thieves [like Tammany Hall]. That is the biggest problem. How do you regulate that?

Look what they’re doing in other countries as well. I just spoke with someone from Italy yesterday; people are beside themselves, and it’s just handwriting on the wall for us. Europe is just handwriting on the wall for us, and if we don’t pay attention, we’re going to do the same kind of – we’re doing the same kind of thing. You can’t say we’re going to. We are in the process of doing the same kind of thing as Europe. And my biggest personal thing is history is our greatest teacher. To me, if you don’t follow history, you don’t understand history, you’re going to be an idiot. You’re going to be a fool. You’re going to make the same stupid mistakes.

We should be the smartest country in the world. We have all that magnificent history behind us. There’s thousands of years there of understanding what happens to governments, what happens to empires. It’s right in front of us. We’re not inventing the wheel. Tell me, how do we get sixteen trillion, five hundred billion dollars in debt? How does that happen? You think somebody just wakes up one day and says, “Oh my God, is that the figure?” That’s the way we seem to be behaving.

twi-ny: We’re fiddling while Rome burns.

Tony Lo Bianco: That’s right. Is that not the biggest issue? That is like a meteor going to crush us one of these days. The public is concentrating on making a buck just to put food in their mouths – they can’t be thinking about sixteen trillion, five hundred billion dollars, or that their children and grandchildren are going to pay for that.

twi-ny: Do you feel that if La Guardia ran today, based on the same platforms, we would elect him to fix things?

Tony Lo Bianco: I’m fighting like a son of a gun to do something like this and try to, for want of a better word, teach this kind of understanding of sacrifice and giving and helping and doing for the public. It’s in my genes to do that; I personally love doing that, and I picked this character to shove it out to the public. But I don’t know if this public is ready for this anymore because they’re so busy with what they’re doing. They just have to realize what I’m saying and realize the reality of what is happening to them and somehow be strong enough – I say “somehow” because they’ve been led this way to thinking, “Hey, I can only think about tomorrow. “Gimme gimme gimme. What are you gonna give me? What? Oh, good. I don’t have to work. How many weeks unemployment? Ninety-nine? Weeks? Oh, wow. I think I’ll take a part-time job while I’m receiving that money – that would mean much much more money than I ever earned.”

twi-ny: You’re sounding like a conservative Republican. Are you?

Tony Lo Bianco: No, I’m trying to talk common sense. Common sense and logic. Another thing La Guardia said as a congressman was about labels. He said, “I’ve been called a pacifist, a Communist, a Socialist, a radical, a Republican, a progressive, a Democrat, a conservative, a rebel, and a demagogue. That sounds like I’m a well-rounded fella, don’t ya think?” [laughs] That’s in my play. I cover anything that anybody could say or think, but the idea of that stuff I spouted is it might sound Republican, but it’s common sense, isn’t it? Someone tell me where I’ve gone wrong in saying what I just said.

twi-ny: Well, one of the things you did say was “well-rounded,” and “well-rounded” is something you are when playing La Guardia. Here’s Tony Lo Bianco, this elegant-looking, smooth-talking guy from The French Connection, The Seven-Ups, Blood Brothers, and you’re prancing around the stage in this fat suit, telling jokes, singing. That’s something different for you.

the little flower

Tony Lo Bianco: You see, I love that. That’s what I do. I mean, I love to play other human beings. The roles that I’ve portrayed – there’s a whole gallery of different characters I’ve played, different humans, different tempos, different sizes and shapes. But yes, for the general public, who see me as you just described, which is pretty much the movies and stuff, it is a revelation. When you come and see the show, please, you must come and say hello to me and see the difference of this guy who is prancing around, as you say [laughs]. And I am prancing around and doing all those things.

twi-ny: You’ve also done several sports films. You were a Golden Gloves boxer, you played Rocky Marciano – do you still follow sports?

Tony Lo Bianco: Oh yeah, I’m a big fight fan. I’m a big baseball fan.

twi-ny: You did Yanks 3 Detroit 0 Top of the Seventh, which you won an Obie for.

Tony Lo Bianco: I loved that.

twi-ny: So I gather you’re a Yankees fan?

