When Hilly Kristal, owner and founder of CBGB — Country Bluegrass Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandizers — passed away in 2007 at the age of seventy-five, a year after closing the club following a highly publicized rent dispute, Wives bass player Mary Zadroga posted an online tribute, writing, “When I first met him and started working with him, I was so scared and intimidated. I loved his voice, though, his deep, low baritone voice. He took good care of us, touring, practicing in CB’s basement, and coming up with all kinds of crazy schemes and plans for us. . . . We lost touch over the past eight years, but I would stop by, now and then, with the kids. Last time I saw him, he called my five-year-old a little monster (which she was), and he had that lovely smile on his face when he said it.” Kristal managed the Wives, which recently reunited the original lineup, with Sue Horwitz singing, for its twentieth anniversary, from 1996 to 1999. Zadroga will be playing this year’s CBGB Festival with one of her other bands, the fast and furious Futurex (which stands for Future Ex Wives), with Susan Horowitz on guitar and vocals and Paul Andrew on drums. They’ll be at Hank’s Saloon in Brooklyn on Friday night, along with other bands and crew members that have CBGB connections, including Drugstore and Brunch of the Living Dead. Zadroga, who has also been in such groups as Jane Lee Hooker, Celebrated Cherry Sisters, and Browniehead, recently discussed the seminal punk-rock club with twi-ny.
twi-ny: How did you feel when you first heard that CBGB was closing?
Mary Zadroga: Even though CBs was well past its prime, I felt nostalgic and sad. The floodgates were open once CBs was gone, of EV clubs disappearing. Hilly was sick by then, and I was worried it would do him in.
twi-ny: When you were in the Wives during the late ’90s, Hilly was your manager. What was that experience like? Was the Hilly who ran CBGB different from the Hilly who managed the band?
Mary Zadroga: He wasn’t nearly as grouchy with us. He liked our music, and us three as people: drummer Tracy Almazan, singer Zu Leika (Horwitz had moved on), and me. He sounded kind of addled sometimes, but he really wasn’t. Just round about how he got things done.
twi-ny: Who are some of the groups you either saw or played with at CBGB?
Mary Zadroga: New Bomb Turks, Iron Prostate, Wig Hat, Lunachicks, Sex Pod, Patti Smith, Tub, Molotov Cocktail, Ff, 7 Seconds . . . I don’t know, I have a terrible memory. Lots of bands: Helldorado, the Lone Wolves, Sea Monkeys, Rats of Unusual Size, Maul Girls, Sisters Grimm.
twi-ny: What is your favorite CBGB memory?
Mary Zadroga: My favorite memory was of Joan Jett standing right in front of me while we were playing. I remember she was bald? I may be way off on that one.
twi-ny: How about your least favorite?
Mary Zadroga: The years of calling [CBGB booker] Louise [Parnassa Staley] to get a show. It was nuts. “Call me back in five.” “Call me next Tuesday.” “Call me after four.” Then, finally, we’d get a show! I was like a pit bull; I very literally would call exactly when she said.
twi-ny: Futurex will be playing Hank’s Saloon on October 11 as part of the CBGB Festival, with other CBGB survivors. How did that come about?
Mary Zadroga: Jme Gorman [guitarist for Brunch of the Living Dead] and his wife, Ellen, have been booking nights there for years. They both worked at CBs. Jme was sound and knew Wives. These Hank’s nights are amazingly good, a local underbelly of the scene, older bands. It’s interesting to see it dressed up as a CBs Festival night.
Are there any other venues out there that come close to capturing the spirit of CBs, or is that just impossible?
Mary Zadroga: CBs by far had the best sound system, and you could record your set and get a decent tape out of it. There were so many places to play: Spiral, Brownies (loved Brownies!), Space at Chase, Acme, Continental, Nightingale (my favorite!), then later 269 and Otto’s. . . . I never played Lakeside or Banjo Jim’s but loved going there. Um, now I don’t know great places to play. Wives just had a reunion at Delancey and that was decent. Fontana’s . . . Arlene’s . . . Nothing compares to CBs. Well, you know which does? With layout, and sound, and overall great vibe? The Shrine up in Harlem. It isn’t punk or rock n roll; it is more blues, soul, reggae, but that club has it going on.
