Half Straddle: Here I Go: pt. 2 of You

March 8–18, 2017

Organized by Lumi Tan

Installation view of Half Straddle:  Here I Go, pt. 2 of You , 2017.

Installation view of Half Straddle: Here I Go, pt. 2 of You, 2017.

 
 

The reclamation of spaces, ideas, and paradigms by female-identified and informed bodies and queer bodies embodying feminist ethos MUST be made paramount at this moment in American Life. Half Straddle’s Here I Go, pt. 2 of You is an open work period and colloquy that encompasses rehearsals and showings of new theater and video work; the launch of an online journal of performance writing; public lectures; and communal zine-making activities that will act as accessible discussion periods. Here I Go, pt. 2 of You engages company members, peers, and their artistic heroes to expand critical artistic discourse to interrogate and reflect on how we codify; and to consider why various performances are made and ask what their making means at this time. The installation includes art work by John Davis and Heidi Hahn, and is designed by Parker Lutz and Tina Satter. Organized by Lumi Tan as part of The Kitchen L.A.B.: Position. 

Photo 1: Ella Moore and Dom music performance, March 10, 2017 as part of Half Straddle: Here I Go, pt. 2 of You

Photo 2: Greg Zuccolo and Lucy Taylor dance rehearsal, March 10, 2017 as part of Half Straddle: Here I Go, pt. 2 of You

Photo 3: Jess Barbagallo, Casey Llewellyn and Tina Satter in conversation, March 15, 2017 as part of Half Straddle: Here I Go, pt. 2 of You

 

 

Interview between Tina Satter, Artistic Director of Half Straddle, and Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi, 2016-17 Curatorial Fellow at The Kitchen.

 

In certain circles, Tina Satter’s theatrical productions would be considered formal. Focusing on that thread, however, misses the minutiae that course through her practice and her company, Half Straddle. This minutiae within Satter’s work presents as a looseness that is in many ways prone to impulse, while easily settling into repose, welcoming pause and the uncertainty of what may come next. For this reason, looseness, for Satter, moves as more of a spectrum than a binary since her work is neither fixed in place or completely slack of form. Here I Go, pt. 2 of You signals and stretches this spectrum even more, as members and associates of Half Straddle embraced a malleable form of cultural production that held the unexpected unlike prior work from the company.

 

Satter and I sat down to discuss this sense of elasticity in relation to Here I Go, pt. 2 of You, Half Straddle’s somewhat free-form colloquy at The Kitchen.

 

Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi: So the beginning of Half Straddle was a rather loose coming together that, in the end, eventually became this company. In fact, you’ve mentioned that the name came out of a body movement or posture that Jess Barbagallo was doing one day so there's a languid nature—as opposed to origin—to the company. With something like Here I Go, pt. 2 of You that is structured and ordered around a discursive platform—and we can extend this to your plays—there were moments where titles to talks changed or folks were writing down (unfinished) thoughts the night before their presentation. Given your attention to form, how did this looseness—not knowing what to expect from readers, dancers, etc.—leave you feeling?

 

Tina Satter: So much about this project was a different approach to how I’d normally make a show, and required a letting go of certain elements I’d usually know how to or try to control and shape very specifically. So in that way, it both still felt so much like a project with “experimental” elements, which in making live performance and theater, I’m very used to feeling, but then also required a true vulnerability and sense of discovery that I was really excited to step into—and was in part why I set up this form.

I curated a range of speakers—some who were used to giving talks in a pretty similar format and some who’d never done a public presentation in this way—and I soon realized they had questions that I didn’t necessarily have answers for so I discovered some of my philosophy about the looseness of it as we were planning or in the performance work that we did show in the open rehearsals themselves.

For instance—since I decided to not give one definite prompt to all the speakers I’d invited, I ended up having a conversation, on the phone or in person with each person speaking several weeks before the talk, because they each had questions on what I wanted them to say or even how I wanted them to say it—but essentially I just wanted them to say whatever they felt compelled at this point in their practice, or life, and/or within the context of this very specific moment in public life we’re now in, so we’d talk through that and they’d usually find come to a framework they were then excited to explore in this talk. And, while I knew we were setting up an environment in the installation and the lecture hall itself that was quite formal and clean and controlled, I realized that from each of these talks, that I was totally down with the speakers feeling like they were using their talk as a place of experimentation for themselves if needed—that it could be a place where they said some ideas out loud for the first time, or if as they crafted their talk decided that a different title from what that had originally provided was more appropriate, that felt completely part of the process. All that said, the framework that was most important to me, that no matter how loose or open their approach to their talk was—it had to be a talk, a lecture delivered to an audience. And there’s a whole trope of performative “lectures” and even with some of the incredible performers and artists I’d invited to speak the whole idea was that we got to hear their thoughts, ideas, questions, etc. from a bit more of clearly defined intellectual standpoint. And since we’re mostly a theater company I think there were some questions at first if we were doing a quotation of a lecture series—and we were not. The room and design and aesthetics of all of the elements were tended to in the way we’d tend to a performance because I could not let go of that aspect of presenting something, but all that design and aesthetic consideration, and the tiny bit of live music before and after lectures was to frame this almost old fashioned idea of a lecture presented by a “public” figure.

