Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Artist Interview: Jaime Wright & David Bernstein

Jaime Wright and David Bernstein were last seen at La MaMa in The Tom Murrin Festival's Full Moon Show. This summer they are part of Carroll Simmons Performance Collective's TOO MANY LENAS 3: LET THEM EAT CAKE (co-director/performer & director, respectively). 

Sam Alper sat down with them in Little Skips, Bushwick, to talk about Lena Dunham's twitter bio, making shapes and getting seen.

but first -

That's like right now... so get some tickets before you read.

ok cool, you can read now : )

How did Carroll Simmons get going? Can you summarize the history your collaboration up this point?

D: It sort of started with needing a name to call our collective while we were working on this show. So it was never conceived as a unit. But it gelled in a way that we never thought. We thought it would be a one-off super-team that would dissolve after TOO MANY LENAS. This was before TOO MANY LENAS 3 -

And there was never a TOO MANY LENAS 2?

D: There was never a 2.

J: No. But we did do a cabaret night in the Dixon Place lounge.

D: And we also did what we called a TML reduction. Like a balsamic reduction. We performed a ten-minute excerpt from TML 1 in a very new style that was an exploration of new territory. So I guess that was like TML 1.5 and TML 2.8. But no - there was no official 2.

J: And we also had to pretend it was a totally new thing for all the things that we applied to. So we had to really make it different.

Like, ‘There’s been a whole one you didn’t see. We didn’t even invite you to that one because we don’t want to be pushy.’

D: Exactly. ‘We’ve been working on this for decades now.’ So finally, with the third one we’ve really landed on something…Yeah, it’s also now collected into an aesthetic that we’ve taken into our other things as well, and it’s started a few other collaborations. It’s the tree that was only going to be an annual but turned out to be a perennial.

J: Initially, all the Lenas that you see, we all were friends of David from different strains of his “sordid history” at NYU. We didn’t really know each other at all.

That’s surprising to me, because there’s such a coherent performance style between all of you.

D: That’s good to hear. It was a steep learning curve, but after being immersed in it so heavily it’s hard not to pick it up. I think we all now have a sense of what it means to be Carroll Simmons.

J: The rules of the style weren’t really there when we did the first one. They were sort of half-present. [In TML 3] they are more rigorously employed.

The gestural stuff is great. It feels like there’s a whole underlying vocabulary being used that you’re not going to explain to us, but we can feel that it makes sense.

D: That’s cool. I was semi directing from afar, because I live in Toronto, but we have this system of notations and charts for all the gestures. It was heavily interpreted by the cast, it’s not like, by my decree, but that’s where everything started from. Every time I wanted there to be a gesture I would notate it and give my vision of what I thought it would be and every single formation would be laid out in these little charts. I made a lego version of the set and had everybody placed on it.

Are you serious?

D: Yeah, we’ll send you the google doc.

J: It’s pretty stunning. Especially in the full color.

D: The full color really brings something to the table.

J: And then we would record everything we did and send it to David. And David would make notes and we would go back and work on it. It was a communication effort for sure.

What’s it like living in Toronto and having a hand in performances in New York? Are you performing in Toronto as well?

D: I haven’t really… There’s no downtown in Toronto. I mean there is - there’s a place called downtown - but not for theatre. I’m trying to think of a way to sum this up… The heritage of there being an alternative and an alternative to an alternative - a broadway to an off-broadway to an off-off-broadway - all these sort of layers under, under under, under, going down to the sort of queer underground we’re sitting in right now - there isn’t that in Toronto. There are different aesthetics and there are people doing interesting things with the straight theatre aesthetic, but there is no such thing as a performance party. There is no such thing as a Dixon Place, where you can try things out. There’s no ‘contemporary performance’ quote unquote where its kind of dance and kind of theatre and kind of everything in between. So it’s been tough. I’m trying now to work on projects that reference how that doesn’t exist.

Right - There’s kind of an opportunity there.