Tony Lo Bianco: I’m a Yankees fan, but actually I’m a New York fan. I want them both to win. My ideal, of course, is for the both of them to be in the World Series.

twi-ny: That’s a tough place to be.

Tony Lo Bianco: I’m a baseball fan. I like to watch excellence and achievement and great players who respect the game, respect themselves, respect the country. Whether they’re a sports hero, or any kind of hero, whether it’s an actor, whatever, they should really understand that they are a public figure and they should be an example to the children and everybody else in the world of how to behave. They must all be tremendously grateful for having the opportunity today in earning the kind of money that these athletes earn, which is rather enormous.

twi-ny: Regarding the steroids controversy, should Mike Piazza have been elected to the Hall of Fame?

Tony Lo Bianco: There is no proof, no evidence against Piazza. That kind of stigma in this country is terrible. Even Roger Clemens – Roger Clemens has been cleared. I just saw a thing in the newspaper that labeled him a disgrace. What disgrace? He was cleared, and anybody who’s cleared is cleared. And as far as Mike Piazza, he certainly should be in the Hall of Fame. But as far as those who have used drugs and steroids, no, they should not be in the Hall of Fame.

twi-ny: Boxing isn’t the cleanest of sports either.

Tony Lo Bianco: Back in the day there were definitely things going on, when the mob was involved. I don’t know what’s going on now. You never know. You got promoters promoting both fighters. Who the heck knows what’s going on? But some of the fights are pretty vicious, so it makes you wonder, “Can this fight possibly be fixed?” It doesn’t look like it.

twi-ny: You’re a Brooklyn boy.

Tony Lo Bianco: Yes.

twi-ny: What do you think of the new Brooklyn, which has spread out to Bushwick and Red Hook, and now you’ve got the Nets playing where Branch Rickey wanted to put the Dodgers?

Tony Lo Bianco: You know, one person’s progress is another person’s disaster, and I address that also in the play, because La Guardia had to build low-cost housing, and he had to take that land from somewhere. You know, I am so thrilled to have grown up having nothing. My father was a taxicab driver, so we understand where we came from – we never forget that – and I’m grateful for all that wonderful experience. I would call it “home education” – when I say “home education,” I mean because I had uncles, and aunts, and grew up in a big family, and the headquarters was my house in Brooklyn. Every Sunday, everybody would come over to see my mother and all her brothers, and that kind of life teaches you more than any school or college can teach you. I’m so grateful for that, and it’s given me my best quality, which is certainly not my academic understanding but my human understanding, of people and conditions, and maybe, in a funny way, that’s why I relate to La Guardia, and why I picked La Guardia, because he’s a man of the people, for the people.

TWI-NY TALK: SPRAGUE THEOBALD

Sprague Theobald (photo by Rod Millington)

Sprague Theobald details his family’s treacherous journey to the Northwest Passage in new book and film (photo by Rod Millington)

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ICE (Sprague Theobald, 2013)
Quad Cinema
34 West 13th St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
March 8-14
212-255-2243
www.quadcinema.com
www.spraguetheobald.com

On June 16, 2009, author, sailor, and filmmaker Sprague Theobald boarded the 325-horsepower, 57-foot-long Bagan and took off for the Northwest Passage with a small crew that included his son, Sefton, his stepson, Chauncey Tanton, his stepdaughter, Dominique Tanton, and her boyfriend, Clinton Bolton, setting sail on a journey that few have attempted and fewer have survived. “The Northwest Passage is a ship killer, and always has been,” Theobald writes in The Other Side of the Ice: One Family’s Treacherous Journey Negotiating the Northwest Passage (Skyhorse Publishing, August 2012, $24.95; ebook available from Antenna Books, $9.99), which details the trials and tribulations he and his family experienced on the open seas. “At various stages of the journey, I found myself numb. Exhausted. Terrified. How had it all started? What were we doing?” A transatlantic racer, Theobald, who has previously written the novel The Reach and won an Emmy for his America’s Cup documentary The 25th Defense: End of an Era, explains exactly what they were doing, warts and all, in the book and its companion film, also called The Other Side of the Ice, a production of his Hole in the Wall team, which is a self-described “consortium of renegades, misfits, and malcontents intent on bettering the world through the art of film and storytelling.” The Other Side of the Ice will be playing at the Quad from March 8 to 14, and Theobald will be at the theater to discuss the film and sign copies of the book following the 7:30 screenings on March 8 and 9 and after the 5:30 show on March 10. But first Theobald discussed the book, the film, and the state of his family in our latest twi-ny talk.

twi-ny: You begin both the book and the film by wondering whether you were in essence risking the lives of your family in order to accomplish this personal mission of sailing through the Northwest Passage. If you knew then what you know now, would you still go ahead with the trip?

