Sep 13, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 257: Brian Bauman
I was born in a naval hospital in Groton, Connecticut. My family relocated often in my early childhood. My father was a supply officer on a nuclear submarine and the family would trail him as he moved from port to port.. I spent the longest part of my childhood in Burnt Hills, New York.
New York City
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am writing a new play called A CRUCIBLE which is a riff on Arthur Miller's THE CRUCIBLE. The play's structure is a 9-month school year and is focused on a catholic school's drama club staging the original text. The questions I'm asking in the play are: how does playing a "witch" shape one's adolescent identity and how does it effect a budding sexual self? How and why are young people drawn to theater? How does teen pregnancy relate to quashed sex education programs? How do limited resources create a paranoid artistic society? Who/what is "in charge" of the literary canon, and why?
I recently collaborated with a Los Angeles-based choreographer named Alexandra Yalj for a piece going up at Highways Performance Space on September 12th called Dismantling Self. We re-appropriated text from the infamous spiritual leader OSHO's book Intuition, and combined it with writing I created about stripping & sex work, and the piece moved organically on from there into its present state, incorporating Lexie's personal love letters and more. I'm based in NY, so unfortunately I couldn't be in the studio with the group to watch it grow. I am very sorry to miss it.
I am looking for a place to remount a piece I created with Christo Allegra at the Broad Art Center in Los Angeles in May called ATTA BOY. The play is a two-hander collage-text and conflates popular culture's representations of the Columbine Massacre and the attacks on the WTC. I've always called 9-11 "Columbine for Adults"... it's had the same cultural impact, just on a larger, powerful and much more destructive scale. Essentially, two actors perform for each other (and us) in a quasi-erotic, quasi-repulsive fashion, excerpts and reinterpretations of hollywood films, polemic books, youtube footage, news articles, church bulletins, other found materials as well as my own writing all dealing with the two events. The two actors are on "internet dates", so their identities are as fluid as their source materials are slippery... The whole piece layers and collapses like a loud and beautiful engine on overdrive, and the performance takes place in conversation with installed elegant and austere artwork created by Mr. Allegra (who is my husband, btw). The play is asking a ton of questions about "official narratives" and mass media representation, xenophobia and homophobia in contemporary pop culture & political discourse, sexual violence and violent sex. It all sounds terribly academic but I can assure you that the performance was raw, visceral, sexy and full of impact. We had a full house and I'm very encouraged by the responses we received. We're looking to serve it up in New York next year.
I've also been free-writing over the last several years in response to the art and life of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, building a piece tentatively called F**G*T (VANISH). There's so much to consider in approaching a subject as momentous as his biography, but have been bouncing ideas back and forth with the Paris-based performance artist Ben Evans and LA-based playwright Ricardo Bracho to develop the text further into a more refined project.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: When I was seven I asked my entire family to proceed from the dinner table and come into the basement. I turned out the lights except for one lamp, put on rollerskates and queued up Joan Jett's cover of Gary Glitter's DO YOU WANT TO TOUCH ME on the record player (from a Ktel record compilation I begged my mother to buy at Kmart). I then performed the song in its entirety in a solid-gold inspired routine for them. Queer theater latent in my pre-adolescent bones.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: More courage, more risk, more access. (I guess that's three things, but they are interrelated into one giant clusterfuck as far as I'm concerned). I guess they could all be lumped under MORE GENEROSITY.
I have "respect" for "respectable" artists but I have unending, geyser-gushing crushes on playwrights who don't compromise their point of view. A play, as I understand it, is not a discreet object. It's not an insect trapped in amber that you can hold in your hand, nor a delicious amuse bouche before your dinner that you shit out tomorrow. A play is an experience, it's never objective nor should we pretend it ever could be. A play is a culture. It's a loose contract that invites a community of people to deliver it into being (which includes audience...Audience as midwife?)... Plays aren't alive until they are off the page, which is why it's so frustrating that so many incredible, smart, difficult plays haven't been produced. The reason is simple: Fear.
