The eclectic festival is back for another year. Check out the interview we did with its curator from last year.
To many LGBT-identifying people, the word “realness” evokes a very specific image in queer history. It’s the sequence in Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, in which several late 80’s NYC queens display what “realness” truly means: to blend seamlessly into heterosexual culture despite your queerness. It’s about being a walking contradiction, gender-bending your way into what culture has deemed the norm. It’s about being able to pass for something you’re not and subverting the entire image you’re conveying in the process. At American Realness, the arts festival currently happening downtown at Abrons Art Center, creator Ben Pryor (pictured) has adopted this word to perfectly represent a series of new performance, dance, and art events that repurposes “realness” for a newly growing subset of American and international art.
We asked a few questions to Ben about the future of American Realness, doing homework in the BAM Opera House as a kid, and what “realness” means in the context of the artwork and performances on display at this year’s festival. Check out the full interview below.
What is your background in the arts? Are you an artist yourself? My mom was a publicist for contemporary classical composers. David Lang, Michael Gordon, Julie Wolfe, the Bang on a Can scene, Michael Nyman, John Corigliano… I grew up going to atonal music concerts, being seated between critics, forced to behave myself backstage at theKnitting Factory at age 12, or doing homework during sound check in the Opera Houseat BAM. There was a predisposition to artists pushing the boundaries, and I was stuffing press kits to earn allowance at age 7. I got more serious about dance when I was a little older, studying tap, jazz, ballet and still doing musicals in school. My BA is in theater performance. Later on I started seeing concert dance and was studying a lot of queer theory and looking at the performance of race, gender and the self. I got really interested in qualities of performance and of personhood. How does the performance of self constitute an identity on or inside a body?
I think these two worlds can be seen in the performance work that excites me today. There is text, there is song, there is dancing/movement/ideas within the framework of dance. It is really a queering of musical theater, of modern dance, of performance art and other contemporary art making practices — a mashing up of contexts, theatrical or otherwise.
What stands out most to you when looking for performers for American Realness? I get excited about work when I am surprised, confused in that tantalizing or challenging way, and when I see or experience transformation — when I am pushed into new ways of thinking, into and through my own discomfort, or into a state of joy. American Realness presents work in which artists are exploring performative practices to show us that the world is larger than ourselves; that we are all connected. Their work is reflexive of who they are and how they make it, and subversive in how they approach the frames of dance and performance. The works are crafted as experiences more than shows, where the action is not just seen, but felt. It is about palpable energetic exchange between the performers and the audience. I want to FEEL something. I want someone to make sense of it all and tell me it is OK, however fucked up it seems to be. This is what I hope to offer audiences in a lot of different ways over the course of the program.
Over the past 5 years, what has been the most rewarding aspect of putting together American Realness? The program has been insanely rewarding in a number of ways. The resonance was palpable from the beginning. Everyone said yes. And keeps on saying it. The artists. The industry. The public. The program has had a remarkable trajectory and I am insanely grateful to Jay Wegman, Director of the Abrons Arts Center, for thinking it was a decent idea and making the path to today possible.
How do you define “realness” in relation to the arts? The term “Realness” comes from the Drag Ball context and has to do with passing. With the festival, I consider Realness in relationship to the performativity of personhood and identity and how these ideas are played with in the performance of life, highlighted here for us on stage. How are performers representing themselves? What are they presenting of “themselves”? I am really interested in that slippery space where we are not really sure what we know. It creates a heightened state of attention for the audience. They are forced to work through their own sense of confusion about what is happening.
There is also a level of “realness” that relates to the underfunded nature of American work (dance/theater/performance) in relationship to international work. It is about acknowledging that there is more frequently a DIY, raw aesthetic employed in this American work versus its international counterparts. But we are totally cognizant of that reality and making the decision to work with and call attention to it. We may not have everything that we wanted to do this, but we are making it work with what we have and not apologizing for it. Artists keeping it real.
