Talking about Actress Fury with Jennie MaryTai Liu
A few weeks ago we published an interview between Jennie MaryTai Liu and 600 Highwaymen talking about their piece The Record at Under The Radar. This week 600 Highwaymen’s Michael Silverstone talks to Jennie MaryTai Liu about her new work Actress Fury, opening tomorrow (January 29) at The Bushwick Starr.
(Special thanks to Brandon Fisette for transcribing the interview!)
Michael Silverstone: Let’s talk about the first idea for Actress Fury.
Jennie MaryTai Liu: The first impetus is that I had to wait outside of the country for a really long time for my green card. I couldn’t actually return to the US for eight months, but before that, I was back and forth between the UK and New York for a year. So, it was a year and a half of being really unmoored. I was feeling like my life had been curtailed. My direction had been hindered. For the first time – and I am incredibly privileged for this to have been the first time – I couldn’t live in the way that I wanted to live. It was sort of a suspended animation. You know how people talk about how sometimes the most difficult times are the most fertile? For me, this moment had no drama. It was literally the most un-dramatic thing in the world. It was so mundane. More like a depression.
MS: But you felt that something that was supposed to happen wasn’t happening. Something that needed to come out wasn’t coming out.
JMTL: Exactly. It was the opposite of action. I just didn’t have any ideas. And also I was in a place where I didn’t know anybody. So this piece ultimately stems from this prolonged period of time when I felt suspended. I felt like my destiny was being taken apart at the seams.
MS: Were you searching for something? Were you looking for ideas?
JMTL: I wasn’t working on anything. I was writing observations, trying to record the way I was feeling about what I was doing during the day. And I was writing a lot about fantasy. But I was blocked.
JMTL: When I came back to the US, I was so fucking fired up and ready to go. I was just like, “I’m gonna fucking kill it when I get back. I have so much energy. I’m gonna work on like so many things at the same time. I’m gonna fucking do it.” And I came back and I had all this energy, and it just felt like fighting energy.
MS: And is this piece a little bit about LA, or no?
JMTL: It’s about acting. At first it was going to be about the form of acting. In the first incarnation at Redcat, the three of us in the piece play the same actress, and the earlier iteration was that this actress was playing the role of Ajax, the great shamed mythic warrior. And there were also a lot of references to technique, and there was this early Hollywood golden age cinema style, and the affected 20’s voices. It felt like we were using a lot of post-modern tropes. It was sort of a bit of a pastiche. Kind of pulling from film tropes to stage. And most of that stuff has fallen away and I would say that now the piece is still about acting but it’s sort of about acting in life. And, specifically, women acting like women in life. And, even more specifically women artists acting like women and like artists.
JMTL: Yeah, women and representations of women. It’s about some kind of primal need to act and be recognized for your actions.
And then I saw Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. It’s about three or four college girls, and they go to Florida for Spring Break, and they’re so bad. And Harmony Korine talks about them as ‘the furies’ from Greek mythology. The feral, rabid, vulgar, terrifyingly ugly group of female spirits. And they torture you and haunt the fuck out of you when you commit some sort of moral crime. So this idea of these women who are these wailing wreckers that destroy everything in their path but are also incredibly creative. That, in the sense that they are beautiful and really living life, really appealed to me.
MS: Did you already have Ajax in mind?
JMTL: When I was away, Noel and Sue from The Bushwick Starr e-mailed me and asked me to do this piece. And my engine starting going and I began looking for Greek texts. I’ve never done that. I’ve used found texts and recordings, but I’ve never worked from a play. So I found Ajax.
MS: You wanted something that was big?
JMTL: Yeah, I wanted to wrestle with something that many people have wrestled with. I wanted something really big. I wanted something with a hero, with a warrior, with a soldier. And I was interested in a male protagonist. And Ajax was really interesting to me because this is a story of a person with a huge ego and reputation that is completely humiliated. Shame and self-loathing and the feeling of something irreversible I connected to because, while I was away, I re-contemplated every decision that I had made over the past 6 years of my life. And the idea that it was about success versus happiness is intriguing, and what I think this piece is trying to speak to.
MS: So you were stuck in this liminal moment that was very still, very un-dramatic. You were waiting and you were idle, and you were thinking about inactivity, about not pressing things out. And you had this urge to tackle something really big and epic —
JMTL: — that’s the right word. It’s such a millennial term now, you know.
MS: And you started working — how? Did you start working on it in a room with people?
JMTL: I started working with Hannah in February 2012 in New York. We didn’t have Ajax then, but we were working with the diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky.
MS: Oh yeah, I’ve read that.
JMTL: And he seemed to us like a kind of Ajax character, this is a demigod. He was known throughout the world, top of his game and then at thirty three he starts to have nervous attacks, agoraphobia, social anxiety, and eventually winds up in a mental institution for the rest of his life which is thirty more years. He thinks he’s God, he has this enormous God-complex – which is Ajax’s problem.
MS: So you had Nijinsky in the beginning. You had Hannah. You did ten days on your own in a room.
