Squirts is Coming: An Interview with Dan Fishback

Mieke D – Photo by Eric Lippe

La MaMa’s Squirts celebrates its 5th anniversary with a series of intergenerational duets to “mend the queer generation gap, or at least bedazzle it.” For five years, The Helix Queer Performance Network has invited dozens of queer artists in a celebration of a “legacy of community theatrics, multiple generations of queer genius and the precocious audacity of the millennial mind.” The Helix Queer Performance Network is a collaboration between La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, BAX/Brooklyn Arts Exchange, and the Hemispheric Institute of Performance & Politics and fosters an inter-generational, multi-racial, multi-gender performance community. For its 5th season of Squirts, each night will feature only a single inter-generational pairing, to really explore what happens when the queer generations collide. The festival opens with legendary comedian Marga Gomez along with the gloriously bizarre asthmatic transgender comic Patti Harrison. The next night, drag intellectual Banjela Davis will host her ongoing live talk show, “Legends, Statements & Stars,” with special guest Stephen Winter, the renowned director of landmark queer films such as “Jason & Shirley” and “Chocolate Babies.” The legends continue when iconic transgender performer and writer Kate Bornstein (“I Am Cait”) spends an evening in conversation with trans musician and podcaster Theda Hammel (formerly known as the drag queen Hamm Samwich). The essential lesbian writer and activist Sarah Schulman (“Conflict Is Not Abuse,” “The Gentrification of the Mind”) teams up with Egyptian singer m.b. to mount a new play about m.b.’s childhood experiences as an Arab girl in a Zionist-led Jewish/Arab summer camp. The great performance poet Pamela Sneed and emerging artist Yaya McKoy met at Squirts two years ago, and share the stage this year for an evening of new poetry. And the festival closes with legendary Argentinian lesbian performance artist Susana Cook presenting a collaboration with the hilarious and disturbing young artist Mieke D.

Having seen Helix director and Squirts curator and host, Dan Fishback in Nicky Paraiso’s 2015 Christmas in Nickyland, I’d enjoyed sitting with him (and Nicky) during a Lost and Found Conversation Without Walls and his reading for the Memory Palace Vigil established him as an artistic and intellectual voice I was eager to remain connected with. The idea of intergenerational exchange feels acutely important these days when knowing where we’ve come from and how we’re going to get to wherever-it-is-we’re-going requires both hindsight and audacity. With “racist, sexist, anti-gay, Mike Pence (must go away)” literally huddling on Capitol Hill in plots to dismantle Affordable Care as I write this, we’re anticipating unparalleled levels of anti LGBTQ policy reversals and archaic beliefs (shock therapy treatment!!!) feeding federal ideologies. Now more than ever… now more than never, we’re all going to have to protect legacies and build futures together. We recently checked in about the upcoming festival.

Congrats on 5 years of SQUIRTS. Does that equal 5 years of Helix? Did they start together or did one grow out of the other. I’m familiar with the Hemispheric Institute from writing letters of rec for former Hunter College students and talking with George Emilio Sanchez about it. I kinda feel like I ought to quit my current life and move in that direction, but how did you connect with it, and build Helix and Squirts? 

Technically, La MaMa’s Squirts began before Helix, when Nicky and I started developing it in 2012. Helix started because the inter-generational work I was doing at La MaMa felt so connected to the history-minded queer performance workshops I was doing at BAX, and to the public events I was organizing at the Hemispheric Institute. And since those institutions were all connected to each other anyway, I gathered them together and was like: let’s make this official! The act of naming this work “The Helix Queer Performance Network” was definitely meaningful, but the work itself started before the name. It was honestly begging for a name.

What makes Squirts (what a great and kinda ewwwww title by the way) important, different, valuable, essential, etc? How is it an outgrowth of your own work as an artist?

