Six Artists Re-imagine Gertrude Stein

Starting January 9, Target Margin Theater’s Lab brings multidisciplinary riffs on the words of Gertrude Stein to The Bushwick Starr.  Many free events accompany the lab, including readings, workshops and Reread Another, a piece directed by David Herskovits this Friday and Saturday (info below!)

Photo Credit: ALR Design

Photo Credit: ALR Design

Target Margin Theater Lab artists have raided Gertrude Stein’s literary estate and made it their own. The artists selected and collaged poems, plays and love notes to form six theatrical texts they’ve re-imagined as drag performance, dance, music, social experiment and often, in proper Stein fashion, a hybrid which could be called “all of the above” or perhaps, “none of the above.”

Gertrude Stein’s work spans and subverts the genres of fiction, memoir, poetry, opera and playwriting.  Most of Stein’s plays, which she calls “landscapes,” reject plot and character to focus entirely on the architecture of language itself.  Stein’s writing is a natural fit for Target Margin, a theater company founded in 1991 with goals of aggressive re-imagination, whose mission articulates a desire to push against the boundary of what makes a play.

I spoke with lead artists Nehassaiu deGannes, Nikki Calonge and Aaron Ethan Green about the unique process of staging Stein’s text.

Nehassaiu deGannes — Stein & Language as the Thing Itself

A poet herself, Nehassaiu deGannes shares Stein’s kinesthetic and meticulous approach to language. “It’s not like language is a stand-in. The language is the thing itself.”

DeGannes gives credit to her poetry background for giving her the confidence to enter Stein’s “exquisite strangeness” via intuition. DeGannes says Stein subverts syntax and grammar so many layers of meaning can emerge in an associative way.

Five Historic Children Who Are Not, a collage of three Stein texts—Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters, Third Historic Drama and Accents in Alsace—marks deGannes’ debut as a Target Margin Lab lead artist. She has previously acted in two TMT labs.

Many readers dismiss Stein’s work as apolitical word play, but deGannes reads intentionality and political engagement in Stein’s abstraction, shaped by Stein’s experience of living in France during World Wars I & II. DeGannes has invited the ensemble (eight performers, a composer, a choreographer and a lighting designer) to connect to their own personal, cultural and societal memories of “immigration, migration, forced eviction, exile, assimilation and the costs of assimilation.”

To realize these arrivals and departures, Pilar Castro Kiltz choreographs eight bodies in space, incorporating international dance styles, such as social dances from the 1930s, as well as Le Danse Apache, a dance of ritualized violence between a man and a woman which Stein refers to in Accents in Alsace. Janice Lowe has composed with a “cultural crossroads aesthetic,” drawing sonic influence from multiple time periods and regions.

“Stein had multiple intelligences alive in her work, so why not bring multiple intelligences into the room?” de Gannes asks with excitement.

Five Historic Children Who are Not runs January 15th-24th at The Bushwick Starr, on a bill with Nic Adams’ White Wines (after Plays).

Nikki Calonge—Stein & Artistic Partnership

When John Del Gaudio, TMT Artistic Producer, asked Nikki Calonge to be part of the Stein lab, she thought, ”this is destiny…I have Geography of Plays on my nightstand!”

Calonge’s She Counts her Dresses incorporates Miss Furr and Miss Skeene, a Stein “word portrait” written about real life couple and artistic partners Ethel Mars and Maud Hunt Squire.  The piece also sources from Counting Her Dresses, a Stein play featuring characters named Act I-Act VI, excerpted below.


Can you laugh at me.


And then say.





In both texts, Stein writes with humor, joy and repetition about a couple sharing life, art, ambition, competition and love, inspired no doubt by Stein’s experiences with her partner, supporter and muse, Alice B. Toklas. This partnership is mirrored in the storyline of visual artists Ethel Mars and Maud Hunt Squire as well as in Calonge’s own life—she is married to her oft-collaborator Mike Mikos.

Calonge says the most difficult challenge of being in an artistic partnership is logistical: finding rehearsal space and times they’re both available. “It’s the diapers, you always need more,” says Calonge.

However, the ecstasy of sharing artistic discoveries far outweighs the mundane. The couple catches each other’s blind spots and provides critical support. For Calonge, Mikos “has the fresh eyes to look at the thing I made.”

She Counts Her Dresses draws formal inspiration from the simple, outline-free shape of Mars and Squire’s illustrated block prints.  The visual language is intentionally two dimensional and stark, with cardboard set pieces and a “ketchup and mustard” color palette.

With staging, Calonge strives to do “one thing at a time (just speaking, just singing, just dancing)….This is bold, flat, simple, with text that repeats itself. Essentially, the text should do the layering.”

She Counts Her Dresses runs January 29th-February 7th at The Bushwick Starr with Aaron Ethan Green’s Stein-Drag.

Aaron Ethan Green — Stein & Gender Performance

“[Stein] was creating a safe space to talk about and experiment with gender and we are too,” says Aaron Ethan Green, lead artist of Stein-Drag.

Since mid-November, Green’s ensemble has been experimenting with drag. “I wanted to make sure they were comfortable in wigs, in makeup and with each other before we grappled with Gertrude,” Green says.

The ensemble consists of four drag queens and one drag king. Some of them have worked with Green before, others were recommended to him by TMT Artistic Director David Herskovits. Many are performing drag for the first time, including Green. Their shared watch list includes Paris is Burning, Ru Paul’s Drag Race, and Pageant.  Green describes the learning process as collective and egalitarian. “Not having a drag queen who’s very versed in the drag world has been an asset.”

Green isn’t interested in replicating a womanly exterior, as traditional drag does, but rather discovering what layers of meaning emerge when one blurs the lines of gender, staging juxtapositions like drag queens with beards or dreadlocks—”gritty drag” he calls it.

After several weeks of experimenting with drag, Green introduced text from Baby Precious Always Shines, a collection of love notes exchanged between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Stein wrote in the gendered pronouns of he and she to refer to herself and Toklas, respectively.  Green likens Stein to a drag king, “as male as any of the macho artists in her circle.”

“The way Gertrude plays with heterosexual domestic life and puts a spin on it lends itself perfectly to drag,” Green says. “Are we talking about the male underneath the female makeup and hip pads and boobs? Or are we talking about the female impersonation on the surface?”

Stein-Drag is the last of three double bills, running January 29th-February 7th at The Bushwick Starr.

Also on the bill at the Stein Salon!

  • Part I, January 15th-24th, Nic Adams’ White Wines (after Plays), a “salon of hermetic curiosities” which encourages you to “wear your finest, tiniest hat and steel yourself for slumber-party-style punch-drunk giggle-fits.”
  • Act Second, January 22nd-31st features Adam R. Burnett’s Erik Satie / If I Told Him / Erik Satie, an exploration of the flow of time and the impossibility of being in the present.  Sharing the bill is Megan Hill’s A Nice Story, or We Get It Gertrude.

Tickets to the Lab are $15 for a double bill, available here!

There are many free events associated with the Stein Lab, including Reread Another, directed by David Herskovits (January 9th & 10th), a panel with Stein scholars and theater makers, and an invitation to play with Stein’s texts, more information here!

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