There is also the level of marketplace that is somewhat transparent, perhaps less so for the public, but very much so for the programmers coming to the festival. The festival takes place during this huge performing arts conference. There are curators and programmers from all over the country and the world in town. Many of them are literally shopping for work to bring to their venues and festivals at home. So American Realness is also about selling your goods. In the traditional American entrepreneurial spirit, we have set up shop and we are for sale.
This year is the first time American Realness is featuring works authored solely by international artists. Can you describe your process for recruiting internationally? My day job is producing and touring the performance works of a few choreographers,Miguel Gutierrez and Ishmael Houston-Jones, for example. With that I end up traveling to different festivals and venues around the world where clients’ work is being presented. This affords me the opportunity to see a lot of work from other artists that often times isn’t otherwise coming to NYC. Every now and then I see works that I know will really resonate back home. I have resisted making invitations because my festival was supposed to be about “American” work. Now that the program is five years old, I feel like I can finally break out of that frame and not worry about what colleagues or the press might say. Now it is about sowing that the central aesthetic ideology of the program still holds clear across national and geographic boundaries.
Several of the works at this year’s festival challenge typical ideas of identity and how we see ourselves. What about the concept of identity, and the many ways it changes in our lifetime, appeals to you most? Like most homos, I had my own struggle with figuring out who and what I am and wanted to be. It wasn’t really until I started readingFoucault and Butler that I really felt comfortable understanding my identity as the confluence of my mental and physical reality. I think the combination of the more body-based practice of dance and the more intellectually-based practice of theater (not to imply that a dance or body based practices are not also intellectually grounded or rigorous) lend themselves to an investigation of personal identity. It is true that identity shifts as life goes on, so it is a ripe and universal territory for exploration, one that audiences can find themselves in.
In the future of American Realness, are there any directions you haven’t gone yet that you’d like to go in regard to artistic disciplines? I keep feeling interested in curating some sort of music program. I dabbled with some more musically based projects in 2013. This year I was trying to get Mykki Blanco involved in some aspect of the program. I was like “Hey Mykki, I am this crazy guy you don’t know who has access to a theater and this festival that gets some good press, wanna come make some crazy stage piece pop-opera?!!?” I like to have crazy fantasies I don’t have the resources for. I think that could really be amazing though, broadening the program a bit, but also asking the artists to bring themselves to the forms of the program. I think there is a lot of potential there.
Can you give insight into any particular events/artists/art in history that have influenced American Realness? Mark Russell’s Under the Radar Festival was the blueprint for American Realness. Mark ran Performance Space 122 for 20 years and then started Under the Radar as a way to bring new experimental theater to his national and international colleagues. For Realness, I shifted the focus from theater to dance and performance, but the format and function of the programs in the context of the APAP conference that is happening is quite similar.
American Realness spans many different venues, but is housed largely in Abrons Art Center. What about that space in particular appeals to your vision for American Realness? I love that Abrons is a campus. There are three theaters in the two connected buildings, and we have turned this multi-purpose room into another performance space. You can make a lot happen there. We take over the three gallery spaces too so the program really takes over all the public spaces and becomes something new. It allows the festival to become a fully social experience, not just going to the theater, sitting, watching and leaving. You can hang out, talk about the work, check out some exhibitions. Make some new friends and then go see something else. That was always really essential to the vision for the program.
Can you give us an insider’s opinion on some of the must-see additions to this year’s festival? This is always a hard one for me. I curated the program, so of course I have a reason for you to see everything! I would love for people to especially check out the international work as they are probably less familiar with these guys. Dana Michel is from Montreal. Her piece ‘Yellow Towel‘ is playing with racial stereotypes in this really interesting way. When I saw the piece last summer I kept thinking “WHAT THE FUCK IS SHE DOING?” There is all this action going on, she is speaking all this quasi-comprehendible gibberish, and while she is totally captivating on stage, she isn’t really letting you in 100%. It’s the kinda confusing/exciting I go for. And people should check out The Lounge. It is a free after-party each night at The Public Theater with a cash bar, performances and DJs. Chris Tyler’s TRL >>> Total Reject’s Live is happening next weekend, that should be wild. Hope to see ya there.