For the open rehearsals we did as a company, those were also a bit more unknown than if we’d done them in a typical rehearsal room or studio where the only thing going was working towards a performance. In part, because we’d spent so much time planning for the installation and the speaker series, I wanted to wait and see how the space would feel before I conceived of how we’d use it for rehearsals. So for the dance rehearsals, I knew we’d continue to build from the “All My Spaces Space Station” dance that Greg Zuccolo and Lucy Taylor had already started to make, and I had a text the actors were going to start to play with and rehearse for the text-based rehearsals—but beyond that, it was literally the first day in the room of each kind of rehearsal that we figured out how to work on the work—and it was very freeing and exciting. I mean to me the space we’d made for the whole space ended up being so beautiful but also accessible and warm, and also weird and unknown in this great way, that it was not stressful to just step into it with the performers and dancers and let the space dictate what worked for the rehearsals. For the first open text rehearsal we just sat on the bleachers we had in the space (they are our version of bleachers and are actually a pretty beautiful object Andreea Mincic designed for our 2011 show In the Pony Palace/FOOTBALL) and the actors read through the script from there—so it was like a Half Straddle version of a table read (we never do table reads really) which was kind of great, because we had the intimacy of just sitting there reading text and trying accents and performance aspects and it also looked like a group of weirdo girls sitting on the bleachers after school which I’m obviously into.

For the dance rehearsals, I think we’d initially thought we’d have to move the chairs set up for the lecture audiences, but as soon as Greg and Lucy got into the space they just started setting the dance moving around the chairs and also dancing in relationship to the images of the speakers that were projecting from the hanging screens—and suddenly the dance really felt like in ritualistic relationship to the speakers and the larger project in this really neat way. I mean that process of discovery is kind of the whole thing of making any kind of art or live performance work, so it felt invigorating and then just validating that we were doing what we know how to do, and had then because of the Kitchen had this opportunity to make this unexpected space in which to push it.

The second open text rehearsal we work how we often work in early stages—placing the actors in a really simple, stylized tableaux and filming it to find out how to frame it—using literally the lens of the camera for me to figure out where the tension of the text and the formal aspects click. And the light grey of our designed room and the lighting made it feel like we got to do that in some kind of very special gallery—which we were!

 

IO: Related to the above, you've mentioned how an aside or just a simple prompt from someone is often the generative ground from which Half Straddle productions emerge. Did Here I Go, pt. 2 of You come out of a similar process? If so, what specific prompt got this project going?

 

TS: This time the true original specific prompt—which often come from the collaborators in the company, the designers or performers to me—came from inside my brain to me, but was about Jess Barbagallo, one of the actors and dramaturgs in Half Straddle. Jess is an incredible actor obviously, but also is this really, really smart thinker and I knew from being close to Jess as a person, beyond even just working together, that he writes these incredible e-mails to colleagues and just even in casual conversation synthesizes such nuanced and important thoughts on performance, criticism, identity, etc. that I had this idea that I must launch Jess as a Public Intellectual because it felt like Jess’s specific experience and trajectory were deeply relevant to the world in which I wanted to make my own work and see other work. And when I was first talking to The Kitchen about what I could do with this commission it could have been a new show in progress or a show, or anything really within scope. But that idea that Jess needed to deliver some talks prompted me to then think of who else did I want to hear talk—who should be more visible in this moment as our public figures that offer earned real thoughts and questions from an artistic and performance standpoint that could open up and bolster discourse around performance but even more in this current public moment—and make a framework for these talks.

 

IO: In a related point, and know this will be a tough ask, but what, among the many things you heard over the 11 days, tugged at you?

 

TS: The way so many of the talks then sparked with something in another talk that came days later just by happenstance was really amazing to me, and then made me suddenly wish we could put this person in conversation with that person and that person, etc. … but overall I think it spoke to, of course, the resonances—as wide ranging as the experience and backgrounds of our speakers were—that are shared or not shared but then make for excellent discourse.

