Talking to Mark Russell, pt.1

mark russell (photo by Anna Barry-Jester for the Village Voice)

For the past twenty years Mark Russell has been the executive and artistic director of P.S. 122. In December 2003 he resigned from his position to seek out new and bigger challenges. Culturebot took this opportunity to sit and talk to him about P.S. 122, his life in the theater, and what the future might hold.

CBOT: So, to start things off – I’m curious to know how you ended up here in New York in the first place?

MR: Well, when I was in Texas I was mentored by a Polish woman who was a director and I worked with her as an assistant director. She found this scholarship where I could go back to Poland – she was exiled from Poland and couldn’t get back in – but she had people there and she wanted to deliver some messages, some letters and stuff like that. It was through the Kosciusko Foundation that’s in New York. And I wrote away and I got the scholarship and then she spent a summer teaching me Polish. I was working with her classes in exchange for doing Polish. We would swim and do Polish, and it was quite an amazing time and then – this is the year I was graduating [from University of Texas in Austin]. So in late July/August I went off to Poland!

It was an incredible run because we saw Wajda and Kantor – all the big theaters opened themselves up to us – including a whole week and a half with Grotowski – and I was running in the woods with Richard Cieslak, and Grotowski – it was a pretty magical time. And on my way back I ended up in New York!

I was going to visit my cousin for a day before I went back and I just ended up staying, I kept the tour going. There was really nothing for me back in Texas and I was finding all these amazing things to do. There was a thing called the BUNCH festival that was going on. The BUNCH festival had Mabou Mines, Richard Foreman – in the old days in his loft – all these amazing events happening around Manhattan – it was this whole generation of Meredith Monk and others; I don’t think Robert Wilson did anything, he was out at that time, but …

CBOT: The Bunch festival?

MR: It was run by a management group of theirs called the Bunch of Experimental Theaters – I think they turned into something else eventually. But it was an incredible introduction to all this stuff. So I just went around and I basically toured in New York for about three years. I got a job pumping yogurt at the same place that Tim Miller was pumping yogurt. I got a little place to stay for reasonably cheap and I just kept going. I did a lot of little jobs. Delivered cheesecake for D’Aiutos and all sorts of crazy stuff. I hooked up with people who were coming from my school back up here and we did workshops of some things. I did a a director’s showcase.

CBOT: At that time what were you thinking that you wanted to do?

MR: I wanted to be a director in New York. But I fell in with all these people who did contact improvisation, which was the closest thing I could find to Grotowski’s physical system of plastiques and then that led me into the performance art world and people like [P.S 122 co-founder] Peter Rose.

CBOT: What sort of work was he doing then?

MR: He was one of the first real performance artists of that new generation. He was using Punk music and objects and telling personal stories with them. Which was pretty radical at that time.

CBOT: What year was this?

MR: Around ’77. And he was really influential to several people, like Carol Armitage, who went on to do bigger things. He was Tim Miller’s boyfriend at the time and they were making performances together. They did performances – and that whole scene moved into P.S.122 in ’79.

CBOT: When they took the building?

MR: Yeah.

CBOT: Was that before or after Fame? [the movie Fame was shot in P.S. 122]

MR: That was after Fame. Well, before Fame, but about six months before, and then Fame came in and we vacated and then came back in.

CBOT: What was the space like then? Just rehearsals? Performances?

MR: It was rehearsals for Tim Miller, Peter Rose, Charles Dennis and Gabrielle Landsner and Charlie Moulton – who was the most famous of the bunch at the moment. He had been dancing with Merce Cunningham and he was the one who first found the space.

So they all parceled out little times to rehearse. I think we were sharing the space with a Polish Day Care Center at the time.

CBOT: There’s always a day care center…

MR: Yeah, they would feed the kids in our place, so we had it in the afternoons and the evenings. And then many, many things happened – one thing led to another.

We were doing open movement then and I was a part of that scene on Monday nights. It cost $2 and you could move. [laughs] And there was this other group that was sort of managing the space a bit called the Gang of Ten -Tim Miller, John Bernd, Stephanie Doba, Ishmael Houston-Jones, a lot of people – and on Sunday afternoons we would go and move in the space and have personal dramas. [laughs]

CBOT: When did P.S. start becoming more of a performance space than a rehearsal space?

MR: Well, we started renting it out on the weekends for $300 to our friends to do performances – they would get the clip lamp system and the keys. And you had to do shows at 9 p.m. because Charlie ended class at 6 p.m. So we would fold up all the platforms and chairs and put them away, every night. And then they brought in a home stereo system and they ran the clip lamps with a dimmer system that Charles Dennis had cobbled together. Charged people $5 a night for the light system.

It had begun to get going like that, and some people like Remy Charlip had done some performances there. My friend Norman Frisch did some early performances there. And then Tim started taking these Monday nights and – was it? Yeah, Open Movement was on Tuesdays – he was doing Monday nights and building shows – because he didn’t rehearse. He would come at six, warm up and show it by nine. Put together a show for nine o’clock. And it was this whole scene because he was one of the first out gay guys without any kind of baggage. There was no crying about the closet and how oppressed he was it was like, “Hey, , I’m cute, I’m out here, let’s go.” And often it was about the affair he had that week.

CBOT: So it was like a running commentary on his life, as he lived it.