I'm always amazed when articles get published giving voice to "concerned playwrights" who speak out to defend "well-crafted plays" from the corruption of messiness, the erosion of form, and a general "descent" into language experimentation. Isn't there a place for everyone? Who are these people and what in god's name are they talking about? If the "well made play" is such an important and powerful object, why does it need defending?
I love and respect plays from the past...I quite enjoy reading and re-reading "classics", but if you look at hallowed texts objectively and not through an historical perspective, its incredibly eye-opening. The lens of history skews perspective. An experimental play competing with a more traditional new play to see the light of day illuminates this conversation on a micro level. Experimentation gets interpreted as a transgression. THIS and NOT THAT. What's interesting to me is this whole conversation about boundaries...what generic boundaries represent and their incredibly problematic and powerful place in this world.
I encourage Joan Retallack's metaphor of art as wager - that the purpose of art is to open up cracks for new possibilities, as opposed to circumscribing and re-inscribing authorized/regimented boundaries. I highly recommend her book THE POETHICAL WAGER. It's been an ethical guide for me as a playwright.
I write plays as a way to coax monsters up from underneath all this shiny surface simplistic "realism"... my husband describes my plays in terms of horror films, and I guess that is correct. Horror is such a powerful genre because it deals with identifying the uncanny, the unauthorized, the unarticulated. Not "THIS and NOT THAT", but "THIS AND THAT" - Jeckyll AND Hyde...writing is like playing with a powerful ouija board... What comes out is so much bigger than me, I can't contain it and I don't want to.
So far, the only way I've been able to get work up is to produce myself. I started Perfect Disgrace Theater after I finished grad school in 2006 in Los Angeles, and moved to Boulder Colorado. I tried sending scripts out across the country to literary departments but nobody was interested, so self-producing it was. I've done everything - fundraising & development, marketing, publicity, production. I made a big splash in a small pond in August 2007, when Josh and I cast Mike Jones in a production of my play, PORRIDGE. Mike was the male escort who outed Ted Haggard, then head of the National Evangelical Association - a powerful lobbyist organization for the Christian Right. By enlisting Mike in the production of the play, which concerned conflated repressed homosexuality in the military with fashion's stranglehold on contemporary culture, among other things, we created a meta-theatrical coup. In total, I've produced four Perfect Disgrace productions in California and Colorado, but am looking to make PD a thriving NYC-based company, after relocating to the city this year.
As for other potentialities, I'm very interested in what's happening in contemporary dance now. Current dance isn't bound by the same strictures as far as narrative goes, it's much blurrier and subjective, so there's an air of possibility - a practical atmosphere of risk and exploration. The boundaries are permeable. At a show at Dance New Amsterdam or Abrons Arts Center, you don't know what you're going to get until it happens in front of you. I'm particularly moved by artists like Trajal Harrell and Jack Ferver for their courage in plunging into subjectivity and its traps. Both artists make pieces that criticize AS they entertain. It's not one or the other.
"Twenty Looks: Paris is Burning at the Judson Church XS" at the New Museum last winter was so inspiring because it challenged assumptions and implicated its audience in such a profound way. Harrell references Jennie Livingston's film about nyc drag houses in the title as a way to create a desire for certain kind of performance (vogue, anyone?) and completely upends that desire by delivering a highly aesthetic, abstract dance piece with atonal soundtrack in the manner of Judson Church stalwarts like Merce Cunningham. When a hip hop loop finally does arrive, it serves as this great confrontational moment. The performance demanded attention and got it, even as it pushed me to consider identity politics vs. formal experimentation and how and who makes that call about which camp a particular piece falls into. Harrell rejects this kind of polemic and says, it's everything and nothing. "A Movie Star Needs A Movie" created invited its audience into an atmosphere of ironic cheese via popular dance forms, and then made a u-turn and dismantled itself into a naked portrait of alienated and insecure selves. Kudos to Jay Wegman and Ben Pryor for programming these and other performances that rode that edge last year, and to PS 122 for doing it this year.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: All of my heroes push for something larger in their work, are frank and not the least bit precious in their writing, but aren't afraid of ambitiously poetic "reaches" -- layering of metaphors, raising the roof (glass ceiling?) on representation, fucking with preconceptions. They ask difficult questions and avoid simple, pat answers. All of the artists below maintain an elegant complexity, are committed to justice in a practical and get-our-hands-dirty way, and are experimental in both form AND content, which, to me, is a sign of courage and, quite honestly, a necessity.