But, there were so many things that tugged at me! I said it every time I intro’d a speaker, but all of the talks completely transcended even what I’d hoped when I invited that speaker to speak so these are just a couple very off the top of my head things that tugged at me:

Jess Barbagallo discussing wanting be seen as just an actor—not a trans actor or a queer actor or anything, but a person doing the job they’ve trained for and work so hard to do.

Playwright Jeremy O. Harris recounting the moment recently when his mom was coming to NYC to see his work live for the very first time and texted him asking “What is the dress code?” And, from that deceptively moving question he lays out an interrogation of who is theater actually for. 

Painter Heidi Hahn saying she’d always been trained as a female painter to never say out loud that she worked from a place of intuition and personal desire, but that she couldn’t help it. 

Emily Davis discussing her brother John Davis’s prolific art practice both before and after his brain injury at age 12, and showing the slide of an image where as he starts to draw again after the accident writes “I am somebody” which feels of course super intense and poignant, but also the driving factor of all artistic impulse in a way.

Curator Lumi Tan’s totally straightforward but kind of shattering layout of the context of a woman of color moving through the white supremacist art world—and it’s such a known thing, but her simple description of the gallery girl who always has to eat lunch in front of the public felt totally wrenching and indicative to me in the context of her larger talk. 

In the talk between Jess Barbagallo, playwright Casey Llewellyn, and myself, the issue of if and how we care about the audience came up—and has opened up tons of personal questions about the kinds of privilege and luxury I’ve operated in and if I don’t care about the audience in the moment of the work. Of course I do, but it’s making me consider more about the complications of art made on it’s own values totally within itself and then for who sees it, who can see it, etc. All of which are huge ongoing thoughts, but it felt really starkly laid out again for me in that conversation with those two—wish we could spend just a week talking about that with 20 more people! 

Sarah Schulman’s entire talk was really, as expected, just so dense with ideas and considerations but also utterly accessible, and when she opened up for questions, her knowledge base on so many issues was like, oh yeah! That’s a public intellectual. And, why these spaces for thoughts in addition and in relation to artmaking feel real important.

  

IO: There’s something about the title that feels as though there’s a passing of the baton from the “I” to the “You,” which, in a way, gets at this relationship between you and Jess, seeing him in this new light. Sitting with this more, the “I” and the “You” and what Jess is potentially coming into as a public intellectual or figure reminds me of Jorge Luis Borges short story, “Borges and I” (1960) and how the “I” for Borges exists in all these layers of discourse, identities, and convention. But Borges's short also brings up this tension about the import of writing in fashioning out some sort of sustainable livelihood for oneself and others. There’s this poignant part in the story where Borges talks about his texts cannot save him “perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition.” I guess this boils down to getting your thoughts on this “I” and the “You” in the title, and this idea of where and to whom thoughts belong, especially for the public intellectual who is known just through their texts. The texts in Here I Go, pt. 2 of You took on this personal tenor that saved the writer, the author, and the self in a way...

 

TS: Yes! The title was a kind of existential passing of a torch … and I think that Borges reference is astute and relevant, even though I hadn’t had that articulation in mind. But, the first title of the previous manifesto project with “Here You Go” (2011)  was about giving the language as the performance to the venue and the audience – and was very much for the listener/watcher in that transaction theoretically. And, while this new project “Here I Go, pt. 2 of You” was also really conceived for the experience of the listener/watcher and providing access to thoughts and figures holding forth in a specific context designed for listener/watchers – that idea of empowerment to the speakers/from the speakers – the “I’s” was a big thing.

Many of the people we invited to speak, including Jess Barbagallo didn’t and don’t seek that kind of platform and paradigm for themselves (even if normally performers like Jess and Emily Davis, or curators/art historians who speak at schools and panels frequently like Lumi Tan)—so giving that kind of traditionally white male power to a range of speakers that weren’t necessarily white and male and holding them up as our “public intellectuals” and projecting big images of their faces that played with those more traditional patriarchal frames was very purposeful—and tied to the idea of an “I” not feeling out of place to share what they thought or questions they had, etc., to feel their discourse could be public. So yeah, that is really both tangible and poetic in our project when tied to that Borges quote you reference of what is good ultimately belonging to “language” and “tradition.” And, the “pt. 2 of You” section of the project’s title was both an acknowledgement to the earlier, slightly related project—and the shades and juxtaposed parts of identity and roles the speakers in our series have operated in their various personal and work lives. It’s an opaque semantic, but held a meaning to me as I was trying to figure out and align my impulses on what the colloquy should be.

Jess Barbagallo: excerpt from I Prefer Not To, talk given on March 9, 2017.

 

Rel drolly observes, “You’re like Bartleby” and I half-chuckle. It makes my heart tender when I am joined by other queer people who make earnest, canonical references. It’s so old-fashioned. It also reminds me of what my primary employer Us Magazine always encourages its readership to remember when gazing upon the high-gloss gazelles who grace our pages: “They’re just like us!” I translate this to my own life—I always wanted to be a company man—only as a fun twist. I find I am ever outside my body, crying from just below the closed window: “Trannies appreciate the classics too - of literature and disparagement! Let me in!”  It’s a nervous joke, a combination of tragic dysphoria and radical innovation all wrapped up in this desire just to get along, pleading for an invitation to the party. And when I do get the call, the specter of tokenism always haunts my RSVP.

 

By any root, pathological or transgressive, I find myself hell-bent on the preservation of a critically - and by that I mean imperative and shrewd - abject humor, cultivated just offstage from the wings of culture, even though ironically, I find myself on the so-called “proper stage” quite a bit. From the sidelights, “we who feel differently,” to steal a phrase from Carlos Motta, watch unfurl all the presumptuous romance of struggle and triumph which have been made possible by so many automatic and unchecked repetitions of the Great White Heteronormative Fantasy. (It’s an endless loop of low-level torture scenarios, for those of you unfamiliar with the condition of being a sexual minority in the room.) But there is a silver lining because it was under these bogus conditions that I became the inheritor of a distinct form of literacy predicated on the ability to fiercely shuttle and shuffle codes into a revelatory, absurdist, and—skepticism aside— generous patchwork. I got schooled in the magical powers of side eye and subterfuge when I was just a kid. While I was hanging back at the straight sock hop, wallflower style, I was always watching. Watching, watching, watching.[1]

 

The problem with the acquisition of this literacy could most succinctly be summed up by the Gloria Steinem magnet on my fridge: “The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off.” She wasn’t the first to impart the message. As a theater undergrad, I took a class called Composition for the Stage with a minor provocateur - we’ll call her R - rumored to have student/teacher boundary issues. R was a savvy director and she possessed none of the crunchy self-love I associated with the rest of her colleagues training me to be an actor at a price of $50K a year, borrowed money.

 

Our final Composition project was to deconstruct a classic; I made a piece called Hamlet: King Bufu, applying a half-baked not-terribly original homo conspiracy theory as interpretive lense. (Bufu is short for buttfucker, in case that wasn’t immediately clear.) My thesis followed that Hamlet’s ambivalence is a faggot’s mask, his true love is Horatio, and if this is the case, why for all the love of rotten Denmark does Ophelia allow herself to be turned inside out down by the river? I don’t think I arrived at a conclusion - I’m still trying to navigate the allures of masochism as an adult - but to hammer the perceived situation home, my best friend Chris and I shot a short video as prologue to the live event. In the video, I’m Ophelia, wearing an oversized motorcycle jacket chain smoking in my bedroom to Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good” (probably a latent homage to whatever straight girl I was chasing at the time, to no avail) and Chris is “King Bufu” Hamlet, wandering around Williamsburg looking for rough trade. At nineteen, I knew jackshit: about the history of the avant-garde, the legacy of Jack Smith, Kathy Acker’s punk posing, all the beautiful crap that would later cast its impossible long shadow and make making art that much harder. I was just another insecure, maybe-bisexual teenager with a bad haircut. Poison tongue.

 

Looking back on it, I see this art action as the dragon I have been chasing ever since: that moment in time when it felt vitally important to press against the stupidity of misogyny (“Why weren’t more people pissed about this unspoken social contract?” I wondered, aghast) with all the force one tiny, freaky body could muster. Before I became familiar with the kinds of scholarship that valorized failure, there was just right and wrong. There was poetic justice, even when social justice failed.

 

Long anecdote to say that R, the blonde sphinx teacher, was the first outside eye to let me in on the essential secret of my person. She invited me for a post-finals coffee at a Hell’s Kitchen cafe. I was hoping for an in-person crit—so stimulating perhaps was my Bufu I figured that no mere written evaluation would do. Instead, at a certain point in our otherwise forgettable conversation, R remarked with cool curiosity, “You are the angriest student I’ve ever had.” Feeling emboldened by her pronouncement, I must have nodded or shy-smiled ‘cause I was raised to be polite, R revealed the actual purpose of our meeting: to inquire after my suspicioned drug use. I think I was a little flattered by her concern - what adolescent doesn’t want to hear that her rage is unique, that she shows signs of instability and a potential for addiction? It helps the narrative that all those demons came to bear out cinematically in the years that followed. R was no fool, she was foreshadowing, even if her mystique collapsed a bit under scrutiny, an adjunct theater professor moonlighting as a makeup artist.

