Monday, February 2, 2009

There's Art In Androgyny

In the late 1970s, San Francisco's Gay Men's Theatre Collective debuted a landmark production called Crimes Against Nature. Using a technique similar to what Michael Bennett had employed during the creation of A Chorus Line, the GMTC used material developed in a series of confessional-style workshops to craft a theatrical presentation in which gay men openly examined their sexuality, probed their inner emotions,  and talked about what made them who they really were.

As men exhibited an increasing willingness to explore the male and female elements of their sexuality, the gay press, a wealth of therapists, and sometimes even the traditional medical community began to take a more serious look at the concept of the Divine Androgyne. Writing about a 1997 revival of Crimes Against Nature, the San Francisco Examiner's critic, Robert Hurwitt, noted that:
"Back in 1977, when gay liberation was still fairly new and gay-identified theater was just being born, the Gay Men's Theater Collective sparked something of a theatrical revolution with the confrontational style and confessional content of its collectively created "Crimes Against Nature." Widely regarded as one of the seminal gay theater productions, "Crimes" played for nearly two years - here, in Santa Cruz, Toronto and New York.... The impact of AIDS is particularly evident, and not just in its absence from the pre-pandemic monologues. Six of the 11 original creators and performers - Charles Solomon, Greg Kollenborn, Timo Lupine-Child, Tommy Pace, Anthony Eschbach and Martin Worman - have died of the disease in the intervening years."
As "liberated" men and women tried to relate to their body parts and sexual desires, a great deal of navel-gazing ensued. Women squatted over mirrors in order to see their oft-hidden genitalia in full bloom. Artist Tee Corrine (whose Cunt Coloring Book was republished in 2005) recalls that:
"In 1973 I set out to do drawings of women’s genitals for use in sex education groups. I wanted the drawings to be lovely and informative, to give pleasure and affirmation. I organized the drawings into a coloring book because a major way we learn to understand the world, as children, is by coloring. As adults many of us still need to learn about our external sexual anatomy"
By the time playwright Eve Ensler had written her first draft of The Vagina Monologues in 1996, the confessional format had grown ripe for ridicule.

A new documentary, scheduled for screening at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival, showcases a theatrical event staged by The Men's Story Project last summer at Berkeley's La Pena Cultural Center. Like Crimes Against Nature, The Men's Story Project evolved out of a tradition of storytelling as ordinary men shared some extraordinary and formative experiences from their lives -- experiences which, for better or worse, have defined them as men and forced them to struggle to create their own definitions of masculinity and sexuality.

If you can open yourself up to some brutally honest narratives, you will encounter some powerful raw material that has found a valuable therapeutic and dramatic outlet. You'll hear stories ranging from the man who describes the emotional path he took following a diagnosis of testicular cancer to the young man whose parents shunned him after he was diagnosed with HIV. You'll hear a (mostly) straight man talk about how difficult it is to tell his close male friends that he loves them and listen to another man (who was raised by a single mother) describe his struggle to learn how to identify with his own gender after a lifetime of hearing men be defined by women. You'll hear men talk about transgender issues, racism, life in prison, and their struggle to live with physical disabilities.

What you won't find is great filmmaking and cinematography. The men you will hear are not trained actors, the sound is often fuzzy, and the camera work is amateurish.  But that's not why this film was made. Most of the stories told in this documentary are readily available through the MensStoryProject channel on YouTube. Here's Robert Haaland's monologue (you'll probably need to turn up your speakers to hear it all).

* * * * * * * *

Whereas The Men's Story Project has people telling their own stories, something quite different took place last weekend at the Mission Dance Studio, where Fresh Meat Productions unveiled its latest performance piece. Inspired by reading the diaries of Lou Sullivan, artistic director Sean Dorsey set about using a dance vocabulary to express something many of us never think about. 

Wondering how people will remember us after we die -- and if that memory can ever truly reflect the person who has moved on -- Dorsey focused in on the entries in a person's diary as holding the most accurate and intimate reflection of a person's thoughts and soul. The result is Uncovered: The Diary Project --  a probing, intelligent, and sensitive piece of dance theater which deserves to reach a much larger audience.