To make a contribution to help keep American Realness going, click here.
Justin Vivian Bond (pictured) is like the patron saint of GAYLETTER. I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve featured events featuring V. If it was anyone else you might be forgiven for thinking our coverage was overkill, but with Justin — no one can get enough. Which is why we are so excited to help celebrate Justin on Wednesday, October 22 at the Cock. It’s technically a fundraiser for NYPAC, a non-profit organization that supports performance art.
The location for the benefit is especially fitting for Mx Bond, “who performed at The Cock’s original 12th Street location every Saturday, and was the first performer to christen its current — and soon to be former — incarnation. This benefit will be an opportunity to celebrate both Mx Bond and the history of the East Village and Lower East Side, which have been so actively intertwined.”
There’s going to be performances by Joseph Keckler, Erin Markey, Casey Legler, DJ Lina and Juliana Huxtable. It’s also highly likely that Justin will perform at some stage during the night (we can’t promise that, but it’s highly likely). Grab your tickets now.
Benefit Gala $150, After Party $50, Gala 7:00PM & 10PM, Wednesday, October 22, The Cock, 29 2ND AVE, NY. Buy your tickets here!
Being an Australian in New York means I have my feet planted in the cultural worlds of two countries (I’m so cool, I know). This is most useful for when I want to act like a dick and be one step ahead of Americans when it comes to awesome Aussie cultural imports: “Ja’mie? Sure it’s funny but you should really see We Can Be Heroes, that’s by far Chris Lilley‘s best show.”
It’s not often I get to do this when it comes to music (sorry Australia), however recently I discovered an addictive new musical duo named Klo who herald from my hometown of Melbourne. They’re so new that they only have two songs on their Soundcloud. Make Me Wonder, the song below, is my favorite. It’s a soft and smoked out song that seems to float from note to note — and I’ve had it on repeat for the last 20 mins.
Klo is the project of Melbourne-based cousins Chloe Kaul and Simon Lam (also of Ill’s). I’m sure they’ll be touring here any day now, at which point you’ll be able to say to friends with an air of contempt “Oh yeah I heard them like 3 months ago, you just discovered them?? Weird.”
New doco explores the real life of a queer man who robbed a bank to buy his girlfriend a sex change operation.
The story is so wild Al Pacino made a movie about it (Dog Day Afternoon 1975). Directed by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren The Dog tells the story of John Wojtowicz, a man who attempted to rob a Chase bank in Brooklyn in 1972 in order to buy his girlfriend, Liz Eden, gender-reassignment surgery (she was a trans woman). The robbery lead to a 14-hour siege that made international headlines, and a long jail sentence for John.
As John says in the trailer below, he’s a true romantic. What lead him to making, what he considered to be, the ultimate romantic gesture — robbing a bank so his girlfriend could become the woman on the outside that she was on the inside — is explored in-depth in this film that was shot over 10 years. Using old news footage of the robbery, along with 10 years of interviews with John, and also interviews with many of the leaders of the gay liberation movement at the time, The Dog is a fascinating film.
John was a true pioneer of the gay rights movement. He loved sex and was unabashed in his desires for men, once even making out with a cop on the street after he called him a “faggot.” Way before same-sex marriage was even discussed in the media, John helped organize one of the earliest marriage equality protests and he was an active member of the Gay Activists Alliance. But more than anything he was, and is, a great storyteller, something this film brilliantly illustrates.
If you’re looking for a unique movie to see this weekend, then The Dog is it. It’s one of the strangest tales ever told, but wonderfully entertaining.
So when is someone going to rob a bank for me!?
In theaters today and iTunes August 15
David Orton and Nick Schiarizzi are two lovely friends of mine who as DJs (Nick at the CHERYL parties, David at the Mormon Church Dances parties) had begun to feel a little boxed in by what they were expected to play. Music at most big parties can be a little…monotonous. You know, just beats, no lyrics, it’s like one loooong song is being played the whole night. Which is fine if you’re on drugs and you want to dance for six hours straight, but otherwise it can get a little tedious. So anyway, they decided to create a party where they could play whatever the hell they liked. Something laidback, easy.
