Talking to Mark Russell, pt. 2

(The second part of our interview with Mark Russell)

CBOT: So, to change tack a little -You were coming from a theater place and it then evolved into this performance art place. How does that reconcile with the work you see and like now?

MR: I came to it naturally, following my instincts. My politics were the personal politics of the late 70’s and 80’s. I was very influenced by Spalding Gray’s early work and that meshed in with all the identity stuff that Tim and other people started. And all that came to a head in the late 80’s and then got creamed by the N.E.A in the early 90’s.

We were very involved in all of that and foisted most of those solo performers on the world. Some of them were really good and some of them were kind of crap. Then we took that – and invented the Field Trips and took this Solo Performance style out in a bunch of different media and toured it around the country.

But obviously, it’s changed. Lately I’ve been interested in ensemble experimental theater. It just seems like the heat of the time is in that. Now, that may have left us, too. I mean there’s been a batch of people and I wonder if there’s more coming after that or not? Has it played out?

CBOT: When I think of ensemble experimental I go back to the Open Theater and that genre. In my mind it seems like theater of that era was much more tied into the cultural and political tides of the moment in terms of breaking down the barrier between audience and performer, breaking down the notion of what performance is. And when we see ensemble work now it still seems very formalized.

MR: Well, this generation is really influenced by The Wooster Group and Richard Foreman and some of the big boys like that. And they know they need to make a dime. They also know that the best way of support is actually out of Europe. Not that they’re making things for that, but it helps. And I think there’s references to all that environmental theater and physical theater that we saw but it’s maybe more sharpened. It’s become more a part of the language so it’s not such a big deal that they’re doing a dance in the middle of a show that’s not a musical. This is that generation that’s finally taken on all the experiments of the 70’s and 80’s and now it’s inside them and their own voices are coming out.

For a while I would go and see stuff and say, “They obviously worked with Liz [LeCompte] too long.” Or “They can’t get rid of their Richard Foreman days.” You know, the heat of the masters is too much on them. But now this generation is able to do more, make more interesting statements with that. Those other groups, those great masters, are still doing great work but they’re not addressing the same stuff. Like Caden Manson is influenced by Charles Ludlam and by The Wooster Group but still has a very different voice.

CBOT: It’s as if it’s been immediately assimilated and processed – its not so much a conscious referencing necessarily so much as it’s just a part of the fabric of what he does.

MR: It’s like “of course you can do this onstage”. Right.

CBOT: What about the influence of Europe? Europe supports the arts much more than we do.

MR: Well, there’s a couple of things. In Europe there’s a whole system of festivals and small cultural producers that are looking for the new voices in Europe, in their own countries and all around. There’s great stock put into curators who can find that “new” thing and introduce, like, Richard Maxwell. They come over here to the U.S. too, but most of what they see here they really don’t like. On occasion something will strike them and they’ll go “Wow, that’s for real” and they’ll take that over.

I’s an interesting litmus test. I mean, even people that we love, often the Europeans don’t get it. Maybe it’s too similar, not different enough … but then they’ll see something like… for example I thought, “Oh they’re really going to hate Richard Maxwell, it’s all text, they don’t move, there’s no light cues” and [makes buzzer noise] I was wrong. They were like “That’s for real, that’s the real thing. I see what he’s trying to do, let’s take it. Let’s subtitle it, let’s figure it out, let’s make it happen.”

CBOT: And then it goes and then it succeeds.

MR: And then it goes and it succeeds. I think that really good work cuts through all sorts of barriers and that’s maybe one of the things that we try to do at 122, is look at that really honest work that will play in Piscataway if you open your mind enough.

CBOT: Piscataway?

MR: Actually, they’re ready. They’re so hungry for something fresh that’s not sitcom they sort of …often they get it more than others, they just have to be empowered. Maybe there’s a pre-show talk or a post-show talk that says, “It’s okay – what did you really think?” and they go, “Oh! Well in that case, I guess I did get it!”