Marga Gomez – Photo by Kent Taylor

I’ll start with the last part of this question and I’ll work backwards: When I started building La MaMa’s Squirts, I was fresh off of a solo performance project called “thirtynothing,” in which I was trying to reconsider my life (I had just turned 30) in the context of the many gay artists who died of AIDS while I was growing up. The process of researching that show was completely transformative, and made me more sensitive to a lot of structural problems within the queer world. The most obvious one for me was about age segregation, and how community history dies when younger generations don’t receive it directly from their elders. If I wasn’t lucky enough to meet people like Penny Arcade in my 20s, then I’d be getting my sense of history from, like, “Rent.” And that’s just completely unacceptable. It’s unfair to me. It’s unfair to my elders. It’s unfair to everyone.

So that’s the main problem that we tried to address with La MaMa’s Squirts, but I’ve also been very serious, from the beginning, about using this platform as a means of providing resources to and spotlighting the work of queer and trans artists of color. Starting in our second year, the festival was around 50% POC, and since then artists of color have been in the majority on stage. During APAP season, almost none of the other festivals have this kind of POC focus. A notable exception is The Fire This Time Festival, which is an incredible series for Black playwrights.

I also take La MaMa’s Squirts very seriously as a bridge between institutions and the underground. A lot of artists who perform in this festival come from clubs or from activist spaces, and have never had a tech rehearsal before. So the series is a chance for them to get a taste of what they can do with theatrical resources. Sometimes they really like it. And sometimes they don’t! But it’s important to me that they get that opportunity, and it’s important to me that folks from APAP get to see what’s really happening in NYC, with artists who aren’t interested in doing the kinds of things that are necessary to get them booked at the major non-profit theaters.

This makes me think of a moment from our second season, when I invited the brilliant drag queen Untitled Queen to be part of our main company. I knew she had a fine arts education, and I was expecting that she would use all the lights and sound that La MaMa had to offer to create something huge and ambitious. But instead, she quietly sang a song a cappella while sitting in a chair. Because the resource she saw at La MaMa wasn’t all of our theater tech: it was silence! She saw a room where people weren’t going to be gossiping at the bar, or getting drunk, or screaming over the performances. So we gave her the opportunity to have this elegant, quiet moment at the end of every show, and it was breathtaking.

How did this duet structure come to be? The language about “mending” the gap is intriguing. At 46, married to a man, with 2 kids, I’m feeling fully domesticated and far from the radical anger of my 20s and, yeah, I’ll admit to some frustration with the younger folks. I was pretty pissed about 3rd party voting, for instance, among younger folks. Not because, I think the 2 party system works for us, but it felt like they didn’t understand how much was at stake. But, I’m curious what prompted that feeling of sewing the generations back together (or, at least, bedazzling them). 

For the first four years of La MaMa’s Squirts, the kids really outnumbered their elders on stage. Each night would feature one legendary elder artist and between 5 to 7 younger performers. I didn’t want to push people into forced intimacy too much — I just wanted to see what would happen. For our fifth year, we wanted to do something more focused, that would provide a more meaningful opportunity for the artists to really consider each other across that generation gap. Two of the six nights will be actual conversations between the artists.

Also, in previous years we always had a company of five artists who would perform in every night of the show, along with a revolving door of guests. I would meet with those artists monthly for half a year before the show, so at this point in the process, I’d have a really strong sense of what the production would be like. This year, with the artists in much more independent positions, I’m in the hilarious position of not knowing much! I have a general sense of what they’re cooking up each night, but I’m looking forward to being surprised as well!

As far as the politics of that generation gap goes, it’s not easy! There have been years where the ideological differences between older and younger artists have seemed completely unreconcilable. But honestly I don’t particularly want us all to agree — I just want us to understand each other.

Why is SQUIRTS at La Mama? What does La Mama mean to you? In this current/expected environment does it mean something else? Nicky and I have had several exchanges and are planning to join in with on Holly Hughes for a “Not My President’s Day” event in Feb and many folks at Sound Departures and Nickyland spoke to the importance of La Mama for queer art. This came up often during the Lost and Found Platform and my piece on the Poetry Project’s Marathon too, this question of where the spaces for artistic dissent and activism are in 2017. 