The first number on the program, Lost/Found, was inspired by entries in Dorsey's own childhood diaries which pointed to his growing confusion about gender identity. In his program notes. Dorsey writes 
"I was driven to create a dance that talked about the gaps between recorded history, memory and actual lived experience of my community. What happens to all the lives and stories that fall between the pages of recorded history and family albums?
The bulk of the evening, however, was devoted to the premiere of Lou, which was dedicated to the memory of Lou Sullivan (a pioneering force in the transsexual community). Growing up in Milwaukee (where he began his career as a female transvestite), Sullivan applied to the Stanford University Gender Dysphoria Program but, on numerous occasions, was rejected because of his sexual orientation.  He helped found the GLBT Historical Society, published the FTM Newsletter and, in 1991, became the first FTM to die of AIDS. Because Dorsey was able to explore nearly 30 years of diary entries from Lou Sullivan, this is probably one of the first times anyone has seen the arc of a transsexual's life and emotional development expressed through a vocabulary of modern dance.

Both works were performed to a combination of spoken readings from diary entries that were underlined and augmented by music. Where one might expect the spoken word to dominate, the choreography actually helped to strengthen and showcase the soul's confusion as it searched for a deeper understanding of a person's transsexuality. Greeted by a well-deserved standing ovation from the audience, Dorsey's two performance pieces revealed a solid of mix of choreographic talent with a new and exciting theatrical idea.

Brian Fisher, Sean Dorsey, Nol Simonse, and Juan de la Rosa

* * * * * *
San Francisco is noted for its many restaurants featuring fusion cuisine. As a result, it's not too difficult to identify some of the ingredients that went into Teatro Zinzanni's newest show.  Take a European-style Spiegeltent, serve ticket buyers a dinner they might expect on a Holland America Line cruise, make the show an ongoing tourist attraction like San Francisco's Beach Blanket Babylon, and then see how far you can push the envelope to create a decent buzz.

For performers, try rounding up an eclectic bunch of jugglers, torch singers, mimes, aerialists, gymnasts and actors. Present them in an atmosphere that offers more intimacy than Cirque duSoleil, but a larger venue than a tiny cabaret.  Give them a circus pole that's too large for a stripper but just right for gymnastic stunts.  Add in a touch of Dame Edna-style humiliation for selected members of the audience, but let the cast mingle among the diners. Garnish it all with an extra dash of gender confusion under Jack Fletcher's imaginative directorial supervision and you get a tasty treat named License to Kiss.

Like fusion food, the result is a combination of many identifiable elements that emerges as a sui generis form of entertainment.  You might have an operatic mezzo-soprano like Kristin Clayton portraying a tough doll who becomes enamored of a hypersexual robotic dog. Or the gymnastic team of Sam Payne and Sandar Feusi alternating between comic roles and performing their impressive "vertical tango." Or a genial juggler/singer/actor lke Joel Salom, who can proudly claim to have had more balls in his mouth than any of your friends:

During portions of the evening your attention might be focused on Ukrainian gymnast Tatiana Gousarova or a pair of Asian aerialists. You might be amused by the customized show tricycles on which members of the cast traverse the performing area or, on looking down at the wooden floor, wonder if you're dining atop a latent carousel that could lurch into motion at any moment. You might take great delight in the musical renderings of a sultry chanteuse like Sabine Hettlich.

The bulk of your attention, however, will fall under the powers of Kevin Kent's androgynous Master of Ceremonies. An original member of Teatro Zinzanni since its founding days in Seattle, Kent follows a grand tradition of divinely androgynous stage creatures. When Kent selects an audience member to participate in one of his routines, the results tend to be far better than some of Dame Edna's recent experiences. 

Letting the audience in on all of the jokes (as well as some he hasn't fully  thought through), Kent takes the art of the drag queen to new heights and depths (not only as a performer but as a formidable seductress of straight men). Watching him in action shows what can be accomplished when you have a quick mind, unlimited chutzpah,  brass balls that even Joel Salom can't fit in his mouth, a willing albeit nervous volunteer from the audience, and a wardrobe fit for a very large queen.

The result is a kind of theatrical magic which, like fusion fare, is hard to nail down. Watching Kent onstage gives a person renewed admiration for the role of androgyny in performance art and how far we, as an audience, have come in embracing the androgynous archetype. If you enjoy cabaret music, the terrifically funny terror of no-holds barred improvisional theater, and want to have your cake and eat it, too, you couldn't do better than a performance of License to Kiss.

* * * * * * *
Have we finally been able to cast aside our sexual inhibitions and embrace the art and wisdom of the drag queen? Take a look back at this tender scene from the film version of Torch Song Trilogy starring Harvey Fierstein and Matthew Broderick and see how you react:

No comments: