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.
Our First Federal Grants
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
Steve Sapp/The Universes
Our first show at P.S.122 was called The Ride. The opening poem said, “If we’re in Brooklyn, it’s Broadway; if we’re in Sing Sing, it’s Broadway; if we’re at the Nuyorican Poets, it’s Broadway; if we’re at P.S.122, it’s Broadway. . . . ” We knew who had been on that stage—Danny Hoch, John Leguizamo, Eric Bogosian, Spalding Gray, Carmelita Tropicana. We found it weird that Mark was bringing us in, but he’d just say, “Come in and play, come in and play.”
Lori E. Seid
I curated a group show called Salon de la Mer, emceed by Karen Crumley, who did this dominatrix character and had a leopard, who was really Peggy Healey nude except for body-paint spots. I asked friends, all gorgeous women, to come and wear cigarette-girl trays and sell snacks and tequila slushies. It was a very hot summer. I put in three kiddie pools. Until recently when they redid the floors, I had utter guilt, because you could see where the floor buckled because of the kiddie pools. We had so much fun swimming and splashing.
The Full Moon Crew—Dancenoise, Mimi Goese, Jo Andres, and me, Alien Comic—performed on full-moon nights at P.S.122 during the ’80s. I’d ask the moon goddess, Luna Macaroona, for her blessing on everyone. It would end with a shower of lunar essence, some sort of white material, like those pellets you use for packaging or yogurt, something white and messy.
Dancenoise was Anne Iobst and me. Our motto was that we would never do the same show twice and never say no to a gig. We were going to see a lot of punk bands at the time and we took that ethos—make it short, fast, loud. More often than not there would be a big dose of fake blood. We were very political, and we used to have these big dummies onstage and in the first full-length show, Half a Brain, we said, “We’re not talking half a brain in this country, we’re talking no head.” We took the heads off the dummies and they had bottles of blood stuck inside them, so blood spurted out of their necks and we doused ourselves in it and went on.
The idea for Hot Keys was that every week of the run you would add characters and people until there were as many people onstage—singing, dancing, acting, living, dying, fornicating—as there were in the audience. Sometimes the shows would go on for five or six hours. I had eight or nine different plotlines from week to week. Our glee club had grown to 35 members and would do dozens of musical numbers. There was no intermission. Once the evening started it didn’t end.
My piece I Got the He-Be-She-Be’s was all about male/female confusion and these different entities in me fighting for control within the one body. I would wear men’s underwear, but I also had my requisite high heels, and there was a moment where I tried to rape myself, so to speak. It was a big old sweatfest.
Ishmael Houston Jones
I did a dance piece that had this AIDS coda so I wanted a nightmarish image of my fear of plague. I bought a dead goat on 14th Street, and in the climax I was blindfolded on a mattress in a hospital gown dancing with it. There was this big outcry, mostly from animal rights activists. They called the Board of Health and I had to explain to this bureaucrat the symbolism of a man wrestling with a dead goat. Actually the second weekend it was replaced by a dead sheep. We were keeping it in the beer cooler of a local sushi restaurant.
Lori E. Seid
We held the Ethyl Eichelberger Film Festival after Ethyl killed himself—stuff that he showed during his shows and other stuff that he was in. I rented a cotton candy maker and we made cotton candy wigs. We were all instrumental in making the downstairs dressing room his dressing room. We got his piano and it just seemed right.
Changing in that Ethyl Eichelberger dressing room felt like such a privilege. It’s really tiny and it’s painted bright pink and there’s that picture of Ethyl propped up above the mirror and everybody knows it’s his room and that it really is haunted.
Survival at High Altitudes
Sarah East Johnson
My most recent piece, Timberline, was about survival at high altitudes, so we put a tightrope in between two columns. We also put a little platform on the top of one of them and got eight people up there, perched, stranded. We hung trapezes. That space is so intimate, we could do a piece inside a tent with people telling survival narratives.
For my swan song as the “Impact Addict,” Mark let me build a six-story mountain in the courtyard. Lucy Sexton came out dressed as Maria Von Trapp. “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” played and Lucy started to climb and at one point she went behind a rocky outcropping and I took over, dressed exactly like her. I hauled myself up and at the very top there’s a tree. I started climbing. Then three nuns come out of the sixth-story window; two of them have axes. They start chopping. The tree falls and flings me straight down to the stage. How I survived that I will never know.
Tell Tale, Theatre Couture’s version of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” had this incredible white set and I was on the floor under it popping things out of trap doors—body parts and grisly bits. Very Grand Guignol. I was working late one night, testing a technique, when Mark came in. I was under the floor, pulling strings, making this very bloody meat cleaver climb up the wall and Mark said, “Oh my God!” and I knew this was the way to go.
Mark Russell, What a Gentleman!
I saw what was probably the first hip-hop theater piece ever at P.S.122, So! What Happens Now, by GhettOriginal. It said to a generation of artists who didn’t just want to remain B-boys or graffiti writers or emcees: You belong on this stage too. That’s part of the reason I became the artistic director of the Hip-Hop Theater Festival. Now that I’ve produced shows, I kid with Mark—I run into him and I’m like, “I’m trying to be you.”
Mark Russell, what a gentleman! He wasn’t in the least bit lascivious. I’m a male-to-female transsexual dyke and the freak factor of queer performance art is extremely high. There were some people running spaces who were kind of leering at the thought. “Well do you take your clothes off? Well, do you still have a penis?” But Mark just said, “Your show sounds great.”
Tim Miller:Who’s your
photo: Dona Ann McAdams
You’d often find Mark across the street at this cheap taco place eating a plate of beans. The food just looked so foul. At some point each night he’d run across and have a plate of really gross refried beans. There was something sad yet heroic about the director of this theater eating those greasy beans, nightly sacrificing himself to keep the show going.
Mark was also an artist in the space, a creative person. They’ll probably never have that again. Someone who’s been there from the beginning. He had done the 14-hour performance vigils. He had gone with some of these nuts (me included) to spend a week on Long Island on the deserted part of the beach, not speaking. One of my favorite images: On day three or four, Mark just crazily and passionately running naked down the beach until he left our field of vision, his butt disappearing from view. It’s such a beautiful human image of his creativity, his body, his presence.