The simple answer to this question is that I threw a minor tantrum at a La MaMa event in early 2012. Split Britches was hosting an open conversation, and a lot of the older women in the room were asking “Where are the young people! Are they making art?!” And I was like, “YES, but you don’t know about it because, of all the institutions that used to nurture scrappy young queer artists, Dixon Place is the only one that’s still doing it.” So Nicky came up to me, in his signature Nicky way — open, elegant, caring — and said, “Okay, let’s do something about that.” And I’ve seen a HUGE shift at La MaMa since then. So many artist from La MaMa’s Squirts have gone on to do other things in the space. And, in turn, more young queer kids know what La MaMa is, and what it has been, and what it means.  

Can you point towards a couple specific pairings that you’re particularly excited about. Or if that’s too dangerous (you’re all my favorites, really…) what is it about each pairing that you get especially excited about? 

I cannot choose! I can’t wait for Marga Gomez and Patti Harrison to do back-to-back stand-up sets. Marga and Patti are both really visceral performers. When they walk on stage, suddenly the air takes on an electrical charge. I want to see those energies intermingle. Also, a few weeks away from Trump’s inauguration, I want to laugh JUST ONE MORE TIME. So I think queer stand-up is in order.

Banjela Davis

Banjela Davis is a true drag intellectual, and Stephen Winter’s films are truly intellectual endeavors. These are great minds we’re talking about. And when I heard that Banjela had never seen Stephen’s film “Chocolate Babies” I basically passed out. There is so much common ground between these two artists, and I was desperate for them to meet. And since Banjela’s show, “Legends, Statements & Stars,” is a live talk show, this seemed like the perfect format for them to be in conversation.

Similarly, the great musician/podcaster Theda Hammel has been doing live interviews called Hammversations, and I have always sensed that Theda and the great Kate Bornstein would be kindred spirits. Both of these people are total iconoclasts, total punks, and great talkers. Their live conversation is going to be historic.

m.b. is an Egyptian artist who took my workshop at BAX, and when I found out that she was already friends with Sarah Schulman, I was so intrigued. m.b.’s work is based on her complicated, formative experiences as an Arab child in a Zionist-led Jewish/Arab summer camp. The idea of her developing this work with Sarah, one of the world’s major anti-Zionist Jewish voices, I could see a fascinating symmetry. They play they’re working on together is challenging, surprising, funny and important.

Yaya McKoy and Pamela Sneed actually met at La MaMa’s Squirts two years ago. I connected them again when Yaya took my class at BAX, and Pamela curated Yaya into her program in Lost & Found at Danspace this past fall. Their connection is very real, and they both share a haunting command of the stage. Yaya is one of the most uncanny, thoughtful people I have ever met. And Pamela’s reading at La MaMa’s Squirts two years ago is one of the most powerful performances I have ever seen. So there’s that!

We’re closing the festival with Susana Cook and Mieke D, and this is a pairing that was just very instinctual for me. Susana and Mieke are both so funny, so politically charged, so thoughtful about character, voice and meaning. They’re both experts at fusing serious politics, irreverent humor and surreal aesthetics in single, evocative moments and images. And unlike the other pairings, the night they’re preparing will be a single, uninterrupted work of performance. They’re massaging their work together, and we’ll get to see their individual creative landscapes merged into one on stage.

Sarah Schulman – Photo by Drew Stephens

January 6 – 15, 2017, Fridays & Saturdays at 10pm, Sundays at 6pm

The Club at La MaMa, Tickets $18 / $13 Students and Seniors

Available at 74A East 4th Street, NYC or www.lamama.org or 646-430-5374

JAN 6: Marga Gomez & Patti Harrison

JAN 7: Stephen Winter & Banjela Davis

JAN 8: Kate Bornstein & Theda Hammel

JAN 13: Sarah Schulman & m.b.

JAN 14: Pamela Sneed & Yaya McKoy

JAN 15: Susana Cook & Mieke D

ACCESSIBILITY: The Club at La MaMa is up two flights of stairs with no available elevator.

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