WaxFactory in Conversation with Vallejo Gantner
New York City downtown performance company turns twenty and premieres LULU XX.
I met Erika Latta during our graduate studies at the hallowed halls of Columbia University’s School of the Arts. When we founded WaxFactory shortly after graduating, our first formal collaboration under the company’s umbrella was LULU, a cross-media solo performance. In under an hour, Erika underwent nine transformations, morphing from one age-old archetype to the next, delivering a mix of joyous satire and blistering critique of our culture’s patriarchal legacy in artistic representations of women. Back then, we could not have imagined that we would be revisiting this work in the wake of the #MeToo movement, with renewed relevance, twenty years later. Vallejo Gantner, the former Artistic Director of Performance Space 122, current Artistic and Executive Director of Onassis USA, and longtime follower of WaxFactory’s work, recently caught up with us to discuss the company’s twentieth anniversary and the upcoming reincarnation of LULU.
Vallejo Gantner: I experienced you first of all as one of the rare companies in New York City that seemed to know all the players in other parts of the world. When I arrived here, it felt as if New York was very insular, isolated. Can you talk about WaxFactory’s thoughts about this in terms of your work and New York City, and why you had such a globalized perspective?
Ivan Talijancic: WaxFactory had four founders originally, two American and two international artists. That ratio is still the same, so I feel as if looking beyond our “backyard” has always been in the company’s DNA. I was born and raised overseas, and by the time I landed in California to go to college, it was already my fourth immigration. The notion of “home” has always been fluid, and I feel like this sensibility has transferred to the ambitions for the company. We have collaborators from all over the world, and we are not afraid to travel wherever we feel there is a fertile environment for collaboration.
Erika Latta: From the very beginning, we all had an interest in stepping outside our comfort zone and collaborating internationally as a team. I was trained in the Suzuki method of acting while studying theater at the University of Washington and traveled to Toga Mura, Japan, to train. Studying in Japan as a young artist and observing the performances there, I understood the benefit of leaving the tunnel-vision of one’s own country while at the same time being united by the form of theater. I came to New York to attend graduate school at Columbia and study with Anne Bogart after seeing her production The Medium at the festival Tadashi Suzuki held in Toga Mura. I thought New York would be wilder when I first arrived. It was still rough around the edges back then, but it was very conservative. I saw work from around the world in Japan, and I knew that in many ways New York was playing it safe. At the same time, New Yorkers had so little time, resources, or space to put work on. Here, one has to be rigorous with those precious four-hour rehearsals, whereas in Europe, one has time to develop work and is funded by the government to do so. I live for international collaboration, building artistic bridges across oceans.
VG: You and Erika have been in this collaboration for longer than most marriages survive. Do you have active, conscious ways that you sustain it? Many young companies have the ambition to be collaborative. What advice do you have for their long-term survival?
IT: I think what kept us afloat is what Erika and I call the “Wax tax.” We have this unspoken understanding where we always help each other with our individual efforts, whether it is a project, an academic job interview, or stealing a bite of one’s dessert. (laughter) We just have this inherent understanding that it’s not about who calls the shots but who has the best idea. Also, we have gotten to know each other so well that we know who’s better at what, and who’s better at picking up the slack at any given point. There are no egos in play. We don’t have to talk about it anymore—we just do it.
EL: I think we do talk without words at this point and use shorthand in rehearsals, and to an outside eye it might look like an old couple having dinner in silence, yet a whole conversation is going on. We respect each other’s work even if it is different, depending on which one of us is directing. We believe very strongly that every aspect of the theater is important. When one of us brings an idea, theme, or text to be explored, we know that we are mainly a team of detectives trying to discover where and how that material wants to live, which collaborators we think will elevate the material, and, most importantly, that we are equal contributors in the creation process. We can be brutally honest without it being personal. I say directly: “you are repeating yourself here,” or I ask harder questions in rehearsals because I know the entire body of work as a company and as individuals. When you know someone for so long you also have to take breaks, breathe and return to the material, work with different companies and artists in order to bring back a fresh perspective. I think we constantly are trying to reinvent ourselves, shape-shift, and look at the work from different angles. We are still curious. How will all of these elements fit together in a cohesive performance? One way we keep each other—and the company—on our toes is to work with designers and performers we have never worked with, who might not even be coming from the theater, both in New York and internationally.