D: It’s so absent that you can claim to be the discoverer of it, in a way. I think maybe there’s more of that in other Canadian cities.

I wanted to ask about the challenges of creating work coming from GIRLS and Lena Dunham. Unlike… a 50's sitcom, it has a certain self-awareness - or a certain kind of irony - though to what degree can be hard to judge. What is it like to comment on / problematize / break apart from that starting point? Is it harder? Is it even more fun, because you can be even more mysterious in terms of the level of irony in your own commentary?

J: At this point the show is still called TOO MANY LENAS, but I feel so separated from actual Lena Dunham and actual GIRLS. When we originally did the show it felt very much like we were responding to the GIRLS phenomenon and now it feels like we’re responding to the wider cultural zeitgeist. A lot of the content - all of the content is her, and we use her biographical information and plagiarize her, essentially, but she is now the source material.

She’s the palette.

D: Exactly. She’s the colors we have to paint with. The impetus of TOO MANY LENAS was always that in talking about Lena we’re talking about ourselves, but I agree, we’ve moved past that even more.

In TML 3 there’s the recurring line: “My life is my art and therapy is my palette.”

J: That used to be her twitter bio. It was “My life is my art and therapy is my palette. JK, I make videos and shows.”

D: Most germs of the content can be traced back to something like that where it’s an obscure reference to her. It’s not designed to be digested as like, ‘oh that refers to Lena Dunham’ but that’s where it comes from. Like the ‘The Pussy is Mine’ song she tweeted about as being really refreshing because it wasn’t about male ownership, it was instead about male insecurity. So we just made a dance from that as soon as we read the tweet in rehearsal.

J: As for GIRLS - we do source a lot of our material from the GIRLS scripts, and TINY FURNITURE.
D: But then also things like when she was on the cover of Vogue - there was a video made telling the story of her “finding her pose” with Hamish Bowles, and that sequence at the end [of the show] was ripped from that verbatim. The idea is that if the references are eclectic enough then it will keep you guessing and it will all feel like it’s from the same world even though it’s all stolen - though it’s not all stolen. Not that I would care if it was, but some of it comes from us.

Have you guys seen the episode of BILLY ON THE STREET where she is put in a pop-culture trivia contest against this very not pop-culture oriented older woman?

D: Lena is?

Lena is, and she beats the older woman, just kills her, and then that woman is made to milk a cow and is sort of yelled at and humiliated. I guess I’m bringing it up because it was a moment that made her look sort of nasty, because it was really punishing this person for not knowing about TV and music -

D: Though, that is sort of Billy Eichner’s whole thing - these games that are needlessly aggressive. But right, I can see how that’s nasty because Lena is this powerful figure, even though that’s anathema to her fictional persona. When you see things like that it reminds you - you know in the back of your mind when you’re watching her do anything - that this is a rich woman that has gotten richer and an artistically influential person that is only getting more influential.

That’s the seed of a really interesting conflict. There is a sort of embrace of jealousy in your work. One of the things that’s so fun about it is that we all have feelings about famous people and you’re drawing very clear connections - this makes us feel like this, etc.

D: In our company bio we listed one of our main aesthetic tenets as ‘productive envy.’

What makes me the envy productive?

D: Part of the reason why - and maybe this isn’t quite answering the question - but part of the reason why we’ve gotten the attention we’ve gotten, which is not a ton but it’s a little bit, more than the average indie theatre show, is because we chose to do it about Lena Dunham. It’s someone everyone has an opinion on. Frankly, if we’re gonna get seen in the way want to be seen, we have to have an angle. Everything that I think of to do and end up following through on, usually has that same element of, yes I’m interested in it, yes I think it would be cool and fun, but it also has an angle that I feel like people can access it through. That, for me personally, is what gets me past the thing of ‘will anybody care?’ Right before we started working on this I was writing this un-performable piece about Slavoj Zizek, the philosopher living with Vinnie from the Jersey Shore -