So what else should you expect from the event? Well, first there’s no cover, second your obviously encouraged to bring poppers (make sure they’re artisanal — perhaps cedar wood and Peruvian mint flavored), and lastly, the music, most importantly, is going to be fun. This place is always full of cute boys and a surprising number of lesbians. They also serve frozen margaritas in a bunch of different flavors, which really seals the deal for me. That’s about it. Hope to see you there! —TOM
No cover, 11pm to 4am, Friday August 8, One Last Shag, 348 Franklin Ave, Bk, NY.
Expand your mind at one of the Summer's trippiest parties.
Paul Leopold is a busy boy. Not only does he help produce the wonderful The Week, but he also runs (with David Sokolowski) the Bushwick Psychic party series. The last one was Psychic Spring, and now, obviously it’s time for Psychic Summer on Saturday July 26th. Paul is a bit of tripper, which we love. I’ll let his description for the party speak for itself:
“Psychic Summer continues the journey to expanded consciousness we tapped into this spring. We’re creating a space where our community can gather together and collectively explore deepening our relationships to each other and our imaginations. Through music, dance, atmosphere, ritual and libations, guests at the party will lift off from the ground that supports our everyday lives and travel through a universe of dreams where freedom and sensuality guide the way to love and bliss.”
I mean, call your mushroom dealer ASAP, shits about to get wavvvvvy. Here’s how it’s playing out musically, again I’ll let Paul fill you in:
“The night will begin with David Sokolowski and Mikey Hefez playing lyrical upbeat house, from there we’ll move on to Tursi and Dandylion who will take us on an experimental techno journey sure to make you see the stars and land you in a sea of ecstasy as Econ, Viv & Analoug Soul take over 4 turntables to bring you the ultimate sunrise deep house/Detroit techno extravaganza.”
The party has moved to a new location in the heart of Brooklyn. I’ve been told (this is a big one) that “special libations and treats will be on hand.” Special treats, oh shit! This sounds like my kind of event.
$10 ADVANCE / $15 DOOR ☯ 11:00pm- 7:00am ☯15 Thames St. Brooklyn, NY.
The trailer for Ira Sachs' latest film is adorable.
Ira Sachs is one of our favorite directors. Last year we had the chance to chat with him about his last film Keep the Lights On, and it was an enlightened conversation. So needless to say I was super excited to finally get a look at the trailer for his new film Love is Strange. Mossy saw the film at the Tribeca Film Festival and had good things to say.
It stars John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as Ben and George, a couple who get married after 39 years together. Shortly after the wedding George is fired from his teaching post at a Catholic school “forcing them to stay with friends separately while they sell their place and look for cheaper housing — a situation that weighs heavily on all involved.”
The film will be out in theaters on August 22nd, but it is already received plenty of praise from those who saw it on the film festival circuit (it first premiered at Sundance.) Indiewire called it “a sophisticated take on contemporary urbanity infused with romantic ideals and the tragedy of their dissolution.”
I’m a sucker for stories about old gay men (random I know). Mike Mills‘ Beginners, a semi-autobiographical film about his father’s coming out in his late 80’s, is still one of my favorite films…of all time. I’m hoping I can add Love is Strange to that list!
Watch the trailer below.
She'll destroy your town...
You know what movie I loved as a kid…Mrs Doubtfire. For those who haven’t seen it (seriously?) it stars Robin Williams as a divorced man who dresses up as a fat old nanny so he can spend more time with his kids. It’s so silly and funny and was probably my first exposure to drag. I got thinking about that film when I heard that the winner of the last season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Bianca Del Rio, had started a crowd funding page to raise money for a new film, Hurricane Bianca. It’s a comedy about “a New York teacher who moves to small town Texas, is fired for being gay, and returns disguised as a mean lady to get revenge on the nasty town.”