For nearly fifteen years, unpredictable Detroit band Electric Six has been having a blast, playing wild and crazy live shows and releasing such intoxicating albums as Danger! High Voltage, Señor Smoke, the splendidly titled I Shall Exterminate Everything Around Me That Restricts Me From Being the Master, and Heartbeats and Brainwaves. Although they’ve gone through numerous personnel changes, Tyler Spencer, aka Dick Valentine, has always been front and center, the group’s primary songwriter and lead vocalist. On their new record, the galloping Mustang (Metropolis, October 8), Valentine, guitarists Da Ve and Johnny Na$hinal, bassist Smorgasbord, drummer Percussion World, and keyboardist Tait Nucleus? take listeners on a rollicking journey through multiple genres, from the opening blast of “Nom de Plume” to the yearning ballad “Iron Dragon” to the Nick Cave/Roxy Music-like finale, “Cheryl vs. Darryl.” Electric Six brought its “Save the World, Save the World” tour to the Bell House this past Wednesday and will next be at Bowery Ballroom on September 29 with My Jerusalem and Les Sans Culottes. While in town, Valentine discussed with twi-ny the new record, Adam Levine, and the misspelling on the cover of Mustang.
twi-ny: Mustang explodes out of the speakers in a burst of heavy metal, punk, funk, hard rock, prog rock, black metal, disco, dance pop, and other styles. What is your songwriting process like? Do you set out to tackle specific genres in advance?
Dick Valentine: We just knew that having just done a synth and drum machine record for our previous studio release, we wanted to have a lot of guitars on this album. And live drums on every track. I have to say of all the albums we’ve done, this was the one where I came with the least amount of concrete ideas and finished songs on my end, so the rest of the guys, especially John Nash, really stepped up and got it done.
twi-ny: On “Adam Levine,” you tell the Maroon 5 frontman and “The Voice” coach to “burn in hell, motherfucker”; tell us, how do you really feel about him? Are personalities like Adam Levine good or bad for the music industry?
Dick Valentine: This song is not actually about Adam Levine. . . . That’s a popular misconception. It’s about feeling awful and then feeling worse because you know it will just continue. I’ve never met him, but he seems like a fine example of a human being. A human being who grew up in Beverly Hills. As far as his impact on the music industry, you’d have to ask Donny Osmond because that’s where this shit started.
twi-ny: In the past, you’ve said that your songs are “about absolutely nothing,” so should we not read any political metaphors into “Late Night Obama Food,” especially when you say, “We are starving, but we’re eating more than we ever did before”?
Dick Valentine: Yeah, that’s right.
twi-ny: Going back to “I Buy the Drugs” for a moment, what actually happens if you send a self-addressed stamped envelope to P.O. Box 900, Los Angeles, CA 90212?
Dick Valentine: I have heard it has something to do with FOX broadcasting. That was not intentional, but that makes sense as I believe that ZIP Code does in fact cover Century City and Westwood.
twi-ny: In “Gimme the Eyes,” you say, “When you come to New York see what your money buys.” You played the Bell House on September 25 and will be at Bowery Ballroom on September 29; what do you spend your money on when you’re here in the city?
Dick Valentine: Diapers. In a Park Slope parent way, not in a David Vitter way.
twi-ny: We can’t let you go without asking about the cover of Mustang; what was your initial reaction when you saw that the band’s name was misspelled on the back of the woman’s jean jacket?
Dick Valentine: We were elated.