VG: You say that the new Lulu (Lululu? TwoLu? Lutwo?) is inspired by the momentum of feminist protest. Talk to me about the connective threads you see running between the original text and our situation today.
IT: Those are good! We are calling her LULU XX. And, no, those are not kisses but Roman numerals for twenty in honor of the company’s anniversary. Dramaturgically speaking, this piece is looking at how, historically, the patriarchy has relegated—or “boxed in,” as we like to say—women to reductive stereotypes. In his original Lulu plays, Frank Wedekind was tackling this through his titular character in more or less oblique ways, and the play caused a scandal when it was first performed in the early twentieth century. How did he dare create a heroine that did not stick to the rules that society had prescribed for her? I would argue that with our work we are tackling these issues in equally unapologetic ways in an effort to subvert and dismantle these stereotypes. On the heels of the #MeToo movement, this subject matter only seems to gain new relevance.
EL: As the performer in the piece, I am pushing up against the male gaze, trying to move underneath it, and, like Lulu, rage against being boxed in, controlled by expectations, desires, or definitions of what it is to be a woman. I think that since the beginning of time women have been protesting, at times in a loud voice, at times inch by inch, or silently in the day-to-day, but with determination and a belief that it may change. It is an age-old struggle.
VG: How has your relationship to media, gadgets, and tech changed since you began twenty years ago? Not just the type of gear but how you think about it? How has the audience’s relationship to tech changed?
EL: We like to operate in that funny window between low-tech and high-tech. We try to listen to what the material wants to be. We might not use any technology in a piece, or it might require a lot—we never know. The budget is always the greatest restriction of all. One funny thing that always amuses us is that people think we have huge budgets for our productions. Thank god we are in the art of illusion, because that is not the case!
IT: We were—and still are—curious about the advancements in technology, and when the nature of a particular project calls for it, we explore ways of incorporating them in the work. I feel as if twenty-first-century audiences are becoming increasingly more technologically savvy and are more game to experience a narrative in an experiential, hypertextual way. Equally, I would say we’ve definitely gotten a few more tricks up our sleeves over the last twenty years. You’ll see when you come to LULU XX!
VG: Tell me about the piece you haven’t made yet, the one that got away or could not be realized.
EL: I am working on directing a play I wrote called Strange Joy, inspired by François Truffaut’s film Day for Night about a crew making a film. The piece is both about the tragic and the comical time warp that happens when the camera is not rolling and the crazy black hole we all go into when we are creating a film or theater piece, where we have no idea what is happening in the outside world. There are eighteen actors, the script is written, it is in both French and English, but how to find a budget for eighteen performers and all the designers? It is happening, but slowly. I am thinking of doing a residency in France next summer to create it and worrying about the money later. We do that every day: make a blind jump of faith into the unknown without any safety net.
IT: Oh, there are so many. But you are asking about one, so I will pick one that I haven’t talked to many people about. It’s actually a film—a science-fiction film—called Id. It centers around an incorporeal being from another dimension that resurrects a community of survivors on a planet devastated by societal conflicts and nature’s deterioration. Pursuing its singular vision of an ideal society, Id erects an insular colony sheltered from environmental harm whose inhabitants have been reengineered to communicate telepathically and where conflicts are kept at bay by nightly erasure of memories. As you can imagine, at some point things begin to derail in major ways. What can I say? This is going to take a lot of really convincing CGI, and who will pay for that?
Vallejo Gantner is the Artistic and Executive Director of Onassis USA.