CBOT: It’s interesting – the idea that this work is not inaccessible – the idea that people outside of New York or whatever – that the work is accessible but people have to be given permission to like it or permission to be open to it. I wonder what it is about the way we make the art that might create that.

MR: Well, there’s that whole New York mystique. “I’m not cool enough for New York, I’m not up on all the cool things.” There’s this sort of distrust, because there’s not a lot of cultural education – a distrust of your own eyes or your own way of articulating that. And lack of exposure to a lot of things. Like, “I know I don’t like dance. I haven’t seen it but I know I couldn’t handle dance.” So we would do these things like the Field Trips where we’d include dance and solo performance and film and all these things and what do you know? It worked.

I have no experience in experimental film, but what I was getting from things like Avant-Garde-Arama gave me an apprecation of that.

CBOT: And anyone can have an appreciation of that but it has to be presented in a way …

MR: That says it’s okay. And actually sort of a rough cut, like a simple thing without much hype is helpful, you know. Because so often these things get out there and it’s pumped up with so much hype like, “This is from New York and you’ve got to see it and pay $40 to see this.” And everyone goes there and says, “Uh, I don’t really get it and it scares me and I’m going home.”

CBOT: And maybe they get resentful because they feel like they’ve been played.

MR: Yeah, definitely.

CBOT: Fresh Terrain [a theater festival curated by Mr. Russell at UT Austin] did a very similar thing [to Field Trips] in Texas. Is that something that’s … you know a lot of the stuff like Spalding Gray, Karen Finley – is as much a part of the American landscape as apple pie. Do you think there’s still a need for something like Field Trips and is it even feasible?

MR: Well, Fresh Terrain is an expensive problem. But I thought that was the next iteration after Field Trips. Field Trips was cheap. Solo people mostly – maybe three people at the most like Blue Man Group – on the road. And it was made so that the presenter didn’t have to pay more than eight or ten thousand dollars per week. And we handled all that. We kept everybody on a starvation wage because it was their first time touring and they wouldn’t get out there otherwise. And that made the ticket prices lower and you’d kind of come to the Field Trips and it was like the circus. You catch on to what’s cool in New York, like a Whitman’s Sampler. And it worked. Now that has done it’s job. There’s soloists around the world. It’s like a virus. And there’s people doing pretty good experimental work for their communities or within their communities.

However, I’m not seeing a lot of the ensembles or the integrity of the work we’re seeing with people like E.R.S., Radiohole, stuff like that. So I’m interested in pulling that out. And what’s next? I can’t say. I don’t know. Sometimes these things gel into little movements and then they go away. And it might be dance. I thought that showcase we saw that Sarah Michelson curated [Dance-In-Progress at The Kitchen] had a lot of interesting things going on. Something’s going on here. Not all of it’s cooked. But something’s going on – a different way of looking at the dance scene and the dance movement and history that could really click. And there could be another wave of things coming out of here that have that texture to it that is fresh enough for the rest of the world.

CBOT: It seems like now we have dancers approaching the performance problem. I mean, the origin of performance art was actually visual artists approaching the performance problem and now you have dancers who are pushing the limits of what is dance or theater? And maybe theater artists don’t necessarily come to it with that same “what the hell is this?” approach that dancers do right now?

MR: Well, dancers are usually more open and… they work harder for less money [laughs] and are just proud to be onstage once a year. There’s a stronger work ethic. There’s a lot more attention to craft. And a lot more attention to a holistic craft and work ethic that’s intense where the American Theater has got this whole other industry that sucks off it all the time. And so you could…like, the idea in America is to do as little as possible to get as rich and famous as possible. You know? So if you have a one-tone voice and a great body you can be Arnold Schwarzenegger and you don’t have to do fuck-all. You know? So that’s why dance doesn’t quite work for them [the entertainment industry]. Dancers can do more adventurous work because there’s less of a corrupting influence.