D: Thematically it had a bit to do with them, but it really was just this weird thing that I wanted to do. But to say ‘it’s about Slavoj Zizek and this guy from The Jersey Shore,’ that’s a way for someone who isn’t just coming to see our stuff because they are our friends to access it, get excited about it and have a lens through which to view it. So invoking Lena, it’s exploitative, frankly in a way that I don’t feel bad about. It uses our sort of underling, envious relationship to catapult us a little bit towards her. We’re searching for that same legitimacy that she has and may or may not deserve. That thinking about legitimacy and may-or-may-not deserve reflexively applies to us. Which is why there’s this element [in TML 3] where we’re sort of tongue-in-cheek giving ourselves an award for being so good at theater.

Right - because in TML 3 and what I see a lot your peers doing, there is the question of - what is legitimacy? Who gets to give it? Can I just grab it? I also think that piggybacking on existing pop-culture phenomena is an increasingly practical and accepted move. In video comedy especially, you see a lot of sketches that have a pop-culture entry point: Batman goes to a kid’s birthday party, or whatever.

J: But also - I grew up in this environment that was very stuck on the 60’s. Like, did you ever watch the show American Dreams? It ran for two seasons and it was about the 60s. It had all the turmoil in the background but it was about this nice suburban family. And it was the suburban family part that was latched onto as the most interesting.  I was sort of raised in that environment - you’re in the 60s but you’re in the nice fun part of it with fun hair shapes, and pretty dresses. So a lot of the work I was making when I was in college was very referential to American History - like I used to make plays about Richard Nixon all the time, which to me felt so prescient.

D: I think it’s worth noting that one of Jaime’s first plays was WRIGHT / NIXON in which they were all playing Richard Nixon, right?

J: No -

D: The three women?

J: No, I was playing myself and then someone was playing Richard Nixon and Julia and Nora played the ensemble, they played like Henry Kissinger and Nelson Rockefeller.

D: But there was some very - like three women in the same dress, in a way that really invokes TOO MANY LENAS, that Jamie was doing way before we met.

So there’s been this impulse to use public figures for a long time. But it was all from this one decade?

J: I had this very stilted view. They were all presidents. I was, and am, obsessed with US presidents for some reason.  I couldn’t understand why people weren’t really grabbing on to some of the stuff I made and it was because my reference points were always slightly too obscure.

Like they felt current to you because you were raised with them being very present -

J: Yeah, I guess the point I was trying to make was that I had to look a little bit outside of my own emotional reference points to make things that were grab-able for other people.

But there is a through line of taking figures that people know and finding yourself through them. Do you ever have thoughts about why it is you work that way? Because that’s a very specific thing.

J: I don’t know. I’ve always been interested in cultural figures, but not for the things they’ve done. I always thought it was so funny to say “this is Richard Nixon” but it’s just this man who’s crying about his dog. I don’t want to talk about the political implications, or whether the things he did were good or bad, I just want to see him eating chicken wings.

D: There is something really satisfying about using these figures as short-hand. A joke, for us, is not structured like a traditional joke. It’s imagining a scenario in which we’re at The Smile and Terry Richardson and Fabrizio Moretti walk in and Terry Richardson is like shouting at the New York Times while ordering a granola. That’s not a joke, but it will have us absolutely in stitches, and I think the reason why - thinking about it now - is that Terry and Fabrizio are short-hand for some general concept we think is funny. Rather than saying, ‘Isn’t the upper class in Manhattan such an absurd place to live your life?’ we’re just like ‘And then Terry Richardson walks in!’ Powerful man eating chicken wings is not nearly as exciting a joke as ‘there’s Richard Nixon eating chicken wings.’ Something about the way that it’s both very specific and very banal.

J: It’s sort of about the idea that Lena Dunham can post a selfie on Instagram, a picture of herself napping, and it will get thousands and thousands of likes because it’s ‘Lena Dunham napping.’ It’s not ‘girl napping.’ Suddenly there’s

Editor's note: There isn't, but there is this, and this.

