Panel 7

Spacetime II: Space – Body – Language

Wendelien van Oldenborgh
John Erdman

Susanne Sachsse
Lisa Steele

John Erdman

What I would like to contribute to this panel is my story, someone who had no desire to act, or aspirations to be on a stage, but became a certain kind of performer, at a particular time, in a particular place.

My relationship to performance was partially the outcome of a childhood spent in front of a TV set. In the early 1950’s, I lived in an apartment complex in Queens, New York, near the newly built Astoria television studios, many of our neighbors were the actors who worked there. I would see them walking their dogs during the day, then on the screen in my living room at night. Occasionally, a neighbor would put me in the Peanut Gallery, an onscreen audience of the popular children’s show, HOWDY DOODY.

For me, watching television was a social activity. I was alone, but knew the world was watching with me. One show, MILLION DOLLAR MOVIE, showed a film over and over every day for a week. When I could, I watched the screenings back to back, trying to understand what I was seeing, hypnotized by the repetition, and imagining shifts in the story. This was a voracious new medium, and with so many hours to fill, the programming included most of the history of film, dance, and theater. I watched as much TV as I could, many hours every day, and received a broad, unfiltered, exposure to the performing arts. It was an amazing education, but it was also top heavy with tearjerkers full of virtuosic method acting. They had done their job well, I was an easy get, and by my early teens I was emotionally exhausted and shed my last tear watching Douglas Sirk’s IMITATION OF LIFE. I retreated to my room and read.

Skip ahead to 1968, I was 20 and was invited to a performance of Yvonne Rainer’s, THE MIND IS A MUSCLE. A few years earlier, I had seen a two-page photo spread in Life Magazine, of a couple ballroom dancing, fully naked, their bodies tightly pressed against each other, surrounded by an audience. The caption read “Robert Morris and Yvonne Rainer, slowly dancing across the floor in Morris’s WATERMAN’S SWITCH.

They were in a public place, naked and intimate being watched. I never forgot this. I remembered her name, and I went to the show.

Many in the audience booed at the end, but I was vibrating with excitement.  Rainer’s casual, dispassionate, examination of movement and gesture altered how I perceived the world. I left the theater and everything seemed different. I was noticing my own movement in space, as well as everyone else’s.  It was my first drug experience without ever having had any.

It was the late 1960’s early 70’s, and New York City was full of dancers and visual artists interested in performance. There were happenings and performances most nights of the week, and I became one of a small, dedicated, roaming audience who showed up at everything. All you had to do was look at the back page of The Village Voice, or you heard by word of mouth. We were a community of outsiders, who felt like we were part of a tribe, belonging exactly where we were.  Some memorable events from then were:

Steve Paxton’s, SATISFYING LOVER; Jack Smith’s, theatrical midnight extravaganzas; Trisha Brown’s, MAN WALKING DOWN THE SIDE OF A BUILDING; Charles Ludlam’s portrayal of CAMILLE, Vito Acconci’s SEEDBED, the cycles at ANTHOLOGY FILM ARCHIVES (where I saw Michael Snow’s WAVELENGTH), the PALM CASINO REVUES, Gordon Matta-Clark’s DAY’S END (the cutting of pier 52), Robert Wilson’s TIMES AND LIFE OF SIGMUND FREUD and all 3 performances of Yvonne Rainer’s CONTINUOUS PROJECT ALTERED DAILY at the Whitney Museum … But every performance, no matter how small, seemed to give some kind of an insight.

Unfortunately few of these early performances were recorded. Film and video production was costly, cameras were rare, and few artists felt a pressing need to do it. The prevailing feeling was that a performance was meant to be experienced, it was ephemeral, and the moment could not be translated to another medium, anyway.

My desire to be more involved in this world grew. Performances were often task based: walking across a stage, holding something, moving something…. I felt I could do this, and many of us made the transition from audience to performer, sometimes there were more people onstage than off. I was now participating, but still felt like a spectator watching the audience watch us.

Different lessons were learned from the wide range of these performances. In Joan Jonas’s JONES BEACH (1970), the audience was standing on top of a sand dune, at least a kilometer away. It was all about the scale of objects, people, sound.
In 1970, I responded to an ad Yvonne Rainer placed in The Village Voice advertising a workshop. She was preparing for a large group piece, WAR, which ultimately was performed concurrently with an early incarnation of what would become The Grand Union. I began working with Yvonne and taking basic dance classes at the Merce Cunningham Dance Studio.

In 1972, Yvonne made her first feature film, LIVES OF PERFORMERS, which included bits and pieces of the stage performances we had done in the previous two years. The film ended with the series of shots you saw earlier, in which we recreated stills from G.W. Pabst’s PANDORA'S BOX. This use of film stills as reference, impressed me, and became a strategy I would use myself in the future.

Silent film was a new discovery for most of us. We had seen them on TV, but they were small, and at the wrong speed which made them often unintentionally comical. Now we could see them at any one of the alternative cinema theaters as they were originally shown. It was gesture, and body language, separated from speech.  Right up our alley. The acting was often melodramatic, but refreshingly not trying to be real or naturalistic.
The films of Buster Keaton were particularly a favorite amongst the choreographers.

