Remembering, and Reviving, the Work of Jim Neu
“When Jim started writing for himself, he started using plots,” Keith McDermott was saying to me, when his collaborator Catherine Galasso interrupted.
“Would you say there’s a plot in The Floatones?” she inquired.
“Yes!” he replied wryly before continuing, to me: “That’s what I think is so great about Jim’s writing. I see a lot of downtown work, especially work in the comedy vein, where they use absurdity, and the idea is that this makes no sense. A costume will come out for its own sake, for instance. And that’s not value-less, but all Jim’s funny work makes sense.”
Galasso listened silently, but couldn’t quite let it go. “So what is the plot?” she asked. “There’s not a dramatic climax…”
“This is about four people from a self-help meeting who decide to form a singing group to help themselves,” McDermott answered her simply, and turned back to me, smiling.
The three of us were sitting in a crowded café on Second Avenue on a Monday morning not too long ago. McDermott, in his early sixties, is slender and calmly composed, the soft drawl of his Texan accent still present after many years in New York City. Galasso, on the other hand, is a thirty-something choreographer with expansive energy. They make for a somewhat odd couple—the refined Broadway actor (McDermott’s earliest career highlight was as Alan Strang in Equus opposite Richard Burton in the mid-1970s) and the kinetic downtown choreographer—but they are in fact two generations of the same family, which they refer to affectionately as the “Byrds” (McDermott at one point made sure I spelled it properly with the “y”).
That is, McDermott was an associate of Robert Wilson’s collaborative artistic ensemble the Byrd Hoffman School of the Byrds, as were Galasso’s parents, Michael John Galasso and Elizabeth Pasquale. Also among that remarkable group of artists was Jim Neu, who later in life became a stalwart of downtown theater until his death in 2010, and whose 1995 play The Floatones McDermott and Galasso are remounting for a very short run through May 10 at La Mama.
“I was doing Equus, and Bob came to see it,” McDermott recalled of how he moved from Broadway houses to the world of downtown experimental performance in the 1970s. (As with all his associates I’ve met, Robert Wilson is known simply as “Bob”.) “He told me he was doing a play where he was talking for the first time, and asked would I come give him acting lessons. He and Lucinda Childs were doing a play called I was sitting on my patio this guy appeared I thought I was hallucinating. It was right after Einstein on the Beach, which was a big financial failure for him, so he had to do a small two-person play. So I went there and everything I told them they did the opposite. But Jim was involved with it.”
Born in Brooklyn in 1943 and raised in Long Island, Jim Neu moved to the Lower East Side after serving in the military during the Vietnam War (albeit stationed in South Korea). According to the New York Times’s obituary, he met Wilson around 1970 and became a member of the ensemble shortly thereafter.
“He had this very deep voice. And he was very dry, humor-wise. He spoke very slowly…” McDermott recalled, letting his voice slip into a deeper, quieter register and drawing out the last word.
While Neu’s work with Wilson fit comfortably into the aesthetic of the time, once left to his own devices in the ’80s and ’90s, his work evolved, but continued to bear witness to the aesthetic experiments the group explored in the 1970s: that is, semi-abstract, semi-collage-based texts drawing from mass media and popular culture.
“One thing to think about with Jim’s inspiration, to go back to Wilson,” Galasso pointed out, “A Letter for Queen Victoria was one thing they really wrote together with Christopher Knowles, and I remember being told that a lot of the text was pulled directly from television. It was like having two different channels on simultaneously, having two people speak text from two different shows.”
“Well, Bob always described using text as a layer,” added McDermott. “The text is layer, the music is a layer, and what he doesn’t want is for them to be purposefully related. He wants the relation to happen in the audience’s mind. But Jim got more meaning oriented [after that].”
“But always with that television-esque sensibility,” Galasso continued.
Indeed, Neu’s work showed a fascination with language and communication and how ideas—particularly those drawn from popular literatures such as marketing and self-help—influence the culture at large. He was fond, both Galasso and McDermott noted, of creating neologisms not out-of-sync with contemporary corporate business-speak, like “rumorize” or “unusuality.”
“He was interested in jazz. He was interested in made-up words, marketing words,” McDermott said. “He was interested in the over-entertainment of culture.”
As an independent playwright and performer, Neu drew his inspiration from the Lower East Side bohemian scene. He frequently collaborated with the likes of Mary Schultz, Black-Eyed Susan, and the late Bill Rice, the latter of whom shared with Neu a fondness for bars, from what fertile grounds Neu would occasionally select cast members as if on a whim.