I was sold from that quote alone. The movie was conceived by Matt Kugelman who is also its writer and director. So far they have raised around $60,000, but they have some way to go to raise their intended goal of $175,000. If you’d like to contribute, then now is the time. There’s all sorts of brilliant prizes like personalized voicemail messages and even the chance to be personally insulted by Bianca on her web series.
Below is a short video they created for the campaign.
A drag fundraiser for Maddox Madison
When someone you know is having a rough time you usually bringing them a cup of soup, watch some Golden Girls with them, do whatever you can to make them feel better. When that person happens to be a legend of the downtown community, soup is not enough.
“Maddox Madison, a long time performer and staple of the East Village has recently been stricken with skin cancer. The community is rallying together to support her fight against this deadly disease. As many may know, skin cancer in African Americans is so rare it comprises only one to two percent of the population.”
On Sunday a bunch of her amazing friends are getting together to throw her a benefit, because healthcare in this country is fucked and she needs some coin to continue her fight against this disease.
If you can’t make it but still want to support Maddox then go to the GoFundMe page. There’s prizes from Reed Krakoff, Fendi, Organic Avenue, The Wendy Williams Show, Nickelodeon, just to name a few. “Those that attend will be in for quite a show, one which will be a true testament to the type of person Maddox is.”
With DJ duo’s The Carry Nation (Will Automagic & Nita Aviance), H.A.M.B. (Michael Magnan & Juliana Huxtable), William Francis & Jeffrey Chatterton and Sammy Jo. Hosted by Stephanie Stone, Dina Marie, Domonique Echeverria, Christie Maass, Alissa Brianna and Matthew Camp. Ryan McNally will be collecting Donations. Plus, one night only go go appearances by Jay Roth and Rowan Pierce.
Be there, and be there for Maddox.
Give what you can, 10:00PM, Eastern Bloc, 505 east 6th St. NY, NY.
Xavier Dolan, an emerging filmmaker worth knowing
Although you may not recognize the name yet, Xavier Dolan at only 25 is poised to become a household name as a filmmaker producing movies in the grandest tradition of the silver screen. The Canadian born actor, writer, and director’s fourth feature, ‘Tom at the Farm,’ which was recently showcased at MOMA’s Carte Blanche film series honoring Miram Karmitz’s independent film company MK2, keeps this promise.
If you’re not familiar with Dolan’s work, much of his films read like extended music videos, with lush slow-motion sequences put to Salvatore Bono songs; but uniquely, here the videos enhance the music (see Dolan’s earlier films ‘I Killed My Mother‘ and ‘Heartbeats‘). There is also ‘Laurence Anyways,’ worth mentioning not least of all as a transgender narrative — although foremost a love story — told with the tenderness such deeply human stories deserve but are often deprived, and with a magic that makes the movie-going experience spellbinding when it’s good (and here it’s really good). The irresistible Melvil Poupaud, who stars as Laurence, makes for another strong reason to watch.
Representing a bit of a departure from these earlier projects, ‘Tom at the Farm’ opens on vistas of Canadian countryside as Tom, bereft of Guillaume, who has suddenly died by some accident that remains a mystery for the film’s entirety, travels to his late lover’s hometown, or farmtown as it were, to pay his respects. But upon his arrival, no one seems to have expected him or to have known of his existence prior. Tom, played by the oh-so-charming Dolan, nonetheless ekes his way into their lives with a shock of dirty blonde hair, a wounded heart, and the grace of a field mouse.
On the eve of the funeral we meet Guillaume’s older brother, Francis, the brooding and berserk bull of this cattle ranch who throws his weight and well-appointed jaw-line around like a juggernaut, threatening Tom with physical violence if he doesn’t keep to the story that Guilaume was straight and had a beloved girlfriend named Sarah. He achieves total domination through coercion and by exploiting Tom’s unstated sexual attraction, rasping in one scene after giving him a fresh beating, “I know you like me…please don’t go.” His stated motive for preserving his deceased brother’s straight image is to protect his grieving mother, played with haunting intensity by Lise Roy, the only hold-over from the original stage production by Michel Marc Bouchard upon which the screenplay is based.