In 1972, Yvonne began developing a multi-media piece, THIS IS THE STORY OF A WOMAN WHO…  I was the stand in for all the men in the texts. It was her first evening-long theater work exploring psychological states, looking at them dispassionately from the outside. It deconstructed story lines and developed narrative through gesture, props, text, and dance. She even used as a formal device, the lurid melodramas of the ‘fotoromanzo’ - photo illustrated soap opera magazines.
In this show, a small gesture or single prop could tell a big story. A bed, a chair, a gun, a book, a suitcase. It opened with the task based solo, INNER APPEARANCES. Each night, Yvonne, or I, came out on stage with a canister vacuum cleaner, put it down, exited to plug it in offstage, re-entered and proceeded to systematically vacuum the entire stage clean, interrupted by stops, starts, and certain gestural possibilities scripted by Yvonne. All the while, slides of thoughts and descriptions of psychological states, were projected onto the back wall.

One of them read:

“ The character is now feeling a growing irritation. On the way to the performance he ran into someone he hadn’t seen for a year. Some banter was exchanged. Now, he was reviewing the conversation in his mind. “She hasn’t changed a bit,” he muses. His mind works in spirals behind the eyeshade”.

“I should say here that Yvonne never meant this to be read out loud.”

The audience had a strong response to seeing a man vacuum, this interested Yvonne, and the solo became mine.

I was no longer just performing task, I was inhabiting a space constructed by Yvonne, and observed by an audience. As part of this piece, I also performed TRIO A.

The “non-dancer” doing complex choreographed dance movement, had become a trademark of her work. The trick for me, was not to be a dancer, not to try and look like a dancer, just do the movements, without trying to be lyrical or make them poetic. It was just another task. Be present, and execute it.

Being present was the essential requirement in performing Yvonne’s work. If she wanted an emotion displayed, she created a situation that would elicit it. In KRISTINA (1974), at one point she stood center stage, her back to the audience and I was upstage facing her. I had delivered a speech from a transcript of a story about my grandmother, that Yvonne had taped in rehearsals. This transcript had also included all the pauses, “ummings”, “ahhings”, and “sputterings”, which I had to recreate.
Gradually music drowned me out as Yvonne engaged me in a heated conversation, all inaudible to the audience, ending with her telling me a terrific new joke every night which always broke me up. The audience saw the physical manifestations of all this, but heard none of the content.

These pieces were not recorded. The two films with their names in the titles were not documents of these shows, but used them only as points of departure.

In 1975, I worked in Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater, in PANDERING TO THE MASSES: A MISREPRESENTATION.
I worked again with Richard in 1977, BOOK OF SPLENDORS: PART TWO, and in 1978, BLVD. DE PARIS (I’VE GOT THE SHAKES).

With Foreman, acting styles went from vaudevillian, farce, moments of naturalism, to Kabuki, and everything in between. Gestures and physical movements were large, and the dialogue mostly removed from ordinary conversation.
He was interested in the ‘anti-escapist ideas’ of Bertolt Brecht, and was quite aggressive in making sure the 4th wall was broken. His strategies included, intermittent loud buzzers, and bright lights briefly focused into the audience’s eyes to break any reverie, as Richard said, “to wake them up”.

He had no interest in having us flesh out a character. I remember an actor once asked for motivation, and Richard, out of frustration, jokingly said: “if you don’t know what to do, just look strange”. Characters were created only to move the text forward, and make narrative when it was needed. He had no interest in the audience having an emotional experience.

This was fine with me, I also had no interest in that, as performer or audience. Transforming myself into another person, understanding a character, making it real, knowing its motivations was not me. As audience, I still just wanted to be amazed and have a perceptual shift, I was not looking to be solely entertained. I was not looking for a cathartic experience and it was rare that a piece of acting, rather than a performance did that for me anyway. I was more moved by Ondine’s angry outburst, in Andy Warhol’s CHELSEA GIRLS, than anything I had ever seen from Marlon Brando.

I only worked with Robert Wilson once, in EDISON (1979), but it was memorable. His stagecraft was unique, sometimes taking days to light one brief moment. Wilson placed his actors on the stages of grand opera houses, with extraordinary lighting and sets, and expected that they would rise heroically to it. My performance as Edison owed much to silent movies and Film Noir. The small precise gestures, taken out of their original film context, became abstract, and worked well with those grand poses, required for his epic visions.

Throughout my performing career I worked with filmmakers, and videographers, including Sheila McLaughlin, Charles Atlas, Andy Horn, Gary Schneider, Peter Campus, Heinz Emigholz. I found no difference between performing for film versus stage, my gestures and language might be larger or smaller in either, it simply depended on the desires of that particular artist.

Working with Heinz Emigholz in his 1985 film DIE BASIS DES MAKE-UP, offered the new challenge of delivering long passages of text, in a language foreign to me. I learned my dialogue in phrases, not always knowing the exact meaning of every word despite the best efforts of my dialogue coach, Marion Kollbach. Hopefully this made an interesting contrast between my words and my gestures. Heinz created a strong community on set, assembling a unique assortment of actors and technicians. I pay tribute to Carola Regnier. This was by far, the most fun I ever had working in film. Heinz was the master of the unexpected, making every day a new adventure. We arrived at sets made into magical spaces, taken to the attic of the Koln cathedral, and received scripts created, or refined, based on a shoot that might have only ended a few hours earlier. I felt like Alice, after having fallen down the rabbit hole.

While working for Richard Foreman in 1977 I had met Gary Schneider, who was operating the sound and lights, and in the 1980’s Gary and I opened a black and white photographic laboratory, primarily working with artists. We also published the work of Alexander “Sasha” Hamid, David Wojnarowicz, and Peter Hujar. Although started as a small, part time venture, it eventually eclipsed much else. I did continue to work for a few other directors, most notably Karole Armitage, Babette Mangolte, and David Wojnarowicz.