CBOT: That’s an interesting point about the pressures of commercialism, I don’t think that anybody begrudges someone else success, but are the pressures greater now to create more conventional work or …

MR: I think that to some extent there is a lot of that. Because this is a generation that knows they’re not going to get N.E.A. grants. They’ve come up where they know they need to make the rent and the rents are high. They work really hard. There’s no glamour in being patched and poor like my generation …

CBOT: You feel that for your generation there was some glamour to being patched and poor?

[At this point Mark goes into character, slouches back and does what I can only describe as a Hippie James Dean Voice]

MR: Yeah man, I’m just, like, living on cigarettes and I got one key and that’s all I need man, because I’m a drifter and it’s okay and I’m sexy as hell. If you wanna sleep with me it’s okay ’cause I’ll be gone in the morning. [laughs]

You know? There was this whole post-60’s counterculture thing, patched jeans, let’s get back to the land, I don’t know. I mean, “back to the land” didn’t really work for me, [laughs] but a lot of that was what was happening in the SoHo lofts. Those people were living like pioneers! There was no heat in those buildings! It went off at five and you shivered until eight the next morning. And you had to go get your groceries from three miles away.

CBOT: Lofts were affordable at that time?

MR: Yeah, they were affordable. You know? They were big. And you could do things. And no-one was looking over your shoulder about whether it was the fire code or not…

CBOT: as long as you were willing to be cold

MR: And so there was that. That was how that whole “back to the land” thing manifested itself in New York. We’re going to homestead SoHo!

[laughter]

But to go back to the end of the question – is that these kids now don’t have that. I don’t even have that option. I have to make this money or I’m out of the game completely. And it ain’t pretty. You can’t even squeegee wash anymore to get by, and unemployment? P.S. 122 survived for about four or five years on unemployment. We would hire and fire the staff knowing that they would apply for unemployment to keep themselves going. And the fire inside to do stuff was strong, but people can’t really do that anymore.

CBOT: Well, it makes me think of when I lived in Seattle in the early 90’s when it was very affordable to live. You could have a low-paying job, live okay and still do your work.Even now there are other places where people can live and afford to do work, but there isn’t necessarily the cultural strength to support the level of work that they could do here.

MR: Well, they can get isolated there. Or the people around them, their critics may not understand them. Their audience can burn out or their actors aren’t that good. Or they get away … a lot of them get pumped up. They do something really original and they get a lot of attention in Austin or Philadelphia and then they decide that they own the world and they get completely off because there’s no-one there to call them on it and say, “Wait, you’re not the Wooster Group, excuse me, get in line”. And so that sharpness and that dialogue, whether it’s direct or not, is helpful here.

CBOT: Okay – to backtrack a lot. Obligatory Stupid Question. Theater is one of those things, I think, where you either like it or you don’t and ne’er the twain shall meet. You, obviously, are one of the people who likes it. When did you realize, “This is the thing I’m going to do. I’m going to travel around the world to figure out how I’m going to do this.” Was there a single moment or did you just sort of find yourself doing it?

MR: Well, you know, the usual, doing the basement version of “Babes in Toyland’ was seminal for me! [laughing] Actually, what happened for me was I had an uncle in Minnesota and he handed me a book which was Marat/Sade! And from reading Marat/Sade that connected me to Artaud and Brook and to The Theater of Cruelty, Peter Weiss – taught me about the Holocaust, which wasn’t really acknowledged back then, at least in Texas. And it opened up a lot of things for me. I was in high school.

Another thing was they gave me a subscription to a British magazine called Plays and Players. And in that magazine they had scripts. That was when Sam Shepard was in exile over in England and he was doing all this crazy, wacky stuff and I think Peter Brook told him, “Just do a fucking play,” and he started writing these really great things like Action, where they’ve got shaved heads and there’s a turkey … and I was reading those through a British magazine, not through, of course, any magazines here. And they would excerpt the script. And that’s how I found out about Robert Wilson and Peter Brook and Sam Shepard. So I started getting into the hardcore stuff. And you know … just like indie bands, people get fixated on these finds? You know? Like, this drum-and-bass scene or this poet scene? This was my particular thing, my obsession and it just opened up once I got to see Grotowski and those things.