Suspense and violence (and the threat of violent punishment) take center stage in the film, revealing the darkest modes of human desire. The tension crackles between Dolan’s Tom and Pierre-Yves Cardinal’s Francis, epitomizing the maxim that just on the other side of disgust is lust. Before you know it Tom, pale and purple, is in the grip of Stockholm syndrome, performing farm chores like an automaton under the hypnotizing gaze of his captor, having literally been beaten into submission. Even when a friend attempts to save him from his physically abusive, coke-snorting, man-on-man tango partner (yes that scene is as absurd and hot as it sounds), fretful Tom refuses rescue.
Dolan, fresh off of winning a jury prize at Cannes for his next project ‘Mommy,’ introduced ‘Tom at the Farm’ at MOMA. In his speech he referenced that in the midst of post-production he actually doubted the film’s quality, and that only after working with the film’s sound designer, Sylvain Brassard, did he realize sound’s power to reinforce storytelling. And indeed, one of the most absorbing features of the film is its expert sound design and menacing musical score. For instance, when Tom attempts to escape from Francis’s death-grip by diving into the scalloped sea of corn fields surrounding the farm (a visual that possesses on its own staggering beauty) the racing music raises the flesh to goosebumps. Gabreil Yared’s instrumentation leaves you dizzy yet again when, having abandoned another escape, Tom is hopelessly drawn back to the house of doom swooning in slow-motion on a symphonic groundswell. But, perhaps the most powerful example is during a monologue delivered by the matchless Roy, who, in painfully tight close-up remembers her son and curses the “accident” that struck him down at the age of 25. It is the terrible mounting strings in the background that complete this nausea-inducing reverie.
Dolan’s zeal for timing, suspense and drama have earned the film just comparisons to Hitchcock (and to that list I might add Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining‘). What is most remarkable, however, is how Dolan turns the Hitchcokian formula on its head with Tom emerging as the quintessential Hitchcock heroine, subverting gender codes of cinema and most satisfyingly appealing to the Hitchcock heroine trembling within us all.
One of the film’s predominant themes is deception vs. reality. Peppered throughout are phrases like “feel real,” inscribed on a painting in the bedroom Tom share’s with his dead boyfriend’s brooding older brother, dividing their twin beds. And, yet again, appearing on a neon sign that reads “The Real Thing,” in a bar scene that speaks to Dolan’s exquisite writing, and a script that must read like a noir page-turner. Fed up with all of the lies, Tom asks a local bartender to tell him why all of the townspeople steer clear of Francis (as if he needed further explanation). It is a perfectly banal outpost in a perfectly normal farmtown where the agrarian normcore wet their whistles over a pint of lager. The bartender obliges, recounting a gruesome act of violence that, despite the scene’s absence of action, leaves you nonetheless riveted.
So what is “the real thing” in ‘Tom at the Farm’? Is it simply a marker by which we measure the central deception of the film, Gillaume’s grand lie to protect himself and his family from his sexual orientation – or is that, as Dolan points out himself “too on the nose”? Considering the blistering homoerotic tension between Francis and Tom one can’t help but wonder if Francis himself is a play on this theme of the “real”, here fetishized as the “real straight guy fantasy” whereby Tom is never entirely sure if Francis is going to fuck him or simply fuck him up. Maybe it’s a reference to the limitation of all human connection, whereby you love someone and think you know them only to wake up one day next to a stranger. Still more disturbing, perhaps it is about the stories will tell ourselves about ourselves that is the real gambit. Whatever the case, undoubtedly Dolan is the real thing and you’d be wise to hang a wish on this rising star.
Tom at the Farm will be featured again at MOMA on June 20th.
Chase Quinn is a New York based culture writer. Follow Chase on twitter @chasebquinn