Sprague Theobald: Knowing what I know now, I would certainly still go ahead with the trip but with a better sense of how deep and deliberating the extreme Arctic isolation can be, the hell it can raise on your thinking if not your soul. This I wasn’t prepared for.

twi-ny: What would you change if you had it to do all over again?

Sprague Theobald: If I had it to do all over again I would have spent a bit more time vetting the captain, who I was assured “could handle anything.” As it was he fell mentally and fell hard. I hired him so that I could concentrate on the documentary, but in the end I had to toss him off the boat and bring the boat, with the great help of my three children, to Seattle through three thousand miles of some of the world’s most torturous weather.

twi-ny: When the Bagan was stuck in the ice with nowhere to go, did you always think you’d eventually make it, or were there moments when you truly felt that you would join other Northwest Passage crews who were never seen or heard from again?

Sprague Theobald: While stuck in the ice and at one point alone in my cabin I thought, Jesus . . . I’ve missed the headline on this trip. All the while I thought it was going to be “Family Successfully Transits the Northwest Passage,” but instead the real headline is now, “Father Leads Children to Death Trying to Transit the Northwest Passage.” This was as real as real could be. I had to battle this thought and image, plus many more, minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day. I thought, Yes, the odds looked incredibly against us, but the only way to find out was to, if physically possible, continue to put one foot in front of the other and see where this takes us. I did my very best to keep these thoughts to myself and not share them with the kids. It was a pressure that, as I explain in the book and show in the documentary, I’d never before known and didn’t know if I could survive.

twi-ny: There were 280 hours of footage that were edited into a 77-minute film, and there was a four-month trip edited into a 220-page book. Which task did you ultimately find most challenging, making the film or writing the book? Did you make a conscious decision to save certain moments for the film and specific other ones for the book?

the other side of the ice

Sprague Theobald: No, I didn’t make a conscious decision to save “this” for the book or “that” for the film. What I did have to do, though, was go back through my personal journal, which, once the trip was over, I prayed I’d never have to look at again. After Herzog made Fitzcarraldo, he was too terrified to look at his personal journal for twenty-eight years. By no means do I compare myself to him, but I do understand the power and terror these raw words, written when all seemed lost, can carry.

twi-ny: In the book you write, “On very rare occasions, if you’re very lucky, you get a chance to look into someone’s heart and character.” What did you learn about your own heart and character on the journey?

Sprague Theobald: I found out that I am simply human, no more, no less. That if one gets too close to hubris, in any sense of the word, the stakes become extreme, the flame more powerful and hotter than anything imaginable in this world.

twi-ny: What did you find out about your family’s heart and character that most surprised you?

Sprague Theobald: I found out that my family’s heart is as strong as I had ever dreamt for it, wished for it to be, if not stronger. Their sense of commitment and total lack of selflessness, when one of them around them was demonstrating just the opposite, was a gift greater than I ever expected to be given.

twi-ny: Have the bonds that developed with your kids on the boat continued?

Sprague Theobald: Big time. It’s not to say that we’re in touch more often or that we call and have long talks over the phone any more than we did but that when we do get together the laughter and joy come from a base and foundation of the deepest respect and love. We now know what’s petty and what isn’t.

twi-ny: Now that the book has been published and the film is being released, are you getting the itch to travel again?

Sprague Theobald: This has kept me busy every single hour of every single day since we landed in Seattle on November 6, 2009. I truly haven’t had a day off in over five years. From time to time, though, I do daydream about talking a kayak from the headwaters of the Connecticut River up in Canada to where it terminates in the Atlantic, the Long Island Sound. But it’s going to be a while before I play out of the backyard again.