Since 2005, dancer and choreographer Megan V. Sprenger and her MVworks company have been exploring the relationship between audience and performer, individuality and personal identity, and the making of connections in today’s world, drawing on inspiration from such visual artists as Gregory Crewdson and Jacob Landau and such mathematicians as Blaise Pascal and Fibonacci. In her first evening-length piece, 2007’s quietly affecting No where, Sprenger incorporated Pascal’s triangle both thematically and structurally, built around three woman dancers moving within a confined space. Two years later, Sprenger went in a different direction with the immersive, explosive . . . within us., in which four dancers interacted with the audience members first by speaking with them, then charging around them in a flurry of energy. Sprenger, who has also choreographed and performed such solo pieces as One-Shot, While Waiting, and Direction Lost, will be holding the world premiere of her third evening-length piece, Flutter, this week at the Chocolate Factory in Long Island City, examining abstract and non-narrative methods of storytelling through movement and sound. Between preparing for that and working in public relations, the always amiable and charming Sprenger took time out to discuss her creative process and more with twi-ny.
twi-ny: For Flutter, you developed movements that were very particular to the unique personalities of each of the four performers. You’ve worked with Tara O’Con since 2007, while Donna Cicchesi, Michael Ingle, and Anna Adams Stark are new to MVworks. What was that process like, especially because you are much more familiar with one of the dancers than the others?
Megan V. Sprenger: One of the most fascinating and rewarding aspects of making this work has been getting to know all of the dancers better. Regardless of how long I’ve known or worked with each of them, the process of making their “mini movement biographies” was the same. Each of the dancers was asked to improvise for a set amount of time that varied slightly per rehearsal. This process resulted in hours of footage that I culled down into four-to-five-minute solos that became the base for the work.
twi-ny: In most of your pieces, including Flutter, the dancers perform to silence or to avant-garde soundscapes, never to more traditional songs or music. Is that something you consciously set out to do with each new dance? How would you describe the role of music/sound in your creative process?
Megan V. Sprenger: Working with original sound is a critical part of my process. Jason Sebastian and I have worked together since 2007, and with each process we begin by discussing the inspiration and tone of the work and then decide what we think might be the best general direction for the composition. It’s true that both No where and …within us. utilized more of an environmental soundscape; however, for this work we decided that we wanted something more melodic and the result is a composition that is much more instrumental than what you might expect.
twi-ny: For many years you worked in the marketing department of Dance Theater Workshop and then New York Live Arts, specifically promoting dance. You’re now at a company that handles much more than just dance. What has that experience been like?
Megan V. Sprenger: What I love most about working at Polskin Arts & Communications Counselors is how much I am learning about other artistic fields such as music, visual art, and architecture. It has been extremely rewarding to see how what I know about dance is transferable and at the same time to be learning more about other genres.
twi-ny: In 2006, 2008, and 2010 you performed solo pieces, and in 2011 you participated in Bill T. Jones’s Continuous Replay at New York Live Arts. Are you getting the urge to get back on stage yourself? Might you be working on something you will perform in?
Megan V. Sprenger: I haven’t decided what will be next for me artistically. Making work for yourself can be a tricky business, though I love performing and I do miss it. Who knows, a short solo for myself isn’t out of the question.
twi-ny: You’ve now been involved in the New York City dance world for ten years. What are some of the most important changes you’ve noticed over the last decade? One thing that strikes me is how the internet has come into play; for example, people can go to your website and follow the progress of Flutter, as you’ve posted videos of a number of rehearsals going back nearly a year.
Megan V. Sprenger: Over the past ten years the internet has definitely played an increased role in the dance industry. In particular, crowdsourcing platforms like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and RocketHub and video sharing websites like Vimeo and YouTube have changed the way dances are made, promoted, and shared. I would also add that popular culture interest in dance through television shows like So You Think You Can Dance have significantly shifted how dance is viewed and appreciated across the country.
twi-ny: In your free time, if you have any, do you try to keep up with what’s going on in the dance world, or do you prefer to see other types of art and live performance?
Megan V. Sprenger: I try to see as many dance performances as possible. That’s honestly one of the things I miss most about working at New York Live Arts, where I was constantly exposed to new work and artistic voices.
twi-ny: Are there any companies that you consider a must-see?
Megan V. Sprenger: Must-sees? That’s a really hard question. I suppose I would just encourage people to try something new. I vary rarely regret going to a show that I know very little about or created by an artist I am not familiar with.