JMTL: Right from the beginning we were working on an idea. This desire to act in the world, the desire to make an impression and to be extraordinary, which is something that both of us feel greatly. We had both just turned thirty and we both felt then that we were not doing what we wanted to be doing yet or being recognized for what we were already doing. So it was really easy for us to talk and write about that stuff.
MS: That makes sense. There’s more people in it, though, than you and Hannah?
JMTL: Alexa Weir is in it. She’s a dancer. You know how modern dancers, in the best possible way, can have kind of a transparent presence? They’re into heir bodies so much that their ego and personality just ceases to be a barrier. She has that going on, but she’s also really edgy and smart and full of personality.
MS: How do you feel about being in this work, as a performer, as well as directing
JMTL: I just felt like I needed to be in it this time.
MS: It also sounds like you needed to be inside of it to work your way out of it.
JMTL: I think that’s true.
MS: I am thinking about all the pieces that I have seen of yours, starting with Fresh Tracks when we graduated NYU. Aesthetically and compositionally, there’s all these layers, but thematically, I feel there’s always an intensity – even a sense of hysteria. It feels like tearing, or pulling, or writhing.
JMTL: There’s dis-ease.
MS: It feels like “I am doing this thing to get myself through it, to work myself out of it.”
JMTL: Yeah, that’s definitely present.
MS: That feeling was less present in the piece that you did at HERE, which had much distance and presentation to it.
JMTL: There was a shine to it.
MS: Yes, it was very clean in how it was structured. I remember it was a triptych.
JMTL: That piece also had media and video in it. So the body and presence was not at the forefront.
MS: Is there video in Actress Fury?
JMTL: Not at all.
JMTL: There’s no live music, it’s all recorded but there’s a lot of it.
JMTL: We speak the whole time. We make sound or speak the whole time.
JMTL: There is a lot of dancing in it. The whole piece is choreographed.
MS: Is there improvisation?
JMTL: Yeah, there’s room, there’s space. I’ve tried to leave some room in this piece for that. For that kind of radical open-ness.
MS: What happens after the piece is presented?
JMTL: I hope that this piece will have some life. I hope that there are people who are interested in it, I will say that. But if it doesn’t happen that’s ok.
MS: It sounds like this piece had to happen in this way, though I guess every piece is like that.
JMTL: Like you had no choice but to make it the way that you made it.
MS: Yeah, you made it, and now you’re going to move on to something else.
JMTL: Yeah. You either make another piece or you don’t make another piece. Annie-B said this thing once to me about how she always promised herself that she would only keep making work if energy was coming towards her. And I think that’s a pretty good rule to live by. If no energy comes towards me after making this piece, I’m going to go back to LA, re-order my life, get a job and start to lay the foundations again. And then I want to start working on a feature-length process-driven film. I don’t want to write a screenplay and try to get it made, I want to start shooting immediately with people in a room. I want to film the making of a performance, but I don’t think it will end up being a performance. I think it will be a film.
MS: If you had to distill your working process into a single moment, a moment that really happened, what would that be?
JMTL: We did a residency in LA for this piece in December, and it was super intense. We worked six days a week for two weeks, eight hour a day. Alexa got sick, but she continued to come to rehearsal. Two and a half hours before the public showing, we still did not know a bunch of shit. All the transitions were unclear, there were some parts that we had run like once. And halfway working through something, Alexa just blows up. She’s so overwhelmed, so overworked, so sick, so tired, She can’t remember anything, and so she locks herself in the bathroom. This is not a comment on her character. It’s a wonderful thing that human beings can do is explode, but it’s also awful and difficult and scary because we had to rehearse and figure this shit out. So we take a break, leave her in the room and she sleeps.
So Hannah and I go out to buy some shit we need for props. We were like ‘Ok, what the fuck are we going to do?’ And Hannah was like ‘Ok, so lets make a whole bunch of rules about how we’re going to navigate this material’. And in the end, we had this structure for playing, the rules for how to play. And that is what I’m really interested in. That is the really exciting place that I’m in with Hannah and Alexa, and it’s take a really long time get there. I do take lead, I drive the process for sure, but I am much more inspired and energized by the idea that what we’re doing is ‘play’.
MS: Do you know how you got started making performances?
JMTL: I choreographed my first dance for a show when I was 11. It was about wind. We wore tie-dye t-shirts and it was on a television show in Hong Kong called ‘Show Kids Challenge.’
MS: And at the time you were taking ballet, or jazz, or tap?
JMTL: I was taking ballet but I was doing a weekly class with this woman called Lindsey McAlister who is kind of my art mother and she was teaching experimental dance-making techniques. So I’ve always made things.
MS: So then you came to NYU/ETW, and then you graduated and did Fresh Tracks after that?
JMTL: I didn’t get into Fresh Tracks, and then the following year I did. Then I got the DTW split program, which is the piece that you saw and that was really fun and, I suppose successful because it got a good New York Times review. It got this crazy glowing review by this woman who has not written a review since. She was an angel that got sent.
MS: This show is gonna be great. I have a great feeling about it.
JMTL: I think it’s gonna be really fucking fun. We have the audience sitting all around us at The Bushwick Starr and I want it to like the audience is witnessing these people coming together to do this thing. Or that we’re putting on this show for you in our living room.