Magda & Chelsea “Vulgar Early Works” at FringeArts Studio Series
I saw zany performance art duo Magda & Chelsea perform their Vulgar Early Works at JACK in Brooklyn in the fall, and it left a major impression. I meant to write a recap/review but never did (bad Elena!), so I decided to interview them in advance of their Vulgar Early Works going up as part of the Studio Series at FringeArts in Philly this weekend (catch it Thursday 2/19 and Friday 2/20 at 7pm, and Saturday 2/21 at 8pm). I sent some questions over email, and they responded without reading each other’s answers.
Read below about vulgarity-as-life-force, Magda’s drawn-on beard, and their future lives as indie film stars crushing tangerines between their breasts.
Elena Light: You’re some of the only “emerging/early-career/whatever” artists I know who have a long-term artistic collaboration (rather than just for one project). How did you start working together?
Chelsea Murphy: We started working together at the Headlong Performance Institute in Philadelphia in 2012. For the program you have to make a final piece and we decided to collaborate on it together.
Magda San Milan: Well I’m always like: it was random and Chelsea is always like: she knew she wanted to work with me from the beginning. But seriously. We had to do a final showing as part of our semester at the Headlong Performance Institute. I was rebelling and questioning the point of having an end product. The training was so much about process and I wanted to be purist about it. I was sick of the final showing as proof. It changes the process too much because you know you are going to perform something and you start making from that expectation. So I was telling our teacher, Andrew: I’m not sure I’m even going to make a piece. And he said: why don’t you work with Chelsea, since she has a dance background? And so I did what he said. We had a couple rehearsals together and started getting hot about this idea of a “failed rebel.” Someone who wants to rebel against society and whatnot, who screams a lot, who seems really angry, but who is afraid to jaywalk and calls their mom regularly. Once we had that idea I was down with the show, and all the shows that followed.
EL: How do you make stuff as a pair?
CM: We make stuff together in lots of different ways. One of our favorite places to start is with an “idea bootcamp” which was a technique we developed on a retreat at Silo last year. It forces each person to make proposals and follow impulses no matter how silly they seem. In this way new things will come into the space. We try to work with “the thing that is actually happening”. This means the moment or quality or feeling we decide to focus on may not be the focus of the assignment at all. It might be the way Magda is moving her body while she speaks or the way that I casually have my hands in my pants while ranting. We act as magnifying glasses for each other’s work. Pointing out and focusing on new things until something hopefully unique and interesting is crafted. Often we stand next to each other and rift vocally or with movement on an idea or something that made us laugh. If we’re laughing so hard that we can’t even do the thing, then it is going in the piece. If something seems really scary and makes us feel shame, we often put that in the work as well.
MSM: We get in a room together and stuff happens. Ha, just kidding. I have the impish impulse to answer all of these questions in a defensive way, and then have a scenario where you counter-attack me, and the whole interview becomes a really aggressive argument. Ah, fantasies. Part of the assumption-motor of our process is that anything we are personally interested in (thematically, artistically etc.) is valid in performance. So we come into rehearsal as our full selves and see what gels. There is not a lot of predetermined material or even rehearsal structure. Because we spend so much time together outside of the rehearsal room there is a constant dialogue about art and life. So chances are I know something that Chelsea is mulling over in her day-to-day way and if there is a lull I can suggest: well why don’t we start from the experience of shame because you mention that a lot?
EL: I creeped on you guys and know you both trained at Headlong. How does that training influence your work?
CM: Where does the influence of that training end! Ugh. Headlong is our family. Our moms and dads. They preach collaboration and healthy lives for artists. They teach how to find your own creativity and process and not specific techniques. In this way you are constantly searching, exploring with curiosity your own identity and voice. I think probably I will be doing that for the rest of my life, hopefully. We practiced a lot with presence. What is your body giving off when you are on stage, and is it doing what you think it is doing. We play with this a lot in our work. Also they teach wonderful, productive, sharp and supportive ways of giving feedback and looking at work. That may be the most important influence on my life.
MSM: I made this Headlong slogan in my head: “Tough on ideas, gentle on people.” Oh, I made another one too: “Headlong, so you think you can THINK?” My time at HPI was very healing. I come from a background of much art made with no money. I have seen the cost on the people who make that sacrifice their careers. Headlong proposes a courageously holistic alternative to this burn out. They argue with the world that you can make a sustainable and livable life for yourself as an artist, and that the ultimate test of your dedication is not your destitution. At the same time they instill a rigor around the process and research behind performance. This combination has proved extremely fruitful for me. Every day, every month I am always scheming about how to make my life easier and my art fuller. And dammit because they don’t mutually exclude each other.
EL: Having seen Vulgar Early Works, I can attest that it is vulgar. What draws you to vulgarity?
MSM: Vulgarity is a direct deep channel into the life force. Let’s all swim in the vulgar stream flowing quickly towards the attainment of our deepest desires! I stumbled upon the definition of the word libido the other day while I was casually PERUSING the dictionary and it has three definitions: 1, all of one’s hopes and desires; 2, the will to live; and 3, sex drive. The will to live is important because it addresses mortality in a way that embraces the reality of death and dying. The process of enacting vibrant, vulgar moments onstage encapsulates all of those states for me. And when I am simultaneously existing in a state of death, fantasy and sex I feel truly liberated and full of life.