In her debut novel, If You Could Be Mine (Algonquin Young Readers, August 2013, $16.95), Sara Farizan details the dangerous love between two seventeen-year-old Tehran girls who must keep their relationship secret from everyone. The story is narrated by Sahar, who has wanted to marry Nasrin since they were six, but same-sex relationships are punishable by death in Iran. “It’s difficult, hiding my feelings for her. Tehran isn’t exactly safe for two girls in love with each other,” Sahar explains at the beginning of the book. “We are always around each other, so I don’t think anyone will suspect that Nasrin and I are in love. She worries, though, all the time. I tell her no one will know, that I will protect her, but when we kiss I can feel her tense. She keeps thinking about the two boys who were hung years ago in Mashhad.” When Nasrin’s family arranges for her to marry a doctor, Sahar considers taking extreme measures to continue their secret love.
In the book, Farizan, a gay woman born in Massachusetts to Iranian immigrant parents, explores the very serious subjects of homosexuality, gender identity, gender reassignment surgery, and other aspects of LGBTQ life in Iran with tenderness, intelligence, and humor. On September 10, Farizan will be at McNally Jackson with fellow novelists Hollis Seamon (Somebody Up There Hates You) and Amy Herrick (The Time Fetch) celebrating the launch of Algonquin Young Readers, with each of the writers reading from their works, speaking with AYR editor and publisher Elise Howard, and participating in an audience Q&A, followed by a signing. But first, Farizan took part in an exclusive twi-ny talk, discussing the book, her influences, her family’s reaction when she came out to them, and more.
twi-ny: If You Could Be Mine is a deeply intimate story about two very different girls. Would you say there are parts of you in each of them, or do you most closely identify with one of them?
Sara Farizan: I suppose I am more like Sahar but to be honest they are both really nothing like me. They are both a lot braver than I am; I’m a big scaredy cat. I think I know people that have elements of Nasrin’s personality, but I created them pretty much from scratch.
twi-ny: Sahar and Nasrin have to hide their love from their parents. You’ve stated that your own coming out to your family was very difficult. How is your relationship with them now, especially with the publication of the book, which explores some very complex themes that are rarely dealt with in YA novels and are often not discussed between parents and children?
Sara Farizan: My parents have been amazing and I am so lucky to have them in my life. I came out to them about ten years ago and it wasn’t always easy but they have never treated me differently and truly love me unconditionally. My mom is a big champion of the book and loves the idea that it might help other families discuss these issues. Dad still hasn’t read the book because I think he’s a little scared but he Googles me a lot, which I find adorable. I give them a lot of credit and am so proud of the growth they have shown in just ten years.
twi-ny: You’ve traveled to your parents’ home country of Iran several times, including to research the book. How does the gay community over there deal with the apparent contradiction that the government openly supports gender reassignment surgery but outlaws homosexuality?
Sara Farizan: Well, I can’t speak for the whole community because it’s a country of 70 million people, but there are a lot of groups that have to deal with things privately. I think there is a huge distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation and everyone has their own opinion. I imagine it must be frustrating for both groups because the two have a tendency to get blended together.
twi-ny: What books and authors, either YA or adult, served as influences while you were writing If You Could Be Mine?
Sara Farizan: My mentor, Chris Lynch, is amazing and lovely. I read books by Deborah Ellis, Marjane Satrapi, Khaled Hosseini, Julie Ann Peters, Cris Beam, and many others.
twi-ny: How long did the research/writing process take?
Sara Farizan: It took me about two and a half years with all the research and finishing a final draft.
twi-ny: Your undergraduate degree is in film and media studies. Iran has a rich yet complex cinema history, with such directors as Jafar Panahi, Abbas Kiarostami, and Mohsen Makhmalbaf making often controversial films that sometimes get banned and can get them arrested. Did any specific Iranian films play a role in your research?
Sara Farizan: I’ve grown up watching a lot of Iranian films and they have kind of informed me about many issues that I may not have been privy to in my Western bubble. Some favorites include Children of Heaven, Santoori, Leila, No One Knows about Persian Cats, and the documentaries Be Like Others and The Iran Job.
twi-ny: On September 10, you, Amy Herrick, and Hollis Seamon will be featured at a launch party at McNally Jackson for the Algonquin Young Readers imprint. What’s it like to be part of this launch? What are you personal expectations for the event?