He was very fascinated with Mayakovsky at that time, who I guess had died around the same age so the name of one of the pieces was “Me and Mayakovsky.” And he would do things like light fires in the space and burn holes in the … there were a couple scorched areas on the floor …[laughs]

CBOT: People have told me that P.S. 122 always felt like a “real” gig even back then.

MR: We were made of kids who couldn’t get gigs at The Franklin Furnace or The Kitchen. And that’s what we dreamed of. And then slowly, by 1983, we started getting those gigs. I remember turning to my friend Norman and saying, “I think we’re making it here”. You know? Charles Dennis’ one night gig at Franklin Furnace was a big deal.

CBOT: So when did the shift happen? When did P.S. 122 start coming into it’s own?

MR: Well what happened was that when I came on in 1983 I started taking care of the audience. Putting in some other systems and incorporating them – like getting a technical director. It evolved sort of like Stone Soup. People would come in and say, “Well, we really want to tap into power and have real lights” and we’d say, “Well, leave me the cable to the power.” And so then we could do that. And we just kept accumulating stuff. It was like, “You want to build platforms? Okay. but then leave them for us.”

CBOT: So over time it accumulated and you had a theater full of stuff.

MR: Yeah. Or, at least a better theater. More volunteers. More box office systems and people. People like Jim Shelley were volunteering…

CBOT: Was there a moment or a specific show where you looked around and said, “Wow, this is something”

MR: Well, some of those early Tim Miller performances when they had The Soho News and Sally Baines was writing for that. It really put him on that map and it sort of was, “This is the new thing…”

And then The Kitchen did a series of P.S. 122 style gigs. Like Avant-Garde-Arama. So we knew we were on to something, then. When they would invite us up there and pay us big money.

We were trying to be a more professional environment. A place where – let’s say you’d been doing your show for your friends at the Wa-Wa Hut and then you came and did Avant-Garde-Arama to get a wider audience. Then you did a full gig to see who else would come.

Now, I’d been working in the magazine world and the small arts newspaper world so I had certain chops with that, and I come from a family of journalists, so I was able to cook up lots of press because I knew how the press thought. And also I did some marketing things.

I think maybe the time we thought we really came out was a benefit we did. The first benefit I did in 1984, I think was called Sound Off or something like that. We used to name our benefits – so we were trying to raise money for a sound system and called it Sound Off. The Village Voice found out about it and they had me program all the forty people who were going to be a part of this thing to come in and get their pictures taken – they were going to make a deck of cards of performance artists. There was Whoopi Goldberg, Philip Glass, Eric Bogosian and all these people.

And it was the first time that Whoopi really …she got off the plane, got her photograph taken and the next day popped up on our stage. She came in with the audience as Moms Mabley. She came in as a homeless person. And she just grabbed the microphone and started going at it.

CBOT: That sounds pretty incredible. Are there any moments you can think of where you looked around and thought to yourself, “I cannot believe this is happening.”

MR: Well there’s a lot of those. I mean, David Leslie jumping off of the top of the building is one of those. That was intense. Had I told my board about that I’d still be in jail! The shit we got away with! The same thing with Ron Athey or some of the Karen Finley things.

Or, we did a festival called the World’s Fair Performance Festival as part of the New York International Festival and I had the best time. I mean, I was able to bring in this group from Japan that had never toured before. They’re called DumbType and now they’re huge. I’ll never be able to afford them again. But they all came and … that was just this little Japanese guy on vacation arriving on my doorstep and saying, “Would you look at my package?” And I look at the package and it’s like Japanese mime meets Robert Wilson and I said, “Yeah. We can put you guys up!”

During that thing I think we did about fifty shows in three weeks and I was able to invite Linda Burnham from High Performance to be a commentator. And we had John Fleck and Karen Finley and Holly Hughes, Tim Miller, all rolling around in this thing. We were doing two or three shows a night. It was a trip.

CBOT: Sounds Amazing

MR: Well, it was because someone had dropped a bunch of money on us. Now it would just cost so much money to do it. I mean, that money was like, $40,000 and we thought we were rolling in it. Money’s a big issue.

CBOT: You mentioned the Wa-Wa Hut, which is long gone. A lot of the venues that used to be “feeder” venues for P.S. 122 are gone, or they’ve changed. Certainly the nightlife scene has changed.How has that affected P.S.?

MR: Well now it’s all in Brooklyn and stuff like that.

CBOT: Has the nature of the work changed with the venues?

MR: Well, now it has this whole fascination with burlesque that is very interesting but in some ways sort of stops for me. And in some ways the club performances of the early 80’s were more outrageous. We were like: three in the morning seeing Butoh people all painted gold at 8BC doing things in the cold outdoors.


MR: It was a farmhouse on 8th between B and C and you came in and they had dug out the basement and in the back was the stage. There was a rabbit that lived onstage. [laughs] And it would make appearances. The place was run by these two crazy gay guys that lived up above and – it was the best. That’s where Ethyl Eichelberger did a lot of things, and Penny Arcade, Popo and the Go-Go Boys. It was all these drunk, ripped-out people at two in the morning and the curtain rises and we’re watching Popo and the Go-Go Boys – Japanese boys standing on huge blocks of ice.

CBOT: It’s like” Extreme” Butoh

MR: Yeah. And basically Popo and his whole crew there were like, a construction crew that did Butoh at night.

(continued in part 2)

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