Seeing Hair when it came through town for the first time in Texas.

And I had this really amazing teacher. When I was in Austin [in high school], I was a Yankee. I was not very connected. And one of the first things that happened on my first day of school was they said, “Hey, we need people to be in a play.” And it was a guy from the University whose Masters Thesis was to do a show with kids. And I could do a better Texas accent than the other kids could, because I could hear it. So I got this great role! [laughs] And that got me into the theater.

But that also connected me to the theater department [at UT]. I used to hang out at the theater department and people’d say, “Well, what are you? A sophomore or something?” Oh yeah, I’m a sophomore, in high school. So I ended up doing eight years of college because I did four years concurrent with high school hanging out at that theater department.

CBOT: Over the course of your career thus far you’ve probably run across a lot of the people you read about in that British magazine. What’s that like? Is it weird to think of yourself as someone who has had an impact on the culture that you used to look at from afar?

MR: Well, it’s great to feel a part of it. And to feel you have some effect in it. I’ve found a niche in it, which was great. Because I’m came here to be a director and I was a crap director. I was a crap actor. And I was a crap dancer. So what could I do? I could still be selling advertising for magazines at the moment, but I managed to find a way to take what I knew about theater and put it all together. And I was more interested as a director in that kind of – in the impact between audience and art than actors.

I wasn’t an actor’s director. I was more interested in trying to find the truth of certain situations. So, this just sort of fit me very well. I didn’t even know about presenters.

When I first got the job David White came down from DTW and we had a drink and he says, “Well, you know, what do you want to do? Do you want a gig?” You know? Like, “You’re in this, obviously, so you can get a gig.” And I said, “No, no, no, no – I really want to do this.” And he kind of looked at me and we had a couple more drinks. And DTW really helped mentor me and the other funding organizations really helped make this thing [P.S. 122]. People pitched in a lot energy and a lot of knowledge and I just kind of tried to hold the reins. You know, “Oh, that’s how you do a mailing!”

CBOT: So, I’m sure you’re getting this a lot these days, but I’ve got to ask: “What’s next?”

MR: Well, the next thing, actually, is to cause more trouble somewhere, you know? I’ll admit I was getting a little itchy with the same four walls, the columns [P.S. 122 is notorious for the columns in the middle of its playing spaces], the same space, the same height. After traveling around the world seeing things – I was always sitting in the corner saying, “Well, I can’t do that because I’m on the second floor, and I have columns and you’ll have to make it especially for me. And I don’t have a big budget so you’ll have to come down completely on your fees. And if you can do that, then we can make something.”

And sometimes that worked, but there were a lot of things that, no, it just wouldn’t work.

So I’m really interested now in more of the international intersections and trying to keep the avenues open here. I think its politically important and culturally important. And it’ll be despite a lot of odds here because there’s a lot of people who want to isolate the U.S. as the king of the world and that’s not a good idea in politics or in culture. So I’d like to do my little part in that.

I mean, these are never direct exchanges, I don’t believe in direct exchanges, but if we introduce other groups to our culture and our people to them and we make these different connections, then over time we can put things together for all these various groups.

Sometimes it takes a long time, 5 or 6 years of another curator going “Oh, I think I can trust what Mark does so I’ll take what you say on faith,” or “I’ll buy a plane ticket to come over and see what this Big Art Group is,” or “I know that this will work for Mark – this is the thing for Mark.” Like this guy when I went over to Norway, he brought me over basically to see this one thing, because he knew it would get me hot.

CBOT: And did it?

MR: Yeah. [laughs] How we’re going to do it? I don’t know.

CBOT: So…

MR: So I’m looking forward to that, the international thing. I’m looking forward to time off to look at the whole field. Like that question of “What is next?”. I’d really like to focus on that.