Sara Farizan: It is so surreal and I still can’t really believe it. I keep thinking someone is going to call me and say, “Actually we've made a mistake.” I love Algonquin Young Readers and I don’t want to ever disappoint them. I hope it will be a special evening and I hope people see how much passion we put into our novels.
On April 30, Newark-born choreographer Stephen Petronio threw a New Orleans-style funeral procession at the Joyce Theater, holding the proscenium premiere of his latest evening-length piece, Like Lazarus Did (LLD 4/30). The site-specific work began with live music outside led by composer Son Lux and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City; when the audience arrived inside, they found Petronio lying on his back onstage, as if dead — but he is soon resurrected in what we called “sixty minutes of bold and beautiful movement” that delves into “birth, death, and rebirth and heaven and hell.” Petronio will be presenting another edition of LLD (6/29) on June 29 at St. Paul’s Chapel as part of the free River to River Festival. As he prepared for the one-time-only site-specific event, Petronio answered some questions about LLD and his long, distinguished career.
twi-ny: In October 2010, you performed “Man Walking Down the Side of a Building” as part of a Whitney tribute to Trisha Brown, who recently announced her retirement from creating new pieces. You were the first male member of her company. What is your favorite memory from those years?
Stephen Petronio: Opening night at BAM performing Set and Reset. The excitement in the theater was palpable and I was to have my first solo in TB’s work towards the end of this work. The moment arrived and I could see the top of Laurie Anderson’s spiky hair in the orchestra pit. She lifted the bow of her violin, and when she brought it across the strings she sent me out into a wildly adrenalized state that became a defining moment in my dancing career.
twi-ny: Last June, the company performed a one-night-only edition of LLD at the Ukrainian National Home in the East Village, and then you presented an extended run at the Joyce. How has it evolved since that initial performance?
Stephen Petronio: That edition was focused on the relationship between the men in the company as my dancers and me as their director. Who is breathing life into who? Since that rendition was intimate, with the audience on all sides, the dancing was more like a series of actions to be caught by the viewer as it passed by them. On the Joyce’s proscenium it’s more likely that action transposes into image, so what ended up on that stage was considered with a “long view” in mind. They are uniquely different experiences.
twi-ny: Each edition of LLD will have site-specific elements. What adaptations are being made for the June 29 River to River show at St. Paul’s Chapel?
Stephen Petronio: Well, St. Paul’s is a multisided venue, like the ballroom of the first edition, but it has a marble aisle down the center of the dancing arena, so I’m considering “fractured compositions” as opposed to the frontal perspective of the Joyce, whole elements broken down and set into the space with shifting orientation.
twi-ny: The show begins with you lying as if dead on the stage, then rising up. Might that be a stranger experience in a church?
Stephen Petronio: Yes, the chapel aspect is large. Last night I dreamed that after a performance in the chapel an archbishop figure took me into the sacristy to discuss my motivations!
twi-ny: Wow. You often use eclectic music in your work; for example, in Underland, you used the songs of Nick Cave, and other collaborators have included Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, the British punk band Wire, and art rockers Fischerspooner. For LLD, you’re back with Son Lux [Ryan Lott], who you previously worked with on Tragic Love and Singing Light. What is it about Ryan and his music that merges so well with your choreographic language?
Stephen Petronio: Ryan and I have some weird connection. We understand each other quickly on some elemental level. I am drawn to him because I like what he does that’s not dance oriented. I always want him to write music that he would write for his own purposes and not some idea of a “dance score.” At the same time he is moved by dance — he is married to a dancer-choreographer [Jennifer McQuiston Lott], so he gets the whole picture of how dance and music can join forces.
twi-ny: Next year will mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Stephen Petronio Company. How would you characterize the first three decades, and what can we expect in the next three?
Stephen Petronio: I am blown away that it’s been thirty years. I’m very proud of the body of work and amazing artists that have marked my life over these years.
Mary Boone Gallery
541 West 24th St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Saturday through April 27, free
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.)