CM: Thank you for your attest-ment. Vulgarity for us is a great expression of life force. Which I think is what both of us want out of performing: to express our life force to the highest degree. Vulgarity is beyond anger or gender or performing. It is asking people to be witness to something of the essence of ourselves. Wow, that is more dramatic then I expected it to sound. We were (are) both going through some intense times and were experiencing very distinctly the way that deep sorrow sits next to/with/around/inside of grotesque expressions of being alive. The combination of these two emotions for us = vulgarity. Also it is possible that the word may be more appropriate as “libido” but it doesn’t sound as good.
EL: Why the “early” qualifier? I like that it has a hint of a retrospective vibe despite that you guys are just starting out. Tell me more about that choice.
CM: We thought it was funny to name the show as if ourselves in the far future were doing a retrospective on our earlier work. It is hopeful, like hey, we are going to have lots more work to come. Also it is really fucking hard to title a piece. It doesn’t feel necessary for us to name our shows so sometimes we have to pick a name and it is kind of an exhausting process that never feels like you quite got it right anyway. So when in doubt at least pick something that we will be able to laugh about when people are saying the title of our show.
MSM: We had one of those awful late night “Let’s name the show” brainstorming sessions. I was trying to do a literal gesture towards those painting titles that are like “Still life with pear” or “Flowers on a sunlit table.” You know the ones that just say simply what the thing is. So I was like, what is the work that we are presenting? It is all of our first duets together. We included the word “early” because we assume that we will both go on to make many more works of art, and that looking back these will truly be our early pieces. Before we started crushing small tangerines between our breasts for truly independent films—or whatever we will be doing in twenty years.
EL: The piece that I saw at JACK definitely had a sort of “medley” feel. Are these works combinations of past works? How did you string them together?
CM: Yes the Vulgar EW is a combination of 6 pieces that we made between 2012 and 2014. Rooster&Snowball, Singer/Songwriter, Dr. Self Love, Relapsed Hatchling, Bearded Lusting Savior, and Hands Down the Pants or (We Touched It). All of the pieces are in the show in their full form except We touched It which just appears in the introduction before Rooster&Snowball. God we wanted to put so much more in there too. Like every idea we’ve ever had wanted to be in there, but then the show was going to be 3 hours long and we would die. So we picked the things that seemed the most reliable and still prevalent and interesting to us. Then we sat in a coffee shop and tried to figure out how transitions would work best with costume changes and the flow of the show and that is how we strung them together. We try to make the transitions as non-existent as possible, which I think sometimes gets us into trouble. I feel that if we continued to work on this piece we would melt the edges of the pieces together more and have things bleed into each other. But I don’t think that is going to happen.
MSM: It was kind of painful stringing the together. It was more like putting vegetables on a skewer for a kabob, and you can feel what the vegetables feel being impaled by that cheap wooden splintery thing. Not that bad. But it was difficult to find the right order because we wanted the older and newer works to shed light on each other. We didn’t want the pieces to be preserved in their original states. We wanted the to start to mold each other into a new cohesive and yet differentiated reality.
EL: It felt to me that costuming plays a pretty big role in your work: how do you find the costumes? Who makes them? Inspirations?
CM: I like that you think this! I am shit at picking costumes. Magda is in charge of the costuming and does a great job. We have an inspirational advisor named Maiko Matsushima who is David Brick’s (co-director of Headlong) wife. She sometimes lends us some of her badass clothes and gives us advice. We buy clothes from thrift stores or appropriate items of our wardrobes. We might have different Rooster&Snowball costumes for this show because they were getting kind of grungy looking. Also that piece has changed so much since we first performed it in 2012. I mean the piece itself is exactly the same but the way we perform it changes a lot because we change a lot. It is hard to feel from the inside sometimes because we are living the change, but I think it is very obvious from the outside. SO I think the costumes for that piece feel a little out of date. They’ve gone through 4 different incarnations I think, and maybe this will be a 5th. Also now that we’ve done this show, all of the pieces have TWO lives! One life as themselves singularly, a piece alone, and a second life as a section of the larger work. This means that the costumes and the pieces change their identities a little bit based on what life they’re living.
MSM: Awhile back we decided that I would do the costumes. Everything is from our wardrobes or the thrift stores. I like costumes that suggest two realities being bridged. So with Singer/Songwriter the costumes are from two different time periods and also for two different kinds of singers. They are coexisting in a liminal reality. Or with Rooster&Snowball the look is half casual and half fantastical. In general I like to make us look OK but not really that great. To show the effort, but still have the grunge.
EL: I LOL’ed a lot at the JACK show. How do you discover effectively funny moments? Do you guys test your work out on other people? Try to be funny and hope it works? Please explain your comedic process, if that’s a thing.