It usually, actually, comes with an artist, I don’t think it comes with a movement. I don’t think of movements. I think mostly there are standout artists, usually maybe one or more a year that are able to really crack through. And then you watch them mature. And then you watch them move on. So there’s no real movement around say, Richard Maxwell. He’s got a lot of friends and now he’s got some imitators, a bit, and people that are learning from what he’s doing are playing off of that, but he just sort of popped up. Kind of out of nowhere.

The nice part about P.S. 122 is that it would find it. It was very kind of a passive process. Active, but also passive. I would look at the year and pretty quickly what was most necessary to be on that stage would make itself pretty evident. And usually it would be the right things. Because we weren’t programming any kind of themes or anything of that sort. It was like, “You’ve got an idea, what do you want to do here?”

The deal is that if you wait long enough … I mean, the nice thing about 122 is that we could, at least in the old days, wait long enough to see if someone had something. Keep testing it and keep the doors open. It was about this quantity of stuff. But then waiting to see what would really stick. And then once we saw that, really pushing it forward. And giving it opportunities. And you know, I think there still will need to be a place like that. And we’ll find it.

And for me, now it’s going to be a different way to work, a more proactive way. I’m going to keep trying to find whatever that thing is, whatever canvas I get to work on. And that’s the neat part. That’s really exciting.

One thought on “Talking to Mark Russell, pt. 2”

  1. J.Stephen Brantley says:

    God bless Mark Russell. It was almost ten years ago now, before Hedwig, before Leguizamo hit Hollywood, and I was just graduating from NYU’s Experimental Theatre Wing and hell-bent on bringing theater and rock n roll together in a way I’d never seen before. I had no ‘connections’,no following, but I had a great script and an amazing group of wild and hungry performers who’d done a workshop version of my play Distortion Taco. Everyone else – like fifty different producers – passed on me. Mark Russell was the one and only guy who was willing to take a chance. And it was amazing. An amazing experience for me personally and professionally, and successful even, in pretty much every way a new ‘downtown’ first-timer’s piece can be. We ran as long as we could, turning people away the final weekend. TimeOut NY reviewed us on the same page as the original production of Rent and said our piece was the real rockin deal, ‘beautiful even at its most grotesque.’ Isn’t that just so PS 122? Mark is a true risk taker, courageous enough to see the diamond in its rough, and bring forth beauty from the rough n tumble riff raff that no one else will deal with. I will always be grateful for his support and guidance. Even a year later when I made some colossal mistakes with my sophomore outing and it closed in previews costing PS 122 everything they’d put into it, Mark was still kind enough to say ‘hey, this is all a great experiment, and in that you’ve done your job.’ How many of us get the chance to screw up so beautifully, to have someone fully behind our vision, however fucked up it may be? Mark has done that for many of us performing freaks, he’s given us a home when no one else would, he’s brought people together who have gone on to do amazing and important things…and I can hardly imagine PS 122 without him. (He’s probably the last chance I’ll ever have to perform there again – God knows he’s the only guy who’d give me another chance, and I was just beginning to feel brave enough to ask him for it.) It makes me sad to hear that he’s leaving a place that seems so completely defined by his truly inimitable style. But then, he’s had such an influence on NY performance that his presence will always be felt. And if there is anyone who can find ‘what’s next’ and nurture it, if anyone has that kind of ‘art radar’it is Mark Russell. It’s amazing what he’s done with what he’s had to work with, and against, all these years. I can’t wait to see what he manages in a new capacity on an international scale. Personally I’m getting a little tired of yet another deconstructed-slash-stylishly-appropriated retrofitted redefined re-hash of all that’s been so artfully homaged already. If there is actually anything new under the post post post-modern cliplamp, Mark Russell will find it, bring it back to NYC on time and under budget, and give us all something truly new to talk about. Hell, Mark Russell gives me hope, even now. Mark Russell rocks, and I know I’m only one of so many who will be wishing him all the best in his next incarnation. Good luck, Mark, and thank you so very much. J.Stephen Brantley, writer/performer, Distortion Taco @PS 122 1996

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