Jean Genet popped my theatrical cherry and Valerie Solanas loaned me a metaphorical gun.
I've learned more from Josh Chambers than any other director. I've had a tough road getting work staged, but Josh has stepped in often as a game collaborator, and his fearless approach to my plays is an incredible gift. I am very much indebted to his courage.
Luis Alfaro's potent greek-inspired plays are thrilling. I saw his Oedipus El Rey at the Boston Court last spring and it left the whole audience smoldering.
Alice Tuan for her great intellect and fantastic sense of humor.
Everett Quinton for his patience and commitment to a life in queer theater.
I checked out the lost films of Charles Ludlam at IFC last winter. Antony Hegarty and Everett introduced the recently rediscovered gems. Antony gave this beautiful speech about the influence a lost generation of artists destroyed by aids has had on our generation coming into our creative own now, and how beautiful and tragic it is that all these beacons from the 80's and 90's aren't physically present to advocate and encourage us... but the work survived and the work still guides. I think contemporary theater would be a more diverse and interesting art-form if many of the lost experimental artists making work during that period were alive today... either teaching and influencing a generation through faculty appointments, or leading us through example in their own growing canon.
A few years ago, I tracked down copies of all the Dar A Luz performances that Adam Soch burned to DVDs, and I return to them for inspiration again and again. Reza Abdoh's influence touches everything I make.
Suzan-Lori Parks -- her BOOK OF GRACE was not received well, but I thought it was incredible. A parable of contemporary American political quagmire, which is probably why it was so harshly criticized. That play should be remounted.
Romeo Castelluci's work takes my breath away. I saw Purgatorio at UCLA Live and it literally moved me to tears - the work was so insanely powerful, gorgeous, and completely committed to investigating very uncomfortable terrain. Half the audience walked out but those who stayed were greatly rewarded. Though his work is image-based, I feel a very strong connection to what he's attempting to articulate.
Harry Kondoleon's VAMPIRES speaks volumes about american hypocrisy and "morality".
Matthew Maguire's influence on my writing process is bedrock - he taught me to look at playwriting as a conversation with the universe..
David Adjmi's plays communicate gorgeousness and horror. Big fan.
Kevin Killian and his Poets Theater in SF are un-fadeable.
Last but not least - Big Art Group are the kindest and smartest provocateurs in NYC. Every person involved in their company is a complete and total sweetheart, and their work will slit your throat. I am in love with them.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: The kind that makes me sweat, tingle, induces tremors and gooseflesh, triggers fight-or-flight instinct. I like work that scares me to death.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Write like hell.
Read EVERYTHING you can get your hands on.
Don't be afraid of confusion. It's a writer's friend.
Go swimming and running - get out of your head.
Find blood-siblings, compatriots you respect not for their success but for their bad-ass scripts. Keep these advocates on speed-dial.
Trust your gut.
Produce yourself, don't wait to be asked to the dance. Produce your compatriots, too.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: On the self-promotion tip:
http://www.perfectdisgrace.com - my theater company.
http://www.solanasonline.com - a webzine i publish with my partner focused on queer artists.
For my peeps:
Jerome Parker's HOUSE OF DINAH will be having a reading this fall in NYC. Location TBA but it will include a full jazz band!
Luis Alfaro's OEDIPUS EL REY plays the Woolly Mammoth next february.
Sigrid Gilmer's AXIOM is a reason to live.
Sibyl O'Malley has a new script called RINGING ARTIFACTS that is melancholy in the best way.
Alana Macias' Zero LIbertad is coming for you.
Trajal Harrell is performing at Prelude for free next week!
PS 122's fall season is going to be KILLER, so get a passport for $55 (which gets you into 5 shows!)
In November, I will be at BAM's NEXT WAVE to devour THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN. Will you?