PUNK ROCK THEATRE? Please Explain: A Conversation with Pavement Group's David Perez
May 6, 2008, 03:49
The terms “punk rock” and “theatre” are rarely, if ever, seen side-by-side. The generalization simply spells out that punk rock is for the young crowd and theatre, the old. Maybe high-brow vs. low-brow? Pavement Group's David Perez disagrees: “I don't think “high-brow” is the termâ€¦actually I think theatre's low-brow! I think thatâ€¦and I'm just gonna say this because, well, what have I got to loseâ€¦theatre is created for white people ages 35 to, er, 75â€¦and most of the time between the ages of 50 to 100. I'm not going to say that I'm an expert on punk rock, but the way that I see it is, at least in the musical sense, is that it is very visceral. It disgusts you. It borders on palatable. I think that some of the best artists, like Kurt Cobainâ€¦I always go back to Kurt because I loved Nirvana like every other fat kid in 1993â€¦his voice straddled the line between unbearable, but also cranked out these silent songs that spoke volumesâ€¦because no one was singing to us in that way! It was a response to the simplicity of mainstream musicâ€¦like you should love and hate the music at the same time. The way that music and theatre are similar is that we all have this impulse to get into a dark room with complete strangers and let someone's work pass through us.”
David Perez is a founding member and Artistic Director for Chicago's Pavement Group, a theatre company focused on the new and otherwise unheard voices in drama. They perform in venues that usually house musical performances and cater to the non-theatre attending crowd. “We want to provide the pragmatic and artistic support to let new plays flourish,” David said, sipping his Heffeweizen at our meeting spot, the Rainbo in Chicago.
How then is theatre punk rock?
“There's a lot of risk imbedded in art in this countryâ€¦the way the arts are funded. Theatre is an art form that is always struggling with its longevity, its career longevity. I wanted to have a theatre company that produces new plays that aren't necessarily built to succeed. That's the only way for new playwrights to flourish. I'm gonna steal this line, but it's okay because I'm saying that I'm stealing itâ€¦it's from a great playwright's collective in New York called 13P, and their motto is, “We don't develop plays, we do them.” I think that's great. That statement may be a bit obtrusive but I like to think that young writers, especially writers of color that don't want to write about their cultural experience deserve a place where directors and arts and history and actors and designers get to try to bring their work to fruition.”
Although emerging playwrights are Pavement Group's main focus, their new production, a stage version of Griel Marcus's Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, is by no means new, but definitely experimental, at least in the dramatic sense. A book teeming with historical documentation and a time span traveling back to the 16th century monks through the ages and all the way to the modern era seems to be quite an undertaking. Again, David:
“(Adapting Lipstick Traces for the stage is) not ideal at all. It's a fucking mess. When I wake up tomorrow morning and go to rehearsal, the scene that I'm blocking is the Blago Bung, Blago Bungâ€¦it's a famous Dada poem. But, how do you translate Dada for an actor? How do you get an actor to be like Dada? How do you create this thing? What we're doing is we're going to give him the room and then we're just gonna throw ourselves at each other and create this thing to try to contribute to the tone of this playâ€¦I would never be so bold to say that we are creating a Dadaist play, cause Dada's gone. I don't know what we are but we're definitely not Dada.”
Would something like this go over well in the theatre community? Does David care? The answer is simply, “No.” A cocksure demeanor tells that his motives are true and with reason. His face seems to brighten as he recalls the reviews they received for their first production, his own play, The Perks of Nudity:
“Something kind of remarkable happened which was we got great press before the show, a lot of people were interested in seeing the show, and then we got the worst reviews ever. I mean I got my ass handed to meâ€¦by a bunch of publications. But we always performed to 85% housesâ€¦if we weren't full we were always almost full. We never cancelled performances. We sat back and thought to ourselves, “You know, there is something here. There is something to be said for trying to speak directly to an audience that doesn't normally have theatre as a form of entertainment.”
Showing the “kids” that theatre can, in fact, be punk rock seems like an odd fascination, but one that makes perfect sense to someone like David. “I think that the experiences that we choose to capture in popular theatre all across the nation tend to be reflective of the audience, or at least give the audience a sort of Dim Sum taste what it's like to be black, Mexican, gay, you know, whatever. This is not indignation toward the American theatre, because I would be a zealot, a young zealot, to say that it's the American theatre's fault. There's a lot of problems with theatre and one is that we have to cater to a subscriber base just to do work. And there's a small pockets of places that do really good work and these huge theaters that do bad work. I mean if you look at the schedules for the theaters in this city there are countless bad plays and a few real gems. I mean, thisâ€¦it's a hard endeavor. I think over-saturation of the market is a big thing. I know this sounds arrogantâ€¦but I'm not worried about our audience. We talk about and promote our shows as eventsâ€¦shows, you know, not directed towards a theatre crowd. People come because I feel likeâ€¦you, whoever's reading this article right now, there's lots of theatre opportunities in every town that you're in, but how many of these shows speak to you directly? Sure, in every town they're doing some play like Dinner With Friends by Donald Marguliesâ€¦or any other play that's about upper middle class people with identically failing relationshipsâ€¦that is not an invalid story to tell, but it is the only story they're telling!
To bring it back to this playâ€¦it is a more universal ideaâ€¦it is about loathing of one's time and place. We all have the same instincts. We all wanna fuck, we all wanna fight, we want to lose ourselves in one small piece of music because it's the right tenor, because it makes us feel like we have access to our lives. This impulse that continues to make contact with usâ€¦how can Dada and punk be the same? What is this attitude that replicates itself throughout time? The book poses a ton of questions and brings up all these different kinds of music and art. It is a cerebral mess! After you put down the bookâ€¦and you let it marinate for a few days, a few months, you realize that this is Greil Marcus's way of participating in this impulse. He wants a piece of art that forces you to make contact with it, to negotiate yourself with it. Like dadaâ€¦dada was a response to the atrocities of WWI. In 1976 when the Sex Pistols album came out the British government predicted that 80 million people would be unemployed. It was a response to one time and one placeâ€¦a response to the formality and the structure of commerce and how it dented our ability to have interactions with ourselves and others. With Johnny Rotten, when they had the Winterland concert, their last concert, he said, â€˜Go ahead kill yourself, kill someone. We don't care. Go ahead, be a man.' As sensationalist as that is I think what's behind it is go ahead and be a part of your life. Go ahead and experience it! I mean, what is art? Does it actually give you activity in your life?”
So, why this book?Â
“When I first saw Lipstick Traces when it was touring through Seattle years ago, I went home and I was sure, I was positive, that I was going to do theatre for the rest of my life. That play changed me because I finally saw a piece of work that spoke to me. I thought, â€˜This could change everything for me. Theatre could still be important in our lives.'”
Is punk really dead, then? Did it die at Winterland with the expulsion of the Pistols from the world (reunion tour, obviously, not taken into consideration) or is there still a beating heart somewhere underneath the mud and grime of the present day? “I don't know. We may be catching the death rattle or punk could be just below the surface getting ready to rear up again. It's exciting and totally terrifying the time that we're living in. And a lot of the time the greatest art comes as a response to the atrocious acts of a nation. I think there is prime material for our fodder.”
Lipstick Traces runs from May 9th, 2008, to June 1st, 2008 at the AV-aerie in Chicago, IL.
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