 

That morning, I wanted R to tell me I that my work spoke to genius. Instead, she let me know that I was furious and that it was plain to see. She didn’t tell me what to do with my rage. She didn’t say it was good or productive or warranted. It was just something I couldn’t hide. Sometimes it flashes up in my eyes when I walk onstage and see that someone in the house is asleep. Or when I am in a meeting, and the chief administrator says there is money to rent a space, but no money to pay the actors. You come to the theater to sleep, you build a stage the actors can’t afford to stand on.

 

I know, I sound very high-minded.

 

I assure you, this performance of integrity I am articulating in this polemic I was compelled to write only gives me an abstract satisfaction, for I am a person who believes they need other people, and that while solitude is a good dress rehearsal for death, it cannot possibly be the reason we are here. A secret of mine is that I am increasingly frightened of calcifying in the name of my honor. I know from experience that there is nothing more alienating and less ingratiating than having in your possession a set of stubbornly unyielding principles.

 

But in the case of R, integrity proved to be a gratifying virtue, even though at that point in my life it was not yet tethered to any coherent system of thought or language. I was genuinely angry at Father Shakespeare, and this means something when you are in a conservatory and nineteen, if you are fortunate enough to be in a conservatory and nineteen. To make King Bufu means to say: I am not numb, I might be on drugs, but I am paying attention, and sometimes the brilliance of certain legacies must be disavowed.

 

I should be reminded of this frumpy kid with the video camera and the leather jacket on those rare, erotic occasions when I find myself in tête-a-tête. In this story, I am with an attractive, slightly older woman. We are in a coffeeshop in an unfamiliar part of town. She is an an authority figure, a gatekeeper, and she probably has the hots for one of the more easily defined “boys” in my class. In the popular imaginary this boy is always raw and malleable, fresh and meaty, mysterious and simple. And I exist for her in this moment as an object of curiosity, strangely now turned interlocutor. Despite or because of this turn from student to weak adversary, my fantasy machine, which is essentially the product of an infinite mind jammed in a finite body, will not be deterred. I am coming of age.

 

***

 

And I want to close with an epilogue, which is also a precursor to some talking I’ll do next week where I finally get to Bartleby and our shared kinship, learning from Roland Barthes and finally, the objective aesthetic demands I believe we should make on popular criticism.

 

March 9, 2017:

 

Some Notes, or I Used to Just Be Gay

 

I think the public at large is fairly well-acquainted by now with gay vernacular, which was my original entry point into critical possibility. As it has been appropriated for its most pleasurable features, gay vernacular is now characterized by:

 

1.      An immediately recognizable aestheticized speech

2.      Generic messages of tolerance and inclusion and

3.      A sense that camp is sometimes a nice distraction from “real life.”

 

But beyond the euphemisms and sound bytes, which I find rev people up like wind-up toys the energy dissipates so fast, I personally am trying to identify strategies for reading all the bullshit that cloaks itself in normalcy and does so under the guise of unbridled passion. And after I have done that I want to convince you that my way is better.

 

What I might never be able to translate in rooms where I am outnumbered is this: despite your literal-minded conviction that my body constitutes an exotic animal in the room, it is actually my mutant language that’s got your tongue.

 

 

[1] I have found out the hard way that this “sock hop” does in fact continue into your 30s, and even if you have a strong affiliation with and affection for the most cutting-edge art practice, these things will not spare you an othering. It’s a fact that I still get stopped at the punch bowl. I still getribbed with overly familiar dyke cliches that always seem to betray a palpable anxiety. It’s like they want to say, “We have history. I know you.” And then on the other end there are the “welcoming ambassadors,” I think self-appointed. These are the “new friends” who neuter upon contact with their sensitive homages to my trans bravery; an utterly sexless encounter, I’ve observed is the worst kind. They crinkle their eyes, I control mine not to blink, and I infer: if you weren’t so scared of me, this conversation could start to feel mutual. Conversely, what about the subset of your community who will never learn your pronoun, it’s such a sterile word and such a simple thing to do, no matter how often they hire you, need you, or profess their love for you?