“Jim and Bill were bar habitués,” McDermott said. “I used to beg Jim, ‘Please don’t do any bar-casting without telling me.’ Because it would sometimes be disaster.”
It was just such a disaster that led McDermott, who would perform in and direct Neu’s plays over the years, to step into a role in The Floatones during its 1995 premiere. “I saw at Dixon Place a portion of The Floatones, and there were only three people at that time because their fourth actor was sort of wigging out,” he told me, grinning. “And he finally did wig out, and I wigged in.”
The new production of The Floatones, co-directed by Galasso and McDermott, and featuring four well-known contemporary performers (Jess Barbagallo, Larissa Velez-Jackson, Joshua Gelb, and Greg Zuccolo) was a slow gestation that evolved out of the pair connecting personally and artistically after not having seen one another since Galasso was a child.
“We met at a party—it was actually at Carol’s birthday party,” Galasso recalled, referencing Neu’s wife and long-time partner Carol Mullins, a lighting designer widely known for her work at Danspace Project. “And I recognized this face—I must have met you as a kid, but we’d never formally met,” she said, turning to McDermott. “And we just really liked each other. We wound up having coffee and talked.”
“And warmed to the subject of Jim’s work,” added McDermott. “And how much we missed it.”
The pair’s first collaboration took place in 2013 at the YANS & RETO (“Young and Not Stupid” & “Radical Even Though Old”) festival hosted at the Film Forum. The festival was a mixed-bill of seven-minute performance by collaborating artists who were under 30 or over 60. Galasso and McDermott did a Neu two-hander. A year later, in 2014, they began rehearsing The Floatones, and showed about a quarter of the work-in-progress at Dixon Place, which had served the same role for Neu’s productions for many years. Like Dixon Place’s Ellie Covan, who readily welcomed the revival, Nicky Paraiso from La Mama proved very supportive of the project, and suggested programming it at the Club at La Mama, where the original production took place in 1995. In March, the pair returned to rehearsals with their cast at a residency on Governor’s Island.
“I had really wanted to re-do one of Jim’s plays,” McDermott said. “Because we always used the same actors, and several of them—the males—have all died. I just found myself imagining how we would recast it in my head.”
Once they decided to do The Floatones, Galasso found herself asking the same question. “I kept thinking, who were the downtown characters of my generation?” she said. Bill Rice, for instance, was declared “a linchpin of the now all-but-extinct cultural underground of the Lower East Side” in his Times obituary in 2006 and was a polymath scholar, performer, and artist. Big shoes to fill.
Not only is Galasso and McDermott’s collaboration a melding of generations, it’s a melding of artistic practices. McDermott is a classically trained actor (which he freely admits was one of his attractions to avant-gardists like Wilson and Neu), whereas Galasso is a choreographer and dancer. Add to that the diverse practices of the performers, and both have had to adjust their approach to directing. McDermott has taken to it with aplomb, since in the original productions of Neu’s plays he often had to carefully approach blocking since “there’s only so much you were going to get Bill Rice to do.” Now, with a team of interdisciplinary artists with movement training, his hand is much freer. For Galasso, on the other hand, it’s one of her first forays into theater rather than dance, and she’s been forced to adapt to acting as an approach as opposed to the sculptural perspective she imbibed as a child watching Robert Wilson carefully arrange and pose performers.
McDermott and Galasso have become increasingly close collaborators in the process, and McDermott will be appearing in forthcoming choreographic pieces by Galasso. Interpersonally, the pair seem to have a close and friendly bond, one which bears witness not to just to a few years of artistic interaction but also to a shared extended family history.
For Galasso, this remount of The Floatones on its twentieth anniversary is as much an act of archival exploration and re-performance as simply a new production of an older play. As she told me, “I felt the need to bring the work back and expose it to my peers. I arrived in New York with my own version of what New York downtown history was, and I realized that it wasn’t the same as many of my peers, who were maybe coming from college education, getting theater history via textbooks. Also a lot of these former Byrds didn’t have kids. I’m one of the only children of two Byrds. But I felt I would like to facilitate the passing on of their work.”
For McDermott, on the other hand, it’s the opportunity to return to a work from a different, and more mature, perspective. “With this group, I have to keep holding myself back from telling them how good this is,” he said. “I didn’t even realize it at the time, I took it for granted when Jim was alive. We’d do a play every year and a half. Each one was getting a little more attention. They were great to do, but you know. They were not for profit. It was so much work. I’d always sort of say to myself, ‘Oh, I hope he waits a while before doing the next one.’ But with a little more age and experience under my belt, I realize that this is so good. The other day I said to the actors—I gave them what probably should have been my opening night speech—I told them, ‘This work will support you.’”