It’s a late-March afternoon at Mount Tremper Arts Center, tucked on a quiet hillside in the Catskills. Snow blankets the vegetable garden, and birds flit between trees. In the barn, Adrienne Truscott is telling her director, Ellie Heyman, about the time two pigeons were trapped in her apartment. Truscott is a dancer, choreographer, and stand-up comedian, and knows how to work a room. She eases into an urban tale that’s both comic and tragic: The birds “kept flying into the window,” she says, unable to see the glass right in front of their faces.
The hapless pigeons are, or might be, material for Truscott’s new solo work, THIS, directed by Heyman and opening at New York Live Arts this week. The piece exists in a state of constant flux: developed long-distance, as Truscott toured Australia earlier this winter, and radically revised for every venue in which it’s performed. (Two weeks before the opening at NYLA, Truscott and Heyman were enthusiastically reimagining both staging and text.) The pigeons, as Truscott recalls them, have also become a metaphor for a particular kind of artistic conundrum: that feeling of thinking you’re seeing work clearly, then suddenly realizing you’ve been missing the frame.
In addition to dancing and choreographing, Truscott has also worked as a circus performer and a cabaret act (she is, with Tanya Gagne, one half of the celebrated Wau Wau Sisters). Her path to stand-up came about more recently: In 2013, she premiered her Asking for It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else!, a disturbingly hilarious piece about rape culture that Truscott delivered pantsless. Audiences and critics might have made a big deal about that, but for Truscott, it was familiar territory: “There are risks like being naked, and that’s obviously not much of a risk for me, because I do it all the time.”
For THIS, she’s taken on the more cerebral role of writer. By so frequently changing up her artistic practice, Truscott has become increasingly attuned to shifts in the expectations of both audiences and institutions — especially when those expectations are frustrated. “I’ve been interested in what kind of work feels insurgent in one place and totally anticipated in another,” she explained during a break, in Mount Tremper’s white clapboard farmhouse. “Is it just about your intentions? Is it defined by the institution, or the audience’s expectations?”
THIS brushes up against these very lines of inquiry. Back in the barn for rehearsal, Heyman and Truscott — the latter still battling jet lag, having arrived from Australia just days earlier — were editing performance text, debating its order, and translating it into movement. (“Something about that sounds bonkers enough to me to be able to live with it,” quipped Truscott after one read-through.) For Heyman, testing out these rough drafts is central to the rehearsal process. “I’m interested in the way Adrienne is exploring transparency in her artmaking process,” she says. “I want to see how deep that can go.”
Still in transition, the piece at that point included memoir, stand-up comedy, and audience misdirection, aided by abrupt lighting changes and playful uses of sound. “Is there a world in which you say, ‘Pretend this is a blackout!’ and then the lights get brighter and brighter?” proposed Heyman. The set was adorned only by large plastic block letters, which lit up one by one as Truscott flicked a switch, spelling out the piece’s title. Together, the vignettes and staging add up to a meditation on Truscott’s new role as a writer. “I’m going to read to you from a book I wrote this morning,” she announced at one point.
Truscott began this latest piece in a state of mild creative emergency. She’d agreed to perform in the multidisciplinary Brooklyn-based series CATCH but, recently returned from months of touring, hadn’t choreographed anything to show. Sitting down to send the curators a last-minute cancellation email (“I thought maybe if I tell them I have Lyme disease?”), she started writing something else. She ended up reading it that evening at CATCH; it quickly became the seed of THIS. Since then, Truscott has mounted versions of THIS as a cabaret piece, at Sid Gold’s Request Room, and as “an act of artistic diplomacy,” at the Australian Consulate in New York. Now she will turn her attention to the institutional framework of NYLA, particularly her decision to stage a solo, text-based work in a space suited to large-scale dance. “I’ve never really done [anything] where the approach to the form wasn’t to deconstruct it right away,” she says.
Deconstruction was, indeed, central to Asking for It, which Truscott purposely performed in comedy clubs around the world. Though she conceived Asking for It as stand-up, and presented it as such, she says she was received as a confrontational performance artist. “What exactly makes me a feminist performance artist and not a comedian if I’m performing an hour of jokes in a comedy festival?” she asks. (Would a man using the same material simply be called a comedian?) The question of gendered critical reception inspired Wild Bore, premiering this May in Melbourne, which Truscott is working on with London-based Ursula Martinez and Sydney-based Zoe Coombs Marr. Wild Bore‘s text is drawn from notable and notorious critical reviews — particularly, ill-fated commentary by male critics about female artists’ work. (For instance, Charles Isherwood’s infamous 2016 New York Times pan of Erin Markey’s A Ride on the Irish Cream — a review that began, “Huh?”)
Truscott’s exposure to varying forms and receptions has complicated her understanding of artistic daring. “[Being naked] is perceived as a risk,” she offers, in reference to Asking for It. But “for me, it’s much riskier to start THIS as a writer. That feels more terrifying than talking about an intense topic with my pants off.”
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