Telling Tales Out of School

Commemorating P.S. 122's 25-year history of stretching the bounds of contemporary performance

Eric Bogosian ranted, David Neumann strutted, Karen Finley moaned, Meredith Monk crooned, Dancenoise ("After children and before Botox") writhed naked with hula hoops, Scotty the Blue Bunny hopped, Carmelita Tropicana lifted her skirt and wriggled, all at a recent benefit, a celebration of Performance Space 122 and artistic director Mark Russell. It's a rare theater—and a rare administrator—that could have launched so many diverse careers. As P.S.122, the East Village motherland for interdisciplinary art, turns 25 and Russell, after 21 years at his post, prepares to depart, the Voice spoke to artists and staffers about P.S.122's oddball history and Russell's visionary leadership.


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Karen Finley: The joy of cooking
photo: Dona Ann McAdams
Karen Finley: The joy of cooking

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    Charles Dennis

    In the fall of 1979, Charlie Moulton told me he'd found a new place to work in this former public school. He asked me to come over and join him in organizing dance and performance activities. I invited Peter Rose and Tim Miller. We wanted to make a space that was really accessible and didn't have the overly snooty, arty feel typical of the Kitchen and DTW in the late '70s. We were interested in work that was interdisciplinary, that wasn't just dance, that wasn't just performance art, that could mix movement and language and visuals.


    Tim Miller

    That first winter of '79 to '80, we had no heat. We were trying to do these Open Movement events, intense physical work inspired by Jerzy Grotowski. It would often be 23 degrees in there, so we were bundled up and looking like Pillsbury Doughboys with all the layers.


    Mark Russell

    In 1983, the founders said we need someone to administer P.S.122. They told me, we're ready to pay you $7,000 for the job. I thought, well, $150 a week, I can make this work, I'll eat peanut butter sandwiches. It turns out that $7,000 took into consideration unemployment benefits. Actually for the first few years, most of my staff was on unemployment. We considered it our first federal grants. I can say this now because we're out of the statute of limitations. Hopefully.


    Into the Warp

    Dona Ann McAdams

    The architecture was the muse. There are four columns in the space, you hit the first as soon as you walk in. And the floor was blonde—"a blonde," as Holly Hughes once said. P.S.122 was like the beach. It was so hot and bright. Once the light grid came in, it was even more so, like Coney Island.

    When you walk into the theater and look west there's an amazing poem made of stained glass incorporated into the back wall. It's from 1888:

    Every waking hour we weave

    Whether we will or no.

    Every trivial act or deed

    Into the warp must go.


    Richard Maxwell

    It's hard to find places that embody their history, that don't have to be revamped and renovated. P.S.122 still has this schoolroom floor and you can see the drinking fountain on the back wall and the remnant of a basketball backboard.


    Meredith Monk

    Volcano Songs was a very landscape kind of piece, graphic, painterly. It had an installation part—a mountain-like shrine including three video monitors. The monitors showed excerpts from 24 Hours of Faces and speeded-up nature footage. We mounted this formation on black platforms alongside objects that we had found in the basement or out on the street: a big concrete block, some stones, things found in and around P.S.122. It became kind of an archaeological site.


    Karen Finley

    I did a piece there called A Suggestion of Madness, where I read my father's suicide note. There was a problem with the heating system, and when I was reading the note the whole building started groaning, which was very, very bizarre—and cathartic.


    Deb Margolin

    There was a roach problem during a couple of my runs. I never knew if they were going to end up in my purse. I saw them onstage. They must have been driven to dementia because roaches tend to stay out of the light. Or maybe Mark had been breeding performance roaches.


    He Wasn't Keith Haring

    Holly Hughes

    What an event it was to go to the P.S.122 benefits that were held every February. It was like the Burning Man of the early East Village, but without the fire. It was the peeing man outside screaming while you watched something from the Wooster Group, followed by Laurie Anderson, followed by Spalding Gray. It was a crash course on who was making work in New York.


    Mark Russell

    Twenty years ago this neighborhood was dangerous. There was a group who had us on their calendar. Every time we did a benefit, they would rob us. Once a guy rang the buzzer and said he was Keith Haring, who had just died. I came down there to tell him he wasn't Keith Haring, and he kicked me in the groin.


    Carmelita Tropicana

    I did a show with Uzi Parnes in the downstairs space, and it coincided with the Tompkins Square Park riots. We could hear them. Mark said, "What do we do? Do you want to go on?" And I said, "Well, the show must go on." And he said, "Well, OK, but let's lock everybody into the space." I said, "Perfect, the show's not that great, now they can't leave."

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