MSM: Many times we are just being really honest and open and people laugh. Because we are two little hams and people-pleasers deep down we love it. But we didn’t necessarily start out with the intention to be funny. We were trying to be honest in a way that surprised ourselves.
CM: Glad you LOL’ed. We do not try to discover funny moments and we don’t try things out on people. We don’t really have a comedic process, its just a part of our process as a whole. I think both of us process emotional life things with humor, self deprecation and irony and all that good stuff. It is a part of our histories and families and identities and relationships. And we also are best friends and have a blast working together. We like to laugh and have fun thank god or else everything would be way too much work. Andrew Simonet of Headlong told us once that when you laugh at something in rehearsal it is a sign of something being an interesting or odd rhythm that you’ve not seen before and to use that as an arrow for what to keep working on, what is interesting. I think early on we may have had some guilt about how goofy our rehearsal process is and that we wouldn’t get anything done if we kept fucking around and laughing, but we got over that and instead it just became our process.
EL: Why do I keep seeing Magda’s drawn-on beard in photos? How did this emblem come about?
MSM: Ohmygod, I have been painting a beard on my face and not knowing what to do after that for like the past six years. I had this urge that I couldn’t explain and I knew it was performative. I would get as far as painting the beard and then not know what to do. I want you to imagine me just sitting around aimlessly flicking things with the beard on in all the different places I lived during that time. All the different rooms and bathrooms, all the kitchens. That’s what it was like. Only with the Vulgar EW have I found a thing to do onstage that fulfills the beard. I’m so glad- it was becoming a damn onerous weight. The beard is about me being seen by you in a way that feels internally authentic. It is about not being dismissed as a petite woman. It is about claiming my power and my ambiguity and my subversion in one image.
CM: Magda started wearing her beard long before we worked together. Not sure when was the first time, but it looks so good on her doesn’t it! For a long time she’s been wanting to make a solo with her beard on that expressed this inner life force feeling, but she didn’t have the right time or venue. We took the opportunity for this show to focus on that impulse of hers and made sure it happened. I think, that doing this solo of her’s with the beard is the most free that she’s ever felt on stage. I mean thats what she says, we’ll see what she writes.
EL: Your work is so personal, yet it often directly address the viewer. So, the big question: who is your ideal audience?
CM: I like this question. It is a question that we often ask ourselves and really we don’t know. People who have enjoyed seeing our work and who we have enjoyed performing for include teenage boys, our families, older folks, little kids, other artists, strangers, friends. I’m like anyone who is game to sit there and give us their presence, eye contact, attention and laughter is the ideal audience member. Size-wise it gets a little complicated. It feels really shitty to perform for less then 15 people. 15 people feels bad but not so bad. Our work is this weird combination of too personal and directly addressing and too proscenium where 15 people or less feels really weird and intense. Everyone gets uncomfortable. So we generally like 40-100 people, but recently we performed the 5 minute version of Singer/Songwriter that we did at Joe’s Pub in September in front of a 700 person audience and I’ll tell you it felt GREAT!
MSM: I have this argument with other theater directors, that the material can be explicitly personal and still appeal to all family, friends and strangers. I invited those directors to see this show. We love performing for both and we worry about performing for both those who know us and those who don’t. The ideal right now might be a mixed crowd. Because we love the virgin viewer and their downright flabbergasted responses and we also love the person who is going to remember the drunken rant that was the source of that monologue and give us a hard time about it. And of course the potential lover who met us once and now will REALLY know us intimately. That is my personal favorite viewer.
EL: Venn diagrams proliferate on your website. What? Why? How?
MSM: Well we share so much. If you notice the difference between the two: the middle of the diagram is so bloated now. What will the next one look like? Will their even be any unshared sections to the diagram? The center is a hungry beast- anyone who has had a long term intimate collaboration can attest to that.
CM: Magda had this idea when we were designing our website. It seemed like the most simple way to show how much our work intertwines with the rest of our life. Also it is just functionally the best way to visually represent our collaboration. We do a lot of things together on our own work, we also do things together as a collab duo working with other people on their projects. We also do a lot of things separately that have nothing to do with each other with creative work and also with our non creative work lives. Everything is kind of incestuous in a really nice supportive community kind of way. Venn diagram is a beautiful way to represent this.
EL: Finally, how many times has Magda died onstage?
CM: In the Vulgar EW Magda has died onstage 3 times. But also in the Vulgar EW she has died onstage no times. I think she made another piece in college called death of a dancer where she got shot a bunch of times on stage with fake blood and stuff but would just keep dancing. I’m not sure if she died in the end of that or not.
MSM: In this show three times onstage and many times in rehearsal. It’s hard to keep it fresh. Also I did a piece where I got shot three times while I was just trying to do my sexy Spanish modern dance solo and it was implied that I died when the lights went down. I remember a teacher asking me if the reason I wanted to do that piece was because of some kind of fetish. I didn’t know what the word fetish meant at the time and I was offended. I do have a lot of good feelings about dying onstage. Also once a therapist asked me to pick a happy place to imagine myself in during meditation and I picked onstage before the show when the theater is empty. She told me to pick something more neutral.