Because You Are Good: Jody Christopherson as Clove Galilee
While walking to my interview with Jody Christopherson, I passed the site of the building that exploded a few weeks ago on Second Avenue and Seventh Street. I marveled at how a building that had previously blended in so seamlessly with the landscape of the neighborhood, providing shelter for generations of people who called it home, could be so hauntingly remarkable in its absence. I woefully started wondering about what would replace it, assuming it would be some sort of residential monstrosity that only wealthy out-of-towners could afford, and I wished that New York were a city that had more reverence for its history.
Then I met Jody, to discover that she has been preoccupied by these very same questions for the past few weeks, while developing her biographical one-woman show about Clove Galilee, an experimental theater artist, choreographer, and Mabou Mines Artistic Associate. Her twenty-minute piece, Because You Are Good, will be featured in the 11th annual East Side Stories, presented by the Metropolitan Playhouse, from April 17th-May 3rd. The East Side Stories are a collection of original performances based on personal interviews with long-time Lower East Side residents and performed in their own words. Clove is the daughter of Ruth Maleczech and Lee Breuer, co-founders of Mabou Mines and acclaimed experimental theater artists in their own right. Clove grew up on the Lower East Side in the seventies and eighties, where, as Jody puts it, “theater was her first language.” She was performing on stage and memorizing lines before she could read, and would sometimes do her homework in the 9th Street Precinct because she was friends with one of the beat cops in her neighborhood and it was a safe, quiet place to study. A handful of times, she stayed up so late performing at the Pyramid Club that she had to do her homework at 103 2nd Ave — a café that no longer exists — before heading straight to school.
Given this formidable indoctrination into the world of Lower East Side theater, it is no wonder that Clove decided to become an artist. (Although there was an interlude around age twelve where she decided “being a waitress was the best thing you could be,” and started working at Café Orlin, the first place she ever tasted unsweetened hot chocolate.) She has worked with Maria Irene Fornés on a dance adaption of Fefu and Her Friends called Wickets that took place on an airplane in California, and danced and choreographed all over New York City. Her most recent project is based off of a production of The Imaginary Invalid that she and her mother were working on shortly before Ruth’s death in 2013. Clove felt there was more to tell, and has continued developing the project, towards a production in January 2016. She is currently researching how theater companies deal with the loss of a company member and in the beginning stages of re-imagining the piece. She advised Jody that at a certain point, “you have to give yourself permission to have ideas that may actually take the piece in a different direction. There’s a need to honor what you’ve created with these other very talented people, you know. But at a certain point I think you have to take control of it and make it this vision. So whatever is made will be good, because you’re good. That’s what Ruth would always say to people. Trust that it’ll be good because you’re good at what you do. And she would also say, ‘allow it to be bad for a very, very long time. It has to be bad for a very long time before it can be good.’”
Hence, Jody’s piece found its title, Because You Are Good, and its central theme of discovering freedom and agency as an artist, particularly as a woman working in the arts. Jody says, “Women especially need to be working as generative artists, so that we can be seen in the public eye in the way we want to be working; it’s hard to break into the industry and tell the kind of stories that need to be told.” This theme of finding one’s personal motivation and voice as an artist is set against the background of the incredibly fertile art community on the Lower East Side in the decades when Clove was growing up and forming her artistic ideas. Jody describes the neighborhood as a “playground” for artists in that time period, where artists had numerous skills and were making their own work, where they had the freedom to figure out who they were and how to make their work without constraints from institutions.
Jody feels that this ethos of making art (“doing it well on a shoe-string,” as a college friend of mine dubbed it) resonates with how experimental theater artists make theater today, because the same monetary barriers still exist. Clove recalls recently visiting the Public Theater, where the Obie Awarding winning Shaggy Dog Animation was performed in the prop shop (which no longer exists), and seeing a marker of a time gone by, in the form of a note written on the wall next to the phone booth which read, “I promise I will never borrow money again from Joseph Papp, signed Lee Breuer.” In details such as this one, “The story is incredibly personal, of course,” Jody says, “but the spirit of the story is something that belongs to everyone.” Clove’s story is one of a woman finding her voice — valuing her artistic heritage while declaring herself to be an individual artist with her own creative perspective.
The key ingredient in creating this piece, according to Jody, is inviting the audience in and leaving enough room for their experience. “In a real conversation, people leave room for you to respond — I want to leave that room for the audience, in my performance.” Jody is committed to conveying a story that is engaging to her audience, while being faithful to Clove and respectful of her memories. Jody’s last show took place over a live Skype call with her long time collaborator from the Netherlands whose American visa had been cancelled. In it, they discussed the difficulty foreign artists have obtaining artist visas, interspersed with video clips of live music from their band’s performances (Greencard Wedding). The Skype Show was Jody’s first full length piece that she wrote and performed from documentary-based source material, after previously creating and touring one acts, short plays, music, and films. It was especially important to directly engage the audience in her material, which involved a live band and a political action that the audience could directly influence. In the Skype Show, this interaction took place throughout the play, including a “wedding cake” that was shared with the audience members. She says, “As a storyteller, if I hear or experience an important story that’s not being told, it’s my responsibility to tell it.”
According to Jody, Clove was extremely open and generous in her interviews, and Jody only had to ask a few questions over the course of their first interview session, which lasted an hour and a half. Clove said she grew up being very trusting of the world, and so far it has worked out for her. When Mabou Mines and Lee Breuer won an Obie for Shaggy Dog Animation, they finally had enough money to send her to private school for a year. After that, it was up to her to earn an academic scholarship to keep her place at the school. And she did, until she was 14, when she asked her parents to put her in public school for a year so that they could use the money they would be saving on school books and supplies for her to go study African dance in Africa. And she did, for a semester. Thanks to the supportive and creative environment of her childhood, Clove was, and is, not afraid to reach for what she wants. “Clove and her peers grew up in the world of the East Village and Lower East Side, places that supported experimental theater, artists who are poor, and the idea of freedom. They’re still making really relevant work,” Jody says. Thanks to this upbringing, Clove has had a certain confidence in risk-taking afforded to her since birth that many artists don’t discover until much later in their careers.
For Jody, this has been an ideal creative process. Not only is Clove Galilee the type of bold, red-headed female role model that she loves to champion, but she is grateful to be given the freedom and the permission to enact such an enthralling story onstage, funded and supported by Metropolitan Playhouse’s 11th East Side Stories initiative. Jody says, “Knowing our history is important because you see this creation of a community for experimental artists that reinforces the right to do the kind of work that we do.” Without a doubt, Jody is making her own significant contribution to the history of the Lower East Side and its artistic legends with her depiction of Clove Galilee in Because You Are Good.