I was listening to an NPR short recently, and it was just a guy talking about Drake’s Instagram. He was trying to make a story about how Drake has a remarkable Instagram account because he ‘likes’ these kind of pictures - but it never got interesting. There was no thing he was saying, he just wanted to talk about Drake’s Instagram.

D: The funny thing would just be saying ‘and then Drake comes in and Instagrams it.' Talking about what’s on Drake’s Instagram, not so much. But just picturing him doing the task of Instagramming, I’m almost laughing out loud.

There’s a very basic desire there. If these people get all this outsized attention for doing normal human things - to be able to grab them and play with them like puppets and make them do normal human things in the way that you think is funny is satisfying.

D: It doesn’t only enhance the comedy, it’s also this fun displacement from the original gesture. It isn’t only the literal thing - someone eating chicken wings - it’s Richard Nixon doing it. So you’re experiencing it on two levels, a micro and a macro.

J: It gives it a shape.

D: Exactly. Which is what we call our staging method.

J&D: Shapes!

D: ‘Watch your shapes’ - ‘the shape work is great’ - ‘we need another shape there’ - ‘take out three shapes.’

I wanted to ask about the voices in TOO MANY LENAS 3 which the actors drop in and out of - British accents, robot voices. Is there a logic to those?

D: Those kinds of choices are similar to what we were saying about ‘Lena Dunham doing this’ vs ‘girl doing this.” It’s just another level slapped on. Rather than interpreting the line and making a cohesive performance that gives the illusion of a character, you have the line, you have a shape and you have these other elements and they’re all working independently to add texture. It’s more about texture than character. We’ve been talking a lot about that in terms of enhancing the comedy, but it isn’t only about the comedy.

So in place of psychological realism, you have all these layers, or filters.

J: We’re really deconstructing our -

D: I know. I’m learning a lot about what we’re doing. I didn’t know we were doing any of this.

Getting back to the wider view, there is an element of tweaking the institutions of downtown theatre in TOO MANY LENAS 3 and some of the other work I’ve seen you do - like, David, when you performed in Chris Tyler’s Total Rejects Live as part of the Under the Radar Festival. Is that impulse another layer in a piece like TOO MANY LENAS 3? Does it relate to the larger themes?

D: For me that whole enterprise of TRL getting presented at The Public made me feel like, ‘yes we’re a part of it, but we’ve also now got all the problems that come with that.’ We’re a part of it but we’re now brought into a space where there are all these restrictions on us. In the case of TRL, where we were paid $20 to perform on the same stage I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman do JACK GOES BOATING in high school, those institutional restrictions are not coming with any further reward. So what, besides the initial ego boost, are we really getting out of performing at institutions? What does this legitimacy that we strive for really give us in the end? There’s that push-pull of attraction and repulsion in searching for this elusive legitimacy, which is maybe a through line.

Because you guys have this realist, pragmatic element where you want to find a hook, you’re thinking about a way to get this seen and that’s fundamental to the way you create - once you get a look at what institutional validation is like, what it means to get it, you’re positioned to instantly have the thought ‘what is this actually doing?’ I think some people have a lot of barriers to having that thought. Questioning approval or organizations, it can be painful.

J: Well, and we really want it too. We just hate ourselves for it.

D: That’s really what it comes down to. We’re all here because we want to be, we’re doing this thing that we want to be doing, that we like doing, but there are some problems with it. If you’re at all realistic you can’t help hating yourself for it. ‘Couldn’t I want something else?’

J: Something useful... But what is useful?

D: That’s what’s so slippery about it. It’s hard to define.

J: ‘We’re all on the same message -’

J&D: ‘Which is no message at all!’

J: That’s me misquoting myself.

D: MISQUOTING MYSELF. That will be the Carroll Simmons retrospective.


D: Oh god.